By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 21, 2012 at 1:43PM
In a year when the Oscar winners are looking all-too predictable, thank God for the Best Actor race. If anyone tells you they know with certainty who will take home the Best Actor Oscar Sunday night, they don't know what they are talking about.
Look at me: I've changed my vote several times. It's a five-way race, with each nominee grabbing his share of votes. Some will go to two first-time nominees: a Mexican emigre who paid his dues, Demian Bichir ("A Better Life"), and a Brit who delivered his George Smiley in just one or two takes: Gary Oldman ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). Two Hollywood stars who happen to be pals have delivered their best work, while making it look easy: George Clooney ("The Descendants") and Brad Pitt ("Moneyball"). And dashing French comedian Jean Dujardin ("The Artist") has won our hearts while hardly saying a word.
When the vote splits, anything can happen. Remember Adrien Brody's upset win in 2003 for Roman Polanski's holocaust best-picture nominee "The Pianist"? At 29, he was the youngest actor to win the award, and also became the first American to take home France's Cesar. Both Daniel Day Lewis, who won SAG and BAFTAs that year for "Gangs of New York," and Jack Nicholson, who won the Golden Globe, had already won the Oscar; Nicholson campaigned for Brody instead of his own performance in "About Schmidt." Brody had mainly won critics prizes, including the National Society of Film Critics. And yet he still won.
So just because Dujardin took SAG and BAFTAs, he doesn't necessarily take the Oscar too.
The 2012 race for Best Actor appears to be between Entertainment Weekly's anointed front runner Clooney, who won supporting actor for "Syriana" but never Best Actor, and fresh face Dujardin, who stole the SAG Award from his American rival. Two scenarios could occur here: the two American movie stars could split their votes and thus improve outsider Dujardin's chances. A close race brings up the possibility of a third actor actually gaining more votes--which is how Brody won.
Awards Daily's Sasha Stone argues that Dujardin "has the thing in the bag," based on his SAG and BAFTA wins. It's not a sure thing at all. Within the largely American Academy, writer-director-producer star Clooney (also nominated for his screenplay for "The Ides of March") still boasts considerable support. You could feel it in the room at the Academy Nominees Lunch. He is beloved, respected, admired. "I have that feeling," said one Academy member predicting his win. "He's very popular."
Clooney and Dujardin both bring laughs as well as pathos in their central roles. And box office hit "The Descendants" also collected USC Scripter and WGA adapted screenplay wins this past weekend.
If producer-star Pitt does not win, who like Clooney also earns humanitarian points from his peers in the Academy, it's partly because his Billy Beane looks too effortless. A degree of difficulty is there, but while Pitt is long overdue, he actually gave a better performance in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Fox Searchlight tried to go for supporting, but got no traction. "Moneyball" provides a movie star showcase, but isn't it's not as intimate a role as "The Tree of Life." His time will come.
For those expecting a Dujardin backlash, I don't see one. The actor has made a silk purse out of his difficulties with English, singing and dancing and mugging his way to a possible Oscar. "The Artist" is finally picking up steam at the box office--its expected multiple wins Sunday will have the most impact at theaters of any of the nominees. And if the film has long coattails, that will make the difference and pull Dujardin the Oscar win.