Daniel Day-Lewis stands on the verge of Hollywood history by becoming the Academy awards’ most lauded male actor if, as is widely considered likely, he is named as best actor for the third time for his role in Lincoln at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night.
Eight other male actors, including Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and Gary Cooper, have two best actor Oscars. Day-Lewis already holds statuettes for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood (awarded in 1990 and 2008 respectively). Another win will put him out on his own, confirming his position as one of the all-time greats.
Other than Day-Lewis, who holds dual UK-Irish citizenship, British hopes are not invested heavily in the acting categories: unusually for a traditional area of British strength, there is no other UK representation.
Instead, Brits must look to the likes of best animated film, where Aardman‘s The Pirates stands a decent chance, best documentary, where the British-produced Searching for Sugar Man is the strong favourite, and best song, where Adele and Paul Epworth are expected to win for Skyfall.
The craft categories also have strong UK representation: costume designer Jacqueline Durran is up for Anna Karenina, cinematographers Roger Deakins and Seamus McGarvey are nominated for Skyfall and Anna Karenina respectively, while Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson are in the running for best production design.
Day-Lewis, 55, is up against a field comprising Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and Denzel Washington (Flight), but has been the runaway favourite since the nominations were announced. He has taken every significant acting award this year, including the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance, the Golden Globe for best actor in a motion picture drama and, just two weeks ago, the Bafta for best actor. His momentum would appear to be unstoppable.
If Day-Lewis were handed his third Oscar, it would be a fitting cap to a film career that began in 1971 with a walk-on part as a car-vandalising delinquent in Sunday Bloody Sunday. In the mid-80s the near back-to-back release of My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room With a View won him copious praise, and the role of paraplegic Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot won him his first Oscar by the end of the decade.
In the 90s he starred in a string of heavyweight films for major directors, including Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, and two more for Sheridan: In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. After a five-year “retirement”, Day-Lewis worked only occasionally: again for Scorsese in Gangs of New York, for his wife Rebecca Miller in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and, arguably his most grandstanding role of all, Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which netted him his second Oscar.
His work has been marked by a ferocious devotion to method acting: he took a full year of preparation to play Abraham Lincoln, which is rumoured to have involved speaking only in Lincoln’s Kentucky accent and remaining in presidential solitude throughout the shoot.
Day-Lewis’s Oscar may be a sure thing; similar claims are being made for Anne Hathaway in the best supporting actress slot. The 30-year-old has won wide praise for her role as Fantine in Les Misérables, particularly for her rendition of the signature number I Dreamed a Dream. Like Day-Lewis, she has dominated the award season in her category, winning the Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award and the Bafta. Having graduated from films aimed at so-called “tweens”, such as The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted, Hathaway’s breakthrough role came in 2006 in The Devil Wears Prada, and she has since established herself as a performer of considerable range, alternating edgy efforts such as Rachel Getting Married with straight rom-coms (One Day) and blockbusters (Alice in Wonderland, The Dark Knight Rises).
However, the ceremony as a whole is likely to be dominated by a confrontation between Lincoln and the Ben Affleck-directed thriller Argo, based on the so-called “Canadian caper” when six hostages escaped from the US embassy siege in Tehran in 1979. Lincoln leads the field with 12 nominations – including nods for director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner – but has been consistently outperformed on the awards circuit by Argo, which has seven.
Argo has already won best film at the Baftas and best drama film at the Golden Globes; bizarrely, though, Affleck is not contesting the best director award as, like Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), he failed to make the nomination shortlist. It’s a bittersweet omission, as Argo’s Oscar momentum is the most visible sign of Affleck’s Hollywood rehabilitation, after humiliation in the early noughties with flops such as Gigli and his publicised relationship with Jennifer Lopez threatening to derail his career.
The Affleck renaissance may turn out to be the big heartwarmer of this year’s Oscars: another could emerge from the best actress category where, by a bizarre coincidence, both the oldest and youngest ever nominees for this award are competing against each other.
Eighty-five-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (86 on Sunday) is there for the French-language drama Amour, while nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis impressed in the low-budget indie Beasts of the Southern Wild. The latter film – even more than the Palme d’Or winner Amour – owes its success to the Oscars for raising its profile: it gained four nominations, including a barely-credible best director for first-timer Benh Zeitlin, which in effect puts him ahead of Bigelow, Hooper, Affleck and Tarantino in the Academy’s estimation.
Be that as it may, the rumble in the background this year is whether the ceremony itself can achieve the kind of mass audience appeal that appeared to be ebbing away.
The Academy’s habit of rewarding films that do not necessarily have the widest commercial appeal – The Hurt Locker, which won best picture in 2010, took less than m on its US release – tends to equate with smaller viewing figures; conversely, the biggest ever TV ratings came in 1998, when 55 million tuned in to see the blockbuster Titanic sweep the board.
Attempts to halt the decline – such as increasing the amount of best picture nominees, or using putatively hipper hosts, such as James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011 – have failed to deliver any obvious benefits.
But the commercial strength of this year’s contenders, with seven of the nine best picture nominees breaking 0m at the US box office, appears to have re-energised the audience, as has the presence of this year’s host at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Seth MacFarlane, director and voice star of Ted.
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