The rules of Oscar quality state that if there's one acting category that is out-and-out incredible, there must be a weaker category to balance it out (unofficial; I'm sure there's some sort of law in physics or chemistry that states this sort of thing has to happen, but science isn't my strong suit, as evidenced by my liberal arts major). For 2006, that weaker category was Best Actor, which only contains two genuinely great performances and is filled out with decent-to-pitiful fluff, missing out on some of the other great performances of the year (Clive Owen, Children of Men; Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat; Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking).
Winner marked with a (*).
Winner marked with a (*).
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
If we're being honest, DiCaprio was more Oscar-worthy for his performance in The Departed, not in this film. In Blood Diamond, he plays Danny Archer, a mercenary who agrees to help Djimon Hounsou's Solomon Vandy find his son, but has shady intentions of his own. DiCaprio lends a bit of his talent to the role, but the script really doesn't allow him to develop the character much, as he spends a hefty portion of the film either running or falling in contrived love with an American reporter. On top of it all, DiCaprio puts on a very dodgy accent that seems equal parts British, Afrikaans, and, for some reason, Australian. It's certainly not one of the best performances of his career, and it's not surprising that Oscar passed over him for this one.
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
You want to know what's really surprising? To date, this is still Gosling's only Oscar nomination. As burned-out, crack-addicted history teacher Dan, Gosling is a true marvel to behold, an actor who's preternaturally talented and finds a way to live in every character he plays. He turns Dan into a character that you can sympathize with but still demonizes his, well, demons; he's a man who can't break out of his failures, and instead of getting back up decides to wallow in those shortcomings. Gosling really turns it up in his interactions with Shareeka Epps, the student in which he takes a fatherly interest in. His greatest feat is how pathetic he looks as Dan tries to help her, not realizing that it's really himself who needs the most help. The Notebook made him a star, but it was this film that showed us how talented he truly is.
Peter O'Toole, Venus
At a certain age, veteran actors often stop receiving great roles and instead are given rote, bland roles that are both insulting to and wasting their talents. This trap unfortunately captured Peter O'Toole in 2006, when he took the role of Maurice, a retired thespian who falls in love with a much, much younger model. The film does O'Toole no favors, relying heavily on "you're old and horny!" humor and a romance that doesn't have very much chemistry. O'Toole, to his credit, does his best with the material, and at times manages to transcend it with merely a twinkle of his still-soulful blue eyes. But in the end, O'Toole deserved a much better movie to take him to his eighth Oscar nomination; he still sadly doesn't have a win, but at least it didn't come for this mess of a film.
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Will Smith doesn't really get enough credit for his versatility as an actor. He's a great comedian, as evidenced by his run on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He's perfectly adept at being an action hero as well, as I, Robot proved (among others, of course). And then, when given the right role, he can shine as a dramatic actor. The Pursuit of Happyness doesn't make the best case for this point, but Smith does put forward admirable effort. His Chris Gardner is believably on edge, desperately trying to be a great father while making enough money to provide for his family while constantly facing, and sometimes succumbing to, poverty. Smith does good work at bringing the emotions behind the character to life, and he does put forward one of his better performances. The one downside to his performance, and it's a major one, is that he never disappears into the role; you never lose track of the fact that you're watching Will Smith. One day, we'll truly shine dramatically (maybe in 2001, when we reach Ali in this project); this will hopefully be remembered as one of his lesser dramatic roles in the future.
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland*
As with Helen Mirren in the Best Actress category of this year, Whitaker ran away with the category, the clear frontrunner through much of the awards season. Like Mirren, he bears a striking resemblance to the figure he's playing, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. And like Mirren, it's a performance that cannot be denied. Though The Last King of Scotland is a mostly mediocre movie, Whitaker rises above it with his startling, convincing turn as Amin, a man who rules with an iron fist and is not afraid to murder anyone who opposes him. Whitaker plays him with chilling menace, his imposing figure looming in the frame who's always in control of every conversation and situation he's in. It's a magnificent performance, and a great showcase for the often-undervalued Whitaker.
1. Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2. Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
3. Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
4. Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
5. Peter O'Toole, Venus