I would not want to be a leading actor with Oscar dreams this year. Dwight Henry (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“End of Watch”) turned in performances that normally would be shoo-ins for nods — but they’re staring down a late-season freight train crammed with contenders: Jude Law (“Anna Karenina”), Bill Murray as FDR (“Hyde Park on Hudson”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), Anthony Hopkins (“Hitchcock”) and Jamie Foxx (“Django Unchained”).
Driving the train is John Hawkes for “The Sessions,” opening in limited release Friday. Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a real-life journalist and poet who spent most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio and who employs a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity. Hawkes’ performance is better than the middling script deserves, and it likely would earn him a win any other year.
The funny thing about this year’s race isn’t that all the performances are that great (though many are). It’s more that it’s turning into a battle of Awards Cliches. Oscar voters love disability (advantage Hawkes and Murray). They love when actors play historical figures (Day-Lewis, Hopkins and Murray). Lately beginner’s luck seems to have played a part (a point to Henry).
When February comes, the man holding the trophy may not be the one who gave the best performance, but the one who best played by the rules.