By Owen Gleiberman
February 23, 2014 at 04:50 PM EST
Mary Cybulski

In decades of tracking the Academy Awards, I honestly can’t recall any category, in any year, when a race was as fiercely, thrillingly white-hot competitive as this year’s Best Actor race. Just think about it: Not one, not two, not three, but four of the nominees each stands a very real chance of winning. Consider each scenario, and you’ll realize it’s true. When Jennifer Lawrence gets up to present the Best Actor award and tears open that envelope, if she ends up saying, “And the Oscar goes to…Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave,” it will not be a shock, because Ejiofor, playing a man who endures the torments of the damned, and must hold in his emotions (even as he shows them to us), and must somehow, on top of all that, figure out a way to keep his faith burning, has been justly acclaimed for being incredible beyond words in that movie. If Lawrence says, “And the Oscar goes to…Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club,” it will not be a shock, because McConaughey, this year, is the official front-runner, and has been justly coronated for giving a tough, sinewy, moving, and anger-singed performance that is widely viewed as the culminating act of his 20-year career in Hollywood.

If she says, “And the Oscar goes to…Bruce Dern for Nebraska,” it may be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser (given the extraordinary competition), but it will not, in the end, be a shock, because Dern has been justly celebrated for giving a performance as a grizzled, selfish old drunken Middle American codger that hits a perfect note of gnarly (and funny) truth, and there is, of course, a hallowed niche of Academy Award winners — like, say, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond — who’ve returned to the limelight when they’re old to do something that rivals what we loved them for when they were young. And if Lawrence says, “The Oscar goes to…Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street“…well, at that point, a number of people probably will be shocked, but that’s only because they haven’t been following the way that audiences have responded to DiCaprio’s ferociously daring, energized, live-wire performance as a financial-fraud tycoon who does virtually nothing, in the course of a three-hour movie, that one could morally admire, yet he does it with so much pluck and flair and cunning and riveting sociopathic shamelessness that the fact that we’re torn between our extreme lack of admiration and, well, yes, let’s just say it, our admiration ends up being the paradoxical hallmark of the performance.

If you want to know what kind of competition the Best Actor race is this year, consider this: The one nominee who everyone agrees has no chance of winning is Christian Bale for American Hustle — a performance that’s been universally hailed as amazing, in a film that’s wedded critical rapture to audience love more than probably any other movie this year. When Bale, acting on the level he does in American Hustle, is your odd man out (not to mention all the other odd men out of extraordinary esteem who didn’t even manage to snag a nomination, from Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips to Robert Redford in All Is Lost), you’d better believe the competition is off the hook.

As always, I lay no special claim to my powers as an Academy Awards prognosticator. Having drunk in the conventional wisdom, I buy that Matthew McConaughey is the front-runner, and would probably bet on him if I were risking a chunk of my own money. What stokes my interest, as a critic, is tracing the trajectory — the interlocking forces of aesthetics, Hollywood politics, and media karma — that leads one actor to rise, for a while, above the rest, and then maybe another to rise above him, and looking at how those shifts reflect what it is we value. Of course, there’s a school of thought that says I’m over-analyzing — that the members of the Motion Picture Academy will simply vote for the film, or actor, they like best, and that trying to turn the results into tea leaves is giving this all a meaning it doesn’t deserve.

Maybe so, but here’s an obvious point that contradicts that: A rationale that’s widely accepted as driving a major quotient of Oscar enthusiasm is summed up by the now-cliché phrase, “It’s time.” In other words: It’s time for Al Pacino or Jeff Bridges or Sandra Bullock to win his or her Oscar, or for the Coen brothers to win theirs, or — as a recent ad campaign by Fox Searchlight suggested, a touch disquietingly — for the brute spectacle of slavery to finally win its Oscar. The whole rationale of “It’s time” makes clear that while Oscar voters may vote their “enthusiasm,” what’s driving their enthusiasm is often a confluence of forces. And that includes not just the actor’s larger career, but what the movie he’s starring in is about, and how the character he’s playing speaks to us, at times unconsciously.

In that light, let’s consider the roller-coaster of “Who’s up! Who’s down!” that has defined this year’s Best Actor race. It started, I think, with all the giddy Bruce Dern love, sprinkled with a touch of solemn Robert Redford awe, when both of these 77-year-old actors from the 1970s saw their movies premiere at the Cannes Film Festival close to a year ago. At one point during the fall, I thought that the Oscar race might well come down to Dern vs. Redford, a sentimental heavyweight bout between the aging New Hollywood legends. But the Redford-is-back-and-he’s-greater-than-ever! mystique never quite caught fire. Maybe that’s because Dern, in Nebraska, really was better than he used to be as a dyspeptic ’70s leading man (it also didn’t hurt that Dern is reportedly a world-class schmoozer); whereas Redford, superb as he is in All Is Lost, was only praised in that breathless, performance-of-a-lifetime way by critics who didn’t fully appreciate him in his heyday. As it stands, that heavyweight bout took place, with Dern delivering a TKO, before the Oscars even happened.

As the fall movie season kicked in, and 12 Years a Slave opened to mostly rapturous reviews, the film became the early Oscar front-runner, a status it has more or less clung to (although its lead is fragile, with Gravity coming up fast on the inside), and to a degree that honestly surprised me, Chiwetel Ejiofor pulled far ahead in the actor contest. He did more than just pull ahead; there was a perception that his performance as Solomon Northup hit a level of transcendence that all but demanded to be honored. Personally, I was thrilled to see this happening, because that’s my feeling about Ejiofor’s performance: It has a purity about it, a powerful tension and moral eloquence, that makes it acting for the ages. Ejiofor’s quietly shattering fusion of rage, terror, agony, grace, and heartsick yearning is, far and away, my choice for the best performance by an actor this year. Since he’s not nearly as well-known as the others in the category, if he were to win the award, it would be comparable to the year when Daniel Day-Lewis won for My Left Foot (1989), because his acting was such a piece of wrenching virtuosity that its greatness simply couldn’t be denied. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that that was the first of Harvey Weinstein’s backstage-blitzkrieg Oscar campaigns. When it comes to the Academy Awards, nothing is ever just one thing.)

Yet as fall rolled into winter, Ejiofor began to lose his mojo of inevitability (maybe because the movie itself underperformed), and the Academy’s floating excitement began to attach itself to a new name, one that fit the bill because it was also an old, familiar name: Matthew McConaughey. If he wins for Dallas Buyers Club, as most pundits expect, it will be an acknowledgment of the extraordinary way that he didn’t just dig his way out of a movie-star slump (the whole everyone-loves-a-comeback thing, which may be second only to “It’s time” as an Oscar motivator), but to the way he cashed in what was left of his beefcake rom-com callowness, reinvented himself as a character actor, and, in doing so, became a much greater actor. That’s more than a hooky Hollywood arc; it’s a metaphor for what all of us seek, on some level, to do — turn our life and career lemons into lemonade.

I thought McConaughey, when he won at this year’s Golden Globes, gave the most captivating speech of the night, just a beautiful mixture of hard-won gratefulness and soft-shoe McConaughey charm. He has never, on some level, stopped being that guy (the one we giggled at and fell for, in just a few moments, in Dazed and Confused — he had us at “All right, all right, all right”), and in Dallas Buyers Club, he finds new hungry dark ravaged depths in that guy. The fact that he’s playing a character with AIDS, who decides to do something brave and out-of-the-box about it, only enhances the righteous glow of the role. Even the now-controversial fact that McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof as a die-hard heterosexual who becomes a saintly AIDS crusader, sort of like the white heroes who saved black South Africans in ’80s movies, even though Woodruff’s personal life may have been just a bit more complicated — all of that, right or wrong, allows McConaughey’s performance to fill out a vintage Oscar mythology of liberal redemption. As soon as the buzz about him, sometime around Christmas, began to coalesce into that indelible thing called Front-Runner Status, which can take on a life its own and become a self-fulfilling prophecy, I thought: perfect. It is indeed time.

But a funny thing happened on the way to McConaughey’s presumptive victory. Much as the buzz about him started to get in the way of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s new-virtuoso-on-the-block aura, another bit of buzz has begun to distract from the McConaughey machine, and that’s the ambiguous, building-as-we-speak excitement over Leonardo DiCaprio’s titanic performance in The Wolf of Wall Street. Why didn’t the excitement start to build the moment the movie came out? I think that’s because something loud got in its way: the hostile media feedback loop over the movie itself — whether Martin Scorsese was really just “reveling” in the bad behavior he showed us. For a while, when Paramount, the film’s studio, tried to trick up the controversy into a selling point, I thought: That’s great marketing, but I’m not sure if the controversy (i.e., the fact that a lot of the chattering classes didn’t like the movie) will ultimately work in The Wolf of Wall Street‘s favor. But now that a couple of months have passed, and I’ve had the chance to digest my own essentially enthusiastic (if qualified) reaction to the movie, I’m more convinced than I was before that the studio was on to something. The fact that The Wolf of Wall Street brandishes piggish behavior in our faces and does it without apology — the geeks having sex with hookers (let’s be honest: That looks a lot worse because the guys are geeks), the mountains of drugs, the financial chicanery that the movie never even totally explains — is, in the end, the cutting edge of its appeal as a sensationalistic and brutally cold X-ray of the selfishness of our time. And the thing that both defines that edge and makes it riveting is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance.

Talk about Academy Awards politics! I don’t usually buy the notion that when somebody doesn’t get nominated, that means they were “snubbed,” but this man has been snubbed, over and over (the fact that he wasn’t nominated for Titanic alone is something Academy voters ought to be ashamed of), and the reason I bring this up is to make the point that DiCaprio, time and again, has accepted the Academy’s lack of passion for him with a casual good humor that’s the mark of class. He appears not to give a damn, but only because he’s keeping his eyes on the real prize — the work. Sure, he’s had his clunkers, but some of his most accomplished acting has been overlooked (ignore the reviews and watch how he burrows into the wormy soul of the title character in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar), and he has remained, for two decades, a forceful and ambitious actor, who at his best uses his regally beautiful façade — he still looks like a young lion — as an inviting instrument of movie-star mystery.

I think one reason he has a chance to pull an upset on Oscar night, whisking victory away from McConaughey, is that the whole “It’s time” vibe that’s been a cornerstone of this McConaughey moment applies, if anything, even more to Leo. As much as any actor, he has been carrying the damn industry for close to 20 years. Forget The Aviator and the unspeakably awful Gangs of New York. DiCaprio’s finest Scorsese performance may well be the one he gave in Shutter Island — at least, his finest until now. For in The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio does what only a born movie star who is also an audacious actor can do: He uses the true-life character of Jordan Belfort to take us on a magic carpet ride of immorality. His speeches to the Stratton Oakmont offices are fascinatingly jacked up, full of manic movement and discovery — they’re pep talks turned into athletic events. The words, as Leo delivers them, give off a hum; it’s “Greed is good” remade into a corporate anthem of smash-your-enemies bravado. Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, of course we admire the way that Belfort does and says whatever he wants (that’s what we always love about movie gangsters, even when they don’t carry guns), but he also comes off as a closet madman, and that’s the honesty of DiCaprio’s performance. The Quaalude scene is a cottonmouth aria of awesome, drop-dead stupidity, brought off by an actor who is daring enough to leave his vanity on the back shelf. Even the FBI can’t take away Belfort’s huckster charm (though Quaaludes certainly can). But by the end of the movie, anyone who’d seriously want to be this guy is loopier than he is.

When I first saw The Wolf of Wall Street, I responded to it but thought that I’d never need, or want, to see it again. The movie is certainly too long, but the problem nestled inside that problem isn’t one that could have been solved by chopping half an hour out of it. The real problem is that the picture is too repetitive; there isn’t enough depth to what it’s doing or saying. Yet now, I do feel like I want to see The Wolf of Wall Street a second time, and the thing that’s luring me back, quite simply, is the prospect of watching Leo again. The movie itself has no real mystery; DiCaprio’s performance as a snake who wants to consume the world, and winds up eating his own tail instead, does. I’m not saying he’s going to win, but if this isn’t his time, what is?