For the first time since 1980, everyone in this category has been nominated before. Denzel Washington is the heavyweight with eight previous acting nominations (plus one for producing), while Will Smith is landing his fourth nom for King Richard (and his second for a sports movie, after 2001’s Ali). Meanwhile, in The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch makes history as the first male protagonist in a Jane Campion film. Voters also thrive on tales of artists and performers, so Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos and Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in tick, tick…BOOM! provide some stiff competition.

Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos

As Desi Arnaz, Bardem delivers a buoyant performance that captures the charisma and business savvy of an iconic entertainer from television’s golden age. He sings, plays the congas, dances the rumba and routinely outsmarts the network suits meddling with his sitcom, I Love Lucy. He is assured, unflappable—everything Bardem himself was not when he was cast in the role. “In 32, 33 years of working on movies, there’s not one where I haven’t felt like I’m the wrong actor to do it,” he said. “There’s always a moment where you think, ‘Everybody knows I’m the wrong actor, but nobody dares say it to me.’ You just have to keep going—and if you’re lucky, there will be more good moments than bad moments.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

As Phil, a cattle rancher whose armor of hyper-virility and cruelty hides a long-buried truth, Cumberbatch haunts every frame of Jane Campion’s Western set in 1925. With a physicality that he said didn’t click until he got into wardrobe and on the set, Phil keeps everyone around him in a state of unrest, even as he gradually becomes a sympathetic figure. “To look under the hood of toxic masculinity with someone like Jane, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way,” he said. “I would have done this movie based on two words: Jane Campion. But don’t tell her that.”

Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…BOOM!

Garfield, who said he once considered musical theater “this undiscovered land of impossible terror,” studied with a voice teacher for more than a year to play the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent creator, Jonathan Larson. Before dying at age 35 in 1996, Larson devoted every last piece of his soul to composing, and it was this unwavering determination that inspired Garfield. “If you watch him perform,” the actor said, “it’s as urgent as if his life depended on it, which it did.” 

Will Smith, King Richard

Smith thought of a lion when he watched Richard Williams protect young Venus and Serena from the media during their rise to tennis superstardom. This ferocious love and determination often got Williams labeled controversial, but in King Richard, Smith presents a much fuller picture of a man who tirelessly advocated for his daughters in a sport that was not eager to welcome two Black girls. (Pity the TV journalist who grills 14-year-old Venus on why she is so confident.) Speaking in Williams’ disarming Louisiana drawl, often with a twinkle in his eye that says, “Go ahead, underestimate us,” Smith conveys the fearlessness of a father whose belief in his daughters was unshakable.

Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

One of Washington’s first roles was in a 1979 stage production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Now, 43 years and one big-screen Bard adaptation later (1993’s Much Ado About Nothing) comes his rendering of one of the greatest characters ever written in the English language. At 67, Washington is older than most traditional Macbeths. But according to TheWrap’s Robert Abele, this only adds to the power of his “mesmerizing” performance: “Washington compellingly charts (Macbeth’s) corruption and downfall as a grayed, cynical sadness hurtling toward the cliff like a long overdue meeting with the devil.”

Steve’s Perspective

You could make a case for at least three of these guys as potential winners, and that’s not to slight the quality of the other two. Will Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to be the prime contenders for much of the fall, but then Andrew Garfield sang and danced his way into the thick of the race. But with a string of significant wins, beginning with the SAG Awards and including BAFTA and the Critics Choice Awards, Will Smith appears to have taken command of this race.