Just a couple of years ago, Hollywood’s long-delayed James Brown biopic appeared to have made a turn for the “super bad”: Spike Lee was ousted from the film, only to be replaced by Tate Taylor. Taylor, director of the troublesomely simplistic, feel-good civil rights drama The Help, seemed to be the exact person one didn’t want directing a film about Soul Brother No. 1, the unabashed proclaimer of “I’m black and I’m proud!” Get on Up’s trailer suggested this would be little more than a glossy, rote biopic about a legendary figure.
Then the finished film finally made its way to the big screen, and something surprising happened: It was pretty good. And its star, Chadwick Boseman is, quite simply, mesmerizing: He elevates an average—if entertaining—jaunt through a man’s extraordinary career to that of a truly funky exercise in complex, fascinating performance.
Many critics agree that Boseman is the best part of Get On Up. And yet the fiercely confident performance has thus far only simmered beneath the Oscar conversation, typically an addendum in admittedly premature Oscar predictions in the race for Best Actor. Boseman’s made it into the top five of only two out of 20 Gold Derby expert prognosticators in a year that may turn out, as Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan noted, to be the “whitest Oscars” in a long time.
So why aren’t we talking about Boseman more seriously? What does it take to get a performance that seems awards-worthy into the awards mix?
It’s worth taking a look at the very crowded Best Actor field. The big names are building up buzz, as you might expect, by following tried-and-true Oscar narratives. Multiple Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix leads a large, talented cast in Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner noir Inherent Vice. (While Phoenix, famously, doesn’t like participating in the awards season hustle, he can’t be counted out just yet.) Ben Affleck’s received some of the best acting notices of his career in Gone Girl, with some praising his role as a bumbling, oftentimes stoic husband with a missing wife in Gone Girl as playing to his onscreen strengths. In a bit of self-referential casting, Michael Keaton, never nominated, has gained Oscar traction for his role in Birdman, playing a has-been superhero star who stages a comeback with a Broadway play. And a physically transformed Steve Carrell plays real-life convicted killer John Eleuthère du Pont in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher; his against-type performance has been cast as “revelatory” and—perhaps most importantly in a race like this—“career-changing.”
There are also the well-hyped newcomers to the land of Oscar punditry, the ones on the verge of breaking out as bona fide stars or who are already established but finally getting their due. Take, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s spent years building the respect and admiration of critics and audiences alike, playing famed (and persecuted, for homosexuality) British scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Or Miles Teller, who earned buzz last year for his great performance in The Spectacular Now, playing a musical prodigy abused by his mentor in the imminent crowd-pleaser Whiplash. Or Eddie Redmayne portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; Gael García Bernal as former Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, who was tortured in Iran for over 100 days during the 2009 election protests; and James Corden—soon to be host of The Late Show—as the Baker in Into the Woods.
That’s only the beginning: As Pete Hammond reported in Deadline, an unusual surplus of actors and their respective films’ distributors are vying for contention—including dark horses Kevin Costner in Black and White and Al Pacino, playing an actor suffering an existential crisis, in The Humbling. And even among biopics, several edge cases seem at least as likely as Boseman to steal a nom: Timothy Spall as the artist J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner; and David Oyelowo in the upcoming MLK biopic Selma. They sit within the top 10 “expert”-predicted nominations on Gold Derby for the category. (Boseman’s recently moved up from No. 12 to No. 8.)
Boseman doesn’t fall neatly into any of the above categories. He’s not yet an established name, yet at 37 is relatively old for a “newcomer.” He remains best known for his turn as Brown and that of another towering historical figure, Jackie Robinson, in last year’s 42. Hopefully voters will contrast that understated role with Boseman’s vivacious performance in Get On Up. Sure, there’s the dancing—Boseman’s got the moves down pat. But Boseman sustains that energy even in the offstage scenes—his high-pitched, raspy cadence is eerily reminiscent of Brown’s, and he captures the ever-swinging pendulum of personalities Brown could exhibit, alternately charming, threatening, sad, cruel. In one particularly effective scene, Brown breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the audience before leaving the lunch table where his manager (Dan Aykroyd) is effusively lecturing him on the way music promotion works. In the montage that follows, Brown, with a sly, knowing smile, explains to the audience his plan to promote his shows and put more money in his own pockets, before making his way back to his manager at the table, and finishing his thought as if he never left. Boseman’s delivery is pitch-perfect. It feels like an Oscar clip, in fact.
Right around Get On Up’s release in August, Boseman’s name was frequently thrown out as a real possibility to follow in the steps of Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line and Jamie Foxx in Ray, grabbing a nomination for playing a complicated musical hero. A couple of months later, he’s going to need to rebuild that momentum to get people talking again. That release date doesn’t help; in the past five years, only two films released before the fall have managed to snag Best Actor nominations (for Demián Bichir in A Better Life and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker).
And Hollywood still seems to have an unwritten quota rule when it comes to movies focused on black characters; 2013 fall release 12 Years a Slave was heavily hyped and deemed a shoo-in long before most people, critics included, had a chance to see it. At the same time, onetime Oscar hopefuls Fruitvale Station (and its star Michael B. Jordan) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, both released in the summer, couldn’t supplant the One Black Movie and were completely shut out. Might this sad state of affairs help Boseman? He doesn’t have much competition. Sadly for black Hollywood, the number of substantial roles for people of color sank in comparison with last year, and that’s saying something. Aside from Oyelowo in Selma—which as of a couple of weeks ago was still in the editing stages—Boseman is the only black actor who seems to stand a chance of hearing his name called on nomination morning in January.
Will Universal Pictures push Boseman further into the race? The studio hasn’t made an overt push yet, but it’s early. Universal’s not heavy in the awards game this year—its only solid hopeful, at this point, is Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and its lead actor Jack O’Connell—which suggests it may have plans for Get On Up yet. (I reached out to Universal and to Boseman’s publicist to get a sense of their awards plans, but only received confirmation he’s been submitted in Best Actor.) While asked about Oscar prospects during the film’s initial publicity blitz in July, Mick Jagger, one of the film’s producers, told Billboard that campaigning is “not something to think about right this second.” Well, it’s something to think about now, with nominations just a few months away.
It takes a special actor to overcome aging makeup and a rickety script, to make sloppy filmmaking sing. Get on Up suggests Boseman is that kind of actor. The academy has surprised us before, with nominations for young stars in the making like Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Gosling, and Heath Ledger. Here’s hoping it discovers Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance, too.