2021 is proving a gangbusters year for actor Andrew Garfield. First, he scored stellar notices for his turn as notorious televangelist Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Now, Garfield is earning raves for his portrayal of the late, great composer and playwright Jonathan Larson (the Tony-winning RENT) in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical tick, tick… BOOM!
The turn is catapulting Garfield, who previously received an Oscar nomination for 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge, into the crowded Best Actor race. Should he indeed make the cut, he will mark the 21st performer in Oscar history to earn a Best Actor nomination for a musical.
In the early years of the Oscars, it was commonplace for musical turns to surface in Best Actor. In fact, nearly half of the 20 performances nominated to date came within the first two decades of the awards.
The first Best Actor nominees from musicals arrived at the 3rd Oscars, where Maurice Chevalier and Lawrence Tibbett contended for The Love Parade and The Rogue Song, respectively. At the end of the 1930s, Mickey Rooney would score a nomination for his turn opposite Judy Garland in Babes in Arms.
It was not until the 1940s, however, that musicals produced Best Actor winners. The first victorious actor was James Cagney, prevailing for his portrayal of entertainer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Two years later, both Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, in Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, triumphed for their turns in Going My Way. Fitzgerald earned nominations in both the Lead and Supporting categories – the first and lone occasion this would transpire, as the Academy quickly moved to prevent anyone from again earning two nominations for the same role.
The rest of the decade would see nominations for Gene Kelly (Anchors Aweigh), Larry Parks (The Jolson Story) and Dan Dailey (When My Baby Smiles at Me) but no wins among them. Also scoring recognition without wins in the 1950s were James Mason (A Star Is Born) and the return of Cagney (Love Me or Leave Me).
Wins, however, would soon be on the horizon. Yul Brynner and Rex Harrison, who earlier received Tony Awards for their respective turns in The King and I and My Fair Lady, went on to win Best Actor nominations for reprising their roles. Remarkably, Harrison marks the most recent Best Actor winner from a musical, over 50 years ago. There have been seven nominees since but none have triumphed: Ron Moody (Oliver!), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Roy Scheider (All That Jazz), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables) and Ryan Gosling (La La Land).
It should of course be noted that performers have scored Best Actor nominations and wins for biopics of famous musicians – including the likes of Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do with It), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) – but for the purposes of this list, we’ll only consider actors from more traditional musicals in which the songs are integral to advancing the story.
Is it possible for Garfield not only to emerge the latest Best Actor nominee from a musical but also the first winner since Harrison in 1964? Let’s dive into this category.
While it remains early in the race, all of the stars appear to be aligning for Will Smith (King Richard), an actor beloved by his peers who has yet to win an Oscar and is gracing an acclaimed picture that appears destined for both commercial and awards season success.
The competition will, however, be formidable. Like Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) is a much-respected actor still on the hunt for that elusive Oscar and also headlining a film in serious contention for the Best Picture prize. Denzel Washington is scoring raves for his turn in The Tragedy of Macbeth and, while he just recently won this prize for Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is earning some career-best notices for C’mon C’mon. Add Leonardo DiCaprio (Don’t Look Up) and yes, Garfield, and you’re looking at a robust top tier of Best Actor contenders, with potential first-timer dark horses like Clifton Collins, Jr. (Jockey), Peter Dinklage (Cyrano) and Simon Rex (Red Rocket) on their heels and ready to surprise.
When it comes to the win, perhaps the most daunting statistic of all for Garfield is no Best Actor contender has prevailed for a musical not nominated for Best Picture. Yankee Doodle Dandy, Going My Way, The King and I and My Fair Lady were all juggernauts in their respective Oscar seasons, in two cases taking the top prize. For Garfield to emerge a threat for the win, he’ll likely need tick, tick… BOOM! to emerge a robust awards season player that’s scoring nominations in a variety of categories, including Best Picture.
Regardless of his odds at scoring the win, expect to hear Garfield’s name surface at a plethora of awards season, including, more likely than not, Oscar nominations morning. 2021 is proving the biggest year yet for Garfield and members of the Academy are destined to take notice.
Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix