It’s the highest accolade any actor can win, and here’s how you go about it.
1. Be in your 40s
The average age of a Best Actor winner is a hair under 44, so that’s the time to focus your efforts. Oh sure, you might pull off a freak early win like Adrien Brody, aged 29, who was the youngest winner ever and the only one in his 20s. Or you could mimic Henry Fonda and win in your 70s – but he was the only winner in that decade too. Basically, concentrate really hard on your career between about 36 and 54 to maximise your chances and if your name is Leonardo DiCaprio, just keep up the good work for another decade or so.
2. Play a real person
The single biggest group of winners, particularly over the last few decades, come from actors who played real people. Those may be historical figures (Sir Thomas More) but should, for preference, belong to fairly recent history (Ray Charles, Truman Capote, Idi Amin). Bonus points if the person you’re portraying had a famous public persona that was very much at odds with his private life: a hugely successful singer traumatised by a childhood loss, say. Bonus points also if he also behaved really, really badly to those around him.
3. Look into addiction, disability or mental problems
Not, you know, for realz, since these cause huge problems for their sufferers and we don’t intend to make light of that. But on screen, 10 of the last 20 winners have suffered some form of addiction, mental illness or disability (and that’s not even counting Roberto Begnini’s manic turn in Life Is Beautiful). Alcoholism is best, addiction-wise, although drug addiction is a growing trend. In terms of mental illness, psychosis works well, but OCD is acceptable. And for disability, Al Pacino played blind and Tom Hanks suffered through the latter stages of AIDS, which is pretty darn disabling, so really anything goes. But as we all know, one can take it too far: never go full retard.
4. Naff off and die
Interestingly, of the winners in the last 20 years not afflicted with some sort of illness, five died. Seven of the last 20 winners died, and the popular power of a good death scene goes back way before that. So while dying onstage is a fate not to be wished, dying onscreen is an A-OK way to win awards and influence people. Just give yourself a poignant death scene and some profound final words, eh?
5. Don’t be afraid to go dark
Eight of the last 20 winners have played bad guys or antiheroes of one sort of another. Turns out that not only does the bad guy have more fun; he wins the awards as well. If you’re a morally-ambiguous leading character, bob’s your uncle and Oscar’s your destiny. This means that the reported smear campaign against Colin Firth’s George VI and The King’s Speech may in fact have been counter-productive.
6. Be a white English-speaker
Once again, statistically it helps. That said, Best Actor has been won for a performance not in English: by Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful. And Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for his Italian-speaking role in The Godfather Part II, so it’s just about do-able. Still, if you’re maximising your chances, English is the way to go.
7. If Oscar gets it wrong at first, don't give up!
Many Best Actor wins get their trophy rather belatedly: John Wayne for True Grit, Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond, Jack Lemon for Save The Tiger, maybe even Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart. In most of these cases, they’d been deserving of the award 20 years before but got it as a tacit apologia and acknowledgement of their contribution. So if you’re wildly felt to have turned in a classic turn 20 years ago, give a respectable turn now and you’re sure to win the prize.