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‘Saltburn’ and ‘Rustin’ Showcase Two Vastly Different Best Actor Oscar Pursuits

Although “Saltburn” and “Rustin” are both inherently queer period pieces with highly committed lead actors at the forefront, their respective stars Barry Keoghan and Colman Domingo give two performances that are working toward a Best Actor Oscar nomination from opposite ends.

If one were to have fallen in love with Keoghan last year based on his role in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod, they might be thrown off by his arch turn in Emerald Fennell’s sophomore effort depicting an Oxford student fighting to stay in the good graces of his aristocratic classmate. After watching the film, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” may be an apt comparison, but that does not do justice to just how willing Keoghan is to reach new depths in “Saltburn.” He is much more in “The Killing of Sacred Deer” mode here, which coincidentally is the film Fennell has said convinced her to cast the Irish actor.

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While his character Oliver is mostly quiet throughout the portion of the film set at the prestigious university, he comes alive entering the titular countryside estate — both magnetic and difficult to watch at the same time. Much of the comedy within Fennell’s film stems from Keoghan’s interactions with the family, seeing him opposite fresh talent like Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe, as well as Oscar nominees Richard E. Grant and Carey Mulligan (in a brief, scene-stealing performance), but it is Rosamund Pike who stands out most as a Best Supporting Actress contender. As matriarch Elspeth, she is far from as calculating as her breakout role in “Gone Girl,” but Pike best captures what the film is going for tone-wise.

a still from Saltburn
“Saltburn”Courtesy of Prime

As a black comedy that will once again be labeled “divisive,” much like Fennell’s debut “Promising Young Woman” was in 2020, “Saltburn” will have a harder battle toward another Best Original Screenplay win or Best Directing and Best Picture nominations for Fennell, since the more damning word some have used to describe it is “derivative.” Still, there is a through-line between both films, with “Saltburn” allowing the filmmaker to really showcase her unique vision. The production design by Suzie Davies, costume design by Sophie Canale, and even the cinematography by Linus Sandgren are simply scrumptious. The film will be in the crafts conversation at the very least.

With “Rustin,” the newest film from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” director George C. Wolfe, Emmy-winning “Euphoria” actor Colman Domingo finally gets his turn in the spotlight after years of memorable supporting roles in everything from “Zola” to “Fear the Walking Dead.” The Netflix film hits familiar beats as well (what biopic doesn’t at this point?) but strikes a different tone than what audiences normally see of a Civil Rights-era film. Bayard Rustin himself is a bit of an anomaly as film subjects go, as queer Black films are rarely made with a Netflix budget, and here is a crowdpleaser about a gay, Black former Communist who stood by Martin Luther King Jr. during his greatest achievement for the movement. But “Rustin” focuses specifically on when he and King were on the outs, until Rustin had too good an idea in the March on Washington to let his exile from King and the NAACP get in his way.

That makes for a process film about Rustin’s determination, moving through various settings like a shark to make the biggest peaceful protest that the United States has seen come together in eight weeks. The framing allows for quite the expansive cast, from Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright, and CCH Pounder, to several actors Broadway vet Wolfe has directed before like Glynne Turman, Adrienne Warren, and Audra MacDonald, and dozens of fresh faces working in Rustin’s march headquarters. To see the March on Washington finally happen is as moving as expected but also deeply satisfying.

RUSTIN (2023) Jim Farmer as Frank Harts, Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and Maxwell Whittington-Cooper as John Lewis.
“Rustin”Courtesy David Lee/Netflix, exclusive to IndieWire

Domingo is the right twist on the kind of role that traditionally gets nominated for Best Actor, so the chances of him becoming a first-time Oscar nominee look good. Though Aml Ameen is the closest the film has to a Best Supporting Actor contender, his Martin Luther King Jr. is very measured, allowing other people to talk for him until he quietly comes in with the right thing to say.

Almost the opposite problem of “Saltburn,” “Rustin” being so traditional in execution does pull it away from being a strong craft awards contender. Its Best Picture chances depend on how hard Netflix wants to push it, as other awards plays from the studio like “Nyad” and “Maestro” are in a similar vein. Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black writing the film with Julian Breece certainly does not hurt its Best Original Screenplay chances. “King Richard” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are recent nominees that serve as good comparisons in that respect.

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