Who Will Win Best Actor at the 2022 Oscars?

Could it be Will Smith? Or Benedict Cumberbatch? Or Denzel Washington?

king richard, will smith, best actor
Warner Bros.

This year's Best Actor race is a throw-down among some capital-M movie stars. You've got Will Smith hoping to finally get the trophy that has eluded him, while A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington are back in the mix. But can they hold off an eerie, triumphant Benedict Cumberbatch and the singing voices of both Peter Dinklage and Andrew Garfield? Let's dive into the race.

Read our Best Picture and Best Actress predictions here.

The front-runner: Will Smith, King Richard

Throughout his career, blockbuster king Will Smith has every so often made a play for awards glory. He received nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, while other attempts fell flat. (Collateral Beauty is probably better forgotten.) But he has his best shot at a trophy thus far with King Richard, where he plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Serena and Venus. Smith was crowned the presumptive winner after the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), premiered at Telluride, and while no one has really emerged as a major competitor, his buzz has quieted since then. When the movie debuted in theaters and on HBO Max in November, there were internet debates over the focus on Richard instead of his daughters, as well as whether Smith's performance was really all that accurate. Plus, Smith has made news for some of the arguably TMI revelations on the press tour for his recent memoir. Still he collected a Golden Globe—which may be meaningless—and a SAG nomination

benedict cumberbatch, the power of the dog
Netflix

Likely challengers:
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos

After the SAG nominations, I'm bumping Bardem from "long shot" to likely challenger. The actors, who have the most voting overlap with the Academy, put him in contention for his work playing Desi Arnaz in Aaron Sorkin's take on the I Love Lucy couple. Bardem's casting has been controversial given that he, unlike Arnaz, is not actually Cuban, but it's a bombastic turn with lots of Sorkin dialogue to make his case. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

If anyone's going to unseat Will Smith, it's Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives the best performance of his career in Jane Campion's thrilling drama The Power of the Dog. Cumberbatch's against-type casting as a viciously macho cowboy is the key to the film's saga of repression. So far, he's been lauded with a win from the New York Film Critics Circle and was the runner-up from the Los Angeles critics group. (Full disclosure: This writer is a member of the NYFCC.)

Peter Dinklage, Cyrano

Peter Dinklage has four Emmys from his time on Game of Thrones, but can he add an Oscar to his collection? Possibly. Dinklage has received strong notices for his take on the classic Edmond Rostand character—this time sans the big nose—in a musical adaptation of the play directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and with songs by The National. Yes, he sings too. But unlike every challenger on this list other than Leonardo DiCaprio. Dinklage did not get a nomination from his peers in the Screen Actors Guild. 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Don't Look Up

Leo has his Oscar, but can he ride a wave of love for Don't Look Up to another nomination? The movie got skeptical reviews from critics, but it has some very loud fans who are championing its importance as a climate-change allegory after its recent Netflix debut. DiCaprio shakes off his Pussy Posse aura to play a nerdy scientist—who is also very handsome, duh—and even gets his own not-going-to-take-it-anymore Network moment. The fact that DiCaprio didn't get a SAG nomination could hurt him. However, the movie was nominated for its ensemble so clearly his fellow actors saw something in it.

Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!

Speaking of singing, Andrew Garfield belts his heart out as Rent creator Jonathan Larson in this adaptation of one of Larson's early works, which happens to be about Larson writing his early work. Garfield, who had a great year overall, has energy to match his sky-high hair in this wonderful portrait of an artist trying to figure out whether his dreams are worth pursuing.

Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

It's Denzel. It's Macbeth. It's hard to deny, and I doubt the Academy will either. Washington, already a two-time winner, gives a terrifying performance as Shakespeare's mad thane in Joel Coen's adaptation. He leans into the character's weariness as his reign of terror grows.

nicolas cage, pig
Neon

Long shots

Bradley Cooper already has four nominations just for acting—plus more for other endeavors—and he could get a fifth for playing a morally bankrupt mentalist in Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley. Unfortunately, our hopes for a Simon Rex nomination for his deserving performance as a washed-up porn star in the indie darling Red Rocket are probably far-fetched despite the love he has received from critics; alas, this will not be the year of the MTV-VJ-to-Oscar-nominee career trajectory. Joaquin Phoenix followed up his Joker win with low-key work in Mike Mills' delicate C'mon C'mon, but the Oscars like Phoenix best when he goes big. And finally, Nicolas Cage did some of the best work of his career in Pig, but the small film is unlikely to attract the Academy's attention.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.