Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty much a lock for Best Actor this year, but one guy who should be happy just to be nominated is Bradley Cooper. Cooper never got a lot of critical acclaim for his acting until he took on the role of Pat Solitano in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. Pat is being released from a mental hospital after a breakdown as the film opens and struggles throughout with his sometimes violent, self-destructive obsessions. Does playing a man challenged by some sort of mental incapacity increase the likelihood of getting nominated for an Oscar? Here are some other examples of actors who might make that case.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Jeremy Renner first came to the attention of critics for his portrayal of a real-life psycho killer in Dahmer, but this Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination and made him a star. In Bigelow's riveting war drama, Renner plays Sergeant First Class William James, a bomb disposal expert whose apparent recklessness in the field endangers him and his cohorts, played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. His sanity is often called into question (does he have a death wish?) and by the end of the film, it's clear that James' intense combat experiences have rendered him incapable of living a normal life back home.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe had already proven his acting chops with previous turns in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but playing real-life schizophrenic mathematical genius John Nash in director Ron Howard's drama further solidified his reputation as a bold actor and earned him another nomination for Best Actor. Jennifer Connelly won Best Supporting Actress for playing his wife, one of the few people Nash was close to in the film who was not a figment of his addled imagination.
Forrest Gump (1994)
1980s wunderkind director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) revitalized his career with this epic saga of a mentally challenged man overcoming his disability (with positivity and pluck, no less!) to achieve greatness on a national scale: becoming a war hero, meeting President Nixon and starting the '80s jogging craze. Tom Hanks played Forrest's lovable aw-shucks folksiness to the hilt, but made him believable and human as few actors could, earning him a second Best Actor win (the first was for Philadelphia). Co-stars Robin Wright, Gary Sinise and Mykelti Williamson also got career boosts from the film, if not to the same degree.
Australian actor Geoffrey Rush was a virtual unknown in the states before he starred in director Scott Hicks' fact-based drama about pianist David Helfgott, a child prodigy whose budding career was cut short by mental illness. Helfgott spent ten years in institutions undergoing severe treatments for schizoaffective disorder, including electroconvulsive therapy. He overcame tremendous challenges to return to the world, find love, and begin to play professionally again. Rush won the Oscar and co-star Armin Mueller-Stahl was nominated for playing Helfgott's tyrannical father, but I think the real standout in the cast was Noah Taylor, who played Helfgott as a teenager.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This was one of those rare instances when I was actually happy to see a film sweep the Academy Awards, with Jonathan Demme winning Best Director, Jodie Foster winning Best Actress, and of course Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor for playing the sinister, psychotic but brilliant and charming Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is an imprisoned serial killer who helps intrepid young FBI agent Clarice Starling (Foster) track down the murderous Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), but exacts a price for doing so. Author Thomas Harris invented Lecter, but Hopkins made him such an icon that he continues to haunt our screens over two decades later.
Rain Man (1988)
In director Barry Levinson's Oscar-winner, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a slick selfish jerk who is angry to learn that his father's fortune has been left to an older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), whom he doesn't even remember. He drags Raymond, an autistic savant who refuses to fly, on a cross-country road trip in an effort to get what Charlie sees as his fair share of the money. While Cruise was the hot actor of the moment, Hoffman certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the success of Rain Man, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Hoffman's well-researched, meticulously detailed performance earned him a Best Actor win, and his much-imitated portrayal had a significant impact on the culture's view of autism, for better or worse.
Ordinary People (1980)
I can't think of too many films wherein such a crucial moment takes place over the phone, but I first saw Ordinary People as a tortured adolescent (is there any other kind?) and few film scenes have had the impact of Conrad (Timothy Hutton) learning that his former fellow inpatient Karen (Dinah Manoff), so cheerful the last time he saw her, has committed suicide. Robert Redford won Best Director for his debut film, the story of the dysfunctional wealthy suburban family, the Jarretts, traumatized by the accidental death of Conrad's older brother. It's a flawed film, too eager to portray cold grieving mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), as a villain, but it features great performances (including Donald Sutherland as Conrad's father and Elizabeth McGovern as his girlfriend) and several indelible moments. Moore and Judd Hirsch (as Conrad's therapist) were nominated for supporting roles, while Hutton won for his heartfelt portrayal of Conrad's struggle with survivor's guilt, depression and post-traumatic stress.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Director Michael Cimino had already made the successful low-budget actioner Thunderbolt & Lightfoot with an assist from hands-on star Clint Eastwood, but the brutal power of The Deer Hunter turned him into an overnight sensation. This Best Picture winner tells the story of factory workers from rural Pennsylvania traumatized by their harrowing experiences as POWs in Vietnam. Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep were nominated (her first of approximately 1,000) and Christopher Walken won for his role as Nick, the most irretrievably broken of the vets, whose life becomes a self-destructive spiral of post-traumatic despair and violence. Cimino, who won Best Director, was a victim of his own success when he was given creative carte blanche on his next project, the notorious flop Heaven's Gate.
Sidney Lumet directed Paddy Chayefsky's script for this seminal dark satire of television, which was nominated for Best Picture and several acting awards and won Best Screenplay. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress for her portrayal of a ruthless television exec, Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress, and Ned Beatty and William Holden were nominated for their impressive turns, but it was Peter Finch, playing the madman/prophet paranoid messianic-complex-suffering news anchor Howard Beale, who delivered the film's signature line ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"). Finch died of a heart attack at age 60 while promoting the film and was awarded the Academy's first posthumous Best Actor Oscar.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar for playing rebellious mental patient R.P. McMurphy in director Milos Forman's scathing adaptation of Ken Kesey's anti-authoritarian novel. The film took home gold for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, and Louise Fletcher won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the grimly oppressive Nurse Ratched. The tragic McMurphy, who faked his mental illness to avoid prison, sets his fate when he begins turning the other patients against their harsh jailer. McMurphy may not have been impaired, but his fellow inmates -- played by a rogue's gallery of great character actors, including Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson and Brad Dourif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor -- certainly had their share of issues to deal with.