McGregor -- who stars in Mike Mills' indie darling as Plummer's onscreen son -- isn't actually competing against Plummer for Supporting Actor space; he's the lead in Beginners, the film's wounded and beating heart. McGregor plays Oliver, an illustrator whose mother has just died, prompting his father, Hal, to finally acknowledge his homosexuality. That leaves Oliver with an awful lot to contend with: not just Dad's purple sweaters, himbo boyfriend and fast-approaching mortality, but also his own crippling doubts about modern love and relationships. He also talks to his dog. Suffice it to say, Beginners gives McGregor a wide range of emotions to play with, and the star never falters once. A more endearing performance from 2011 would be hard to find -- well, unless you're an Oscar prognosticator. Despite giving one of the year's best performances -- despite carrying Beginners and his co-stars Plummer, Melanie Laurent and Cosmo the dog to the lofty heights they achieve -- McGregor isn't on the Best Actor radar. At all.
There's George Clooney in The Descendants, doing a lot of what McGregor does in Beginners but not as well (truth); there's Brad Pitt in Moneyball, all squints and smirks and golly-gees; there's Jean Dujardin in The Artist, a wild-card French import who makes the silent film sing; there's Michael Fassbender and his fassboner in Shame; and there's Gary Oldman in ,i>Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a veteran who is beloved by everyone. Throw in the dwindling awards bona-fides of a jowl-y Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, Demian Bichir and his SAG nomination for A Better Life and Ryan Gosling in Oscar sleeper The Ides of March, and there's hardly any room for McGregor in even the second group of likely Best Actor also-rans.
Not that we should be too surprised by all this. You rarely hear McGregor mentioned when people discuss actors in his peer group, but there he is -- certainly as viable a performer, if not a box-office star, as DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg. Come to think of it, Wahlberg might be the best analog for McGregor: a forever-under-appreciated actor who constantly lifts his fellow cast mates. Without Wahlberg, it's hard to imagine Christian Bale and Melissa Leo winning Oscars for The Fighter; similarly, without McGregor, it's hard to imagine Plummer taking the slow walk up to the stage at the Kodak Theater in February.
So where does that leave poor Ewan? Nowhere closer to getting an Oscar nomination, that's for sure. But when people look back on 2011, I hope they will remember McGregor's work in Beginners -- just as I hope he won't have to wait as long as Plummer to get his moment in the Academy's sun.