Don Cheadle has bad timing when it comes to the Academy Awards.
The first and only time he was nominated for an Oscar was in 2005 for his stellar performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the hero hotel manager who helped save thousands of Rwandans from that country’s genocide in “Hotel Rwanda.” Cheadle lost to Jamie Foxx, who was equally as good in another biopic called “Ray.”
If “Rwanda” had been released a year earlier or a year later, Cheadle probably would have won. But he had little chance against the deserving Foxx and the big-budget marketing campaign that helped make “Ray” one of the most memorable films of the year.
History could repeat itself next year, too, but for different reasons.
There was a lot of early Oscar buzz about Cheadle’s performance as Petey Greene in “Talk to Me,” a film loosely based on the rise of a real-life ex-con who went on to become a top D.C. radio shock jock, TV host and respected community activist. But then something weird happened. Focus only released the film in 196 theaters nationwide.
That’s truly unfortunate because more than a few critics felt as though “Talk to Me,” was Cheadle’s best chance at an Oscar since “Hotel Rwanda.” His performance was so on target that it made everyone around him look even better — specifically his co-stars Taraji P. Henson, who played Greene’s girlfriend Vernell and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Greene’s boss and partner Dewey Hughes.
And because Cheadle, who was also the film’s executive producer, is the kind of actor who becomes so connected to the characters he plays, you actually forget you’re watching an actor. He played Greene, a man whose personal demons eventually got the best of him, as the chameleon he was. He was a determined man who used his street savvy to snag a job at a radio station; a man not too proud to beg when it came to the enlightenment of his audience; and he was someone who knew his limitations as a man and as a celebrity.
You believed Cheadle in every scene, something that doesn’t always happen in low-budget biopics. He became the Petey few of us ever knew. This is why his name should be on next year’s Oscar ballot.
Limited release, however, can often be the kiss of death come nomination time. One, it’s very likely that only a handful of Academy voters have seen the film, and also, there’s usually no groundswell of support among film critics who have inevitably become more impressed with the performances of actors appearing in more recent films playing on more than 200 screens.
Timing. It can kill your buzz.
Yet, if anyone can buck the odds it’s Cheadle, one of the most respected actors of his generation. And since some of the early polls favor Cheadle getting his second nod for lead actor, let’s hope he won’t have to wait for a less meaty role in a widely released blockbuster to get his due — even if his timing is off again.