While there’s no denying that Forest Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland is a revelation, his Best Actor nomination underscores another important truth: We should have seen it coming. From a childhood spent shuttling between football scrimmages and opera recitals to an acting career playing both gentle giants and lethal villains, everything in Whitaker’s life, it seems, was pointing toward his portrayal of Idi Amin. After all, he presents the notorious Ugandan dictator as a man obsessed with art as much as warfare, a man who’s cuddly one moment and callous the next, a savvy strongman with charm to counterbalance his ruthlessness. A fellow of great stature himself, Whitaker embodies the outsize role. ”I kept trying to find all of his emotions and feelings inside myself,” says the actor, 45. ”That’s how he came to life.”
We should be glad he found the key, for it provides a long-overdue opportunity to recognize one of Hollywood’s most consistent talents. This is the first Oscar nomination for Whitaker — a remarkable detail when you consider all the buzz he’s attracted over the last quarter century. There was his self-destructive Charlie Parker in 1988’s Bird (for which he won the best actor prize at Cannes) and his doomed British hostage in 1992’s The Crying Game (for which, well, pretty much everybody else got a nod). But for all the chatter about his performances, Academy attention proved elusive. ”It’s great when people like your work enough to talk about it like that,” Whitaker says. ”But in the past I’ve been in a lot of movies where people have talked about it…and I wasn’t nominated. It’s kind of best to sort of live in the moment.” For Forest Whitaker, his Oscar moment has arrived.