Last night a friend asked how I might play my Love & Mercy cards if I was Roadside Attractions and looking for a little award-season traction. Specifically who would I push for Best Actor — Paul Dano, who plays the genius-exploding Brian Wilson in the mid ’60, or John Cusack, who plays the 40ish, somewhat unsteady Wilson in a kind of health-recovery mode but suffering under a harsh psychological regimen imposed by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) but is then gradually saved from this by his future wife, Linda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

young Brian Wilson, Paul Dano in Love & Mercy.

40ish Brian, John Cusack.

My basic response was that Cusack and Dano give a single astonishing performance comprised of two parts — it’s not a question of one over the other but a unified effort…a complementary twosome with equal screen time, equal weight, equal value. Brothers.

Here’s how I put it this morning: “Dano vs. Cusack? Does it have to be an either/or? It’s a tough one, almost as tough as how to campaign the two completely equal leads of Carol. The truth is that Rooney Mara‘s performance is completely equal to Cate Blanchett‘s and is arguably more central and a bit more commanding and plot-driving, even though you’re inclined to believe at the beginning that Blanchett is the lead because she’s playing the titular character and all.

“Determining the answer to the Dano-Cusack problem is no less thorny.

“Cusack scores quite wonderfully — his 40ish Brian is certainly one of the richest and most emotionally profound roles he’s ever lucked into, and he’s made it into one of the finest and most delicate performances of his life. But Dano — and I really hate being forced to choose — edges him out. I was really, deeply touched by Cusack’s acting but Dano lifted me out of my seat. If there has to be a ‘winner’ (a ridiculous term in this context) it’s probably Paul, and I’m not just saying that because we both hail from Wilton, Connecticut. Dano’s Brian is historic — the Love & Mercy component that sticks to your soul.

“I also hate to raise this point but you know how SAG and the Academy think. Dano did the Robert De Niro in Raging Bull thing (i.e., packed on 30 pounds) plus his Brian provides the greatest joy and sense of discovery as his Brian creates Pet Sounds while Cusack is the ‘lonely, scared, frightened’ guy who finally writes Love and Mercy. (That early scene in the car with Melinda/Elizabeth in the showroom is so quietly affecting.) But Dano plays the Creator Supreme — he’s the live-wire Mozart of the movie as opposed to the guy whose creative output peaked 20 years earlier. Anyone who loves Pet Sounds or Good Vibrations will feel the same thing in their gut.

“But again I dislike saying this as I don’t want to indicate the slightest lack of respect or regard for John’s performance.

“The real truth is that they’re both playing leads and that, as with Blanchett and Mara, they should, in a perfect world, be campaigned as a single, two-headed Best Actor-worthy performance — joined and yet separate and completing the whole together. Can you separate Woodward from Bernstein and say one did the better job in reporting the Watergate scandal? Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played ‘Woodstein’ in All the President’s Men and they’re still regarded today as precise halves of a perfect loaf.

“My first reaction after catching Love & Mercy in Toronto last September was that Dano delivers the more deep-down, transformational thing — a Performance Supreme but (this is the curious part) without an arc because after he melts down post-Smile he just sinks into the bed. Cusack has the real story and the character arc and the payoff and, of course, the love story.

“But you know SAG and the Academy. They’re going to want to vote, I suspect, for the dreamy, tingly sounds of their youth — the ‘Dad rock’ factor, if you will. They’re going to say that Dano nailed it as well as Cusack BUT that he also did the 30 pound weight gain thing. That gives him the edge plus he has that wonderful 1965 or ’66 moment at the beginning when he’s talking to himself about his creative process but really his genius process. That scene alone stopped me, spoke to me, told me ‘this is going to be special.’

“Those two guys aside, Elizabeth Banks is certainly a Best Supporting Actress contender — the best performance she’s ever given and the best role she’s ever had. She’s playing the hero, really, who saves the day.

Paul Giamatti is also a great villain here — he and Bill Camp‘s Murray Wilson plus Jake Abel‘s Mike Love are the evil trio — a monster with three heads. But Giamatti has the biggest snarl and the worst bite. He’s playing one of the most malicious but believable human-scale villains — never pulls out a gun, chews the scenery, wields special effects — that I’ve seen in a long, long time.

“I would also push Bill Pohlad for Best Director because (a) he pulled this off brilliantly and (b) he’s a metaphor the proverbial unsung producer of hidden talents who had a symphony to share and finally made it happen.”

From Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone: “I think Cusack is the big awards get, although I think Best Actor will be too crowded and would [therefore] run him in supporting. But I could be the minority opinion, as I often am. It’s true that the two make a unified performance — and as for Carol, Rooney Mara is likewise the standout. What this means to me and what it often means in awards terms is that an actor surprises the industry with what they can do (i.e., Melanie Griffith in Working Girl). Thus, the two big surprises in both films are Cusack and Mara. My two cents.”

Wells to Stone: You were surprised by Cusack? He’s been delivering first-rate work for 25 years now — not a surprise to me.