Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 10-1

And we're here - the best of the best. The 10 Best Performances ever to win the Best Actor Oscar.

10. Peter Finch, Network (1976)
Not only can you make the case that Finch wasn’t the strongest lead actor of 1976 – my vote would clearly go to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver – you could even make the argument that his wasn’t even the strongest lead actor performance nominated for his own movie – William Holden, as an aging network executive is brilliant. But neither of those things are a shot at Finch, but rather a testament to what a strong year 1976 was. As Howard Beale – the long time anchor who gets fired, and then becomes a hit because he’s “Mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”, Finch in his last screen performance (he won the Oscar after he died) is wonderful. The Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky film was a daring satire in 1976, and has pretty much become truth in 2014, but strangely that doesn’t diminish its power – nor does it dim just how great Finch is here. Did he deserve to win? Not really – but that’s only because his competition was so strong. This is still one of the best screen performances in history.
Is It Their Best Work: Perhaps – but Finch was brilliant in Sunday, Bloody, Sunday – a completely different kind of movie.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Robert DeNiro’s performance in Taxi Driver may just be my favorite performance in history – so I would have voted for him.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: If they wanted to reward a late John Wayne performance, they would have been better served waiting for this year’s The Shootist.

9. George C. Scott, Patton (1970)
As Patton, the great George C. Scott was given the role of his life. He wasn’t the first choice – a long list of actors turned were considered before him – but he was the best choice. Scott had already played an insane military man in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – and he used a little bit of that insanity in playing Patton – a WWII General who saw the war as his own personal one – and uses it to inflate his own myth even while the events are still going on. This is a great role for an actor – not only because it allows Scott the opportunity make big speeches, on a huge canvas – or allows him to cut loose for nearly three hours of screen time – but because of the different levels he does get to play, even when he seems to be playing everything at the same volume. Patton was, among other things, an actor – playing the role he knows he needs to play to inspire others. Scott gets this, and it adds another level to this role. Normally, I am not a fan of pro-war movies – but Patton is unabashedly pro-war, and I love it – and above all else, I love Scott in it.
Is It Their Best Work: I’ll probably always prefer his work in Dr. Strangelove – but I won’t argue with those who say Patton is his best.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Scott would have gotten my vote – but Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces would have been a close second.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Fernando Rey delivered on his many great performances for Luis Bunuel in Tristana.

8. Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Cage takes a lot of crap – much of it deserved – for his choices and his overacting. But the reason I remain a fan of his is that because once in a while he delivers the kind of insane performance that only he can give. I’m not talking about some of his guilty pleasure performances – like say Face/Off, Con Air or Drive Angry – but the kind of inspired genius that perhaps Cage just stumbled upon, but he still pulls it off better than anyone else could – performances like Wild at Heart, Adaptation, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans – and this one. As a Hollywood screenwriter whose career is over because of his drinking, who heads out to Las Vegas for the express purpose of drinking himself to death, Cage really is brilliant. I’ve always argued that Elisabeth Shue is even better than Cage (and it’s a shame she never got another role close to as good as this one) – but Cage is nearly as great – and certainly drains all the romanticism out of being a movie drunk. There is nothing glamorous about his performance – as he slowly dissolves into nothing. This is also director Mike Figgis’ best work – and a lot of that has to do with Shue and Cage. Mock him if you want to, but when he finds the right role there are few actors better than Nicolas Cage.
Is It Their Best Work: I’d probably lean towards Adaptation – but it’s close.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Anthony Hopkins in brilliant in Oliver Stone’s Nixon – and he may well have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert DeNiro delivered two great performances this year – in Casino and Heat – take your pick.

7. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I’ve seen some ridiculous estimates of how little screen time Anthony Hopkins has in The Silence of the Lambs (the lowest one I think said 10 minutes – most seem to settle at around 20 minutes – my own “unofficial tally” was that the scenes involving Hopkins’ Lector make up around 40 minutes of the 2 hour runtime, although his face may not be on screen for each of those minutes). But does it really matter? Hopkins’ Lector feels like the star of the show in Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece of a horror film – a sick genius who plays games with the equally great Jodie Foster (who really is the film’s lead) and charms the audience into liking him, despite the fact we know he’s a serial killer and cannibal. What’s most amazing about this performance is how none of the other Hannibal movies or TV shows, none of which come close to this film (as much as I love the TV show Hannibal – and Mads Mikkelsen in it) have been able to dim this performance’s impact. Hannibal Lector often shows up at the top of people’s list of the greatest movie villains of all time – and if that is overstating it a little – it’s not overstating by that much.
Is It Their Best Work: If it’s not, it’s close with Nixon and The Remains of the Day.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I cannot really argue with this one.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: John Turturro delivered his greatest performance in the Coen’s Barton Fink.

6. F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus (1984)
F. Murray Abraham never really became a movie star – although in the 30 years since Amadeus, he has worked steadily as a character actor, and in fact this past year deliver a one scene performance of perfection in the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis. But the role he will always be remembered for is in Milos Forman’s Amadeus – where Abraham brilliantly plays Saleri, a decent composer who has a lot of connections and success, but who knows just how brilliant the younger Mozart is – even if no one else quite seems to realize it. Saleri hates Mozart for how easy everything comes to him, while he toils and struggles to produce lesser work. His Saleri is one of the great portraits of jealously and self-loathing ever captured on film. You can (and many have) complain about the historical accuracy of Amadeus – but that seems to be to beside the point. This is a masterful film – and a large reason for that is just how good Abraham is. That he never came close to topping it is perhaps somewhat understandable – this is a performance that is tough to beat.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – he never really came close to it again.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Abraham was the clear choice – as enjoyable as his co-star Tom Hulce was.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Harry Dean Stanton as a man without a past (seemingly) in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas delivered a brilliant performance.

5. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)
Say what you want about Elia Kazan’s motivations for making On the Waterfront – they are valid – but you cannot deny that the result is a masterpiece – one of the most influential films ever made, with one of the best and most influential performances in American movie history by Brando. Brando’s genius was that he could do both big and small moments, and pull them off perfectly. He was a natural, and the camera loved him because he was at ease in front of it. The scene in the back of the taxi, where his brother pulls on gun on him could have allowed an opportunity for Brando to go big – but instead, he plays it quieter than we expect – he’s not angry at his brother, as much as he’s disappointed in him. There is a reason why Brando is a legend – and On the Waterfront gives you one of them.
Is It Their Best Work: With Brando it’s hard to tell. There is so much great work out there (but considering he still has another win coming up, I guess not).
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Brando was undeniable that year.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: George Sanders was great as one half of a couple coming apart in Voyage in Italy.

4. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Nicholson was the perfect choice to play RP McMurphy – the rule breaking convict who pretends to be insane to get out of jail, and finds himself in deeper trouble in the mental hospital. The performance captures everything about Nicholson that makes him one of the greatest actors in screen history – the charm, the danger, the charisma, the sexuality. Yes, it gives him ample opportunities to be his usual screen persona – and Nicholson doesn’t shy away from those – but the performance is far more than Nicholson’s usual bag of tricks. Nicholson has won three Oscars – and if anyone career deserves three, it’s Nicholson’s – although the other two weren’t from his best work. His performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – and given how great a career he has had, that is saying something.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Some great performances were nominated – none as good as Jack’s.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Gene Hackman was wonderful in Arthur Penn’s underrated crime film, Night Moves.

3. Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull (1980)
Robert DeNiro impressed voters with his physical transformation for Raging Bull – or really two transformations, first turning himself into the Jake LaMotta who was a great boxer, and then turning himself into the Jake LaMotta was an overweight mess. Those types of things win Oscars. Yet the performance is far deeper than that – a portrait of jealously and rage so potent that Roger Ebert correctly compared the movie to Othello. Filmed in gorgeous black & white by Martin Scorsese, the film captures the violence of the sport of boxing – and the violence of the man at its center. DeNiro goes all in – and delivers one of the best screen performances of all time – and of his great career. His “You fuck my wife” exchange with Joe Pesci is as perfect as any scene in film history.
Is It Their Best Work: No – but that’s only because he’s even better in Taxi Driver. It’s close though.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): As good as everyone else was this year – particularly Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man – this wasn’t even close.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jack Nicholson has been nominated so often, it feels strange to say he was overlooked – but they didn’t nominate him for The Shining, so he was.

2. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)
There may not be a more iconic performance in cinema history than Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. We know his big moments – the first scene involving the cat, his speech to the heads of the five families, his sad death. Every one of those moments is brilliant – and pretty much every moment in the film is as well. Yes, you can certainly make the case that it is Al Pacino’s Michael who is the central character in the movie – Brando spends a large part of the movie unconscious – but Brando’s presence looms over each and every scene in the movie. The studio didn’t want him, but Coppola knew he was the right actor. Brando did whatever he wanted to do onset, and the result is one of the great creations in screen history. How anyone can argue against that is beyond me.
Is It Their Best Work: Again, with Brando it’s so hard to know for sure. A Streetcar Named Desire? On the Waterfront? Last Tango in Paris? The Godfather? Is there a wrong answer.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Seriously, this isn’t close – and I love some of the other nominees.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Charles Grodin is wonderful in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid – especially in the final scene where he realizes how empty his “victory” is.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)
As Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis gives one of the greatest performances in movie history. From the wordless 15 minute opening scene, right up until the explosion of violence that ends the film, there is rarely a moment where Day-Lewis is not front and center in the film – and there is never a moment he isn’t mesmerizing. His character is one of the most arrogant and misanthropic people in history – he loses everything for his piece of the American dream – and ends up miserable and alone. Last year, when I did my top 10 films of all time, I put There Will Be Blood on it – it is a little recent to be on there, but the film has so quickly become one of my favorites, one of my most revisited, and one of the most complex of all American films, I felt it deserved that place. Picking Day-Lewis over the likes of Brando (x2), DeNiro and Nicholson will no doubt be controversial – but I’m right.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – and considering how much I love him in many of movies, that is quite an accomplishment.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): This wasn’t close. Viggo Mortenson is great in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises –and he was a very distant second for me.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as he implodes in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Brad Pitt has never been better than in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Gordon Pinsent deserved some of the love that went to Julie Christie for Away From Her.

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