20. Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry (1960)Burt Lancaster was a great actor, and his Elmer Gantry is one of his best performances. His is a drunken travelling salesman, who “transforms” himself into a hellfire spouting preacher, whose past will eventually catch up with him. The film makes good use of Lancaster’s ability to be both over the top, and remarkably subtle. By virtue of what a strong year it was, I don’t think you can say Lancaster should have won the Oscar this year – out of the nominees, Jack Lemmon delivered the best performance in The Apartment, and brilliant work by Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom, Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita and Jean-Paul Belamondo in Breathless are all arguably better than Lancaster’s work. Still, considering Lancaster should have won for films like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – when he wasn’t even nominated and Atlantic City (1981), where he was, it’s hard to complain too much. And his work in Elmer Gantry, although not my first choice that year, is still brilliant.
Is It Their Best Work: Lancaster had such a long, brilliant career that although I think he’s great as Elmer Gantry, I cannot say it’s his best work. Perhaps The Leopard or Sweet Smell of Success of Atlantic City is – but that just hints at the surface of his career.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I loved Jack Lemmon in The Apartment – which would have been a more fitting winner for Lemmon’s career than either of his Oscar wins for Mister Roberts or Save the Tiger.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Anthony Perkins performance in Psycho is one of the most iconic in cinema history – and at least should have received a nomination.
19. Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend (1945)It has become a cliché that actors playing drunks win Oscars. But that doesn’t diminish the greatness of Ray Milland’s performance in Billy Wilder’s excellent 1945 drama, about a weekend in the life of a drunken writer, where he blows off everyone he cares about to get drunk, before finally realizing he has a problem. Milland delivered several great performances in his career (Dial M for Murder springs immediately to mind), but none greater than this one. The Lost Weekend isn’t counted among Wilder’s very best films too often, despite the fact that it also won Best Picture – but I guess that’s more because of a resume that includes Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and countless others, but it should be. And Milland’s performance in one of the big reasons why.
Is It Their Best Work: It’s certainly the best performance from Milland that I have seen.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Out of the nominees I have seen, Milland was the right choice.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Edward G. Robinson is great in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street as a man who gets away with murder – but not really.
18. Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990)When Jeremy Irons won his Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, one of the people he thanked was David Cronenberg, an acknowledgement that Cronenberg gave him an even better role two years earlier in Dead Ringers, which lead him to the podium that night. Having said that, Irons is brilliant as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune as well – cold, calculating, undeniably a psychopath, but perhaps not guilty of putting his wife into a coma – a crime he goes on trial for. Reversal of Fortune represents Irons at his peak – just like the late 1980s and early 1990s represented the peak of his acting career. None of the other nominees that year really come close, so this one was a no brainer.
Is It Their Best Work: No – Irons thanked David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech, and his work in his Dead Ringers from 1988 truly is his best.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They got it right out of the nominees.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Ray Liotta’s performance in GoodFellas truly is great. I’ve never been sure why he didn’t get more recognition for it.
17. Sean Penn, Mystic River (2003)Sean Penn’s performance in Mystic River is, to me anyway, the best one he has ever given. You can make a case for Dead Man Walking or Milk or Sweet and Lowdown or the vastly underrated The Assassination of Richard Nixon – and probably several others as well – but to me, his performance as a grieving father who lashes out violently against the person he thinks killed his daughter is Penn’s finest hour. This Penn is at his method acting, brooding best, and he finds layers in his character that are usually not there is performances like this, or in movies like this. Mystic River ranks up with Unforgiven as one Clint Eastwood’s finest films – and the share a similar theme about of violence and regret. And Penn has never been better than he is here. Perhaps Bill Murray should have won this year for Lost in Translation, but I’m not really going to complain about it.
Is It Their Best Work: It’s arguable – his work in Milk, Dead Man Walking, Sweet & Lowdown and several others is just as great.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I’ve always been torn between Penn and Murray – at the moment, I’m leaning towards Murray.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliant comic performance in Bad Santa deserved at least a nomination.
16. Clark Gable, It Happened One Night (1934)Clark Gable is, of course, best remembered for playing Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. But if there is a second iconic role in Gable’s career, it’s that of Peter Warne, cynical reporter, in Frank Capra’s wonderful comedy It Happened One Night. Gable’s pitch perfect comic timing, and undeniable chemistry with Claudette Colbert helped the film to become the first film ever to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay awards (a feat only matched by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs). Personally, I prefer another pitch perfect 1934 comedy – The Thin Man – and the wonderful pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but I’m not going to complain about Gable winning for this excellent performance.
Is It Their Best Work: I think so – although I know many would argue for Gone with the Wind.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): As great as Gable is, I would have been tempted to go with William Powell for The Thin Man.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: W.C. Fields is his usual great self in It’s a Gift.
15. Frederic March, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)The Best Years of Our Lives was Frederic March’s second Oscar win (14 years after winning for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and far and away the more deserving one. Just a year after WWII ended, William Wyler made this brilliant examination of three returning veterans, who all have trouble fitting back in with the rest of society. March delivers the best performance of the trio (the emotion of Harold Russell, a real life double amputee, who also won is also quite good). He plays an older veteran coming home – he works at a bank, and is now torn between loyalties to his fellow vets, and new reality of a post war economy. This was a surprisingly thoughtful examination of veterans and their struggles upon returning home – one that is just as relevant today as it was then. March was the best of the nominees – although I do think the not nominated Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious was even better, I’m not really going to complain about this one.
Is It Their Best Work: I think so – but he did deliver quite a few great performances.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Out of the nominees, they picked the right one.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Cary Grant is brilliant playing an asshole in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.
14. Art Carney, Harry & Tonto (1974)People are always baffled when they look at 1974, and see that Art Carney won the Best Actor Oscar for Harry and Tonto, a film most have never heard of, and not Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II or Jack Nicholson for Chinatown. While I will admit that those choices would have been better, I’m still not going to complain about Carney winning, because he is brilliant in the film. He plays an old man, who when the movie opens refuses to leave his apartment that he is being thrown out of. When he finally relents, he and his beloved cat Tonto hit the road, where he meets all sort of interesting people. Carney carries the movie with his sympathetic, sometimes hilarious performance. And the scene where he says goodbye to Tonto, who he has to put down, makes me misty just thinking about it, and is among the film moments that made me cry the most. No, Art Carney should not have beaten Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson that year – but I’m still not going to complain about it.
Is It Their Best Work: Out of his film work I have seen, this is Carney’s best cinematic performance.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Pick either Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and I wouldn’t argue.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Gene Hackman is brilliant in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Although Gena Rowlands is better, Peter Falk deserved more praise for his work in A Woman Under the Influence.
13. Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)Gregory Peck spent almost his entire career being the moral upstanding man – the guy who you could always count on to do the right thing, no matter what. This means that some of his characters and performances can be rather dull when viewed today. It also means that he was the perfect choice to play Atticus Finch – the hero of Harper Lee’s novel, a great lawyer who takes on a case that no one else will because it’s the right thing to do – and even if he loses, he’s still heroic. The movie itself is not quite as great Peck’s performance – but I cannot think of flaw in that performance, or another actor who could have given it. In many ways, this is the prototypical Oscar performance – I’m not going to deny it hits on any number of clichés – but here, they feel genuine and earned. Yes, I think Peter O’Toole delivered a better performance in Lawrence of Arabia – but do I really want to argue that much about this one? No.
Is It Their Best Work: I would say so – Peck was a great actor, but he rarely appeared in too many great films. This role suited him perfectly.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Peter O’Toole’s breakthrough performance in Lawrence of Arabia stands as one of the greats in cinema history – and would have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Peck’s Cape Fear co-star Robert Mitchum makes that film far greater than it probably should be.
12. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t really look like Truman Capote in his day to day life, but in Bennett Miller’s excellent film, he transforms himself into the late writer – nailing his vocal mannerisms and movements precisely, but also getting under his skin, to show us all the sides of Capote – genius writer, celebrity, witty intellectual and opportunist. Hoffman carries the movie, and is brilliant in every scene. The film concentrates on his time writing In Cold Blood, and while I ultimately think the film is too hard on Capote (he didn’t kill the people, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock did, and even if Capote exploited them, he wrote a masterpiece about them that gave them back their humanity), I do think Hoffman is utterly brilliant. Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain is arguably as good if not better, but it’s so close, and Hoffman was such a great actor (he should have won a couple of Oscars), I’m not going to complain about it.
Is It Their Best Work: No, I would say Synecdoche, New York. And Hoffman was perhaps even better when doing supporting work – in films like Boogie Nights, Happiness, Almost Famous or Punch-Drunk Love.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I won’t argue against Hoffman, but I may well have gone with Heath Ledger’s heartbreaking performance in Brokeback Mountain.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Viggo Mortenson, great at playing two different sides of the character in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
11. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)The most impressive thing about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Lincoln for me is that he plays him as a man, not an icon. It would have been easier to play Lincoln as the figure we all have in our head of the man – large and imposing, given to speechifying, but aided by Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay and Steven Spielberg’s surprisingly intimate direction, Day-Lewis lets us see the man behind that image. His vocal choice was controversial – but to me, just about perfect. He is great when he telling stories, but just as great in the smaller, quieter moments he has. It is easier to win Oscars for playing famous people – just look back over this list for many examples – but sometimes that honor is earned. Yes, I do believe Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master is even better than this one – but there is no way I’m going to complain about this win.
Is It Their Best Work: For most actors, this would be far and away their best screen work. For Day-Lewis, it’s probably number 2 (he still has one win coming up).
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I won’t argue against Day-Lewis, but Joaquin Phoenix’s work in The Master is tricky and brilliant.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jean-Louis Tringnault watched his Amour co-star Emmanuelle Riva (deservedly) win a lot of awards, and yet was almost universally overlooked – which is odd.