30. Gene Hackman, The French Connection (1971)
It is easy to forget just how ground breaking The French Connection was back in 1971. The idea of a rogue, but generally good, cop – one who pushes the boundaries of what is legal – was a fairly recent idea. Before this, cops were either good guys or bad guys, not much in between. Since then, the idea has been co-opted so many times, into so many different movies – and TV shows (who is Popeye Doyle except a 1970s version of Andy Sipowitz) that its impact has dimmed a little. But you cannot deny the forcefulness of Hackman’s performance in this movie – his obsession to bring down the bad guys, even if it meant breaking some rules, and in perhaps the most famous car chase in history, endangering the public. Hackman has given greater performances than this over the years – but The French Connection is still one of his best, and a very worthy winner (especially since the Academy didn’t nominate Warren Beatty for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the best work of his career, or Malcolm McDowell for A Clockwork Orange).Is It Their Best Work: No – Hackman had a long great career, and I am tempted to say nothing was better than The Royal Tenenbaums – but I would probably say his best work was in Coppola’s The Conversation.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Hackman was the best of the nominees – but they could have nominated better.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: The two that stand out to be are Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and especially Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
29. Ronald Colman, A Double Life (1947)George Cukor’s A Double Life is not a masterpiece by any means – but at its heart is a brilliant performance by Colman as an actor playing Othello on stage, whose life starts to mirror that of Shakespeare’s tragic Moor – at least in his own head. Colman is almost the whole show here –Cukor does give the film a wonderful film noir look, although it’s debatable as to if this is a true film noir – as the rest of the characters in the movie are nearly as well drawn as he is. But Colman is brilliant – this is one of the best performances by actor playing an actor ever put on screen, and a wonderful portrait of the “method” acting, before that style had even been popularized. A Double Life is a very good film, with an excellent lead performance – which because the Academy didn’t realize the brilliance of Out of the Past, is a worthy winner.
Is It Their Best Work: Out of the work of his I have seen, yes. He’s quite good in The Talk of the Town as well.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Colman was the best – even if I wish John Garfield had won an Oscar at some point, his work in Body & Soul is not quite his best.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert Mitchum should have won for the one of the best film noirs ever – Out of the Past.
28. Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men (1949)As Willie Stark, the once idealistic young politician who pulled himself up by the bootstraps, only to become as corrupt, if not more so, than the politicians he initially fought against, Broderick Crawford was given the role of a lifetime. For the most part, Crawford was stuck in character roles – and he did them extremely well. But Robert Rossen knew that to play Stark, he needed a larger than life actor – a big, boisterous, charming man, who could also be menacing, and evil – and at that, Crawford is excellent. The book this was based on was shocking at the time – but likely not so much today, when it seems the public almost expects their politicians to be corrupt – the movie hasn’t quite aged as well as some of its contemporaries. But Crawford’s performance remains the best of his career – and a towering performance in its own right.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – Crawford had a long career as a character actor, but as a leading man I’m hard pressed to think of better work by the actor.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They choose well this year – Crawford should have won.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: James Cagney would have gotten my vote had they nominated for White Heat. Edward G. Robinson was great in House of Strangers as well.
27. Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night (1967)Sometimes when I look back at the Oscar race of 1967, I feel bad for Sidney Poitier. He had a leading role in two of the five Best Picture nominees – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heart of the Night – and saw his two co-leads both get nominated (Spencer Tracy in Guess and Steiger here), and one of them win, while he got nothing. It’s not surprising, because in both of those films, as brilliant as Poitier is, he has the more one note role of the leads – the Upstanding Black Guy. That’s not to take anything away from Rod Steiger’s performance in In the Heat of the Night, as a Southern Sheriff, who may not be free of prejudice, but does want to see justice done. Steiger is brilliant in the movie, and a deserving winner. As deserving as Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde or Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate? Perhaps not. As worthy as Steiger was in 1965 when he gave his best performance in The Pawnbroker? No. But worthy nonetheless.
Is It Their Best Work: No, that’s The Pawnbroker.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Warren Beatty’s iconic performance in Bonnie & Clyde has not aged a bit.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert Blake as Perry Smith in In Cold Blood is absolutely chilling.
26. William Holden, Stalag 17 (1953)William Holden was an actor somewhat ahead of his time. He always seemed more cynical than most of the other movie stars of his day. This made him perfect for some of Billy Wilder’s films. Three years after Holden SHOULD have won for his brilliant performance in Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., he did win for another Wilder film – Stalag 17. If the film isn’t quite as good as Sunset Blvd., we can forgive that since so few films are. Holden is excellent as a cynical American POW. When an attempted escape is thwarted by the Germans, the rest of the POWs think Holden must have ratted them out – he’s antisocial, and openly barters with the Germans. But, of course, Holden is not quite the cynic he seems to be. This was a great performance – easily the best of the nominees (although Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity was also great, and Marlon Brando’s Julius Caesar co-star James Mason should have been the one nominated for his brilliant Brutus), but while this may not be Holden’s greatest performance, it’s a damn good one – and one worthy of the Oscar it won.
Is It Their Best Work: No – but it’s close. My favorite would be Sunset Blvd. – but he’s also great in Network.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): As much as I love Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, I think they made the right call here.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: They nominated Brando for Best Actor for what was essentially one speech in Julius Caesar as Mark Antony. James Mason’s Brutus was much better.
25. Emil Jannings, The Last Command (1927/1928)Emil Jannings is probably best known for two things – Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 masterpiece The Blue Angel, where he played a German professor, undone by his obsession with Marlene Dietrich, and for leaving Hollywood when the talkies came in and heading back to Germany – where he became a figure in the Nazi propaganda machine (Quentin Tarantino even gave him a cameo in Inglorious Basterds). But he was also the first Best Actor winner ever – for Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command as well as The Way of All Flesh, which unfortunately is one of the “lost” films of the silent era. His performance in The Last Command however is brilliant. He plays a former member of the Russian aristocracy, who had to flee and come to America. Now, he is working as a movie extra – and gets cast as a Russian general, and gets lost in his own madness. It is a brilliant, little seen performance by Jannings. His legacy is forever tainted, but his performance here should be better remembered than it is.
Is It Their Best Work: Out of what I’ve seen, I’d go with his work in another Josef von Sternberg film – The Blue Angel.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I haven’t seen the other nominees, but this is a worthy winner.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Buster Keaton was in The General in 1927 – if it was eligible, he should have gotten it.
24. James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)James Cagney will always be best remembered for playing gangsters. Such is your luck when you’re so good at playing them – perhaps his two greatest performances were in The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949), not to mention Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), with its haunting final scene. But Cagney was more than just a gangster – his two “retirement” performances (in Billy Wilder’s 1961 One, Two, Three and Milos Forman’s 1981 Ragtime show that). And in his only Oscar winning role, Cagney is brilliant as the singing, dancing George M. Cohan. Yes, the movie is a pretty standard biopic, and yes, if you’re not American, the relentless “rah-rah” patriotism of the movie can wear you do a little, but Cagney’s performance is brilliant just the same.
Is It Their Best Work: No – he may not have liked being typecast, but there was a reason he was – he was great as a gangster in The Public Enemy and White Heat.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Cagney probably was the best of the nominees.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jack Benny is great in To Be or Not to Be – a comedy about Nazis from master Ernst Lubitsch.
23. Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001)Denzel Washington has spent much of his career playing righteous good guys – and that’s too bad, because when he lets his inner badass out, like he does in Training Day, he is much more entertaining. More than a decade after its release, many of the plot points of Training Day have become lost in my memory, but Washington’s larger than life bad guy cop remains firmly etched there. For once, Washington didn’t seem concerned with being righteous, and just let himself loose – and the result is one of the most memorable villains of the decade. True, Washington should have won his lead Oscar for his brilliant, nuanced work in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X – and Tom Wilkinson should have won this award for his quietly devastating work in In the Bedroom this year – but that doesn’t mean Washington wasn’t brilliant in this film.
Is It Their Best Work: That remains Malcolm X – and always will.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Tom Wilkinson is so quiet, subtle and superb in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom that he would have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Gene Hackman was wonderful as the self-absorbed patriarch in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Somehow, no one noticed how great Jack Nicholson was in The Pledge.
22. Sean Penn, Milk (2008)No matter how good Sean Penn is in any number of movies, I am almost always conscience that I am watching Sean Penn. But in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Penn melts away before your eyes and becomes Harvey Milk – the first openly gay man to hold elected office in America. Penn gives an impassioned performance here as Milk – who fought hard for gay rights, and became a martyr for their cause when a demented colleague on city council assassinated him. Yes, like many biopics about politicians, there are a lot of speeches given by Penn in this movie, but here, Penn makes them seem more a part of his character, and less about drawing votes. This really is one of Penn’s greatest performances. Yes, I would have voted for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, but I’m fine with Penn winning.
Is It Their Best Work: Penn has a number of great performances on his resume –including this one. But it wouldn’t be at the top of my list. I still love Mystic River.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Mickey Rourke was the best of the year in the heartbreaking film The Wrestler.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Philip Seymour Hoffman was never better than he was in Synecdoche, New York.
21. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)Alec Guinness was a great actor – equally comfortable doing absurd British comedies as he was doing Shakespeare during his decades spanning career. Too many though, he will always be remembered as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – and while that is a great performance by the actor, his legacy should be greater than that. Take his excellent performance in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai for example. He plays a stuffy, British officer who is captured and becomes a POW of the Japanese. He is unbending, unbreaking – the typical stiff upper lipped Brit. But he takes pride in his work – including building that bridge, until he realizes just what it means in the performances final moments. A terrific performance to be sure. Out of the nominees, it was probably the best performance – although arguably the Academy should have nominated both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster for Sweet Smell of Success, Kirk Douglas for Paths of Glory and Andy Griffth for A Face in the Crowd. Still, it’s hard to bitch too much about this one.
Is It Their Best Work: Maybe – although his work in the Ealing comedies comes very close.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Out of who they nominated, Guinness would have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were better than any of the nominees in Sweet Smell of Success. Ditto Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory. And Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd.