Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 40-31

We are getting closer to the top of this list - and I think all 10 of these performances are legitimately great - including the first one so far (at 34) that not only would have been my choice out of the nominees for the win - but for the year in question overall (although it must be said, it was a weak year).
 

40. Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Charles Laughton is one of those larger than life actors – he gleefully went over the top in almost all of his performances, and I love him for that. Whether here or as Captain Blight in Mutiny on the Bounty or in other films like Witness for the Prosecution, Spartacus or Advise and Consent, the man always seemed to be having more fun than anyone else in the film. This is by no means an accurate portrayal of the life of Henry VIII, but it sure the hell is fun – with Laughton as a King with huge appetites, who for some reason never sees how wrong his latest choice for a wife is until it is far too late (personally, by favorite is Laughton’s real life wife, Elsa Lanchester, as the supremely annoying Anne of Cleves). If you want subtly, look elsewhere. If you a larger than life performance, than you can’t do much better than Laughton here, even if he’s WAY better than the movie itself.
Is It Their Best Work: Laughton was always fun to watch, and he was here. I may be tempted though to pick Witness for the Prosecution.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I would have picked Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Groucho Marx was never better than he was in Duck Soup.

39. Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Whenever I see Forrest Whitaker on TV being interviewed, he seems like a such a nice, gentle man. His voice is calm, and he speaks with ease, charm and intelligence. In much of his screen work, he brings the same presence – he may be a BIG man, but even when he is playing a bad guy, he seems to be a gentle bad guy – someone who doesn’t really want to do what he has to do. But his work as Idi Amin is The Last King of Scotland is completely opposite to the idea of Whitaker I have in my head. In this film, he is bloody insane – violent, crazy and prone to snap at any moment. It is a larger than life role, and Whitaker nails the performance with ease. I do think the movie itself is not up to Whitaker’s performance in it however – I have no idea why this story had to be told from the point of view of a white guy. Out of the nominees, Whitaker was probably the best – but you cannot convince me that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t more deserving for his performance in The Departed.
Is It Their Best Work: Oddly, yes. Whitaker is usually so gentle onscreen, but as good as he is in something like Bird, I think he’s better here.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Tough call between Whitaker and Ryan Gosling as a junkie teacher in Half Nelson.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: This should have been the year DiCaprio won his Oscar – not for the film they nominated him for – Blood Diamond – but the one they didn’t – The Departed.

38. Kevin Spacey, American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty is one of those films that was HUGELY praised back in 1999, and then became almost instantly dated. Judging by the reputation the film now has, you would assume that it was a controversial choice back then to win, but it wasn’t – it only took on that title afterwards. Still, although I have to admit I don’t love the film as much as I did in 1999, I still think American Beauty is a wonderful little film – a film about suburban apathy, and how a man like Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham could get so burned out that he no longer cares about pretty much anything – and how his fantasy gets out of control. Spacey is brilliant in the movie – nailing his characters biting, sarcastic and at times hilarious lines. American Beauty may not be as good as everyone thought back in 1999 – but it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone seems to think it is now.
Is It Their Best Work: No – I’d go with either his Oscar winning performance in The Usual Suspects or Seven or LA Confidential. But as a lead? Probably.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Russell Crowe delivered the best performance of his career in The Insider.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Matt Damon is great in The Talented Mr. Ripley. As is Matthew Broderick in Election.

37. Ernest Borgnine, Marty (1955)
There seems to be a lot of people who do not think very much of Marty – Delbert Mann’s little film about a working class shlub who finds love, and almost blows it. But I could not help but fall for this simple film – and for Ernest Borgnine’s loving, funny performance as the title character. Marty is a lonely guy – he has a good job, some good friends, but no wife, no girlfriend. He then meets a girl he thinks is wonderful – but she’s a little plain, and his friends and family, out of their own sense of jealously, deride her, and almost convince Marty not to follow through with her. But lovable Marty is finally able to stand up for himself – and decides to do the right thing. This isn’t a brilliant film by any means, but I cannot think of any reason why anyone could hate it. It’s a charming film – and Borgnine is great in the title role – and even if I think Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock or James Dean in East of Eden – were better, Borgnine was still deserving of his win.
Is It Their Best Work: I think so. He was never as lovable as he was here that’s for sure.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Probably James Dean for East of Eden – which to me is his best performance.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: The best performance of the year was Robert Mitchum’s in Night of the Hunter.

36. Maximillian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Judgment at Nuremberg seems dated today in many ways. But you have to look at through the eyes of someone watching it in 1961 – when few American films had even dared to touch on the subject of the Holocaust. In that way, the film was very brave indeed. Giving this award to Schell was an interesting choice by the Academy – they just as easily could have given it to Spencer Tracy, also nominated that year, for his role as an American judge who has to sit in judgment of his German counterparts’ actions during the Nazi regime. Instead, they gave to it this little known actor – who puts up an impassioned defense of those Nazi judges. Schell’s performance is certainly passionate – and while he doesn’t excuse the actions of the Nazi judges, he seeks to explain them – and defend them in a legal, not moral, sense. It is a great performance by a great actor – a deserving winner – even if Paul Newman in The Hustler would have been an even more deserving winner.
Is It Their Best Work: Perhaps – he took a very difficult role and make it work.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Paul Newman really was the best of the year in The Hustler – which may be his best work ever.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: James Cagney is brilliant as a Coke executive in Billy Wilder’s delightful One Two Three.

35. Jon Voight, Coming Home (1978)
1978 was the year American movies finally really starting dealing with the Vietnam War – and they won Oscars for it. The Deer Hunter won Picture, Director and Supporting Actor, while Coming Home took the two lead acting prizes, including one for Jon Voight for his moving portrayal of a paralyzed veteran. The brainchild of Jane Fonda (aka Hanoi Jane), Coming Home tells the story of an army wife (Fonda) with nothing to do with herself when her husband (Bruce Dern) goes off to war – so she volunteers at the VA Hospital, where she meets and eventually falls in love with Voight’s character, now bitterly opposed to the war. Coming Home will probably seem clich├ęd today – it has been copied many times since its release – but it is still a powerful film, and in many ways that is because of Voight’s excellent performance – his speech to high school students about his experiences is heartbreaking. True, I still think Robert De Niro’s performance in The Deer Hunter is better, but I really cannot complain too much about Voight winning this award (although, I do have to wonder what the now Republican Voight thinks of the movie).
Is It Their Best Work: Personally, I’d probably say Midnight Cowboy – but he’s excellent in this.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): It didn’t have quite as many hooks for Oscar voters, but I think Robert DeNiro was even better in the other Vietnam film – The Deer Hunter.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Richard Pryor is great in a dramatic role in Paul Schrader’s debut film – Blue Collar.

34. Michael Douglas, Wall Street (1987)
Oliver Stone’s Wall Street has dated horribly in many ways – the style of clothes and hair was inevitable, but some of his directorial tricks and music choices were probably always a bad idea. But the one thing that hasn’t dated in the least is Douglas’ brilliant performance as Gordon Gecko – a man that Stone and Douglas saw as a villain – everything that was wrong with the money obsessed culture of Wall Street in the Reagan years – but who, for whatever reason, became a hero to those on Wall Street. His Greed is Good speech is masterful and chilling, perhaps even more so all these years later. 1987 was generally a weak year at the movies, so even though he ranks this far down the list, I cannot think of a better performance from that year that should have beaten him.
Is It Their Best Work: For me, that would be Wonder Boys. But it certainly ranks up near the top for him.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): The film has aged, but Douglas’ performance has not. Add in relatively weak competition, and this was probably the best of the bunch. William Hurt comes closest for his wonderful work in Broadcast News.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Alfred Molina – who has never been nominated – is great in Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears - and at least deserved a nomination.

33. Adrien Brody, The Pianist (2002)
Twelve years after its release, it has become clear that the chances of Adrien Brody ever getting a role as great as the one he played in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama are slim to none. He has never come close to this level of brilliance since this film. But his performance in this movie really is brilliant – especially as the film winds down, and has a long, wordless section, with Brody a walking skeleton, just trying to survive. Brody’s face in this film is haunting and tragic, and while this is clearly a director’s film more than an actor’s showcase, Brody really does have to carry much of this film. Yes, I still think Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher would have been a better choice this year, but it’s hard to complain when a performance this good wins an Oscar.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – although we may never know how great Brody was in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, since his lead role was cut to almost nothing.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I still think there is nothing wrong with Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Edward Norton delivered what is probably his best performance ever in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.


32. Gary Cooper, High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper’s performance in High Noon, while hated by many people (including John Wayne and Howard Hawks who made Rio Bravo as a rebuke of the film), is one of his best performances. Playing the Sheriff who instead of running away from the killers who are coming for him – even though his “friends” all run and hide, Cooper gives an air of dignity to the proceedings – standing up for what he believes in, even if it’s hard and may well get him killed. The movie was largely read to be about McCarthyism, and so it is, but it works on its surface level before you even get to the subtext – which movies like this always have to. Cooper’s Sheriff is a true movie hero – and the type of role he did better than almost anyone else. Out of who they nominated that year, it’s hard to pick someone better.
Is It Their Best Work: Again, I like his comedies more. But for dramatic work, this is probably his best.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Tough call between Cooper and Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful – but I think they did okay.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: It’s a pipe dream to think they would have ever nominated Takashi Shimura for Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. But what of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain?

31. Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons (1966)
When people think of the stereotypical “Oscar movie”, a film like A Man for All Seasons most likely pops into their heads. Based on a prestigious play, with top British stage actors, about the Monarchy, complete with detailed costume and set design. It’s true; the Oscars have fallen for many of these films over the years. It is also true however that A Man for All Seasons is one of the better ones that the Oscars loved. The movie is about King Henry VIII, who wants to get a divorce, and when the Pope won’t let him, he starts the Church of England – and has all the clergy sign off on it, except for Paul Scofield’s Sir Thomas More, who refuses to say it is right. The movie is essentially Moore on trial for his life, and Scofield gives a reasoned, but impassioned defense for why he refuses to give his permission. It is an excellent performance by an actor who spent more time on stage, and in supporting roles, than as the lead in movies. But Scofield will always be remembered for his work here. Yes, the great Richard Burton should have won his long coveted Oscar for his brilliant work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an even better stage to screen adaptation, but A Man for All Seasons was the safer choice – and remains a satisfying one.
Is It Their Best Work: Probably of his screen work. He seemed to like the stage more though.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Richard Burton is probably best in show in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – and all four principles are brilliant.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – although I don’t think it really came out that year in America.

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