Monday, March 17, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners 50-41

We reach and pass the halfway point today. All 10 of these performances are very good - some great, even if we still haven't reach one that I feel "should" have won the Oscar in that year.
50. Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart (2009)
Jeff Bridges is a great actor – that it took him so long to win an Oscar – nearly 40 years since his breakthrough performance in 1971’s The Last Picture Show – was somewhat of an embarrassment. But I do wish that the Academy had given Firth the Oscar this year for A Single Man, and that Bridges wait just one year longer to win for True Grit – since that was a better performance than Crazy Heart and a much better performance than the one that John Wayne gave in the same role in 1969 that netted him his only Oscar. It’s not that Brides isn’t great in Crazy Heart – his simple, heartbreaking performance as a faded country music star, drowning in alcoholism who slowly comes back, is actually quite good in many ways. The movie itself is also clichéd in many ways. Bridges was wonderful here, no doubt. But when you consider Firth’s performance – not to mention Jeremy Renner’s in The Hurt Locker – it makes me wish Bridges had to wait just one more year to win.
Is It Their Best Work: No. To me, that would be The Dude. Although you can make a long list of better work in Bridges career.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I would probably go with Renner’s performance in The Hurt Locker out of the nominees – a great performance as an adrenaline junkie who cannot stop himself from his reckless behavior.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Nicolas Cage is certifiably insane in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans for Werner Herzog. It’s the type of performance only he could make work – and he does so wonderfully.

49. Gary Cooper, Sergeant York (1941)
True, Howard Hawks’ film about WWI hero Alvin York – the Pacifist Quaker who go on to become a true war hero – was a little bit of pro-war propaganda during the days before America entered WWII – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good film. Cooper was one of those actors you immediately liked an identified with – he was the paragon of goodness, and always did the right thing. And Cooper’s quiet, subtle performance here is extremely effective and elevates the movie quite a bit. True, I like Cooper a lot more in his comedic work than his dramas – and there is no way in hell he should have beat out Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Welles in Citizen Kane (!) this year, but it’s still a fine performance.
Is It Their Best Work: I’ve always liked Cooper as a comedian – in films like Ball of Fire or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Design for Living.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Orson Welles deserved more than one Oscar for Citizen Kane – Best Actor among them.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Henry Fonda again(!) – this time for his pitch perfect comedic work in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.

48. Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993)
I look at Tom Hanks’ win for Philadelphia much the same way I do Dustin Hoffman’s in Kramer vs. Kramer – that Hollywood was in some way congratulating itself for finally tackling an issue that had been prevalent in society for years. This time, the issue was AIDS, and Jonathan Demme’s film made the issue palpable by cramming it into a genre Hollywood understands – the courtroom drama. Hanks, it must be said, is excellent as the bitter lawyer, slowly dying of AIDS, who sues the law firm that fired him when they found out about his disease – and of course that he was gay. But I’ve always felt that it was Denzel Washington who had the more complex role, as the only lawyer who is willing to take on Hanks’ case – and has to confront his own prejudices along the way. Not that Washington should have won an Oscar for his role either – Anthony Hopkins brilliant work in The Remains of the Day was clearly the best of the year – but then again, Washington didn’t play someone with a disease, and didn’t get to wither away and die during the movie. The Academy always loves that.
Is It Their Best Work: No – but it’s better than his work in Forrest Gump. But the performances I listed as better than that one previously are mostly better than this one too.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I may be alone in thinking that Hopkins work in The Remains of the Day may be even better than his Oscar winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs two years earlier – and perhaps it’s not quite as good. But it’s pretty damn close.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for In the Name of the Father, but he should have been nominated for The Age of Innocence instead. David Thewlis was disturbingly brilliant in Mike Leigh’s Naked.

47. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen (1951)
Humphrey Bogart fell into the trap of being too good at playing his onscreen persona, so that I don’t think he ever really got the respect he deserved as an actor during his lifetime. He was nominated for four Oscars – The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Caine Mutiny being the other three – but he only won this one time – and even for this one, he had to mount a large campaign to do so, and was no doubt lucky that his biggest competition – Marlon Brando, who was strangely the only major cast member of A Streetcar Named Desire NOT to win an Oscar for his performance, even though he should – didn’t give a shit. That said, Bogart is quite charming as a drunken boat captain who has to take an uppity woman down a river in John Huston’s film. It is a fun film, but both Huston and Bogart had done much better films before. Bogart SHOULD have won for his previous Huston film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – he was actually the frontrunner that year until the nominations came out, and he was shocking not even nominated. Bogart is a cinema icon, who deserved an Oscar. I just wish it was for one his truly, truly great performances.
Is It Their Best Work: No – although I’d be hard pressed to choose what was. The Maltese Falcon? Casablanca? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? In a Lonely Place? Take your pick
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I think most can agree it really is silly that Marlon Brando was the only major cast member in A Streetcar Named Desire not to win an Oscar, right?
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert Walker’s performance as the psychotic Bruno Antony is one of the great villainous turn in any Hitchcock film – and should have found itself among the nominees.

46.  Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (1982)
Gandhi is the type of big, important biopic of a big, important historical figure that you really only need to see once. Richard Attenborough’s film is a respectful depiction of the life of the Indian leader, who has become a hero to many the world over. It is also a rather square movie, one that offers no real complexity in its study of the man, although there must have been some during his life. Having said that, Ben Kingsley “debut” performance as Gandhi is pretty terrific – much better than the movie itself, and so convincing that many didn’t believe the actor was actually British when they saw the film. True, performances like Dustin Hoffman’s in Tootsie or Paul Newman’s in The Verdict are better remembered today, but Kingsley deserves a lot of respect for his work in this film.
Is It Their Best Work: No, but it is strong work. For his best though, I would probably go with House of Sand and Fog – which he elevated almost singlehandedly. Oh, and Sexy Beast.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Hoffman won two Oscars for dramas, but I think his work in Tootsie holds up far better than either of them – and should be one of his winning performances.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: It’s kind of strange that Harrison Ford has only one Oscar nomination, isn’t it? Not that it was ever going to happen, but I think his work in Blade Runner would have been worthy of a nomination.

45. Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favorite actors, and there is no doubt that his work in My Left Foot is terrific from beginning to end. Day-Lewis sidesteps the traps that most actors fall into when they have to play a handicapped person – for the most part, this is because the real life person he plays, Christy Brown, is not as saintly as movies mostly paint the handicapped. He was a drunk – brilliant, but arrogant – who was nearly impossible to live with, although he somehow always managed to have put up with him. He had a brilliant mind, trapped inside a body stricken with cerebral palsy, so that he could only move his left foot (hence the title). Day-Lewis develops Brown into a full bodied creation – and there is no doubt that he is wonderful in every scene. If the movie doesn’t live up to that performance, and hence why it doesn’t rank a little bit higher, perhaps it’s because a movie like this really is about the performance itself. Yes, Day-Lewis probably won the Oscar because he was playing a handicapped character – and strangely, there was another actor nominated that year for playing someone stuck in a wheelchair, and for my money he should have won (I refer, of course, to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July), but Day-Lewis was good, albeit safe, choice.
Is It Their Best Work: No – but we have two more entries for him coming up for Day-Lewis which could be his best two performances. But as good as he is here, he was better in Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence – to name but two.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I think Tom Cruise really outdid himself in Born on the Fourth of July – and maybe would have won had it not been the biggest star in the world and a pretty boy. They make those guys wait.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Matt Dillion was great as a junkie in Gus Van Sant’s mainstream debut – Drugstore Cowboy.

44.  Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004)
Jamie Foxx does a dead on impression of Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s very good musical biopic on the famed singer. Foxx hits the right notes pretty much all the way through the movie, from his early success, to his problems with drugs and infidelity, and his eventual overcoming of those demons. Ray is, in fact, a very entertaining film from beginning to end – and Foxx is at the center of every single moment of it. But the truth is, Ray is very much a conventional musical biopic – the Ray Charles story is pretty much a cliché for the lives of music stars in the 20th Century, so despite how good of a film it is – and it’s very good – or how good Foxx’s performance is – much better than the movie itself  - I do knock it some points for lack of originality. Personally, I would have loved to see Clint Eastwood win an acting Oscar this year.
Is It Their Best Work: Probably – his two other great performances were the other one he was nominated for this year – Collateral (how he was supporting in that, I don’t know) and Django Unchained.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): It’s hard to feel bad for him – since he won two Oscars for producing and directing Million Dollar Baby, but I think I would have gone with Clint.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: They nominated Sideways for everything, but not Paul Giamatti? They nominated Kate Winslet but not Jim Carrey for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

43.  Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011)
I feel I need a little bit of distance from The Artist before I can really judge just where it should sit on an all-time list like this, so I hedged my bets, and put it almost directly in the middle of the pack. On one hand, Dujardin’s performance in The Artist is much more difficult than it appears on the surface – he has to master multiple acting styles that were essentially abandoned when the movies introduced sound 80 year ago. He not only has to do comedy, but the over the top adventure performances, and a little bit of melodrama, along with dancing, and make it all seem natural in a silent movie, and yet relatable to a modern audience. That isn’t easy. On the other hand, The Artist relies a little too heavily on nostalgia for its effect – and doesn’t quite offer as much depth as I would have liked to see. The film is technical marvel, and Dujardin is responsible for it being as enjoyable as it is – but I suspect in the years to come this performance is going to move up or down this list to at least some degree.
Is It Their Best Work: To this point, yes. But I think he’s just getting warmed up.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I would have voted for Gary Oldman for his remarkably subtle turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Michael Fassbender delivered the performance of the year in Steve McQueen’s Shame.

42. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010)
As a childhood stutterer, I have a soft spot for The King’s Speech, which probably makes me rank Colin Firth’s performance in it a little higher than I otherwise would have. I admire the technical aspects of the performance – I still stutter now and then, but I cannot make myself do it on command, and certainly nowhere near as convincingly as Firth does here. But I also cannot deny that as entertaining a film as The King’s Speech is, it seems to me that the movie inflates the importance of this “historic” event beyond all reason. I understand why audiences fell in love with this movie – it is charming in the extreme, and Firth along with Geoffrey Rush are excellent in it. But I cannot understand why it garnered so many awards – especially when you consider the brilliance of The Social Network, and Jessie Eisenberg’s performance in that film. In all honesty, I would have much preferred had Firth won the previous year for his subtle, heartbreaking performance in A Single Man, and the man who won that year (Jeff Brides) won the year Firth did.
Is It Their Best Work: No – I like his work in A Single Man more.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Jessie Eisenberg delivered the best performance of the year in the best movie of the year – The Social Network.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Ryan Gosling should have gotten in for Blue Valentine.

41. Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies (1983)
Many critics compared Jeff Bridges work in Crazy Heart, and the film itself, to Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning role in Tender Mercies – Crazy Heart invites those comparisons, even casting Duvall in a supporting role. While I certainly think that Tender Mercies is the better movie – and Duvall’s subtle performance the better performance, both films are quite good – and Crazy Heart earns the comparison. If Tender Mercies is finally the better movie however, it’s probably because the screenplay, by Horton Foote, never quite develops the way we think it will – and that Duvall is smart enough to play the role close to the chest – not reveal too much, too soon. I do not think this is Duvall’s best work – I would have been happier to see him win for Apocalypse Now or The Apostle – but it is a very good performance in a very good film – and considering who else they nominated that year, it’s hard to complain too much about his win.
Is It Their Best Work: No – I would probably say that was The Apostle.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I think Duvall probably was the best of the nominees.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert DeNiro got nominated for three Scorsese movies – but not The King of Comedy – and he should have won for that one.

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