Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 60-51

Next week, we'll start getting into the true greats - but at least these 10 performances are all good to very good. Oscar worthy? Not to me, but while I would have clearly preferred others, I don't think these are embarassing choices - just not particularly strong ones.
60.  Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
I feel like I’m bashing Dustin Hoffman too much, since I put both his Oscar winning performance rather low on this list. It isn’t that I do not like Hoffman – I love him – or that he didn’t deserve at least one if not two Oscars – see his performances in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, Straight Time, Tootsie or Wag the Dog all of which are much better than the two performance he actually won for. I just always found it odd that divorce and child custody battles were something that Hollywood typically shied away from for years, and when they finally made a movie on the subject, it was the mother (Meryl Streep, who also won an Oscar for her role) that was the loser parent who walked out on the family. Hoffman is quite good in Kramer vs. Kramer as a man struggling to raise his son by himself. I cannot really find much to fault in his performance. It’s just that it is such a by the numbers movie – one that, to be fair, has been copied so many times that its impact has dulled. And when I look at a performance as brilliant as Peter Sellers in Being There which COULD have won, I cannot help but think that Hoffman should have won in another year.
Is It Their Best Work: No. Some of his not nominated work includes Little Big Man, Marathon Man All the President’s Men and Straight Time – which would rank higher for me.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Peter Sellers delivered a great, career capping performance in Being There, which would have gotten my vote – but I would not have complained about Roy Scheider’s brilliant work in All That Jazz either.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: His performance doesn’t get talked about much when the movie is discussed, but Martin Sheen is great in Apocalypse Now.

59.  Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets (1997)
Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of all time – and much more versatile than he is given credit for. He is capable of delivering subtle, skillful performances in comedies and dramas, but the Oscars only ever seem to give him a victory when he falls back on being JACK NICHOLSON. Sometimes, like his first Oscar win for Cuckoo’s Nest (see much, much higher on this list), it is well deserved. And sometimes, like in As Good As It Gets, they should have looked elsewhere. Yes, Nicholson is very good in As Good As It Gets – he carries the movie with his sly wit that turns emotional in the end. But this is the type of performance he could deliver in his sleep. If they wanted to give him an Oscar for a late career performance, they should have done so for his (un-nominated) performance in The Pledge or his (nominated) performance in About Schmidt. As for this year other old-timers were nominated – Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold, Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog and especially Robert Duvall in The Apostle – who were more worthy, not to mention the great Al Pacino, who saw one of his best performances in Donnie Brasco completely overlooked.
Is It Their Best Work:  I’m not even convinced it’s the best performance of his this year – he’s great in the little seen Blood & Wine. As for other “late career” performances that didn’t get nominated – he’s better in The Pledge and The Departed - and About Schmidt, which did get him his (so far) last Oscar nom.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): If The Apostle were as great as Robert Duvall’s performance in it, it would have been one of the best movies of  the 1990s – it certainly is one of Duvall’s greatest works.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Al Pacino does some of the best work of his career in Donnie Brasco – and what I wouldn’t give to have this be his “make-up” winning performance instead of Scent of a Woman.

58. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
I have to imagine that Hollywood felt itself brave for giving William Hurt an Oscar for his performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, as a gay man, jailed for “sex crimes” in South America, who shares a prison cell with a political prisoner (Raul Julia), who clearly despises him – at least at first. Homosexuality was WAY more controversial in the 1980s than it is today, and Hurt, a great actor, was somewhat daring to take on this role. It is a theatrical role – exposing the film’s stage roots – and Hurt has no problem going over the top to create what would be become a “stereotypical” gay character. And yet, while you could bash Hurt for his theatrics, they work in the context of the movie. No actor in the world would go this way if the film were made today, but given the time it was made, the performance remains effective. True, I think Hurt should have won for his great, one scene supporting performance in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and that this year, Jack Nicholson should have won for Prizzi’s Honor, but while it may not be my choice, I certainly understand why the Academy went this way at the time.
Is It Their Best Work: No – this was the first of three years in a row of him being nominated, and while I think he’s better here than in Children of a Lesser God – Broadcast News is his best work of that era. His one scene wonder in A History of Violence may be his all-time best though.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Jack Nicholson is brilliant as a mob hit man in John Huston’s late masterwork Prizzi’s Honor – and should have won for that.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: There is no better example of Albert Brooks’ comedic genius than his performance in Lost in America.

57. Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine (1943)
During WWII, we often saw these types of “heroic” and “inspirational” films win Oscars, and time has not been particularly kind to all of them. To be sure, Watch on the Rhine creaks a little in places and it completely and totally misuses Bette Davis, who was not meant to play this passive of a character. But Paul Lukas himself, as a German who joined the underground to fight against Nazis, and has come to America is quite good. When he hears someone he knows has been arrested in Germany, he decides he must go back – and then he has to protect his secret at all costs. The movie was based on a play by Lillian Hellman, and written by Dashiell Hammett, and the pedigree was there for this to be a great movie – perhaps had Fritz Lang directed instead of Herman Schulmin, it could have been. There is certainly a reason why Lukas won this Oscar – but there is also a reason why this was one of the last films on this list to reach DVD. And when you consider that this was the year Humphrey Bogart was nominated for Casablanca, it’s pretty hard to argue in favor of Lukas.
Is It Their Best Work: As a lead? Probably. But there’s fine work in Dodsworth and The Lady Vanishes in supporting roles.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): The Academy often overlooked his work, but they didn’t overlook Bogart’s performance in Best Picture winner Casablanca – they should have given him an Oscar for it as well.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Another of Henry Fonda’s great, overlooked performance was in William Wellman’s The Ox Bow Incident as one of the only men who tries to stand up against mob violence in this classic Western.

56.  Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field (1963)
Sidney Poitier’s Oscar win was a long time coming – the first African American male to win an Oscar and the first African American to win in a lead category. Poitier certainly deserved an Oscar – look at his performances in The Defiant Ones or In the Heat of the Night to see perhaps his best work. Yet, I cannot help but think that Lilies of the Field is far from a great movie. What it did though was allow Poitier to play something other than the “good” black guy – yes he is good in the movie, but there is certainly a mystery to him – where he came from when he stumbled upon those nuns and helped them build their sanctuary – and where he’s going afterwards. It is a rock solid performance from beginning to end. This year, they really should have given Newman an Oscar for his brilliant performance in Hud, and given Poitier an Oscar a different year.
Is It Their Best Work: No. Although he was saddled with too many “upstanding black man” roles in his career – he was made them unique – and my vote would go to either The Defiant Ones or more probably In the Heat of the Night.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They made Paul Newman wait a long time before they gave him an Oscar – his work in Hud should have corrected their oversight more than two decades before they finally did.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: They would nominate him a couple of times later in his career, but they really should have nominated Marcello Mastrionani for Fellini’s 8 ½ this year. Dirk Bogarde was great in The Servant as well.

55. Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)
Robert Donat is quietly moving in this portrait of the life of a school teacher. Mr. Chips spends the first two decades of his career at a boy’s school in England as an unpopular, unloved stick in the mud – but is reborn when he meets and falls in love with Greer Garson – who is taken away from him all too quickly. However, this love teaches him to be a better man – a kinder man, and the students grow to love the once prematurely old Mr. Chips. The film is inspiring and moving, if utterly predictable from start to finish, but Donat is quite good in the role. It’s just that in a year where you had Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and James Stewart as Mr. Smith, giving the award to Donat seems kind of silly. And as related before, it is wildly regard that Donat won this year, because he was ‘snubbed’ the year before. That probably explains it as good as anything else.
Is It Their Best Work: I haven’t seen the bulk of his work, so it’s hard to tell – especially since many think giving him this award was to make it to him for not giving him an Oscar for the previous year’s The Citadel, which I have not seen.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): One of Jimmy Stewart’s most iconic performances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should be the one film he won an Oscar for – he makes what could be pure schmaltz into a great movie.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: I seem to keep coming back to Henry Fonda – and his work in Young Mr. Lincoln for John Ford should have been another nomination for the great actor.

54.  James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Philadelphia Story is a great screwball comedy – a comedy of remarriage that has some of the best lines the genre ever produced. (my favorite is “A little? And you a writer? Tsk, tsk, tsk. I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.”). The only real problem is that they gave the Oscar to the wrong person for the right movie – had Cary Grant won for his wonderful performance in this movie, I would have no problem with it (even if we all know Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath should have won). Stewart is excellent in his role as a class conscience newspaper reporter, who doesn’t want to be at this high society wedding, and ends up drunk. The problem is it’s a supporting role. The fireworks are between Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Stewart is very good, but nowhere near Oscar worthy. And when you consider just how many brilliant performances the man gave (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shop Around the Corner – released the very same year as The Philadelphia Story mind you - It’s a Wonderful Life, Winchester 73, Rear Window, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to name but a few), it’s very strange that this is the only time he ever won.
Is It Their Best Work: Not even close. I could list a dozen or more better performances in Stewart’s career – none better than his not nominated work in Vertigo.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): There are not too many people today who would argue that Henry Fonda should not have won for his work in The Grapes of Wrath – it took the Academy 41 years to correct this mistake.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Cary Grant delivered two great performances – in The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday – both of which were good enough to be nominated.

53. Victor McLaglen, The Informer (1935)
John Ford is best remembered for his Westerns, but won three Oscars for his films dealing with his Irish roots – the first one being this film. Victor McLaglen, who would become part of Ford’s stock company in pretty much every film, plays the inventively named Gypo Nolan, who rats on his friend for being a member of the IRA, so he can collect the reward money and sail to America with his girl. However, what seemed like a good idea at the time, quickly fills him with guilt and remorse, as he quickly spirals downwards, and gives himself away – meaning he has to face some street justice. This film isn’t as polished as many of Ford’s latest efforts, but it is effective, and McLaglen is wonderful as the guilt ridden man who destroys himself. True, I may well have voted for Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, but this is a solid, respectable choice.
Is It Their Best Work: Perhaps. McLaglen went on to become one of Ford’s stock company – appearing in many of his films over the years, and receiving another Oscar nomination for Ford’s The Quiet Man in 1952. As a lead though, he never got a better role.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I love watching Charles Laughton go over the top in Mutiny on the Bounty – and he would probably have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: He never got credit for how wonderful he was – in all aspects of his performances – so I’ll go with Fred Astaire, so effortlessly charming, funny and graceful in Top Hat.

52. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
McConaughey had almost become a laughingstock in the years since his promising early performances in films like Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill and Contact. He spent more than a decade cruising on his undeniable Southern charm in one lackluster (if we were lucky) romantic comedy and silly adventure film after another. For a long stretch, he was one of my least favorite actors – there didn’t seem to be anything going on behind his eyes in his performances – he looked stunned. That started to change with The Lincoln Lawyer (2012) – and continued with a string of indies in 2012-13 – Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud and finally Dallas Buyers Club – not to mention a turn in the HBO series True Detective, that was perhaps more acclaimed than any of his film work. If there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s a comeback story, and McConaughey delivered that. He also got to do a physical transformation – losing a ton of weight to play an AIDS patient – and had a baity role as a homophobe, who partially redeems himself when he’s diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. Everything came together at the perfect time for him to win an Oscar on his first nomination. It’s a fine performance to be sure – just not his best, nor close to the best of the year.
Is It Their Best Work: It is a fine performance – but I still prefer his heartless, cruel performance in Killer Joe – and think he should have been nominated, in the supporting race, this year for Mud. I don't get HBO, so I only managed to see the first two episodes of True Detective, but what I saw was great - at least in terms of McConaughey's performance.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Leonardo DiCaprio was brilliant in The Wolf of Wall Street – delivering a hilarious, over the top performance without a trace of vanity. He may never have the “comeback” narrative of McConaughey – because he’s consistently great, and never goes away. I find it odd that the Academy choose to honor McConaughey for finally trying after more than a decade of coasting, whereas they haven’t given DiCaprio an Oscar, despite the fact he’s used his star power to get many worthy films made since he became a huge star with Titanic in 1997. Leo will get his – eventually – I’m sure.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: No one was better this year than Oscar Issac in the Coen’s mostly overlooked (by the Academy anyway) Inside Llewyn Davis – perhaps the best performance ever in a Coen movie – and that’s saying something.

51. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger (1973)
I’m not sure that any performance on this list is quite as forgotten as Jack Lemmon’s in Save the Tiger. That could well because the movie itself isn’t great – it tries to cram in a commentary on pretty much every issue in America society in 1973, which you will agree is a lot. And yet, as messy as the movie is, it must be said that Jack Lemmon is actually excellent in this role. He plays a businessman who at one time dreamed of being a baseball player – and now he lives off his business selling knock off dresses to people, based on designs he steals from others, and has committed tax fraud that will get him in trouble if the IRS finds out, and is contacting a professional arsonist to burn down one of his factories for the insurance money. How this character has fallen so short of his goals is told by Lemmon is his wonderful performance – he brings energy to the role, and if he doesn’t make us feel sympathy for his character, who after all isn’t really a good guy, he at least makes us understand him. No, Save the Tiger is far from a great movie – which is why the performance ranks lower than it otherwise would, but Lemmon is very, very good in the movie. Not Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris good (who was nominated that year, but after humiliating the Academy at the previous ceremony when he won for The Godfather, you really cannot blame them for not giving him a second straight Oscar) but very good indeed.
Is It Their Best Work: Nope. As a lead, that’s probably The Apartment – although I wouldn’t argue if you said Some Like it Hot or Glengarry Glen Ross.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Marlon Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris is legendary for a reason – it really is that terrific.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert Mitchum delivered one of the best performances of his career in the tragic crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle – and he should have been nominated for it.

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