Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ranking The Best Actor Oscar Winners: 70-61

We still have a long way to go before we get to the top - but at least the upper part of these 10 Oscar winning performances can be described as average - perhaps even better than that.
70. Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (1959)
Poor Charlton Heston, who apparently never understood the homoerotic subtext of Ben-Hur, and apparently everyone on set worked hard to keep it that way (writer Gore Vidal told Stephen Boyd to play their rivalry as if they were once lovers, but made sure that no one told Heston, who was too square to get it, and would have balked). Heston delivered the kind of big, lunk headed Hollywood hero performance that was required of him in Ben-Hur – which is a nice way of saying that while I think he delivered the performance he SHOULD have, it still isn’t exactly the type of performance I think of as the best. That year, they nominated two GREAT performances – James Stewart’s in Anatomy of a Murder (who apparently was the frontrunner, until the studio behind Ben-Hur pushed hard for Heston) and Laurence Harvey for Room at the Top. Both would have been better choices than Heston.
Is It Their Best Work: No. Heston was a great squared jawed hero – not a great actor per se – but he could do fine work given his limitations. His best performance? Touch of Evil? Planet of the Apes? Take your pick.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Everyone thought James Stewart was going to win his second Oscar for Anatomy of a Murder, until the studio pushed hard for Heston – and he would have been a fine choice. I am tempted to go with Laurence Harvey, who is excellent in Room at the Top. And how can you argue against Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot?
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Lemmon’s co-star in Some Like it Hot – Tony Curtis – was nearly as good as Lemmon. John Wayne was excellent in Rio Bravo.

69. Frederic March, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1932)
March won two Oscars during his excellent career – this one being his first. Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed horror story is a good one. I actually quite like March’s dual performance here – I think he does the best with the material and the special effects of the time. I just don’t think, despite some interesting visual tricks, that this is the ultimate cinematic rendition of the story – in fact, I still don’t think we’ve really had one. There is nothing really wrong with this win by March – it’s a very solid performance – but just not something I have all that much passion for.
Is It Their Best Work: No – although he probably won for it 14 years later in The Best Years of Our Lives.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): We covered this in the previous list when talking about Wallace Beery in The Champ – who tied March for the Oscar, so as disappointing as it is, I guess I go with March.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Again, we covered this in the Beery section - Herbert Marshall in Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful Trouble in Paradise and Paul Muni’s Scarface.

68. David Niven, Separate Tables (1958)
To be honest, I’m not quite sure how Niven’s role in Separate Tables even really qualifies as a lead – I’m pretty sure Burt Lancaster has far more screen time, and not nearly as many sustained absences. The film itself is an interesting, mildly amusing one – I have no problem at all with Wendy Hiller’s win for Supporting Actress for this film, as she is far and away the best thing in the movie. Niven, as charming as he can be, is forced to play a man with secrets here – and when they are revealed, they don’t really matter. This strikes as one of those Oscars someone wins because the Academy likes them too much. The other nominees (Paul Newman for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier for The Defiant Ones and Spencer Tracy for The Old Man and the Sea) were all infinitely better – and the Academy overlooked one of the greatest performances in screen history – James Stewart in Vertigo.
Is It Their Best Work: No. That would be A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven for Powell & Pressburger in 1946.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Any of the other nominees were better – if I had to pick one, I’d go with Paul Newman for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: James Stewart’s performance in Vertigo would probably rank in my top 10 Lead Actor performances of all time – so him.

67. John Wayne, True Grit (1969)
I like John Wayne, even though I have to admit that he could be a rather one note actor. I like him more when he is asked to play darker characters – like Red River or The Searchers – than when he played the hero. Henry Hathaway’s True Grit is a straight ahead Western, and unlike Charles Portis’ great novel or the Coen Brothers great adaptation of it in 2010, this film version has none of the complexity or humor that the material requires. Instead, it’s an enjoyable little film – typical of late efforts by Wayne. They gave him the Oscar because they thought he was dying, and would never get another chance. Hence Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, both brilliant in Midnight Cowboy, went home empty handed so they could give this Oscar to Wayne – when they should have done so years before for a much better performance.
Is It Their Best Work: No – that would be The Searchers. And there are lots of performances better than this one in Wayne’s career (Rio Bravo, Red River, Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, The Shootist, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, etc.).
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Either of the Midnight Cowboy co-stars – leaning a little towards Voight.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: John Wayne isn’t even the best actor in a Western from 1969 – Robert Redford or Paul Newman from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or William Holden for The Wild Bunch would get that honor.

66. Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981)
When Henry Fonda won his Oscar in 1981 – just months before he died – it ended a 40 year injustice. In 1938, many thought Robert Donat should have won an Oscar for The Citadel, but the Academy gave it to Spencer Tracy instead. So in 1939, they gave Donat an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips. But then many thought they should have given that Oscar to James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so instead they gave Stewart an Oscar the following year for The Philadelphia Story, even though he wasn’t even the lead in that movie. Everyone assumed that Fonda, who lost to Stewart despite given the year’s most acclaimed performance in The Grapes of Wrath, would be given his own make-up Oscar – but then the Academy didn’t nominate him again until 1981. Fonda is fine in On Golden Pond – a wily old coot, which is just what he is supposed to be. But the movie is awfully predictable and by the numbers – the type of thing old people embrace and everyone else falls asleep during. The Academy should have given the Oscar to another old timer – Burt Lancaster for Atlantic City, but that would have meant that Fonda, one of the most loved actors in history, would never win his Oscar.
Is It Their Best Work: No – that's The Grapes of Wrath, no matter how much I love him in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They had a great old timer nominated this year – Burt Lancaster as an aging gangster who finally gets his chance to shine in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City – and it would have been great to see him win for that one.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: William Hurt is wonderfully dim in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. Steve Martin is great in the bizarre musical Pennies from Heaven.

65. Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady (1964)
I have to knock Rex Harrison’s win in My Fair Lady down a few pegs, because he does something that I HATE to see in musicals – sing-talk. This is what actors do when they do not have the voice to actually sing their songs, so they coast along sing-talking because no one can really fault them for not hitting all the right notes. In reality, the filmmakers should just cast someone who can really sing. But, in fairness, at least he did that much, unlike co-star Audrey Hepburn, who took over the role originated on Broadway by Julie Andrews (who CAN actually sing) because the studio didn’t think she was a big enough star – and then dubbed in her singing voice because Hepburn couldn’t sing at all. That’s silly. And Harrison is amusing and charming as Henry Higgins – quite entertaining in fact, even if he does sing talk. No, his performance here doesn’t hold a candle to Peter Sellers brilliant work in Dr. Strangelove, or for that matter Richard Burton or especially Peter O’Toole in Becket (all of whom were nominated), but Harrison had a good career, and it could have been worse –they could have given him an Oscar for Doctor Doolittle.
Is It Their Best Work: Maybe, although he’s also wonderful in the otherwise overwrought Cleopatra – and he’s great in Unfaithfully Yours by Preston Sturges.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Peter Sellers’ triple role in Dr. Strangelove is the peak of a brilliant comedic career and would have been my choice.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: One of the great not nominated performances of Henry Fonda’s career was his work in The Best Man – as the man who should be President, but won’t be.

64. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937)
While I still don’t think Tracy’s performance in Captains Courageous is among his very best work, it is certainly better than his performance in Boys Town, which won him his second consecutive Oscar in 1938. Based on a Rudyard Kipling novel, the movie tells the story of a spoiled brat, who falls off a luxury ship, and ends up having to be taken aboard a fishing boat – where he learns to be a man at the hands of a fisherman, played by Tracy. Tracy’s performance as this seemingly simple man is quietly moving and actually quite good from beginning to end. The movie itself is a little too simplistic and straight forward for my sake – the ending feels like a blatant manipulation of the audience. And yet, the film works, and Tracy is quite good here. Just nowhere near as good as he was in other movies – although since the Academy didn’t nominate Cary Grant for The Awful Truth or Victor Moore for Make Way for Tomorrow, perhaps they just picked the best of the nominees.
Is It Their Best Work: No. I mentioned what I think is his best un-nominated performance – Fury – in the previous entry about his win for Boys Town. Out of his nominated performances? I’ll take his performance in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They didn’t pick the best nominees this year – but I would have gone with Robert Montgomery as a serial killer in Night Must Fall.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Cary Grant was once again overlooked for a brilliant comedic performance – this time in The Awful Truth – and would have easily gotten my vote had they nominated him.

63. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)
I am not a Forrest Gump hater. Once a year or so, I catch part of the movie on TV, and as much as I admit it is a simplistic fable, and not a very good as history, it’s hard not to be somewhat enchanted by this movie. And yet, I have never seen what is so good about Tom Hanks’ simple performance in the title role. True, he delivers the performance the movie needs – but because Forrest is so simple, it’s a one note performance. Once you figure out how Forrest talks, there really is nothing else to do except the same thing in scene after scene. I much prefer John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption or Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool to this one.
Is It Their Best Work: No. Hanks was better in Big, Saving Private Ryan and Castaway – all of which he was nominated for – and Road to Perdition and perhaps even Cloud Atlas and Captain Phillips. In short, Forrest Gump doesn’t rank highly on his list of performances for me.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I would have gladly picked any of the other nominees – but if I had to choose one, it would by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: I think I would argue the two best lead actor performances of 1994 were Johnny Depp in Ed Wood and Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers.

62. Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996)
For my money, the real lead of Shine was Noah Taylor –who had, I believe anyway, more screen time as David Helfgott than Rush did, and also had a more complex role to play, since he wasn’t nearly as far gone as he would be when Rush was playing him. Don’t get me wrong here, Rush is a brilliant actor, and he plays this part perfectly. It’s just that I have often felt that when you play someone with this type of mental illness that you automatically get Oscars, and I don’t see why – since you are essentially delivering a one note performance, because the characters illness forces you to. This is an example of a performance that is perfect for the movie that it is in – but not worthy of Oscar – especially when they nominated a much better performance by Woody Harrelson for The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Is It Their Best Work: He’s better in Quills (which he was nominated for) and Munich (for which he wasn’t). Perhaps even in Elizabeth as well- and a few others as well.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Woody Harrelson’s performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt has everything that you normally associate with an Oscar winning performance – except that he played a pornographer, so perhaps that’s why he didn’t win.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: He was too old for the role, but Kenneth Branagh was excellent in Hamlet. Chris Cooper got little love for his great work in John Sayles’ Lone Star.

61. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988)
I’m starting to feel like a broken record here, with Hoffman’s Rain Man coming after Hanks’ Forrest Gump and Rush’s performance in Shine. Because like those two actors in those movies, Hoffman delivers precisely the performance that Rain Man – a very good movie – needs. I just don’t think its Oscar worthy, because like those other two actors, it is a one note performance. Everything in Rain Man changes from the beginning of the movie to the end, except for Hoffman’s character. That’s precisely the point, because his autism doesn’t allow him to change. He is quite good – but it is in fact Tom Cruise who has the much harder, much more complex role in this film. And when you consider who the Academy DID NOT nominate – Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ and Daniel Day Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being chief among them, I cannot see how Hoffman earned his second Oscar.
Is It Their Best Work: No. Most of his other nominated performances – The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Tootsie and Wag the Dog are better than this one.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Out of the nominees, it’s hard to argue against the sheer joy of Tom Hanks’ work in Big. They didn’t nominate well this year though.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: I already mentioned them, but it’s worth repeating – Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and especially Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers were all better than any of the nominees. Hell, I’d say the same thing about Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio and Forest Whitaker in Bird as well.

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