Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 80-71

We're still in the dregs of the Best Actor Oscar winners today - 10 performances I don't really care for in 10 movies that I would mostly like to forget. At least tomorrow, we'll get to the "average" winners.

80. Spencer Tracy, Boys Town (1938)
Spencer Tracy delivered a lot of great performances during the course of his justly famous career – but I don’t consider Boys Town to one of them. This is another one of those feel good, social justice movies of the 1930s, with Tracy as a Priest who founds a home for troubled boys, and turns these juvenile delinquents into upstanding members of society. With a silly grin plastered on his face for most of the movie – unless of course he’s in serious mode – Tracy isn’t really able to do much of anything with this one note role in this one note movie that is best forgotten. The award easily should have gone to James Cagney for Angels with Dirty Faces or Leslie Howard for Pygmalion – or better yet the not even nominated Cary Grant for Bringing Up Baby.
Is It Their Best Work: Nope – I’ll give another great performance of his in the next Oscar win a little later, but I think he was brilliant as the man obsessed with revenge in Fritz Lang’s Fury.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I already mentioned Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, and I think that’s probably the best choice – although Leslie Howard is delightful in Pygmalion.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Again, I already mentioned Cary Grant for Bringing Up Baby – and there are few performances finer – although Grant is also great in Holiday from this year.

79. Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul (1930/1931)
As a drunken lawyer, who must try to defend his daughter’s boyfriend for killing the mobster his stupid, stupid daughter had a relationship with; Barrymore won the Oscar for one reason, and one reason alone – his long closing argument at the trial. Barrymore isn’t in much of the rest of the movie up until then (look at the poster – it’s all Norma Shearer, playing that stupid, stupid daughter), and it is a stirring, if rather predictable little speech he gives. But the movie itself is downright silly, and has aged horribly since its release all those decades ago. If Barrymore had not won, this film would most likely be forgotten, as it probably should be. I cannot say there was all that much competition among the nominees that year though – and at least they didn’t give the award to the awful Richard Dix in the Best Picture winning Cimarron, but considering James Cagney’s performance in The Public Enemy went un-nominated, there were much better options out there.
Is It Their Best Work: I really need to see more of his work – but I think he was better as the evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life – and did great character work in films like Key Largo, Duel in the Sun
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I guess I would go with Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page – but the pickings aren’t good this year.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Two of the greatest performances of all time were in 1931 – Charles Chaplin in City Lights and Peter Lorre in M. Take your pick. For a more mainstream Hollywood movie – James Cagney in The Public Enemy.

78. Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956)
I know there are many people out there (like my mother) who love this movie, and Brynner’s performance in it. I’m just not one of them. To me the whole movie is fake, phony and superficial – and Brynner’s preening is a big reason why I do not like the movie. And yet, I have to admit that Brynner delivered precisely the performance the role called for. So perhaps I should say that Brynner’s performance is simply not my cup of tea and leave it at that. Personally, I would have loved to see the late James Dean win for his nominated performance in Giant – even if I always felt it was a supporting performance (he disappears for seemingly hours during the movie) – but the Academy also overlooked some great work – most notably John Wayne in The Searchers.
Is It Their Best Work: I’ll take his work in The Magnificent Seven over The King and I any day.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I would go with James Dean in Giant – which is a brilliant performance, even if it probably is a supporting turn.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: I mentioned John Wayne for The Searchers – his greatest film work and the one that should have won him an Oscar. James Mason is brilliant in Bigger Than Life as well though.

77. Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Neil Simon is hit or miss for me, and sadly, I think The Goodbye Girl is a miss. It’s not really Dreyfuss’ fault – I found Marsha Mason practically insufferable in this movie, which drags the whole thing down. Dreyfuss has his moments – playing Richard III as gay for example – but to me, the whole movie is not nearly as funny as it is trying to be, and that includes Dreyfuss. Since they gave him an Oscar for Directing and Writing Annie Hall, I understand why the Academy didn’t want to give Woody Allen a third Oscar he wouldn’t be there to accept, but his was the best performance nominated – but hell, I would have been better had they given Dreyfuss the Oscar for his far better turn in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind from this year.
Is It Their Best Work: His work in two Spielberg movies – Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are rightly remembered more than this.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I know that he always plays a version of the same character (or at least most think so), but Woody Allen’s performance in Annie Hall is one of his best – and a perfect distillation of Allen’s comic persona, so he would have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: William Devane did an excellent job in Rolling Thunder – written by Paul Schrader. Had it been directed by Scorsese (or even Schrader himself) the film would be better known than it is – as would Devane’s performance.

76. Jose Ferrar, Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
Perhaps it’s just because I’ve always found the whole Cyrano story kind of silly, but I really didn’t like this movie all that much – and Jose Ferrar’s over the top exuberance didn’t really win me over either. Clearly, he is the best thing about the movie, but that really isn’t saying all that much, as the rest of the performances are forgettable, and the writing and direction one dimensional. The Academy would have been much better served giving the Oscar to the great William Holden, who delivered his legendary performance in Sunset Blvd. this year, which clearly should have taken this prize.
Is It Their Best Work: Perhaps – despite a long resume, I cannot recall too many performances of his, so maybe this is his best.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Seriously, William Holden is brilliant in Sunset Blvd. – arguably the greatest performance in an exceptional career.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Humphrey Bogart was often accused of playing the same character in most of his movies – one of his best performances, and most unlike his regular persona, was in Nicolas Ray’s In a Lonely Place this year – and he should have been nominated.

75. Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)
Don’t get me wrong – Laurence Olivier was a great actor, and one of the best Shakespearian actors in history. I’ve always just found his Hamlet to be superficial – both the movie and the performance, and think he delivered far better performances pretty much every time he tackled Shakespeare than he did here. The biggest beef I have with this movie is that Olivier (who also directed, and really should have known better) decides to do all the soliloquies in voiceover as his Hamlet stares off into space, looking like an idiot. To be fair, they didn’t really nominate very well this year – overlooking Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Clift and Wayne in Red River and Garfield in Force of Evil – but still, they should have given Olivier an Oscar for one of his great performances.
Is It Their Best Work: No. His work in Henry V is perhaps his best Shakespeare performance. I love him in The Entertainer as well. And Marathon Man. There are many greater performances on his resume.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I haven’t seen three of the nominees from this year, so I’m tempted to pass – especially since I wasn’t enamored by Montgomery Clift’s breakthrough role in Fred Zinneman’s The Search either.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Seriously – how the hell did they not nominate Humphrey Bogart for Sierra Madre? I mean, come on!

74. Russell Crowe, Gladiator (2000)
I really, really do not like Gladiator. I find the film an utter bore from beginning to end, with some of the worst special effects in any Oscar winning movie I can remember. I love much of Ridley Scott’s work, but not this. That said, Crowe is certainly far better in the movie than the movie itself – he’s actually quite good, but also rather one note, as after his family is killed, he spends much of the movie yelling about how sad and pissed off he is. To be fair, that is what is asked of him, and that is what he delivers, but Crowe was far better the previous year in Michael Mann’s masterpiece The Insider – and any of the other four nominees (Bardem for Before Night Falls, Hanks in Castaway, Rush in Quills and Harris in Pollock) would have been better choices – and none of them were really the best of the year either (Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys was).
Is It Their Best Work: No – he did that the previous year in The Insider.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): All the other nominees were better than Crowe was in Gladiator – if I had to vote for one, I’d probably pick Hanks in Castaway - although I'd be tempted by Harris in Pollock - not only because it's a great performances, but also because he has sadly never won an Oscar.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: To me, Michael Douglas did the best work of his career in the aforementioned Wonder Boys – and how about Christian Bale in American Psycho.

73. Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992)
Al Pacino could have won an Oscar for The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Dick Tracy, Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Insider or any number of other great performances, and I would never complain. But I do have trouble accepting the fact that the only time the Academy have Pacino an Oscar for was this over the top performance, as a blind, ex-military man who teaches young Chris O’Donnell all about life. I know everyone has fun yelling “Ho-ya” while doing an impression of Pacino in this movie, and to be fair, the performance does have some subtle moments, but not that many. Pacino is one of the greatest actors in cinema history, but giving an Oscar for this performance, and not any of his truly great ones, is really rather silly, no? I won’t even get started on how great Denzel Washington was in Malcolm X this year, or else I’ll never stop, so let’s just move on.
Is It Their Best Work: Not even close. The Godfather Part II would probably get my vote – but there’s so many to choose from.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I still don’t want to get started on just how great Denzel Washington was in Malcolm X – and how it easily should have won the Oscar.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jack Lemmon delivered on the best performances of his career as Shelley “The Machine” Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross – and considering how great a career it was, that is saying something.

72. Paul Newman, The Color of Money (1986)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Hustler. Hud. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Verdict. Nobody’s Fool. Road to Perdition. Give Newman an Oscar for any of those performances (and probably a few others) and you would not hear a word of complaint from me. He certainly was one of the great American actors of his generation, and deserving of an Oscar. But while a sequel – 25 years after the fact – of The Hustler, directed by Martin Scorsese no less, must have sounded like a good idea on paper, on screen, it’s a rather dull movie – with Newman going through the motions as the “mentor” to Tom Cruise’s hotshot kid. Newman is coasting here, and while Newman coasting is better than many actors at their best, it in no way represents Newman at his best. The Oscar should have gone to Bob Hoskins, for his tricky role in Neil Jordan’s gangster saga Mona Lisa. But alas, they had to make up for screwing Newman time and time again.
Is It Their Best Work: No – although I think The Hustler may just be his finest performance.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Bob Hoskins won many of the critics’ awards – deservingly – for Mona Lisa – and he’s had a wonderful career, and no Oscar to show for it, so he would get my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Gary Oldman was brilliant in Sid & Nancy, and should have been nominated. For the type of film that the Oscars never recognize, Jeff Goldblum delivered an excellent performance in David Cronenberg’s The Fly that should have gotten in.

71. Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful (1998)
Do you remember those few, brief shining months in 1998 when everyone loved Roberto Benigni? It was hard not to love him, as he was so exuberant, so happy to be invited to all the parties, and so willing to make a fool out of himself. The Academy should have just given him the Foreign Language Film Oscar for Life is Beautiful (he did direct it), and leave it at that, instead of adding the Best Actor prize to it as well. Life is Beautiful is one of those films that you like when you first see it, but the further away from it you get, the more silly it seems. It’s still a pretty good little film – which I’ll probably get yelled at for saying - but when you consider Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters, Nick Nolte in Affliction and Edward Norton in American History X were all nominated that year – and all have had better careers than Benigni with a total of zero Oscars between them, this win is kind of embarrassing to the Academy now.
Is It Their Best Work: Maybe – he hasn’t done anything since then worth remembering. But he is great in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Night on Earth.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Another one where any of the other nominees were significantly better – but I’ll go with Edward Norton in American History X – who elevated an average movie into something special.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Enough said.


  1. Past Oscars and overall careers should have nothing to do with who wins in a given year. If Benigni's performance was the best, he deserved the win, regardless of anything else.

  2. In general I agree. But McKelland, Noltr and Norton were all better in their nominated performances that year and have had better careers.