Monday, February 11, 2008

Best and Worst of the Best Actors

One of the chief pleasures of joining the blogosphere is an added opportunity to take part in its collaborative events. Over at the well-respected and content-rich blog “Edward Copeland On Film” there’s been an annual exercise to analyze the best and worst Oscar-winning selections of all time, category by category.

This year, the award in question was Best Actor. Participants were asked to rank their picks for the best and worst selections among Best Actor winners. From those submissions, Copeland compiled the data and came up with top-10 lists for each.

Alas, I didn’t take part. But with the screenwriters’ strike apparently settled and the Academy Awards broadcast seemingly right on schedule (and less than two weeks away), I thought it would be a fun exercise just the same.

So here are my picks. Before you read them, you might want to see the Copeland results (Worst of the Best and Best of the Best), which come highlighted with entertaining arguments from submitters (for example: writes voter Robert Schlueter of John Wayne’s performance in True Grit, which tied 10th-worst, “He put the reins in his teeth because there wasn’t any scenery available.” Ouch!).

Now, on to my top-5s …

Worst of the Best: Working backward from the most recent awards, I didn’t even make it to popularly derided performances from Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man before I found five performances that officially turned my stomach (while also discovering a few others that made me at least moderately ill). Rather than pretend I know whether Humphrey Bogart was cheated out of an Oscar for Casablanca by Watch On The Rhine’s Paul Lukas, I decided to stick with recent history.

In chronological order …

Sean Penn for Mystic River (2003). It doesn’t help that my memory of Penn’s performance has been reduced to the scene where director Clint Eastwood allows his star to run around like a WWE wrestler experiencing roid rage. But the nail in the coffin for this selection is that look of earnest heartbreak provided by Bill Murray when his name wasn’t called for Lost In Translation that year. Personally, my favorite performance of the pool probably belongs to Johnny Depp in Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (don’t let the suckiness of the sequels or the ubiquity of Disney’s marketing distract from the pure genius of Depp’s outrageously enjoyable creation). But I’d happily turn back the clock to see Murray get the statuette. I’m not sure any actor would have appreciated it more.

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful (1998). I’m not a big fan of Nick Nolte in Affliction (or in anything, really), but it doesn’t help that Benigni was selected over more memorable performances by Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Ian McKellan (Gods & Monsters) and Edward Norton (American History X). Though many were turned off, I actually thought the leaping over the seats after Benigni’s name was announced was cute. I just wish he hadn’t had an excuse to do it.

Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets (1997). I admit that I liked this performance (and this movie) at the time. But I’ve caught it on TV since and I can’t watch 5 minutes without getting annoyed. I’m not sure what I thought Nicholson was doing at the time, but whatever it is, it ain’t impressive. In slight fairness, I can’t say I’m especially geeked about any of the other performances nominated that year: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting); Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Peter Fonda (Ulee’s Gold, aka: the Peter Fonda film beloved by crossword puzzle creators everywhere) and Dustin Hoffman (Wag the Dog, seriously!?).

Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas (1995). I can’t stand Cage, but I’d have been okay with his winning for Adaptation. In this case he won over unforgettable performances by Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) and Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking). To think that the guy in Ghost Rider is an Academy Award winner makes me angry.

Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump (1994). It’s an offensive winning performance for a few reasons. First, unlike with Pacino’s win for Scent Of A Woman, Oscar wasn’t catching up for past snubs; Hanks had won the year before for Philadelphia. Second, picking Hanks here meant bypassing Morgan Freeman for The Shawshank Redemption; a poor decision at the time that was only magnified years later when Freeman got the make-up win for a pedestrian supporting turn in Million Dollar Baby (over more deserving performances by Clive Owen in Closer and Jamie Foxx in Collateral).

Best of the Best: Once again I worked backward, but I had to reach back a few decades to pick my top-5.
In chronological order …

Tom Hanks for Philadelphia (1993). This marks the last time I was truly, madly, deeply satisfied by a Best Actor victory, and it came in a year in which I admired all the nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis (In The Name Of The Father), Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got To Do With It), Anthony Hopkins (The Remains Of The Day), Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List). In a not too distant age when our country’s closet was packed with homosexuals who didn’t dare come out (and for good reason), Hanks delivered a performance that was bravely unmacho without resorting to vulgar effeminate stereotypes that would have marginalized the character. If it doesn't seem so daring now, it was then.

Anthony Hopkins for Silence Of The Lambs (1991). The film didn’t deserve to run the table that year, but Hopkins was entirely deserving. Two Hopkins-starring sequels and one Hopkins-less prequel have watered down the Hannibal Lecter character, but only slightly. In this film, long before we see Hannibal strike, Hopkins’ cobra-like posture and gaze makes those air holes in the bulletproof glass seem dangerously large.

Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot (1989). The screenplay wanders off the tracks a bit before the end, but Day-Lewis is utterly awesome. A marvelous physical transformation that never comes off like stunt acting.

Gregory Peck for To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). He’d been nominated for Oscars but passed over four times, yet this was no desperate make-up. Peck’s Atticus Finch is moral, ideal and proud, and yet he’s human, tangible and comforting. Selecting this fifth spot was difficult, but the clincher came when I remembered that Peck won over Peter O’Toole’s unforgettable performance in Lawrence Of Arabia (“No prisoners!”) and I found I didn’t have a single problem with that. Says a lot.

Marlon Brando for On The Waterfront (1954). An entirely arresting performance that never diminishes in impact. I won’t gush over the legendary conversation in the car, or the bit with the glove or the awkward flirtation with Edie. I don’t need to. The part that slays me every time I see it comes early when Brando’s Terry Malloy is questioned by “Waterfront commission mugs,” as they’re called on the DVD. Hearing a remark from behind him that he doesn’t like, Malloy turns over his outward shoulder, the wrong shoulder, to deliver his response. I don’t know exactly why it works. I do know it’s genius.

“I don’t know nothing.”
“You haven’t heard the questions yet.”
“What did you say?”

“We just want to ask you some questions about people you may know.”

“People I may know? You better get out of here, buster.”

Want to make your own list? Go for it!


Anonymous said...

Although not the Worst, Adrien Brody didn't do much for me in The Pianist back in 2002. I would have gone with Day-Lewis for Gangs of New York.

A Best of the Best - Alec Guinness for Bridge on the River Kwai. His sincerity and investment in his character leap out of the screen.

It's easier for me to see the Best and Worst of the Best Picture winners. Some of the Worst were Around the World in Eighty Days - even though the competition wasn't stiff, and The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon and The Quiet Man. The Greatest Show on Earth!? Has a circus and a train wreck and Jimmy Stewart as a clown. End of story.

Unknown said...

I saw "There Will Be Blood" on Sunday. Captivating performance by Day-Lewis in that one, too, but otherwise a so-so movie.

Glad to see someone else on the anti-Cage bandwagon too. When him and Travolta were together in Face/Off, it was the worst collection of big-name talent ever. I liked Cage in Adaptation, too, and Travolta in Pulp Fiction. But otherwise, they both BLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW.

Allison said...

There's only two that come to mind, although I'm sure if I went back and looked over the list of nominees and winners, I'd find more. One is for Best Actress so I apologize for being somewhat off-topic.

I have a really hard time with the fact that Joaquin Phoenix didn't win for Walk The Line. However, when I go back and look at the nominees, he did have some really tough competition that year, and, unfortunately, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was equally deserving. I guess Kanye said it best at the Grammy's the other night when he told Common: "You gotta space your albums out. You can't drop the same year as me cuz this is my award." Suffice it to say that if Philip Seymour Hoffman is in the fold, it'll be difficult for other nominees. But, Phoenix brought just as much to the film as Reese did. However, Reese's competition in the Best Actress category wasn't that stiff.

My other issue has always been with Annett Benning not winning for American Beauty. Yes, Hillary Swank was good in a tough film, but in my opinion Benning was stellar and nailed the role also.

P.S. I HATE Nicolas Cage and he should never win for anything.