Project: Best Actor Oscar winners
[Post updated 2/27/17]
BEST ACTOR WINNERS
Emil Jannings, The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)
Emil Jannings, The Way of All Flesh (1927, Victor Fleming) [LOST FILM]
Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1929, Irving Cummings & Raoul Walsh) [cap]
George Arliss, Disraeli (1929, Alfred E. Green) [cap]
Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown) [cap]
Wallace Beery, The Champ (1931, King Vidor)
Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) [cap]
Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933, Alexander Korda)
Clark Gable, It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
Victor McLaglen, The Informer (1935, John Ford)
Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936, William Dieterle)
Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming) [cap]
Spencer Tracy, Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog) [cap]
Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939, Sam Wood) [cap]
James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
Gary Cooper, Sergeant York (1941, Howard Hawks) [cap]
James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, Michael Curtiz)
Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin) [cap]
Bing Crosby, Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)
Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
Ronald Colman, A Double Life (1947, George Cukor) [cap]
Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier)
Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac (1950, Michael Gordon) [cap]
Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen (1951, John Huston)
Gary Cooper, High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
William Holden, Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)
Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Ernest Borgnine, Marty (1955, Delbert Mann)
Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956, Walter Lang) [cap]
Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
David Niven, Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann) [cap]
Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer) [cap]
Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)
Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field (1963, Ralph Nelson) [cap]
Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou (1965, Elliot Silverstein) [cap]
Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)
Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison)
Cliff Robertson, Charly (1968, Ralph Nelson) [cap]
John Wayne, True Grit (1969, Henry Hathaway) [cap]
George C. Scott, Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner)
Gene Hackman, The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)
Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger (1973, John G. Avildsen) [cap]
Art Carney, Harry and Tonto (1974, Paul Mazursky) [cap]
Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
Peter Finch, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross) [cap]
Jon Voight, Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)
Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Robert De Niro, Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981, Mark Rydell) [cap]
Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough)
Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies (1983, Bruce Beresford)
F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, Hector Babenco) [cap]
Paul Newman, The Color of Money (1986, Martin Scorsese) [cap]
Michael Douglas, Wall Street (1987, Oliver Stone) [cap]
Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson)
Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan) [cap]
Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990, Barbet Schroeder) [cap]
Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest) [cap]
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993, Jonathan Demme) [cap]
Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)
Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Mike Figgis) [cap]
Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996, Scott Hicks) [cap]
Jack Nicholson, As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks) [cap]
Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (1997, Roberto Benigni)
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
Russell Crowe, Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)
Denzel Washington, Training Day (2001, Antoine Fuqua) [cap]
Adrien Brody, The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)
Sean Penn, Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood) [cap]
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004, Taylor Hackford) [cap]
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005, Bennett Miller)
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006, Kevin MacDonald) [cap]
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Sean Penn, Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart (2009, Scott Cooper) [cap]
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)
Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014, James Marsh) [cap]
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [cap]
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan) [cap]
We here at SOC are pleased to announce that we’ve completed our fifth lists project, and that this nearly completes our run through all winners of the five “major” Academy Awards. Unlike Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, the Best Actor award tends to exist as a measurement wholly separate from anyone’s perception of a given film as a whole. It would be unusual (but of course not impossible) for a bad film to be blessed with a very good, awards-worthy script, but no one reasonably debates the notion that a terrible film can host some very fine acting indeed. As a result, a project like this, however marginal its breadth compared to our last endeavor, must be approached with at least a little apprehension. At first, it turned out this wasn’t warranted.
I started on this project by finally seeing Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command, for which Emil Jannings won jointly with another film, on May 13 of this year; I finished The Theory of Everything on October 30 (though I subsequently had to see it and a few others a second time for reasons that are best left to another time). I’m proud of having knocked this out in just over five months. This in part was thanks to how much material has already been covered here. We’ve to date had 87 Academy Award ceremonies, which translates to 89 films rewarded due to Janning’s dual win and the tie between Fredric March and Wallace Beery in 1932. Jannings’ other film, The Way of All Flesh (1927, Victor Fleming), is lost, which is a pity as based on Wikipedia’s summary it sounds fascinatingly depressing. That puts us down to 88 reviews above.
Over half of those already existed before this project. The film boasting, according to the Academy, the best male performance of the year has overlapped 27 times with the best picture of the year overall, another 2 times with the winner of the award for Best Director, and another 12 times with one of the Academy’s several writing awards. Of course all of those films have already been covered in this space. Subtract also the four movies that made the AFI 100 list either time it’s been compiled, the one film that was investigated as part of the IMDB 250 (Life Is Beautiful, though There Will Be Blood also showed up parallel to its placement here), then two recent films I reviewed on their initial releases, and you’re left with a total of 40 new screenings and reviews for this project. This includes nine films I’d seen previously but had not written up here.
Those thirty-one first-time viewings are ranked just below. You’ll notice the early films are generally weighted near the top — the first month or so on this assignment brought me to some of the best movies I’ve discovered since starting this blog. Then, once the idea of “Oscar bait” becomes an obvious influence, the wheels gradually come off; the Oscars projects have all but convinced me that the ’80s and ’90s were the nadir of mainstream American cinema.
Please remember that this ranking includes no films that won this Oscar but were reviewed here prior to this project. Hence no Godfather, etc. (2016 note: It also doesn’t include subsequent winners; I guess it’s probably not a very necessary list but what do you want from me!?)
RANKING FIRST-TIME VIEWS FROM OSCAR: BEST ACTOR
01 The Private Life of Henry VIII
02 The Last Command
03 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
04 A Free Soul
05 Separate Tables
06 Save the Tiger
07 Sergeant York
08 In Old Arizona
10 Kiss of the Spider Woman
11 A Double Life
12 The Goodbye Girl
13 Training Day
14 The Theory of Everything
15 Reversal of Fortune
16 Captains Courageous
17 The Color of Money
18 The Last King of Scotland
19 Harry and Tonto
20 Crazy Heart
21 My Left Foot
22 Lilies of the Field
23 True Grit
24 Disraeli $
27 Leaving Las Vegas
28 Wall Street
29 Watch on the Rhine
30 Scent of a Woman
31 Cat Ballou
Nearly all of the films that received Oscars in this category are relatively easy to track down. With one exception, Disraeli, all of the above films have been released on DVD and most of them are now available on various streaming services. (Between Netflix, Amazon and iTunes I was able to view or rent everything I couldn’t get on disc, which I always prefer.) A few of them, such as The Last Command and Charly, are currently out of print, but as of this writing were either still available through Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service or were stocked by one of the several public or university libraries near me. Since I’m in a rural area, others should have even less trouble. The odd man out, Disraeli, was issued on a VHS tape which you may also find in a library; it’s readily available by mail order but for somewhat outrageous prices; luckily someone was kind enough to post it on YouTube.
It seems salient to mention here that the nine films not in the above list that were new to this blog but not to me were also no trouble at all to find again. Just in case I forget to say this next year when Best Actress is completed, let me just tell you now that this is a walk in the park compared to gathering all the films needed for that project, which has already taken me two months and more money than I wanted to spend on it! Do we detect a slight unconscious sexism in the far less pervasive availability of women-centered films? I don’t think it’s impossible.
RANK THOSE PERFORMANCES THOUGH
Finally, as noted above, the nature of this project is obviously different than any we’ve done before, since a film’s presence here is predicated on the strength of a single specific performance. Our grades and rankings reflect movies as a whole, not any specific aspect of them, but I decided to think for a while about this and attempt to come to terms with my feelings about the Oscar-winning performances in these films, trying and not always succeeding to separate this from my opinions of the films overall. In the process, I wondered if perhaps we might discover something or other about a larger (and maybe, depending on the reader, wrongheaded) perspective on film acting in general. So here now are the 88 surviving male lead performances rewarded by the Academy, listed from (in my view) best to worst. I will be posting an illustrated version of this to Letterboxd if you prefer pretty pictures.
1. Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)
One of the most charismatic of all American actors, Hackman had his signature moment in this film, although I might posit The Conversation, three years later, as his greatest work. In one of the most subversive and complex films ever to reach such award-vaunted status, Hackman illuminates and undercuts a true anti-hero caught in the middle of a frantic (and frantically futile) cat and mouse chase. Not only is his performance compelling, it’s abhorrent at times… and yet somehow still soulful. Hackman captures the completeness of a flawed, eccentric, often hotheaded figure with every bit of the complexity inherent to it visibly brewing behind his eyes. Villainous or heroic, he feels like a real human, and that is the true essence of cinematic acting.
2. Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough)
Of course Kingsley resembles Gandhi in aesthetic, but his work here is really the apex of an actor disappearing entirely into the essence of a celebrated historical figure, all the more impressively one whose voice, movements and appearance were captured on film. One needn’t worship Gandhi to find this performance a sterling accomplishment. Kingsley’s sensitivity is in evidence in most of his roles, and he arguably does more than director Attenborough to mold the legend of Gandhi into what feels like a living person.
3. William Holden as Sgt. Sefton in Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)
Capable of a kind of hardened cynicism that remained believably acidic without ever boiling over into the sadism of Robert Mitchum or, later, Jack Nicholson, Holden is one of the greatest leading men in Hollywood history, and increasingly an unsung one. Even confronted with the likes of Sunset Blvd., his best work could be in this beautifully staged POW thriller with comedic elements. It’s hard to think of another example of a Hollywood hero so defiantly unlikable, almost from the film’s beginning to its conclusion, who nevertheless manages to gather the entire audience into his corner. And underneath layers of sarcasm and bile, his eyes remain stirringly expressive. Wilder and Holden are master collaborators, making this an untouchable feat in the temperamental silly-putty of audience identification.
4. Jon Voight as Luke Martin in Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)
Though it’s a solid film, the post-Vietnam drama Coming Home is really significant more for the emblematic war of ideologies it precipitated along with The Deer Hunter at the 51st Academy Awards than for anything in the picture itself. That is, except for Voight’s masterfully underplayed portrayal of a paralyzed veteran who makes a (believably drawn, far more so than similar turns in films like Born on the Fourth of July and Forrest Gump) decision to speak out against the war. The anti-recruitment speech he gives at a high school, seemingly ad-libbed in part, is as sublime as the third act of All Quiet on the Western Front, and one of the most clearheaded and radical moments of antiwar sentiment that made it into a Vietnam-era film.
5. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)
Perhaps the most dedicated of all Method actors, Day-Lewis comes from a family of artists, and this is not the only film in which his own completeness of craft eclipses that of the (perfectly good) film he’s in. So much more than a historical photograph in three dimensions, his Lincoln reflects both a depth of understanding of the president as a public and private figure and — even if you’re completely lost in the film — an unmistakable commitment to the craft of acting itself. It’s hard not to be distracted by how entirely believable this performance is; it’s equally hard to think of that as some sort of flaw.
6. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004, Taylor Hackford)
Having been hyped on Foxx’s turn in this film for years, I felt I wasn’t to be surprised by it. (Why I hadn’t ever bothered with the movie in the past eleven years despite an adoration of Mr. Charles’ music that’s only increased through the years speaks to how much I normally dislike biopics.) Several times while watching the film I unconsciously found myself thinking that I was truly watching Charles himself speak, perform, live, and would be newly surprised by the almost unpersuasive reminder that I was really watching Foxx. The film’s a bit of an overstuffed mess, but every accolade toward Foxx was fully deserved.
7. Casey Affleck as Lee in Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)
Affleck’s win in 2017 was shrouded in understandable controversy over sexual assault charges in his past, but taken independently his is one of the most well-controlled, believable and haunting feats of acting in modern cinema. All of the major characters in Lonergan’s stunning exploration of grief cope with loss in a singular way that feels as random and unpredictable as our responses to such terrible circumstances in real life. Affleck’s shut-down daily slog merits a description rare in film acting: it’s raw.
8. Gary Cooper as Sgt. Alvin York in Sergeant York (1941, Howard Hawks)
Honestly, I’d have voted this year for Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, but Cooper nevertheless is stunning here; Hawks possesses a sentimentality toward Sgt. York as an evolving Christian and pacifist that could easily have passed into the realm of the saccharine in other hands. Instead, Cooper approaches a quiet role with his usual trad-hero (some would say macho) stoicism and lifts the film up immeasurably with his unwavering subtlety. The scene in which Cooper, on the verge of an unforgivable crime, instead appears in a church service and is overcome is a model of negative acting: a magical performative moment achieved as much through editing as acting, but that is not to minize Cooper’s face, which makes the moment everything it is.
9. Fredric March as Al in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
Almost nothing about this film is not utterly masterful; without question, it is the best movie to receive an award in this category. March is just one master among many here, but one could fill pages with highlights of his brilliant performance as a deplaced patriarch returning home to a family that’s learned to subsist and thrive in his absence. There is that galvanizing shot in which Gregg Toland captures him wandering lonely down the hallway of his own home late at night, coping with the emotional movements of his wife and daughter; or that in which he watches a friend play piano, distractedly, as his eyes wander with a mixture of sternness and deep regret to a phone booth in which he knows that his daughter’s heart is being broken by Dana Andrews. March’s work might actually be enhanced by the lack of closure Al is given — Wyler pointedly chooses not to resolve the matter of his alcoholism and the potential damage it’s causing his marriage. It would be unfair to single out any performance in this masterpiece as the “best”; instead, let’s just use this as an excuse to repeat once again that anyone who does not presently have this film in his or her life will never regret letting its warmth and beauty in the door.
10. Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983, Bruce Beresford)
Even at the time of its release, Tender Mercies was criminally under-seen by the public; it’s something of a miracle that it managed enough attention to garner such a reception from the Academy. But once one sees the film, the accolades are difficult to question. The film could be derided or praised (praised, from these quarters) as an example of one in which “nothing happens,” but its believability as a representation of a life — that of a washed-up country singer who recovers from a drinking problem and finds solace in a new relationship — strictly requires the presence of a performance like Duvall’s in which, well, everything happens… and happens in a heartfelt and entirely convincing manner. Sporadically musical but mostly resistant of the typical excesses of such stories, this is really a tone-poem, and incredibly moving; meanwhile, Duvall had long been a rock of sensitivity in mainstream films and television (watch his Twilight Zone episode, “Miniature,” to see some of his most heartbreaking work) and this was a long-festering moment of deserved recognition.
11. Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
I’ll be saying this a few times throughout this list, but here’s the first instance: this is not a “leading role” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s magnificent, yes, but it’s a character-actor moment all the way. (It’s also the only posthumous award given in this category thus far.) Even those who have not seen Network (and for god’s sake, get on that) know the meat and potatoes of this performance back to front. In a lot of ways it’s the opposite of Cooper, March and Duvall just above — wild, over the top, utterly unhinged until its virtual explosion. Beale is an uncontainable force, harnessed cynically by others, and Finch gleefully spins this element of Paddy Chayefsky’s script into a full-on tornado. To boot, it’s very difficult not to think that Network successfuly predicted the scourge of modern, showmanship-based punditry; Finch deserves as much celebration for this as do Chayefsky and Lumet.
12. Charles Laughton as Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933, Alexander Korda)
Korda’s historical anti-biopic is essentially a black comedy — and a splendid, nasty one — about both the madness bred by power and the pathetic mess aging makes of everyone, particularly those with lofty ideals of the self. Laughton, like Finch, was hardly a model of subtlety; Alfred Hitchcock, always an advocate of subdued performances, infamously clashed with him on both their films together. In signature roles like that of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty or the barrister Sir Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution, Laughton is a tempest of sneer and outrageous intimidation. There’s a bit of that in his Henry VIII, but significantly less that you’d probably expect (and certainly less than in Robert Shaw’s much more unvarnished fun-having in A Man for All Seasons); Laughton’s sophisticated work here is able to suggest majesty, braggadio and pain throughout the picture, all without compromising Korda’s sly vision for the film.
13. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Again, not a leading performance; not even close, even if once you’re introduced to Hannibal in this film his is the face you won’t forget after all else recedes into memory. The role had been portrayed before by Brian Cox in Manhunter, but Hopkins turned it into a pop culture icon. The power, more perhaps than in most of these Oscar-winning performances, is in his eyes, and of course in the intensity of the de facto partnership formed with Jodie Foster’s Clarice. Erudite and terrifying, Hopkins’ Lecter is a classical, silent era-worthy monument to horror and movie villainy, never once as simple as it could so obviously be.
14. Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)
In this case, not a lot of attention paid to Brody in this part was likely due to any judgment of his actual resemblance to Szpilman; an advantage, since such things tend to be a distraction. Each time I revisit this film, which is quite rife with bloat in its first two acts then comes beautifully together, it becomes more clear that Brody’s work is what makes it powerful. His passion more than eclipses Polanski’s own, no matter how personal the story was to the latter.
15. Sean Penn, as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008, Gus van Sant)
Penn is not an actor whose serious work I typically enjoy; before this, my favorite work of his was as Spicoli in Fast Times — indeed, it might still be. I don’t praise Penn here on the basis of how well he captures Milk from the documentary and news footage that exists, but rather on the completeness and genuine sensitivity of this performance. Every moment he’s onscreen seems felt, and the creation of Milk as a character coheres extremely well, far more so than in most Hollywood biographies.
16. Fredric March as, um, the title character in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)
Undoubtedly the most bizarre performance to gain the award in this category, for one of the weirdest filmed nightmares in classic Hollywood. Spencer Tracy would later star in a remake and his Dr. Jekyll would be frought with melancholy; March’s, by contrast, indulges in perverse, wicked joy both within and without his special effects-laden tansitions. It’s extremely hard to reconcile March as we see him here with the restrained March of Best Years a decade and a half later.
17. George C. Scott as George S. Patton in Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner)
Scott was one of the greats, and he is… persuasive in his signature role, which alas is trapped in a film that’s a far step down from his very best, but if you’ve seen stuff like Hardcore you know his presence lit a fire under even the weakest products in his filmography. If you just watch the opening moments of this film, you’ll see everything you need to understand why this was such an iconic performance. Since I like the guy so much, I should apologize to him posthumously for pitting all these actors against each other; his hatred of such things prompted his refusal of this Oscar.
18. James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, Michael Curtiz)
This patriotic film numbs me personally, but the ever-enthusiastic Cagney commits himself, body mind and spirit, as fully and unreservedly as ever; like Jimmy Stewart and Buster Keaton, he’s the rare classical actor who used his entire body in every performance. For Cagney’s most brilliant and emotional work, watch him bring a violently tragic marriage to life alongside Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me.
19. Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)
In one of the quieter (and consequently, most frequently forgotten) major Oscar-gathering films, Scofield lifts sensitivity and strength from what could have been a glorified textbook page. Something about the way he says the word “love”…
20. Emil Jannings as Grand Duke Alexander in The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)
Jannings’ is the sort of performance that will provide much-needed aid to someone trying to rid a person of their inborn stereotypes about silent film acting. The film tasks Jannings with telling its entire story of a glory lost and one last internal triumph in his face, and he succeeds unforgettably.
21. Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
This was a difficult year, with two performances arguably more deserving of the Oscar: Jack Lemmon’s comedic mastery in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece The Apartment, and one of Spencer Tracy’s best performances in the otherwise less noteworthy Inherit the Wind. However, Lancaster is one of the rare popular Hollywood actors capable of charisma and disappearing-act subtlety, and he’s able to display his skill in both directions here as Sinclair Lewis’ seductive preacher and charlatan.
22. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006, Kevin MacDonald)
Like Sean Penn above, Whitaker was bringing life to an exceptionally well-recorded persona, which is why it’s so impressive that he arguably does more work than anyone else involved in the film to sell Idi Amin Dada as a dangerous madman but also a persuasive leader and a three-dimensional character. That the performance is wildly out of character for Whitaker makes it more compelling yet. He is the sole reason to see this film.
23. Wallace Beery as Andy Purcell in The Champ (1931, King Vidor)
The movie is pure MGM syrup, a tearjerker of a boxer and his young boy and their financially-addled foibles, the whole thing relying on multiple implausibilities, though the rousing climax is one of those movie-magic moments that can be certifiably called irresistible. The bulky, formidable Beery was born for parts like this; he succeeds on the film’s terms here by leaving the copping of sentimentality to others, just solid as a rock throughout and thus inspiring of exactly the widespread hope and endearment producer Irving Thalberg and writer Frances Marion must have wanted.
24. F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
An extremely unorthodox choice by the Academy, but a damned good one — in general, the Academy prefers boisterous observed-from-afar antagonists like Whitaker’s role above to the actual audience vessels in such films. Salieri is the notable exception; a stand-in for the unrealized artistic aspirations of so many of us, he watches in awe as a gift for music visits and never seems to leave a man who seems to be an unmitigated oaf, Mozart as played memorably by Tom Hulce. Abraham’s performance, melodramatic but not showy, is unforgivingly dark and cynical, much like the film itself, which makes this Oscar one worth cheering for anyone who thinks “Best Actor” ought to mean what it says it does.
25. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote (2005, Bennett Miller)
Not Hoffman’s best performance or the best film he was in — in both cases I vote Synecdoche, New York — but a strong example of how difficult it was to pin him down, particularly in his seemingly elastic voice. (I saw this soon after hearing his work in the animated film Mary and Max, which made his Capote even more jarring.) As in all his best work from Happiness to The Master, even his smile seems earned by hidden pain.
26. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
This is the most “fun” of Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning performances, for what that’s worth; in a manner reminiscent to the best and broadest silent acting, he projects calm, misanthropic, cutthroat professionalism whose cracks he only rarely permits shown. It seems almost too trite a statement to make, but his transformations are perhaps more impressive than any other actor’s.
27. Robert Donat as Mr. Chips in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939, Sam Wood)
Yes, it sucks that Clark Gable, whose performance in the finest in Gone with the Wind, lost. And so did James Stewart for his wonderful turn in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Donat gave several Oscar-worthy performances in his lifetime and this one as a priggish schoolteacher briefly warmed up by a good marriage is certainly full of the charm typical of his best work. My favorite work of Donat’s can be seen in The 39 Steps and the lovely comedy Vacation from Marriage.
28. Alec Guinness as Lt. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
As with Donat, an actor I adore rewarded for what probably isn’t even one of his ten best performances; the award in this ceremony rightfully belonged to Laughton for Witness for the Prosecution. That said, Guinness is a memorable presence in nearly all of his films, and at least he wasn’t saddled in Lean’s POW epic with the kind of butt-stupid dialogue George Lucas would later give him.
29. Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
I wanted to like this sharply satirical film of Robert Penn Warren’s novel a lot more than I did, but the Academy’s choice to honor the physically atypical, very un-Hollywood Crawford for his oddly pitched work as corruptible politician Stark is one of the few times a choice they made seems to have come about for pure, celebratory reasons.
30. Spencer Tracy as Manuel in Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)
Tracy’s two wins typify a “right actor, wrong movie” problem seen over and over again in this category. In a way, however, this is the most understandable kind of win, a single strong performance that elevates an otherwise utterly mediocre film. It is by no means a leading role, by the way.
31. Clark Gable as Peter in It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
Capra’s humanist screwball comedy is one of my favorite films of the period, and its sweep of its Oscars suggest an early awareness of its universally appreciable loveliness. Gable doesn’t do much here that he doesn’t do in almost all of his roles, and it seems clear that he and Claudette Colbert were rewarded as much for the general quality of the film they were in as for any specific strength in their individual work. Though I enjoy that a film I love so much is the first of the three “Big Five” winners, as a voter I would actually have gone for William Powell in The Thin Man, a movie I like considerably less.
32. David Niven as Major Pollock in Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)
Not a leading role, not by a longshot. In many of his films, Niven comes across as the shallowest kind of playboy; it’s something he was good at, but not something that generally brings buckets of awards. At the time of this film’s release, his most famous role was as Phileas Fogg in the deplorable Around the World in Eighty Days; audiences must have been thrown by Niven’s nervous embodiment here of a secretive hotel patron who turns out to be guilty of a “crime against nature” (given as molestation in the film but probably code by playwright Terence Rattigan for homosexuality, illegal in Britain then). You have to watch nearly the entire movie to understand what made Niven’s performance so celebrated, but it is indeed special, and quite a surprise for those who know him best for things like The Pink Panther.
33. Ernest Borgnine as Marty in Marty (1955, Delbert Mann)
Reviving a role originated on television by Rod Steiger, Borgnine is as unlikely a choice for this category as the film itself was for Best Picture — its origins as a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay are all but inescapable, as particularly in the scenes focusing on the supporting cast it mostly resembles an elevated sitcom. But Borgnine is winning and believable as a lonely but high-spirited man coping with the single life as he grows older and tries to bust out of a comfortable groove. He coasts mostly on charm here as in most of his roles, but the aspired naturalism of the film warrants such minimal embellishment. I still think it’s criminal that Cagney lost this year, though.
34. Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger (1973, John G. Avildsen)
This is one of those films that seems to bleed melancholy from every pore, a pained portrait of a businessman suffering from undiagnosed depression. Some don’t like that Lemmon has some pretentious, verbose dialogue forced into his mouth, but he conquers it brilliantly. The only caveats are that he had several superior performances, and that this was the year of Jack Nicholson’s best work ever in Hal Ashby’s even more beautiful The Last Detail. But please don’t let that stop you from seeking out this surprising, undeservedly forgotten film.
35. Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut in The African Queen (1951, John Huston)
More than anyone else save perhaps Cary Grant, Bogart exemplifies the idea that an actor who always delivers more or less exactly what you expect is not necessarily a bad actor… can, in fact, be a great one. It’s not remarkable that the persona Bogart started to establish for Huston in The Maltese Falcon became a sensation. What’s remarkable is that he never let it become a trap, and found ways to make it sing in a wide variety of films, genres, tones; you come to this movie to see the Bogart you know in the jungle, and that’s just what you get. (As a side note, one laments that he went unrewarded for his most adventurous, perception-stretching part in the same director’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but that wasn’t really a lead role.)
36. James Stewart as Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)
In a bit of classic Oscar irony, Stewart’s only award came one of the very few times he didn’t deserve one. But the relatively weak nature of his work here isn’t really his fault so much as result of the overly wordy play by Philip Barry being shot (despite several rewrites to attempt to make it more cinematic) and Cukor’s unremarkable, stagy treatment of it. Among other things, it requires Stewart to look slightly demonic while saying the word “holocausts” in a scene that has him sweet-talking Katharine Hepburn. This was a year in which the great Henry Fonda was nominated for redeeming John Ford’s generally tiresome film of The Grapes of Wrath, and Charlie Chaplin for middle-fingering fascism in The Great Dictator. Still, had he not won this year, Stewart might never have received an Academy Award; dodging that shame might be the preferable conclusion here.
37. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014, James Marsh)
Pretty easy to mock Oscar-baity roles like this, but at least Redmayne is less showy and scenery-chewing than most Oscar winners who took parts like this. For the most part, he does well by just staying out of the way.
38. Victor McLaglen as Gypo in The Informer (1935, John Ford)
The most remarkable aspect of this particular film is how wildly out of character it is for director Ford — visually at least, it’s essentially his stab at what would eventually be known as film noir. McLaglen does emerge with a full-bodied performance as a guilty informer during the Irish War of Independence, but yet again, Charles Laughton was robbed of an Oscar for his truly unforgettable Captain Bligh — the nightmare boss of the ages — for Mutiny on the Bounty.
39. Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Paseur (1936, William Dieterle)
Muni’s series of biographical performances are serviceable enough, judging from this and the more easily available Life of Emile Zola, but his best work was arguably behind him by this point; watch the astounding I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang! as soon as you can. My cynicism toward this win for a fairly nondescript film and performance is mounted all the more because this was the year one of my favorite performances of all time was nominated: Walter Huston in William Wyler’s shattering Dodsworth — Huston and the film are infinitely better, more memorable and more age-durable than this innocent enough claptrap.
40. Sidney Poitier as Homer in Lilies of the Field (1963, Ralph Nelson)
One of many instances in which it’s almost certain that an actor gained an Oscar for the general quality of his career to date rather than for the film in question; this pedestrian story of a wandering handyman and soldier helping some nuns build a house is so thin and forgettable one doubts the legitimacy of anyone claiming they remembered the film from its October release all the way to Oscar time the following year. (Its status as an independently produced, low-budget picture also likely would exclude it from typical consideration.) Poitier is a great actor, no doubt about it (and incidentally he’s the earliest winner in this category for whom we’re able to use present tense in that sentence!), but he seldom found himself in memorable or even worthy movies — undoubtedly due to racism, conscious or not, that barred him from parts that weren’t somehow “about” his race. So as with Stewart, a win for a mediocre film and decent performance to which one can’t really reasonably object.
41. Paul Newman as Fast Eddie in The Color of Money (1986, Martin Scorsese)
Another situation like Poitier’s, though it feels different to me personally because I generally don’t like Newman very much. Somehow he usually appears vacant to me. Contrary to that, I actually enjoyed him in this falry ordinary movie from the empty-headed 1980s let’s-make-lots-of-money genre, but Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa was the more deserving nominee.
42. Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia (1993, Jonathan Demme)
In the course of this project I learned how wildly against the grain I am on this movie; I didn’t realize how beloved it was and still is. My numerous serious problems with it are best listed elsewhere, but they have nothing to do with Hanks, who’s fine in it — I’ve long felt he betrayed his true talent as a comedic actor (his work in Penny Marshall’s Big is extraordinary) when he transitioned almost entirely to drama in the ’90s, but Captain Phillips managed at last to shut me up. Still, I’m not sure people remember that Hanks was up against Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List in this category; maybe others disagree, but divorced from the emotional context of the time that still seems to me a more formidable effort.
43. Art Carney as Harry in Harry and Tonto (1974, Paul Mazursky)
One of the most notorious upsets in Oscar history — to the point that some sort of foul was charged — but looking at the nominees it’s easy to see that, as with Rocky‘s otherwise baffling Best Picture win in 1976, it was simply a question of multiple celebrated nominees running at cross-purposes and cancelling out one another. Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman got shut out surely for this reason, as did my own choice, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but I do like Carney and he’s pretty OK in this, and lord knows Nicholson’s been amply compensated over the years.
44. Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
Spacey needed one at some point and this was as good a time as any; I enjoy Mendes’ film quite a lot, though adolescent associations may play a role in that. In retrospect, Richard Farnsworth’s powerful work in The Straight Story was probably a better choice this year.
45. Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog)
Tracy is as watchable as ever in a tiresome juvenile-delinquent film.
46. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier)
In no way does Olivier’s film of Hamlet seem like the definitive screen version it’s sometimes credited to be, but he was a fine actor and the novelty of a self-directed performance winning (which would happen once more, many years later, to a far worse film) survives the scrutiny. This was also a rather weak year at the Oscars in general.
47. Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
By-the-numbers biopic is unmistakably benefitted by Day-Lewis’ performance, but it seems a good deal broader — as much “about” the difficulty of the performance as for any way that it believably embodies a character — than his later work.
48. Cliff Robertson as Charly in Charly (1968, Ralph Nelson)
By this point you surely notice the alarming preponderance of Best Actor winners so rewarded for portraying disabled or ill people; the Academy seems to see the suffering narrative as code for a difficult performance. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Robertson is likable in this execrable Flowers for Algernon adaptation until the raping starts, then he and the film both quickly reach intolerable territory.
49. Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Well, here’s where I’ll start to lose everyone. As regular readers are well aware, I am not a fan of the man frequently cited as the greatest actor ever to work in American film; not only am I not a fan, I actively dislike all of his work that I’ve seen. This performance which made a large part of his reputation and still looms broadly over film culture is part of a film that’s already problematic for several reasons, and I don’t want to put blame on Brando for Kazan’s politics or for the fact that this film features an extremely disturbing scene of violence against a woman for which I have never ever seen it called out, not even once. My problem with Brando is that when I watch him, I can see the “acting” happening; I’ve never bought any of his work. Here, it’s an egregious problem that he’s adopting mannerisms and speech patterns extremely at odds with everything else happening on camera. Not only is it a failure as “realism,” it takes me completely out of a film that already struggles to keep my rapt attention. Some would say that Brando sticking out here just marks his as the most artistically accomplished work here; I think he sinks the film even further into the area of indulgence. But obviously I accept that this seems to be a matter of me not “getting” it. And for plenty more of that, keep reading!
50. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
Dujardin is charming enough in a largely charmless film. I preferred Gary Oldman or George Clooney out of the slate this year, but I bristle less at this than the same film’s other awards.
51. Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
Howard Hawks was right; this badly plotted, amateurishly shot nonsense is one full-of-shit excuse for a western and its continued cultural cachet and cinematic influence are a plague on film society. Cooper isn’t exactly bad, but this is the dark side of his “negative acting” — his stonefaced machismo is so at odds with the truly lame story being told that it hurts the film even more. Worse, he won over Alec Guinness’ life-affirming work in the magnificent Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob, but I suppose we should be grateful (and surprised) a British film was even nominated.
52. Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001, Antoine Fuqua)
One of those rare occasions when a brainless (but immensely watchable) Hollywood action movie somehow makes it all the way to Oscar night; this one did so wholly on the strength of Washington’s shameless scenery-chewing as a corrupt police detective systematically ripping away Ethan Hawke’s illusions about police work. You can draw a straight line from Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh to this, except that Harris isn’t nearly as scary. Is it the drugs? Washington is a reliable actor — I’ve never really formed much of an opinion on him, and I haven’t yet seen several of his signature roles — but despite flashes of wicked genius this is a whole lot of silly.
53. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009, Scott Cooper)
I can’t properly judge this performance due to a bias against Jeff Bridges; not that I think he’s a terrible actor, but physically he skeeves me the fuck out, probably because I saw The Fisher King at a young age and was traumatized by his scumminess, which I can’t quite seem to un-see. (Movies like The Big Lebowski and Tideland in which “needs a bath” seems to be the entirety of his character motivation have not helped.) There’s nothing especially wrong with this performance (there’s a lot wrong with the movie), but once the paradigms of washed-up-alcoholic-working-musician are established there’s not much of anywhere to go.
54. Ray Milland as Don in The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)
Wilder’s most ridiculous film nevertheless has some strong writing; when we talked about actors being rewarded for suffering narratives, remember that “illness” includes alcoholism. Milland is probably one of the weakest performers in general ever to get an Oscar; Peter Bogdanovich once called him a “road company Cary Grant,” and I doubt he meant it as a slam but it works for our purposes here. He’s only ranked this highly because (a) the material isn’t awful and (b) any actor who can acquit himself from that hilarious proto-Trainspotting “coming down” sequence that has him battling a hallucinated bat deserves some sort of kudos.
55. Lionel Barrymore as Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown)
By contrast: I like Barrymore. I loved this movie. His performance is its weakest point, particularly a celebrated sequence near the end that has him addressing a courtroom and spewing out what was supposedly the longest single-take monologue in movie history at the time. It’s outrageously goofy and really has no place in an otherwise restrained film about a weakening father-daughter relationship. Hey, this isn’t a lead performance, by the way.
56. Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
I always remember this film as being much worse than it is — in reality, the most commercially successful of all divorce dramas is a passable movie and Hoffman’s very good, as he almost always is, but Peter Sellers losing to him for Being There is utter unmitigated horseshit.
57. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)
The two problems here are that I generally think Peck was a poor actor, or at least one who was almost always miscast. (He’s reasonably good when he’s playing a crook or a Nazi.) Like Paul Newman, he is — for me — fatally inexpressive. Secondly, Atticus as written in the novel (which I love muchly) doesn’t jibe for me with the detached figure depicted in the movie version; it’s always felt to me like Peck was playing Batman or some other superhero, someone who withholds large amounts of information from his loved ones and keeps all of his emotional cards annoyingly close to his chest. The publication of Go Set a Watchman this year softens this judgment a bit; it adds a dimension to Atticus running at odds with the way a younger Scout saw him in a manner that seems to correlate more with the filmed Atticus. Since I understand that Harper Lee was more involved with this production than is usual for authors of source material, perhaps this explains a bit about Peck’s portrayal, but this is really grasping at straws for a film that in final judgment remains a massive disappointment to me. This same year, Jack Lemmon brilliantly pumped life into the world of a lost-soul alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses, making Milland above seem even more like a cartoon; the Oscar ought to have been his.
58. Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
McMurphy’s an asshole. Sorry. Nicholson’s not bad here but this is one of the many popular films whose reputation could not be more puzzling to me if it had spaceships in it. Should’ve been Al Pacino, at his best in Dog Day Afternoon, rewarded years later instead for his worst — see a pattern here?
59. William Hurt as Luis in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, Hector Babenco)
This was an out-of-nowhere win for an actor at the very start of his career for a relatively obscure independent production — a strange, compelling story of a pair of prisoners stuck in close quarters. Hurt’s a fine actor, if one who’s made a number of strange career decisions, and this really only suffers because by our modern sensibilities it’s such a stereotyped portrayal of a gay man by a straight one.
60. Richard Dreyfuss as Elliot Garfield in The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross)
Woody Allen’s phenomenal self-directed performance in Annie Hall, probably the best he ever was onscreen, didn’t win most likely because people didn’t understand that he was acting. Annoying in the bulk of his films, Dreyfuss proves at certain opportune moments that he’s gifted and funny; a few of those moments occur in this decent romantic comedy, the significance of which is obviously eclipsed by orders of magnitude by this year’s Best Picture winner.
61. Colin Firth as George VI in The King’s Speech (2010, Tobe Hooper)
Again with a note on bias: I’ve never liked Firth. No particular reason, I just don’t like him. I’ll sit down with a bunch of his work come up with a good reason if you pay me, I guess, but until then… Both Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco, of all people, turned out stronger performances this year, but this crowd-pleasing movie was something of a juggernaut in 2010.
62. Ronald Colman as Anthony John in A Double Life (1947, George Cukor)
Colman’s a psychotic stage actor who disappears into a gig playing King Lear to such an extent that he has a Jekyll-and-Hyde meltdown. This is as oddball and schlocky as it sounds, and Colman’s wildly melodramatic performance seems like something out of a Corman movie.
63. Dustin Hoffman as Raymond in Rain Man (1988, Ivan Reitman)
UGH, this devilry. Again, Hoffman reduced to copping to the worst temptations of awards-bait with this gawking autism porn. This is the year Tom Hanks should have won.
64. Sean Penn as “IZZAT MAH DAUGHTER OVA THUURREERRRR” in Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood)
This disgraceful film prompted what was probably a mercy vote for Penn to have a career-summary Oscar; if the world had known Milk was going to happen five years hence, maybe Bill Murray would have received the statue he deserved for his lovely performance in the gorgeous Lost in Translation, and then we’d have world peace. (Ben Kingsley’s work in House of Sand and Fog was also vastly better than this, as was the film.)
65. Jack Nicholson as Melvin in As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks)
Nicholson, his skills somewhat diminished since 1975, plays another total prick, this one with a taste for women much too young for him. This one also has OCD (check those boxes, y’all). I get why people hate this movie now, but eh, it’s funny. Nicholson might have deserved the Oscar just for the moment in the car when he claims to passengers Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear that he has “the entire trip programmed,” flips a switch and lets “YMCA” play for a moment, then turns it off and says “I’m just kiddin’.” For the record I’ve done this on every car trip I’ve taken since 1997.
66. Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in Shine (1996, Scott Hicks)
I don’t like Geoffrey Rush either, so now you really understand my apprehension about The King’s Speech. He’s all right here but the film is telegraphed biopic bullshit. I don’t much care for Billy Bob Thornton either, but he obviously deserved the Oscar more for his work in Sling Blade.
67. Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe in Judgment at Nuremberg (1962, Stanley Kramer)
Not even kind of a lead performance. Make some rules here, Academy. This is like saying Jeff Goldblum was the “best actor” in Nashville.
68. Jose Ferrer as Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950, Michael Gordon)
Another nutty upset, for a Rostand adaptation almost no one went to see. Ferrer doesn’t do much with the role but he’s not bad. What is bad? William Holden not winning for Sunset Blvd.. That’s bad.
69. Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallee)
The McConnasaince is mythical nonsense; he’s the same mediocrity as ever, in a whole bunch of dreadful films like Mud and Killer Joe, but this award was practically inevitable with all the hype surrounding the damn guy, and if you were going to reward one of his performances, this is probably the strongest of them. If Bruce Dern didn’t win for Nebraska, at least it could have been Chiwetel Ejiofor.
70. Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune (1990, Barbet Schroeder)
Oh come on, not a lead performance at all, and to boot not the strongest or most charismatic performance in this legal drama at all. Irons won for being memorably “weird,” maybe paving the way for Hopkins the following year?
71. Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
This film was lavished with awards, but it’s the 1959 equivalent of your garden variety moronic blockbuster today. Heston won an Oscar for Hollywood’s most convincing onscreen belching. At least three other people deserved the thing more: Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, and (are you fucking kidding me?) James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.
72. George Arliss as Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli (1929, Alfred E. Green)
Ever heard of this movie? No? There’s a reason! I actually would have thrown down for Wallace Beery this time rather than for The Champ.
73. Paul Lukas as Kurt in Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin)
You probably remember Lukas as one of the German spies in The Lady Vanishes or as the professor in the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You probably don’t remember this dull-as-dishwater propaganda film for which he won over Bogart in freaking Casablanca.
74. Nicolas Cage as Ben in Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Mike Figgis)
Here’s another dude people are All About whose presence I’ve rarely appreciated. This is another alcoholism suffering narrative, a little more maudlin than usual; Cage makes use of his usual performance style, which consists of him looking slack-jawed and bored with everything. Acting, The Craft Of!
75. Yul Brynner as King Mongkut in The King and I (1956, Walter Lang)
Not a lead performance, and even if it were, it’s not the least bit memorable or praiseworthy; most of the winners above and below this, I can at least understand from some perspective why they happened. This one, I have no idea.
76. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
Yeah, yeah, tell me all about how much weight the guy gained to play this part and what a sterling Methodical achievement it all was; gaining or losing weight isn’t acting, and endless yelling isn’t acting either. There’s almost nothing else here; Scorsese seems to believe an empty narrative of insecure masculinity is some sort of an end unto itself. The film is painful. I’m less a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man than most, but please give this one to John Hurt. De Niro’s overrated in general anyway.
77. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Not a DiCaprio fan at all, though I think he had some sublime moments in ‘The Wolf of Wall Steet’. It’s kind of been beaten to death at this point but “endurance test” acting isn’t really acting. Still, DiCaprio was seen as being “owed” an Oscar by this point (which is pretty flawed logic but oh well).
78. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987, Oliver Stone)
One-note performance (and not a leading one!) delivered under the leadership of one of the Hollywood directors most egregiously addicted to the overstated, mawkish and obvious. It’s a lethal combination. William Hurt had just won a couple of years earlier but his work in Broadcast News is infinitely, insultingly superior to this (though I hasten to add that it’s also not actually a leading role).
79. Roberto Benigni as Guido in Life Is Beautiful (1997, Roberto Benigni)
The second self-directed performance, if “directed” is a word you can apply to work this all-over-the-place. People remember Benigni’s sustained freakout when he won, the capping moment of the extended act of manipulative fraud that is this movie. This would’ve been a nice year to reward Ian McKellen.
80. Warner Baxter as The Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona (1929, Irving Cummings & Raoul Walsh)
At the 2nd Academy Awards, the very start of the tradition: a completely inexplicable Best Actor winner! Baxter’s pretty bad here, but it wouldn’t be a significantly notable performance without the Oscar win. Do see this film for one of the most outrageously mean-spirited endings in the history of Hollywood storytelling.
81. Rod Steiger as Chief Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison)
A one-note performance as a racist cop in a mostly one-note film. It’s hard to think of a more backward-looking Academy choice than going for this over Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
82. John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969, Henry Hathaway)
Speaking of Hoffman, to put it very charitably, he and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy might have been done a disservice by his placement in the lead rather than supporting actor category. Both would have been great choices, all the more so laid against this humiliting shitshow, a compensatory win for a has-been actor and overall asshole Wayne in a thoroughly wafer-thin, badly directed excuse for a motion picture.
83. Henry Fonda as Norman in On Golden Pond (1981, Mark Rydell)
One of my favorite actors ever, copping to every worst tendency of “adorable old people” acting in this miserable awards-bait feature.
84. Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
Fill mouth with toilet paper + mumble = Oscar. Although the Godfather films aren’t to my taste, I can appreciate them as a sort of upside-down Americana and I understand why they are beloved and iconic more than I do with, say, Raging Bull… but I can’t abide the interpretation of Brando’s Corleone as anything but bad vaudeville. This was a missed opportunity to reward the horribly underrated Paul Winfield for his superb work in Sounder, a film with the kind of humanity and subtlety that doesn’t seem to even exist in the world of Coppola’s gangster pictures.
85. Al Pacino as Lt. Slade in Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest)
This is the point at which we pass the realm of “performances that didn’t deserve Oscars” to “actually horrific performances.” Pacino’s hammy cluelessness in this abysmal relic is meant to call fallen idols to mind — he’s playing a supposed war hero who’s planning on killing himself — but he plays it like Yogi Bear on a cocaine binge. Won over Stephen Rea in The Crying Game; no further comment.
86. Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
A fine singer. Not a great singer, not great the way Frank Sinatra was, but a fine singer who made some wonderful records. Very, very, very definitely not an actor, especially not one who can credibly walk the streets trying to “rap” with the kids in an unlaundered T-shirt. No. Please no.
87. Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
It’s true that I hate this movie so much, hate this character so much — and love Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, loser to this, so much — that it could blind me. But I generally don’t agree with the high regard for Harrison; he plays every role as a smug creep, and it wears you out after five minutes, tops.
88. Tom Hanks as Forrest in Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)
Hanks didn’t win an Oscar for channeling childhood innocence and the discovery of adult freedom flawlessly in Big. Zemeckis didn’t win an Oscar for brilliantly satirizing postwar American culture in Used Cars or warmly defining the teenage experience in I Wanna Hold Your Hand. No, what got them on that stage was this cutesy, risible, vaguely fascist, dismayingly insipid caricature of postwar American culture, and it’s still immensely popular, and that’s why I hate everything.
89. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965, Elliot Silverstein)
grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. One of those movies that dares you, dares you, to watch it. Marvin isn’t the worst element, although he comes across as incompetent as all hell, but nothing except Nat King Cole survives intact from this dip in the terrible waters of, oh dear, “western musical comedy.”
90. Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)
I really laughed a lot the first time I watched this. This is the — in my experience, very rare — film with no redeeming qualities. There is not a single good thing about it. It should die, horribly, mauled by tigers. Anyway, that’s our show. Goodnight, everybody!!