Saturday, March 19, 2011

Best Actor Oscar Winners (1927/28-2009)

I get slightly teary-eyed watching this. Best Actor Winners I've seen:

1934-Clark Gable, It Happened One Night-A-
Gable was the first quintessential leading man. He was malleable enough to be put into a romantic comedy, a stirring class-tinged drama, an adventure, or an epic and still maintain his charm. I suspect if marketing to the four quadrants existed in the
1930's, Gable would hit them all. What I like best about this part is its duality: Even while he's involuntarily falling in love, Gable exhibits a certain stubbornness to even believing in the concept of love.

1936-Paul Muni, Life of Emile Zola-B-
Muni is somewhat stiff in the role but stiff acting appears to be the norm in many films of the time. Like a lot of films I've seen in the 1930's, there was a certain stuffiness to the acting that affected all but the exceptionally great screwball comedies and gangster pics. I haven't seen the original Scarface, but if Scorsese's affection for the film is to be believed, Muni really breaks out into new territory there.

1939-Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr. Chips-B-
A fairly good performance. It includes that requisite aging over the course of the picture that always seems to help. I would probably list Robin Williams from "Dead Poets Society" as my preference for filmdom's archetypical teacher/mentor figure, but that's neither here nor there. His performance is also interesting because it highlights the sexual naivete of characters in this era (a significant part of the film's plot centers around his courtship of Mrs. Chips).

1941-Gary Cooper, Sergeant York-C+
Cooper's screen persona is that of a folksy everyman. Sort of like Jimmy Stewart except he's a little more broody. In this film, he dials up that folksiness to the point where the character isn't too far removed from the Clampetts on "Beverly Hillbillies." The performance is also somewhat static throughout the film. Cooper's version of York doesn't seem that much different in temperament from the start of the film to the end of it. At the same time, that might be a good thing.

1942-Jimmy Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandee-A
Another one of those aging performances. Cagney was a very energetic presence on screen and it's cathartic to watch him let loose all that kinetic energy.

1944-Bing Crosby, Going my Way-B-
Crosby had a very affable persona and was someone you liked seeing on screen. Whether it took Bing Crosby effort to be "Bing Crosby" I have no idea. In other words, Crosby wasusually Crosby on screen, but this was a fairly good use for him.

1947-Ronald Colman, A Double Life-F
Pretty hammy. It reminds me of that episode of Frasier where that great actor the Crane brothers admired as kids delivers his lines so over-the-top, that no one would ever believe them. That's the big question: Is that era's style of dramatic acting over-the-top by today's standards?

1951-Humphrey Bogart, African Queen-A
Bogart deserves an Oscar somewhere. The chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn in African Queen was pretty make-or-break for that film and Bogart certainly bended enough to meet Katherine halfway. Bogart was a very effective hard-boiled detective and I don't know if I would have preferred seeing him nominated for a gritter part like "Big Sleep" or "Maltese Falcon." From what I've seen, "African Queen" and "Sabrina" are the two films that stretched him the most.

1952-Cary Cooper, High Noon-A
Cooper's Sheriff Will Kane is as iconic a Western sheriff and heroic a role as there ever was. More importantly, it's unique to what Cooper brings to the screen. It's one of the few times I've seen Cooper in a film and not thought Jimmy Stewart could have easily replicated it.

1956-Yul Brenner, The King and I-A-
Making your mark on a role is an indication that you've owned it and can you imagine anyone else portraying that role? If sexual chemistry is also a mark of a great role, Brenner and Kerr are remembered as a great screen couple and you can also read the entire relationship is unromantic.

1957-Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai-A
Guinness' character is a morally complex (and ultimately morally misguided) and its his handling of those moral complexities that make the film so great. His chemistry with Colonel Saito is also something that can't be undervalued. Guinness was one of the great chameleon-like actors but he could have built a career playing characters of strong resolve like this one and it would have still been just as distinguished.

1962-Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird-A
Atticus Finch in the book is so endearing that he's almost impossible to live up to but Peck did it. He beat Peter O'Toole for Lawrence of Arabia, but his role is just as iconic. Peck's character here is the definitive father figure of filmdom (feel free to disagree with me) and beacon of justice.

1964-Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady-C
In middle school science classes, we're taught to look at the scientific method through controls, independent variables, and constants. Maybe that's a good way to describe how I see various movies in terms of what the actors bring. In My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison is the control/constant while Audrey Hepburn is the independent variable. The Rex Harrison screen persona is such a caricature of prim British stuffiness that it's even being caricatured on "Family Guy."

1965-Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou-C-
No matter how you look at it, Marvin's win is pretty extreme category fraud. Other than that, it's not a particularly bad performance. The other problem is that Marvin doesn't particularly stand out within the ensemble either. Jane Fonda is brilliant as the antihero Cat Ballou and so is Michael Callan as sex-crazed Clay Boone.

1969-John Wayne, True Grit-C+ (Didn't see the film whole film)
Watching John Wayne's performance next to Jeff Bridges' performance is like having an Olympic champion from Beijing play against the Olympic 1968 champion where you see how far movie-making (and even acting) has come. It might have helped if it was Wayne's best film. Wayne is older and not particularly good-looking at this age, but that shouldn't necessarily have been held against him. In some of his better performances (Searchers, Quiet Man), I could have seen him earning an A-.

1971-Gene Hackman, French Connection-B-
I love Gene Hackman but I've always thought of this film as more of a technical achievement than a human story. Of all the directors who've won Oscars for best picture, I've had the opportunity to directly question, um, one of them and that was Friedkin. I asked him what he wanted his picture to be remembered for and he replied that he wanted his film to be remembered for the way it portrayed cops as not what you always associated them with. Hackman certainly ups it on the toughness scale for this role, but I can't help but feeling his performance plays second fiddle to the car chase scene.

1975-Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-B+
Nicholson is a great actor of both great intensity and the ability to bring that intensity with variation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest didn't fully resonate with me the way it captivated and continues to captivate audiences and that's where the gap between A and B+ comes out of.

1976-Peter Finch, Network-A
For the ratio of Finch's screen-time to your average best picture Oscar winner or nominee's screen time (minus Marvin), Finch is almost like a one-scene wonder. Network is almost like an ensemble piece with Holden, Dunaway, the Holden-Straight marriage and Finch's arcs commanding equal presence. Finch commands the screen with what he has and his inspired diatribes are what you remember more than anything else. It doesn't hurt that Paddy Chayefsky's script is widely regarded as among the greatest ever put to screen or that Finch's dialogue would become so eerily prophetic, but Finch's possession by some maniacal suicide-inducing force commands enough attention on its own to earn the top mark from me.

1981-Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond-B
Fonda in his prime is so much better than Fonda as an old man. It's a sad, inescapable fact. Samuel L. Jackson was quoted in Charles Barkley's book (I know, it's an unlikely source, but go with it) as saying that Oscars are won for moments and not for whole films. I can't help but thinking that the Oscar was voting on the basis of the scene where Fonda, whose prime years of his career existed during the Hayes and Breen codes, startles his son-in-law by pressuring him to discuss his sex habits. Nevertheless, it's a great drama with great moments all around. I do think that using the independent variable/control analogy, Jane Fonda bent a little more than her dad did. (For those keeping score, this is the second time, I downgraded an Oscar winner for being outacted by Jane Fonda)

1986-Paul Newman, Color of Money-F
I like Paul Newman just fine but there's really nothing to celebrate about this perfomrnance at all (the picture fares slightly better at a D). It's very clearly just dues. I do enjoy it when an actor I've known for a while finally gets his Oscar but not when it's so blatant that it's distorting the Oscar race.

1987-Michael Douglas, Wall Street-A-
I enjoyed seeing a popular film get a win and I think Michael Douglas is one of the best actors of his generation. I'm not sure why he doesn't get Oscar nominations as often as some of his contemporaries (this was his only nom). Gordon Gecko has also become iconic which has been great for the legacy of the younger Douglas.

1988-Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man-A
Playing someone with a mental disability can often be cheapening in the wrong hands, but Dustin Hoffman's performance is multi-layered which is what I imagine a person with his condition would be. Raymond Babbit is a very complex person and just as his rare moments of lucidity and warmth are infinitely rewarding for his brother to experience, they are for the audience because they're so genuine in Hoffman's hands.

1991-Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs-A-
Somewhat of a tangent, but why is he still Dr. Lechter. Wouldn't the state of New York strip Hannibal Lechter of his medical license once he started eating people? Anyway, it's a performance of frightening intensity. If I had to explain away the minus (which normally wouldn't be worth explaining since that's really just an intuitive gap in judgement), I always felt that the refined classical-music listening angle to the character was a little bit of a crutch.

1992-Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman-A
Pacino gets so much flak for this performance of the type that I just gave to Paul Newman (too blatant an attempt for dues). I wish that the historical consensus on Pacino in SoaW wasn't "bad performance, awarded because of dues" but rather ""Your Mileage May Vary"". In Kirk Douglas' autobiography, he mentions that when Pacino does the tango blind, it's practically his favorite performance in all of acting. I think it's a mesmerizing performance and there's not a false moment in here. The reasoning behind Pacino's dramatic monologue at the end is a little bizarre (saying that Chris O'Donnell's shouldn't have to tattle because he's poor) but that's the fault of the screenplay and not him.

1994-Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump-A-
Is this a standard person-with-disability role or is it a life story about a guy who's been through a lot? At times, you almost forget that it's the former. The film would have been hokey if not for Hanks. The fact that it's a life story with different stages doesn't prompt me to cry "Oscar bait" on this performance. With little to no make-up (although there's a lot of excess facial hair in the cross-country running scenes), Hanks authentically infuses the character with the maturity and growth of each experience.

1996-Geoffrey Rush, Shine-B
Rush is a great actor and I think this is a perfectly good performance. If I had to nitpick about why this isn't an A, I don't think I entirely understood him inside and out from a perspective of his disease. I understood the emotional scarring from the character's father, but what exactly did the disease do to him? I felt like the diseased man that Dustin Hoffman portrayed gave just a little bit of a more engaging and complex picture with Babbit than Rush did with the character he was portraying.

1997-Jack Nicholson, As Good as It Gets-C
It's not in Nicholson's top ten performances, that's for sure. I don't even particularly like the film and the May-December romance doesn't entirely work. If you're going to award a third Oscar, even to the great Jack Nicholson, it should be for going into new territory. It's not an overtly bad performance, though.

1998-Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful-B
This is certainly a controversial win. For one, Benigni was already honored with a best director nom and a foreign film win and he didn't really need the best actor award for validation. In addition, the film's trivialization of the holocaust for joke fodder won over audiences at the time, but in retrospect, the film has come off as a little tacky. Lastly, Benigni's campaigning (with the encouragement of the Weinsteins) was a little excessive at the time.
I definitely agree with the first count and the field was crowded enough to have a pretty good winner. Then again, how often has someone with genuine comic gifts been rewarded by the academy for using them. I'd have to look this up but I believe many comic geniuses have only been nominated or awarded by the Academy for going serious.

1999-Kevin Spacey, American Beauty-C+
Spacey basically won for playing a character on "Weeds." But in all seriousness, Spacey has some great moments in here but I found "American Beauty" to be awkward and unsettling (although maybe unsettling was part of the point). Because the film rests on Spacey's shoulders, I can't help but blame that on how Spacey interpreted the part. Two brilliant things about the performance stick out years after watching the film: How Spacey continued to remain a sort of there-but-not-really-there presence at dinner tables as he was beginning his slow descent into suburban madness and his scene with Chris Cooper where he responds to the twist of what his homophobia is all about. At the same time, Spacey's conversion from caring so much about work to saying F-you to his boss or talking back to his wife felt a little rushed and didn't pack as much dramatic punch as I would have wanted.

2000-Russell Crowe, Gladiator-A
Crowe is, in my opinion, the best actor of today. His choices as an actor are very subtle and intricate. The role here is undeniably a showy one. He makes grand pronouncements about saving the Roman Empire by usurping it's corrupt (yet unimpeachable) emperor which doesn't lend itself to being played half-assed. Yet, his intricacies and subtleties make the downs and ups of his arc richer. The parts of the storyline where Maximus is weak in prison or feeling destitute, it's all there.

2003-Sean Penn, Mystic River-B+
I remember being impressed with Penn when I finished watching the movie. Upon retrospect, it was just a lot of yelling, but I have to go with my first impression or at least split the difference.

2004-Jamie Foxx, Ray-A
Possibly, the performance of the decade. He completely inhabited Ray Charles and bonus points for the singing and playing. His moments of vulnerability, of charisma, of empathy (at times) for causes (fighting segregation) or people around him (his late mother and brother) are all moving.

2005-Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote-C
Hoffman is a great actor but I never saw Capote's charisma when I saw Hoffman on screen. It was reported that Truman Capote, despite being flamboyantly gay in an era where being out of the closet was difficult, was such a charismatic figure that everyone flocked to him. Even macho men like John Huston and Humphrey Bogart enjoyed his company. I never saw that with Hoffman's version of Capote. His chemistry with Clifton Collins Jr., however, and the aspects of the story that revolve around Capote's friendship and guilt over Perry Smith worked well and is the reason this isn't being downgraded to a D. The other reason for the low grade is that it was a very competitive year filled with great performances.

2006-Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland-A
The mannerisms of Idi Amin and the gravity of his presence are both captured very well by Whitaker. Amin turns out to be a very scary presence and it's to Whitaker's credit that the full terror of his ways is, at first, overshadowed by his charisma and self-assessment that he's a visionary trying to do good. It is very hard to believe that despite being in so many high-profile films (Crying Game, Good Morning Vietnam, Color of Money, etc.), Whitaker was never a well-known actor until this Oscar came along.

2007-Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood N/A
I don't think I can properly discuss this one. I saw about an hour of the middle of the film in a movie theater while waiting for another film to start. I then saw it on netflix, but I was distracted with having pieced together with what I watched before with what I was watching at the time. I believe I have seen something like 80% of his performnace, but it wasn't enough

2008-Sean Penn, Milk A-
A very good performance by Penn. Harvey Milk was a charismatic force of nature, but with Penn's performance, it's all the little things that add up to making us mourn the character's inevitable death and being moved by his presence. In the film, Milk always comes off as a guy who always feels a little bit out of place whether he's gay in a straight world, someone without political background entering politics, or a guy ill-suited for monogamy. Penn also plays that uneasiness very well.

Also, check out this article: Is the star era over?

No comments: