…you can smell it in the air, can’t you? No, I’m not talking about politics (and besides, it’s kinda hard to distinguish that scent from the dairy farm down the road) since I did that already. It’s the annual Academy Awards ceremony—a do that technically celebrates excellence in film but what essentially boils down to what Warren Beatty once joshed: “We want to thank all of you for watching us congratulate ourselves tonight.”
My favorite film historian, Danny Peary, makes the point in his wonderful book Alternate Oscars that in the Oscar race, the Academy most often gets it wrong and has been doing so ever since its inception. In Alternative, Peary doles out Oscars to pictures and people who are far more deserving (for example, Best Actor winners include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Boris Karloff, Montgomery Clift, etc.)
Last year, Edward Copeland—or “the hardest working man in Film Blogdom,” as self-styled siren Campaspe dubs him—sponsored a contest picking the best and worst Best Actress winners…a competition in which I was only too happy to participate. This year, Mr. C has chosen to recognize the male side of the equation in requesting participants to choose the Best and Worst Best Actor winners. (I apologize for not publicizing this news on TDOY a while back, by the way—I received an e-mail from Ed alerting me to the contest and I full intended to post something but, as Paul Heinreid remarks in Casablanca: “Something always held me up.” Truth be told, I just barely got my choices in about an hour or two before the deadline.)
This contest was a bit more difficult than the Best-Worst Actress races; after looking over the list of Best Actor winners it was pretty hard to choose any of them because most of my favorite performances—like Peary’s—are in movies ignored by the Academy. Plus, we are sort of on the honor system—the rules stipulate that you’ve had to have seen the movie and I’m not ashamed to admit that there’s quite a few that have not seen the inside of my DVD player (and probably never will). Also, one or two of my picks might be a bit controversial or iconoclastic—for example, I put Bill Holden’s performance in Stalag 17 on the list because…well, I just like his performance. (Holden is supposed to have remarked when Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for Network: “If that son-of-a-bitch hadn’t died, I’d have another Oscar by now.”) I was also sorry that I wasn’t able to fit Tom Hanks into my top Five worst, since he sort of epitomizes how I feel about the annual Oscar derby (he’s got two of the damn things, just like Luise Rainer). But, I’m always willing to give it the old college try, so I managed to cobble together this list:
5) Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990) – Irons takes on an incredible acting challenge in this film based on the true-life story of Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close), who wound up in a brain-dead coma and whose husband, Claus, was accused and convicted of attempted murder. Irons sets out to make von Bulow—by all accounts an immensely arrogant and detestable wanker—a sympathetic figure who’s wrongly been denied justice. The final scene, where Irons (as Bulow) goes into a drugstore for a pack of cigarettes and replies “Yes…a vial of insulin” to the clerk who’s asked if he needs anything else is one of the most chilling (and hilarious) moments in modern cinema.
4) William Holden, Stalag 17 (1953) – Holden’s portrayal of J.J. Sefton—a World War II P.O.W. who will do anything to make his miserable existence more comfortable—is a performance that has stayed in the mists of my memory ever since I saw Stalag 17 on television as a kid. It’s not that Sefton approaches the wankeritude of, say, Claus von Bulow—it’s just that he knows through experience that you can only depend on one individual to survive this cold, cruel world and J.J.’s numero uno. (“So maybe I trade a little sharper…that make me a collaborator?”) Many individuals (including the film’s director, Billy Wilder) have criticized the scene at the end where Sefton gives his fellow P.O.W.’s the big “F.U.” as he descends into the tunnel to make his escape…then pops back up to give them a friendly wave. Speaking only for myself, I have no problem with it—I like to think that Sefton has had a “Road to Damascus” conversion similar to Rick Blaine in Casablanca.
3) Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Let’s face facts: despite his considerable fan base, Peck was unfortunately saddled with an inescapable wooden quality in many of his screen performances—but he transcended that handicap in this dead-solid-perfect adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel by playing lawyer Atticus Finch, whose defense of a black man (Brock Peters) accused of rape is doomed from the get-go due to the racist attitudes of the sleepy Southern community in which he’s lived all his life. But that’s why I love his performance so; he’s boned and he knows it, yet he maintains a grace and dignity that refuses to be tarnished by the mouth-breathing crackers in town. Atticus’ taking-down of a mad dog (a none-too-subtle foreshadowing on what he’ll face during the trial) is indelibly tattooed on my brain to this day.
2) James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – As a rule, I prefer Jimmy’s roles in films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or White Heat (1949) to his one-of-a-kind turn as singer-hoofer-composer George M. Cohan, but even I can’t dismiss his performance in this wonderful musical that doesn’t skimp on the teary-eyed patriotism (hey, there was a war going on when this was made). What I admire most about Cagney’s take on Cohan is his optimistic, can-do attitude; watching the film it’s impossible not to believe that Cohan never had a bad day in his life. And when Cagney tap-dances down the White House stairs at Dandy’s end…sheer movie magic.
1) Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954) – I don’t think any individual who has been awarded the coveted Best Actor prize ever came close to duplicating the electricity of Brando’s performance as the washed-up prize fighter up to his eyeballs in union corruption and is eventually forced to “do the right thing,” as Ossie Davis might say. It’s difficult for me to fully embrace this film, because I know director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg are manipulating me to accept their “naming names” during the HUAC witch hunts by placing their story against a milleu of lawlessness and crime—where I just have to be on Brando’s side. But then I remember what author Barry Gifford once said about Waterfront being more about the fight game than any real boxing picture, and suddenly it doesn’t matter. Brando demonstrates that he definitely wasn’t just a contendah…he could’ve been somebody…and was…
5) Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981) – Were it not for the fact that Fonda gave a grand performance as Tom Joad in the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (and is also first-rate in John Ford’s Fort Apache), I would have been tempted to rank him at #1. His 1981 Best Actor win for this insipid, diabetes-inducing drek is the worst example of a “sympathy Oscar” I can think of; a pitying cranky-old-man-with-a-heart-of-gold performance from an actor for whom I normally have immense respect for but who should have seriously considered retiring long ago instead of agreeing to appear in this 2-hour excruciating depression just so he could share the screen with daughter Jane. (So I’m mean. You want nice, get a puppy.)
4) Clark Gable, It Happened One Night (1934) – The “King” of Hollywood should never have been considered for a Best Actor Oscar in any year; although he was competent enough not to bump into the furniture in most of his performances, he rarely managed to distinguish himself from the same in his slightly-above-bad-dinner-theater thespic talents.
3) Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988) – Hoffman received accolades for his role as autistic savant Raymond Babbitt…but oddly enough, it’s the often critically-and-publicly-reviled Tom Cruise who delivers the better performance in this film. What makes Hoffman so unbearable is that it’s one of those turns where you know he’s acting and is just calculating his performance to win an Oscar. Hoffman took a lot of flack for misrepresenting how autistics really behave…if only those critics had the clout not to award him the Best Actor trophy in the first place.
2) Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1996) – Another example of a “Lookit, Ma—I’m acting” performance, I still have not been able to fathom to this day why Cage is considered such a talent. With the exception of Raising Arizona (1987), every movie of his I’ve sat through is like root canal in slow motion. It doesn’t help, of course, that the film itself is depressing—when a friend asked me what I thought of it, the only thing I could reply is: “Well…it’s definitely not a date movie.”
1) Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992) – Once upon a time, Al Pacino was an acting powerhouse who left a rich legacy of performances in films like The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Unfortunately, with each passing film, it didn’t escape notice that he was being ignored for his past triumphs—and finally the Academy felt it was imperative to hand him a Best Actor trophy because they might never get another chance. That statue was for Scent of a Woman…the absolutely, positively worst Best Acting performance ever on celluloid. It’s not that Pacino chews up the scenery…it’s that he just stands in one corner and sort of swallows everything whole. The manager at the theater I saw Woman in threatened not to let me come back because I raised holy hell and loudly demanded my money back for having to sit through Pacino’s farce of a performance. (Something tells me I wasn’t the first.)
So there you have it…and as soon as the results are tallied at Chez Copeland, we’ll see how many match the winners and the losers. I haven’t checked out any of the other film bloggers’ lists, which the exception of Campaspe’s: we agree on Cagney and Brando in the Best Best Actor choices, and Al “Hoo hah” Pacino for Worst (she’s got Roberto Benigni as #1 on her Worst list—the man that I’m convinced will win all the marbles in this competition—but I left him off my tally only because I haven’t seen the movie and really have no desire to do so.)