The gratuitous back-patting known as the Academy Awards will get underway in less than a month (February 26th this year), and though I haven’t really given the ceremony that much thought, a stray comment from my fellow classic movie pal ClassicBecky on my recent The Long Walk Home review set in motion an idea for a post:
I was particularly interested in your view of actors winning Oscars for the wrong movies. Made me think of Russell Crowe winning the Oscar for "Gladiator", in which his predominant line of dialogue was the monotonal "I am Maximus." Then the very next year, losing the Oscar for his truly remarkable performance in "A Beautiful Mind." Huh?
Alternate Oscars. Published in 1993, Peary argues that throughout the history of Academy Awards, the films that should have been recognized aren’t for a variety of reasons—mostly having to do with Hollywood politics. (Look, I love How Green Was My Valley as much as the next person…but is it really a better film than Citizen Kane—despite Orson Welles’ on-the-record reverence for John Ford?) Danny attempts to rectify the many mistakes Oscar has made throughout its history; sometimes he’s okay with the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…other times he questions as to whether its membership was passing around a crack pipe. If you don’t have this invaluable reference on your movie bookshelf, you need to do so at your earliest opportunity; it’s available from a number of used bookstore both online and off (it’s OOP, sadly—Peary seems to be more comfortable writing sports books these days) but in case you’re curious about its contents, you can find the complete list from the book at one of my favorite movie sites: FilmFanatic.org.
Speaking of John Wayne (well, he’s in Fort Apache as well)—the Duke got his “Atta boy” from his peers for True Grit (1969) …even though he was just being John Wayne in an eyepatch. To be frank, John Wayne pretty much played John Wayne in every movie he was in…but he could occasionally step up to the place and hit one out of the thespic park. It’s no coinky-dink that these performances were in films directed by the aforementioned Mr. Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949—my personal favorite), The Quiet Man (1952—Peary’s pick in AO), The Searchers (1956) …and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (I always forget how splendid that movie is until I take the time to sit down with it again.)
Humphrey Bogart – Despite my love for Bogart, most of his movie roles were, like John Wayne, variations on his established persona—including The African Queen (1951), the one that earned him his Oscar. But Bogie gives much more interesting (and in my opinion, better) performances in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950). My sentimental favorites are Deadline – U.S.A. (1952) and Humphrey’s swan song, The Harder They Fall (1956).
Burt Lancaster – I’ve said it many times in the past: Burt Lancaster’s acting got better and better with age. You can see the genesis of this in my favorite of his films, The Swimmer (1968) …but he was really on fire by the time he made Atlantic City (1980—this is the one I’d hand him an Oscar for), Local Hero (1983), and Field of Dreams (1989). Peary takes Burt’s trophy for Elmer Gantry (1960) and gives it to Anthony Perkins for Psycho (ignoring the fact that Perkins played variations on Norman Bates pretty much the entirety of his career). Not even an honorable mention for Sweet Smell of Success (1957—maybe he thought Burt was a supporting actor in this one)!
Paul Newman – Newman was nominated for an Oscar six times before the Academy decided to give him a special trophy…and then the following year, he got the Best Actor prize for The Color of Money (1986). Paul would score two more nominations following this (one of them a favorite of mine, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool) …but how he got overlooked for The Hustler (1961—Peary’s choice), Hud (1963), or The Verdict (1982—this is for me his Oscar-winning performance) is a mystery for the old man on the mountain.
Al Pacino – The Rod Steiger of his era. I paid good money to see the film for which they finally gave Pacino an Oscar, Scent of a Woman (1992). (The only positive thing to come out of that experience was that I spotted soap stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes in the theatre lobby.) Any of the 70s films that Al received noms for—The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …and justice for all (my favorite)—would have been better choices. (Future nominations stopped with his Scent Oscar, yet despite his propensity for scenery chewing, Al’s given some wonderful performances in the twilight of his career: Donnie Brasco , The Insider , Insomnia , etc.)