Saturday, February 02, 2008


My picks for best/worst best actor survey

By Edward Copeland
The polls have closed. I hope to unveil the worst list Monday and the best list Tuesday. In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you how I cast my ballot. The only performances I haven't seen are Emil Jannings' and George Arliss in Disraeli. That said, it was harder for me to narrow down to just 5 worsts while the 5 bests came fairly easily.



When I made out my list, I did what I usually do when trying to compile things: match the winners up against each other and then find my choices by process of elimination. For example: I'd say Forest Whitaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland wasn't as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman's in Capote. Then I'd match Whitaker up against the previous year's winner, etc., until I found a performance I thought was worse and so on. So, no one would probably be surprised as I was that I didn't automatically send Roberto Benigni to the top. In general, I like David Niven, but his performance in Separate Tables was mannered and essentially a supporting role. Niven was at his best when he was just being charming, but he was outclassed by everyone else in that film's ensemble as well as his four competitors for the prize (Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea).


Niven was the only best actor winner to stop Roberto in my book. In a way, I feel sorry for Benigni. The first time I saw Life Is Beautiful, I sort of liked it, but something about the film nagged at me. When I saw it again and read some of the more negative reviews, my feelings began to crystallize more and his manic antics in the film and at award shows just got to me, especially considering his competition at the Oscars: Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Nick Nolte in Affliction and Edward Norton in American History X. Even if you liked Roberto's performance and Life Is Beautiful, can anyone argue with a straight face that Benigni's work was superior to the other four?


Josh R will probably hate me for this pick, but I have to do it. I love Tracy in most of his films, but in this sappy sea tale, he sounds to me as if he's doing an impression of Chico Marx instead of actually being a Portugese fisherman. I just felt embarrassed for Spencer while I was watching it.


Lukas and the film are nothing if not earnest, but they also are boring, bland and banal as well. For me, Lukas is one of the great Oscar mysteries. None of his film work before or after Watch on the Rhine was particularly notable, so I wonder how he got on the radar in the first place. I would say he was competing against a weak field (Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie and Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy) except the fifth member of that group was Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. The film won a lot that year, so how did Bogie miss? As a result, they had to make it up to Bogie in 1951 for The African Queen, meaning Marlon Brando lost for A Streetcar Named Desire. What a tangled web the Academy weaves with its mistakes.


Russell Crowe deserves to be an Oscar-winning actor. Almost every performance he gives is a good, if not great, one. So it's particularly appalling that his win came for Gladiator. I can't remember who wrote it, but I always liked the line asking why a Spaniard fighting for the Romans had an Australian accent. Sometimes, I think Crowe himself is embarrassed by winning for this, much in the same way Al Pacino acts when Scent of a Woman comes up.



There's no point in trying to be original with my top 2 on the best list, since by and large they are the consensus choices with only their order differing. Brando's incredible and moving Terry Malloy is simply one of the best film performances of all time. Above, I expressed that he should have won for A Streetcar Named Desire. That is true, but his Terry is even better than his Stanley.


When I see De Niro's work here or in Taxi Driver or just about anything before 1990, I actually start to feel sad. What happened? He gave it his all and then some as Jake La Motta and each role he took, seemed to be different and powerful. He could be funny back then as well (think Midnight Run), but whether it's for money or who knows what, his focus on comedy has made him soft and lowered his reputation. Even his acting in dramatic roles such as This Boy's Life or Cape Fear, began to seem overdone. Whatever has changed De Niro really doesn't matter: As long as copies exist of Raging Bull and the others, he will be remembered as one of the all-time greats.


A lot of worst votes have been cast for Nicholson's 1997 win for As Good As It Gets. While I don't think he should have won his third Oscar for that (a third for About Schmidt would have been fine by me), but few argue with his first win as McMurphy here. What I love about Nicholson is that he reminds me a lot of the old Hollywood stars. Most of the time, each of his roles are distinct, yet the recognizability of his star power like that of a Cagney or a Bogart is always present. Cuckoo's Nest really is his signature role and his work here makes a pretty good movie into a very good one, even though it still shouldn't have won over Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws or Nashville.


Speaking of Cagney, I was surprised by how many people had the same idea that I did with picking Cagney for their five best. An actor known best as a tough guy, sings and dances and acts with so much energy and flair, it's hard not to love his George M. Cohan. In fact, if it weren't for Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter, I'd say Cagney's win is the best ever for a musical performance.

(MY LEFT FOOT, 1989)

As much as I hated There Will Be Blood and thought Day-Lewis gives hamminess a bad name as the film goes on, part of me wanted to punish him by not including his great role as Christy Brown, but that wouldn't be right. I remember too vividly how much his performance wowed me. I know — I get as tired of these types of Oscar-bait roles as anyone, but Day-Lewis really rose above the stunt stigma with his performance. When there was so much speculation that the Oscar would go to Tom Cruise for Born on the Fourth of July or Morgan Freeman for Driving Miss Daisy, I declared that it wouldn't be a just world unless Day-Lewis won. Of course he did, but the world proved not to be a just one anyway.

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re: Benigni
To be honest, he's one of my favourite winners from the past 10 years. Even if he is just playing himself (and I find him hilarious - at least in movies, not so much at awards shows), there are a few scenes where the denial and the fear flash through subtly. These make the performance inifinitely more powerful than the generic Holocaust portrayals that are routinely nominated and win.
I couldn't argue that he was better than McKellen (though I do need to see Gods and Monsters again), but I found Nolte insufferably over-the-top, Norton was bogged down by too many didactic monologues, and Tom 'i-coulda-been-a-schoolteachah' Hanks looked uncomfortable through the whole movie.

re: Lukas
I've read Watch on the Rhine was the prohibitive Best Picture favourite for the year, so it had to win at least one major prize.

re: Crowe
I know I've made the Aussie-accent crack cause the accent did shit me enormously, but I don't know that I was the only. (I just realised I forgot to vote for Crowe even though he's comfortably among the 5 worst winners.)
I like your picks, and I don't think I picked any of you Best Best Actor ones. I felt the first two were a little too obvious, so I went for the less well-known ones. I forget if Day-Lewis made my shortlist or not. If he didn't; he was damn close, because I love the guy.

As for Worst Best Actor; Begnini is beaten only by the Hanks duet.
Crowe tops my best of the best list. He's fantastic in everything.
Your ballot looks pretty sound, and I'm really convinced now that I need to see On The Waterfront. My dilemna was whether to vote for amazing performances that elevate the craft of acting (i.e. DeNiro and Day-Lewis), or whether to go for iconic performances that were so memorable they have entered the popular consciousness (i.e. Brando in The Godfather, Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs). I have also become painfully aware that although I've seen a lot of movies, I haven't seen a lot of these older Best Actor performances. Most of my list is fairly recent - since that's what I remember either seeing in a theater or on cable. I have a lot of catching up to do. Looking forward to the results.
Well you've seen my list (at least I hope you got it in your mailbox) so you can see on the Best we have much in common. On the Worst we only share one but I think your other four are all excellent choices and all turned over in my head before making my picks. Niven and Crowe came awful close for me but Benigni - I think he's going to be the clear winner. I've only seen four ballots so far but all four (including my own) have Benigni in the number one or two position. I'm thinking it's gonna be a landslide.
As hard as it may be to wrap one's mind around it now, back in the day Casablanca's Best Picture win was considered a huge shocker. At the time, it was considered more in line with Raiders of the Lost Ark or critics wondered aloud how mainstream Hollywood pap could win over important, artistically challenging fare like the presumptive frontrunner, The Song of Bernadette. The question isn't so much why Bogie didn't win as it is how good sense managed to prevail as far as Best Picture was concerned.

I don't hate you for citing Tracy - I like his performance in Captains Courageous, but certainly he gave many more deserving ones in his career. The award Niven won for his shitty work in Separate Tables would have been more rightly bestowed upon Tracy - only for The Last Hurrah, as opposed to the lumbering Old Man and the Sea.

Four of our five Bests matched - not having seen There Will Be Blood, I didn't hold it against Day-Lewis. While I loved his work in My Left Foot, there was one I liked better.
It was much harder for me to narrow down the worst than the best. So many unworthy contenders were in the hunt: Heston, Pacino, Hoffman in Rain Man ...
No one has mentioned Art Carney in Harry & Tonto a passable performance which should never have been nominated let alone win or Jose Ferrer playing to the back of the theater in Cyrano de Bergerac. As for the best F. Murray Abraham, I had never been so facinated by a performace before or since.Robert Donat for the complete beauty of his Mr. Chips. Or Gregory Peck for what has to be the most iconic of performances in To Kill a Mocking Bird
None of his film work before or after Watch on the Rhine was particularly notable, so I wonder how he got on the radar in the first place.

And this is where my patented Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ comes in (“Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.”)…he’s aces in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Lukas’ problem is that, from a modern-day perspective, his performances frequently come across as bad impressions (if such a thing is possible) of Bela Lugosi. Still, he surprises me on a few occasions…he’s not too shabby in vehicles like City Streets (1931) or Berlin Express (1948).
Just saw There Will be Blood two days ago, and while not nearly as high on the movies as many (interesting but not completely engaging in a personal way among other mild problems), I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was his usual excellent self. One of the few actors where I don't think I detect the underlying person.
Just a comment about the "why does a Spaniard fighting for the Romans have an Australian accent?" crack.

When the film came out, someone observed that it was actually a clever choice: Romans are always depicted as having posh, plummy English accents; Australia is to the British Empire what Spain was to the Roman Empire--a colony, speaking most likely a corrupted version of the perfect language at the source. I've always liked that argument; that it takes into account Spain's place in the farther-flung corners of the Roman Empire. So, it actually works for me.
For me, Al Pacino, for Scent of a Woman, get an entry in this list.

Ernest Borgnine, for Marty, too.

Why not Denzel Washington for the forgetable Training Day? He did other better and wonderful performances (Hurricane, Malcolm X, The Inside Man and even in American Gangster).

And what about Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies? Does anyone remembered that movie?
Duvall was a contender for my best. Though they wouldn't be my choices, I thought both Borgnine and Washington were fine, just not good enough for the best list. Pacino was certainly a contender for the worst, but since I knew he'd get plenty of votes, I opted for 5 others. The worst choices were plentiful: I had to leave out Heston and Hoffman in Rain Man as well.
I can’t argue with the top 19 Best Best Actor winners.
And I’m glad YOU at least acknowledged what an overrated performance Roberto Benigni for that horrible flick, Life Is Beautiful is.
The fact that Benigni and so many other were ranked higher then Dustin Hoffman for Kramer Vs Kramer makes me assume your reader obviously need razz-ma-taz and not subtlety for a performance to rate high. Case in point his one-note Rain Man performance rating higher then Kramer Vs Kramer. I’d put Hoffman in KVSK inn my top 20. Offhand he would certainly rank above the already mentioned and I’ll add
Art Carney, Sidney Poitier, Michael Douglas, Paul Newman (great actor, wrong movie), Ernest Borgnine, Jack Lemmon (another great actor wrong movie), Tom Hanks, Warner Baxter and ugh Al Pacino for the already dated, unwatchable Scent Of A Woman (he shoulda got supporting actor for the first Godfather).
Russell Crowe had an english accent throughtout the entire film in gladiator, get your ears checked!!!
I'm sorry. He was a Spaniard fighting for the Romans who had an English accent for some reason, not an Australian one. Either way, it wasn't a Spanish one and it was a very good actor winning an Oscar for a role he shouldn't have. Even he looked embarrassed winning for that. If he'd won for The Insider or A Beautiful Mind or lots of others, it would have been understandable, but for Gladiator, the only thing sillier was that it won best picture.
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