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Best... What? III-D: Five Dubious Best Actor Winners

Al-Pacino-Scent-of-a-Woman Having already explored the depth and breadth and height (but mostly depth) to which the Academy Awards can sink and sink and sink when it comes to Best Picture Winners of dubious distinction, we - the good and wise folk of MamaPop - would now like to bring to your attention a five-pack (like a six-pack; only better) of award-winners for Best Actor who... well... weren't.

1. 1998: Roberto Benigni — Life is Beautiful
Every time I think of this movie, I'm tempted to swallow my own tongue and die — because in all honesty, that's preferable to the thought of once again experiencing in part, if not in whole, the nausea-inducing spectacle of Roberto Benigni (what's Italian for jackass? Oh, right. Benigni.) using the Holocaust as a backdrop for heartwarming family comedy. This movie is like some kind of unholy perfect storm of comedic evil: it's as if some mad scientist (not the good kind, either) combined Jerry Lewis at his most cringe-inducingly self-important "France thinks I'm a genius" delusional with Robin Williams in full-on smiling-through-the-tears Patch Adams mode, stuck them both in the body of a garden gnome, showed them Jim Carrey doing facial goofiness in Ace Ventura and said, "Do that, only BIGGER"... and then set the whole movie the middle of, oh yeah: the fucking holocaust. 

If that's not horrifying enough... have you seen who Benigni beat to win the Oscar in '98? It's like a who's who of great performances of the past 15 years. Edward Norton doing his brilliant Edward Norton thing in American History X. Nick Nolte - before he became a punchline - producing a devastating downward spiral in the incredible adaptation of Russell Banks' Affliction. Tom Hanks in what may well be the best performance of his career in Speilberg's Saving Private Ryan. And, best of them all, your real winner for 1998's Best Actor Oscar... Sir Ian MacKellen in Gods & Monsters.

2. 1997: Jack Nicholson — As Good As It Gets
I mean no disrespect to Jack, who is in full-on charming Jack mode here... but this isn't close to being one of his half-dozen best performances (which are in: Chinatown, The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Departed, and A Few Good Men), and certainly not the best lead performance of '97. Yeah, his "You make me want to be a better man" speech is pretty awesome, but that's as much a testament to James Brooks' screenwriting skillz as it is to Nicholson's (admittedly impressive) acting chops. But put his performance head-to-head against Peter Fonda in the gorgeously understated Ulee's Gold, and it's not even close. And then you take Matt Damon's outstanding performance in Good Will Hunting - a truly indelible character for the ages, and more than a character: a human who you believe you understand and see as real, by the time the film is done - and it's clear: Jack's victory in '98 was an expression of love for Jack, and not an honest recognition of accomplishment in acting. The real winner? Damon. 

3. 1992: Al Pacino — Scent of a Woman
If not for the diatribe you just read about Life is Beautiful, this is the part where I'd launch into an insane rant about how Scent of a Woman may be the single worst film ever nominated for boatloads of Oscars. And while it's not quite as insultingly horrible as the Benigni-fest... it's not far off. And Pacino. Al. Oh, Al. Remember your glory days? When you underplayed, and underplayed, and underplayed, and let the emotion flow through your eyes and the corners of your mouth, and in those rare moments when your voice rose into a roar it was enough to make the world stop dead and pay attention to nothing but you? Those days felt looooooong gone by the time Scent of a Woman came out. It's like he discovered Yelling = Great Acting when he made Scarface in '83... and then didn't change his mind until Michael Mann talked him into going subtle again in '95's Heat. Scent of a Woman is screamy Al at his worst: grotesque overemoting at every possible turn, playing off the bland blandness of Chris O'Donnell as his young foil/eye candy, and doing terrible, terrible things to the movie's terrible, terrible dialogue.

Dear Academy Awards: you gave the Oscar to Pacino in '92 over Clint in Unforgiven? Yeah, I know... in your weird movie math you figured he was already walking away with enough other awards for the film, but the fact remains that Unforgiven is a brilliant film on every conceivable level, and Eastwood delivers the single greatest performance of his long and distinguished career in it... and you decided to give Best Actor to Pacino because he was LOUDER? Morons.

4. 1974: Art Carney — Harry and Tonto
Oh, right. This explains everything. Why did Pacino win in '92? Because the Academy KNEW they blew it back in '74, and they were trying to do a make-good. But here's the thing, Academy: you don't learn from your mistakes... you just keep making newer and stupider ones. You blew it in '92, and you sure as hell blew it back in '74, when you overlooked Pacino's 1000% iconic performance as Michael Corleone in Godfather II in favor of... uh... Art Carney playing opposite a cat in Harry and Tonto. Please note that Art Carney playing opposite a cat also beat out Jack Fucking Nicholson in Chinatown

OH. MY. GOD. Two of the greatest film performances of all time in two of the best films of all time delivered in the same year... and both actors lose out to an old guy and his cat. Look, no disrespect to Carney, but is there any way this makes sense? At all? To anyone?

5. 2005: Phillip Seymour Hoffman — Capote
I'm actually kind of embarrassed to include this on the list, as Hoffman's performance in Capote is significantly better than that of the winners of several other recent years - Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland in '06 and Jamie Foxx in '04 for Ray (both good performances, but nothing for the ages) both won in competitively weak years - but Hoffman gets the nomination here for winning despite offering a performance that pales before some of the others he's offered over the course of his career... and one that is only (at best) the 3rd best out of 5 nominees for Best Actor in '05.

Look: it's an interesting movie, but it's impossible to see it without being overwhelmed by the feeling that you're watching a caricature. And that's not to say that Hoffman didn't do a dead solid job of accurately capturing the mercurial and occasionally brilliant Capote... but Capote was himself a self-parody in motion even during his moments of glory, and as a result there's a kind of weird self-consciousness that suffuses the film and undermines even its most powerful moments (esp. the tense, complicated and deeply manipulative relationship that Capote builds with the two killers in a Kansas prison).

But in many ways, the mark of a truly great acting performance is that it lingers in your head for days, weeks, years afterwards — as do the vivid emotions that the performance not only creates onscreen but instills in its audience. And by those parameters, Hoffman's performance in Capote falls behind in the final tally to the late Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and the terrific Terrance Howard in Hustle and Flow. Which one should have beaten Capote? Personally, I'd go with Howard - who was fascinating and terrible and absolutely hypnotic every second he was on the screen - but I don't think there's a wrong answer between the two of them.

. . . . .
TwoBusy now has the Capote voice stuck in his head, and isn't a bit happy about it.

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Not sure how I feel about that last one-- Hoffman is brilliant. And I honestly don't think that the fact that it isn't his own best performance should work against him.

As for '98? That's the year I stopped watching the Oscars (with the exception of the opening monologue and any music numbers-- they're fun). Norton didn't win because he didn't feel comfortable promoting himself in a movie so unsettling and violent as American History X. The fact that you can't win if you don't want to sell your performance tells me that it's a sham.


Mystic River just didn't blow me away. Although I'm glad Sean Penn finally won something, I'll always be a little bitter his first win wasn't for Dead Man Walking, especially since that was the year of Leaving Las Vegas, which...there are no words for how overrated I thought that movie was.

I couldn't even stand to finish There Will Be Blood, but I didn't see enough of the other nominated roles to be upset about Daniel Day Lewis' win.

I also didn't get Forrest Gump's hype either, especially considering how great Shawshank Redemption is/was. (Not a huge Morgan Freeman fan, but that should have been his year.)

I was also a little shocked by how popular Crazy Heart was this past awards season. It felt a little like The Wrestler, country music edition. (And I didn't like The Wrestler much, either.) I thought Jeremy Renner should have won.

Apparently I have a lot to say about this topic, if you couldn't already tell.


@Heather: Like I said, I didn't dislike Hoffman at all -- he was very good (as always), but from where I'm standing his performance just doesn't stand up to those of Ledger or Howard the same year.

As for questioning the wisdom and fairness of the Oscars... well, clearly I agree. Hence this whole series of articles.

@Jennie: I thought Penn was excellent, and (with the possible exception of Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog) I don't think he was outclassed by any of the other nominees that year. Then again, I also think Leaving Las Vegas was outstanding, so clearly we have a difference of opinion here. For the record: I'm right.


I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of Life Is Beautiful. I adore that movie for all that it is. The first time I saw it I literally wept for 3 hours after it was over. It moved me to the depth of my soul.


1994. Tom Hanks. "Forrest Gump." Over Paul Newman, John Travolta, and Morgan Freeman. BALONEY. "Forrest Gum" isn't even close to the best acting of Tom Hanks's career, which I personally think was in "Big."

ALSO. Don Cheadle was ROBBED for "Hotel Rwanda" in 2004. Jamie Foxx was fine, I guess, but Don Cheadle is DON EFFING CHEADLE.

Kerri Anne

This is brilliant, and I heartily concur with every actor on this list, especially Jack Nicholson. I loved As Good As It Gets, but there's just no way his performance was better than Damon's.

Re: Penn's win in 2003; while I thought Mystic River was memorable and well-acted, Cold Mountain, and Jude Law's performance, stopped me in my tracks. That story, I thought, was epically told.


You missed one: Denzel Washington in Training Day. Not only was it a terrible movie, but he was terrible IN it, which I didn't think was possible until I witnessed it for myself.


@Sara: I respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement. The first - and only - time I saw it I was so angry and bitter afterwards that I bitched about it for 3 hours. Which helped to make it a truly wonderful evening for my wife.

@Rockle Yeah... I considered Gump as an entry, but I kinda like the movie and Hanks' performance. I don't disagree that it's not close to the best acting of his career (I'm sticking with Saving Private Ryan as #1, followed closely by Joe Versus the Volcano and then either Big or Road to Perdition), but I didn't think it was a complete outrage. That said, I know I was rooting for Newman that year, and Travolta woulda worked just fine, too.

@Kerri Anne: Thanks -- glad you liked it, and that we're on the same page re: Jack vs. Damon. Cold Mountain... I have to admit I've never been able to force myself to sit through it. I suppose I should just take the plunge sometime, as it's probably one of those things that I fear will be boring but turns out to be really well-done.

@Lynnette: TOTALLY disagree. I thought Denzel was fantastic in Training Day — the best "appealing guy turns totally evil cop villain" since Richard Gere in Internal Affairs. Man, THAT was a great performance that got totally ignored by the Oscars.


@Jennie- Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking was one of the best acting performances I have honestly ever seen. That movie stripped me to the bone. It's the only reason I can still stand him and when he didn't win I was horrified.

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