Tom Cruise: Born on the Fourth of July
Robin Williams: Dead Poets Society
Morgan Freeman: Driving Miss Daisy
Kenneth Branagh: Henry V
Daniel Day-Lewis: My Left Foot (winner)
This is a pretty good crop of actors for a given year, but as always there’s some room for improvement, or at least some room for difference. I’m hardly an apologist for Kevin Costner, but his role in Field of Dreams merits some consideration in my opinion. Say Anything isn’t the sort of film that gets Oscar consideration, but it’s also one of the first really mature performances from John Cusack. The same is more or less true for Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a nomination for anyone from Glory or Do the Right Thing. In the first case, it may be that Matthew Broderick didn’t have a strong enough performance and everyone else was more or less a supporting character. For Spike Lee’s film, pretty much everyone is a supporting character with no real lead role. Ultimately, Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy is probably the biggest miss.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but I find Dead Poets Society marginal, right on the cusp between a film I like and a film I don’t. Part of the reason is the screenplay, but part of it is also Robin Williams. I love Williams in a good role where he is carefully controlled by his director, and this isn’t that film for me. Sure, it’s better than Patch Adams (what isn’t?) but there’s a great deal of sap and it’s self-righteous sap at that in this movie. I’d pass over Williams for Matt Dillon in a moment for this year.
4: It’s actually physically painful for me to put Morgan Freeman fourth in a list like this. His performance in Driving Miss Daisy is good—it’s Morgan Freeman, after all. But that’s it; it’s just a good Morgan Freeman performance. I struggle to think of anything truly exceptional in what he did. This might well be damning the man, but I expect him to be good and watchable and entertaining no matter what. Perhaps I expect more from him, and that might be unfair. Still, I have to go with my gut, and his performance is marginal for a nomination in my opinion, and definitely not worth a win.
3: Tom Cruise seems to have bad luck when it comes to Oscar nominations. He’s been nominated three times (twice for Actor, once for Supporting), and in all three cases, really strong performances have simply been eclipsed by better ones. Born on the Fourth of July is one of his better roles, and he makes a meal of it. Is it his best performance? I’m not sure, but it is probably his best performance in a leading role. I’d love to rate him higher, but again, he’s got terrible luck for the years in which he is nominated.
2: In a perfect world, Kenneth Branagh would have an Oscar, too. He’s been nominated five times, and, for a wonder, in five different categories. And I love Henry V. I could well be biased. Henry V is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and in the modern world no one does Shakespeare as well as Branagh did at this point in his career. Branagh absolutely kills this role, and a great deal of my enjoyment of the film is watching him in the role of Henry. Sadly, there was one performance better than his in 1989.
1: I wasn’t a huge Oscar fan in 1989 and didn’t know much more than the average 20-something about movies back then, but I do remember how much my mother was shocked that the young man walking up to get his Oscar could actually walk. That’s how good Daniel Day-Lewis was in My Left Foot. There’s not a moment in the film where he looks like he’s acting in a role and not actually physically afflicted. It’s a cliché that Oscar rewards actors who are physically or mentally damaged in some way. Sometimes, though, that’s the right choice. In 1989, it absolutely was. Day-Lewis was absolutely the right choice.