Friday, April 15, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1985

The Contenders:

William Hurt: Kiss of the Spider Woman (winner)
James Garner: Murphy’s Romance
Jack Nicholson: Prizzi’s Honor
Jon Voight: Runaway Train
Harrison Ford: Witness

What’s Missing

So far, 1985 has not fared well in my estimation. In terms of actual awards that I’ve looked at for this year, it’s chosen wrong twice and nominated completely wrong once. I’m curious to see how it will fare in a fourth category—for a year where the Oscar winners feel so unmemorable, it was a hell of a good year for movies. Let’s start with Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, in many ways the defining role of his career. That’s notable when you consider just how long he played a sitcom character—a role he had before, during, and after this one. I’ll also toss out some recognition for Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran, Tsutomu Yamazaki in Tampopo, Aleksey Kravchenko in Idi i Smotri, and Bruno Lawrence’s bizarre and excellent turn in The Quiet Earth. I also love Jonathan Pryce in Brazil and think he deserved some credit. I like William Peterson in the all-but-forgotten To Live and Die in L.A., although this is just as much Willem Dafoe’s film. This is also the year of Ladyhawke, which contains my favorite Matthew Broderick performance. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (Fred Ward), Fletch (Chevy Chase), and Re-Animator (Jeffrey Combs) aren’t Oscar material…but they’re all great and worth seeing. Sadly, Clue is an ensemble film, so no performance really leads, although Tim Curry’s comes close. Like I said, it was a great year in movies.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I think James Garner is probably impossible to dislike, but I don’t see anything particularly special with Murphy’s Romance. It’s a fine little movie and a fine performance from him and a movie that I rather enjoyed, but it’s nothing really extraordinary or exceptional. Garner’s greatest asset was his immediate likability, and Murphy is certainly a likable character. Being a nice guy isn’t enough for recognition here, though, and while I don’t want to take away what would be Garner’s only Oscar nomination, faced with the onslaught of misses above, he really didn’t deserve to be here.

4. It looks like I’m going to devalue Harrison Ford’s only Oscar nomination as well, since I’m putting him fourth. I kind of like Witness although I don’t love it, but the film has a number of issues. That doesn’t necessarily affect Ford’s performance, but if I were to line up all of Harrison Ford’s performances, I don’t think this one would crack my top five for him. He’s done much better work and I’d be happy to argue that he should have been nominated for a number of other Ford performances than for this one.

3: I like William Hurt’s performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, an opinion evidently shared by the Academy since he walked off with the statue. The biggest problem I have with it is that it is the most stereotypical performance of an effeminate gay man in a serious film that I have ever seen. It’s a little sad that Hurt more or less won by playing a stereotype. It’s a worthwhile film and a good performance, but it’s also one that I don’t have a desire to go back and watch again, and that’s a serious knock against it.

2. I like Jack Nicholson’s performance in Prizzi’s Honor much more than I like Prizzi’s Honor. It’s evidence that Nicholson could do more than just play a version of himself on camera. Charley Partanna is dim and survives much more by a sort of animal cunning. This is atypical for a Nicholson character, who is often too smart for his own good. I actually like this nomination quite a bit and I think it’s one I’d argue to keep, but I don’t think I’d argue it for the win.

1: Of the nominations, I like Jon Voight’s the best. Like Nicholson’s, this is a very unusual leading performance since Voight’s character is almost an animal. I love the way Voight plays him and I love the character’s arc throughout the film. Given good material, Voight is capable of doing great work, and this is one of my favorites of his in a long career. There are some genuine problems with the film, but he’s not one of them. Limited to the nominations, he gets the win. I’m not limited to the nominations, though.

My Choice

Not being limited to the nominations is the entire point of doing these every week. A lot of the suggestions I made at the top I think are a better choice than any of the five nominations. Jonathan Pryce would certainly be a contender, as would Michael J. Fox. Those two can fight it out for the top spot, but most times given all of the performances from 1985, one of them would take the win with the other coming in second.

Final Analysis


  1. I remember Hurt winning and his surprised reaction since he was not expected to take it and while it made good theatre I couldn't believe he won the prize. I really don't like the performance, to the point of finding it somewhat offensive, and Raul Julia acts rings around him. So needlessly to say he wouldn't be my pick nor do I think he deserved to even be among the nominees. Like you said James Garner is instantly likable in everything and the Murphy's nod was a career acknowledgement more than anything. He should have been nominated years before for his work in The Americanization of Emily if we're talking actual competitive performances. For two actors that I'm not the biggest fan of both Nicholson and Voight do good work but Ford would be my choice from the five nominees. I really like his take on John Book and think it's among his best work...not Indiana Jones great but solid deserving work and he'd be the only one I'd retain of these five.

    The group was hardly representative of the best that was on offer that year. Michael J. Fox should definitely have made the list. You mentioned some very worthy candidates and I'd add John Cusack in The Sure Thing, Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo, James Mason in The Shooting Party and my choice for winner Eric Stoltz in Mask. Restricted as he is by tons of prosthetics, he is able to bring out so much of who Rocky Dennis was through his eyes, inflections and body language.

    1. Mask is a good call, and one I should have mentioned above. I seriously considered putting Jeff Daniels in the first paragraph as well.

      My problem with Ford here is mainly that it would come across as a career Oscar in the guise of a competitive one. Raiders is just one film that I think has a more deserving performance. Blade Runner and The Fugitive spring to mind as far more worthy roles, as does Regarding Henry.

  2. I haven't seen Runaway Train, so I'd go with Nicholson for the win.

    1. It's a good performance from him; I won't disagree on that.

  3. I always go back to Nicholson as being the true standout performance of this bunch. It's a caricature, sure, but such a brilliantly played one.

    1. It may be a character, but it's an atypical one for Nicholson and I appreciate that in the performance. It's a moment where you realize that he's capable of doing more than just being one version of himself or another on camera.