Monday, December 2, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1998

The Contenders:

Nick Nolte: Affliction
Edward Norton: American History X
Ian McKellen: Gods and Monsters
Roberto Benigni: Life is Beautiful (winner)
Tom Hanks: Saving Private Ryan

What’s Missing

It turns out that 1998 is another one of those years with a hell of a lot of potential in the category I’ve selected for today. It’s a decent enough collection of actual nominations, but there’s a lot of room for improvement here. The popular nomination here would be Jeff Bridges for The Big Lebowski, and I’ll be honest—I could probably get behind that. Sean Penn would be an interesting choice for The Thin Red Line. Primary Colors is a relatively forgotten film, and while John Travolta gets top billing, it’s Adrian Lester who is really worth watching in it. Warren Beatty’s turn in the political satire Bulworth is worth an additional look here as well. Now for some real misses in my opinion. Both Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton deserved some respect for A Simple Plan (and Thornton was nominated for a supporting role). Bill Murray and especially Jason Schwartzman could certainly have been considered for Rushmore. Sean Gullette might deserve consideration for Pi. Dylan Baker should legitimately be here for the unpleasant Happiness. But the biggest miss and the clearest evidence of Oscar’s ability to be blind to a great performance from an unlikely source is the miss on Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I love Ian McKellen and I’m always happy to watch one of his performances, but his performance in Gods and Monsters really doesn’t deserve to be here. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his performance, but in a year with as many great performances as we have for 1998, a good McKellen performance isn’t going to be enough. I like what he does here, but this isn’t really memorably compared with his much more flamboyant (and admittedly neard-friendly) roles. He deserves all the respect in the world, but not this nomination.

4. Roberto Benigni is the sentimental choice here since his film was about the Holocaust, and his climbing-over-chairs rush to the stage is now legendary in Oscar lore. But did he really deserve this Oscar? It’s almost a trope that movies about the Holocaust are going to be serious contenders for any Oscar, and don’t get me wrong—those are important stories to tell. But when I watched this a second time, I didn’t like it nearly as well. It plays to some very obvious emotional points, and while Benigni is good, I don’t know that he deserves this beyond that sentimental nod.

3. Of the five movies represented here, American History X is by far my least favorite and the only one I didn’t really like. That said, I can’t really deny the fact that Edward Norton is absolutely compelling in a difficult role. It’s not a movie I want to watch again, but it is an acting highpoint in Norton’s career. Given a completely free hand on the nominations, I’m not sure if I nominate him here, but I might. He’s on the bubble for me, and in a year this strong, that’s saying something.

2. If Saving Private Ryan is my favorite of the five movies represented by the nominations, why is Tom Hanks second? Because Hanks benefits tremendously from a stellar supporting cast, and while Hanks is brilliant in this role, it’s not specifically his movie. That always carries some weight with me. It’s a tremendous film and it includes some of Hanks’s best work in front of the camera. It further solidifies him as an American everyman, and I like the nomination. But he’s not my winner from the list.

1. It’s probably controversial, but my choice of the five nominees is Nick Nolte from Affliction. Like Hanks, Nolte has a tremendous supporting cast (James Coburn won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role here), but this film is absolutely Nolte’s from start to finish. The entire film is about his breakdown, and there’s not a moment he’s not brilliant. Nolte has had a tremendous career, and I think Affliction might well be his best work. He’s my choice of the five, but not my choice overall.

My Choice

This should have been a nomination and a win for Jim Carrey, and the only reason it wasn’t is the bias Oscar has against comedic actors and people like Carrey in general. The Truman Show was his first true dramatic role, a year or so removed from his typical fare of The Cable Guy, Liar Liar, and the Ace Ventura sequel. Carrey proved that he could act, though, and The Truman Show would not have worked with a different actor in the role. It’s a monumental achievement. I’m not a Carrey fan nor apologist, but there is brilliance in this performance, and he should have been recognized.

Final Analysis


  1. Honestly, I think it should've gone to Jim Carrey as well. He had the best performance that year and really showed his range as an actor. Part of me also wants Jeff Bridges to win the Oscar that year because it's the Dude. Only he can play that role and I would've loved for him to be at the Oscars and win the prize in the same clothes he wore in the film as they were actually the clothes he wears at home.

    Bill Murray, Dylan Baker, and Warren Beatty should've been the ones nominated. Tom Hanks and Edward Norton could stay while I have Nick Nolte for my '97 list of best actors of that year.

    1. Since Affliction actually came out in 1997, I don't really take issue with your putting him there.

      It's a really good year. A nomination list of Murray, Baker, Beatty, Bridges, and Carrey is entirely new and leaves out Hanks and Norton as deserving nominations, not to mention Nolte.

      Strong years are harder to write up, but also a lot more interesting. But in a fair vote, this had to be Carrey's Oscar--nothing works in The Truman Show without him, and there's no one else who could really do that role.

  2. We'll have to agree to disagree on this year because Ian McKellan would be my choice to win out of these five and probably in an open field. I do agree however that Jim Carrey was robbed of a nomination for The Truman Show.

    As for the rest Benigni would be dead last and then Norton, Nolte and Tom Hanks as runner-up.

    Out of the actual nominees only Hanks and McKellan would carry over and the others would be replaced by Carrey, Clive Owen for Croupier (a terrific gritty little noir if you haven't seen it) and Tim Roth in The Legend of 1900 with Warren Beatty coming in sixth for Bulworth.

    1. I liked McKellan's performance, but Carrey's work is extraordinary and completely unexpected. No one knew he had that in him.