Friday, July 17, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1996

The Contenders:

Ralph Fiennes: The English Patient
Tom Cruise: Jerry Maguire
Woody Harrelson: The People vs. Larry Flynt
Geoffrey Rush: Shine (winner)
Billy Bob Thornton: Sling Blade

What’s Missing

Oscar didn’t nominate terribly this year, but could have done a great deal better. There are some clear potential choices here that Oscar would never pick, of course. The frontrunner of these is Michael J. Fox in The Frighteners. I’m not sure I would pick Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, but I think a lot of people would. The same could be said of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible. I’d love to talk about Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do, but he’s almost certainly supporting. Chris Cooper should have gotten some love in the virtually unknown Lone Star, and I would have loved to have seen either Robin Williams and/or Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, but neither of them would give half of that performance without the other person. Finally, how was it possible that Kenneth Branagh was not nominated for Hamlet?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. There’s a part of me that thinks every time I put the winner in last I feel like I’m going to be accused of pandering or just being some sort of edgelord. Rush gives an interesting performance here, even a good to great one, but in the service of what? Shine feels so much like a BOSUD—a biography of someone undeserving. I even like Rush relatively well as an actor, and I don’t hate him having an Oscar. I just don’t know that, given the competition here and the performances that aren’t here, that he should even be nominated.

4. Big, overblown romances are not really my thing, which is almost certainly not a shock unless you are new here. The English Patient has its good points, and I don’t dislike Ralph Fiennes in it, honestly. My problem here is that this is a big ol’ gooey romance and the romance that we’re supposed to be getting all squishy over is a dud. I called it a wet match in my review and I stand by that. Sure, part of that comes from the screenplay, but part of it has to come from Fiennes as well. He’s a talented guy and I hope he wins an Oscar someday, but not for this.

3. Tom Cruise has terrible luck when it comes to Oscar. Every time he gets nominated--Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July have happened when someone else has had a career performance. I’m not a gigantic fan of Jerry Maguire, though. I actually like Cruise as an actor; he makes a lot of good movies. He’s fine in this movie as well. I don’t love the movie, though. I find it difficult to think of this movie without simultaneously thinking of the Patton Oswalt clip about his brother in the theater watching it.

2. There’s a part of me that would love to see Woody Harrelson win an Oscar. When he started on Cheers, he seemed like the most unlikely serious actor in history, and yet over and over he demonstrates just how good he can be. In The People vs. Larry Flynt, he established himself as someone capable of moving very far outside of his comfort zone and taking on anything. This is a brilliant performance that almost certainly opened up a great deal of what Harrelson has done since. In a lesser year, he’s an easy choice.

My Choice

1. Billy Bob Thornton is my choice. His work in Sling Blade is one of the best and most inspired performances of its decade. This is a complete transformation of Thornton into this character, and he’s entirely believable. Karl may be a work of fiction, but he has a true depth of character; we know him by the end of the film, and he’s much more than a collection of quirks. Much of this comes from Thornton’s Oscar-winning screenplay, of course, but so much of it comes from this standing-on-his-head performance. This was an easy choice.

Final Analysis


  1. Other actors I would've vouched for is Ewan McGregor for Trainspotting, Jeffrey Wright for Basquiat, Richard Gere for Primal Fear, and Jim Carrey for The Cable Guy.

    1. McGregor probably should have been mentioned above. The others I don't know, and I don't like Jim Carrey's comedy enough to watch The Cable Guy.

  2. It’s not a terrible set of nominations and yet I’m not passionate about any of them.

    I agree that Woody Harrelson turned out to be a surprisingly fine actor, though looking at his work afterwards and comparing it to Woody in Cheers it shows that he was doing excellent work there as well. You completely bought him as that dim bulb which he obviously isn’t….strange yes but not stupid. I would have rather seen him win for The Messenger though.

    My personal animus for him aside Cruise is dynamic in Jerry Maguire.

    I think I liked Shine more than you and Geoffrey Rush digs deep for his role but I wasn’t blown away by him or the film.

    I hated The English Patient. Even Kristin Scott Thomas in one of the leading roles couldn’t change that, and while I think Ralph Fiennes is by and large a phenomenal talent nothing in that film drew me in.

    So that makes Billy Bob my winner out of this group and he really does offer a powerful performance but in an open field he’d make it no higher than sixth place for me.

    As far as that open field goes I’m in total agreement about Branagh and Hamlet. It’s a mammoth performance in an amazing adaptation but perhaps after all the laurels for Henry V the Academy felt they already acknowledged his mastery of Shakespeare. He wouldn’t be my winner, he’d be my runner-up, but there is no way he shouldn’t have received a nod. Along with him my lineup would consist of:

    Richard Gere as the morally questionable, complex Martin Vail in Primal Fear.

    Steven Mackintosh as the one time Karl now post-operative Kim in Different for Girls. He plays her struggles with great dignity never condescending to the character rather showing the true emotions she’s facing as she adjusts to her new reality.

    Pete Postlewaite in Brassed Off. He gives his ailing band leader a strong mix of pride and pathos as he faces near constant crises.

    But my clear and easy winner is Eric Roberts in It's My Party. His part is a complicated one. He’s a man living with AIDS who is told he is entering the final stage of his illness which will be prolonged, painful and debilitating. Rather than endure that he chooses to throw a farewell party for all his friends and family including his former lover to say goodbye and then commit suicide at its conclusion. All the participants are aware of this and as he says his farewells he must turn on a dime and be who they need him to be-the high flying joker, the understanding uncle, the resigned son, the pragmatic realist etc. for them to accept his decision. Roberts can be, and frequently is a self-indulgent and mannered performer but here he subsumes all his patented tics and tricks tying up all loose ends before his exit. He always plays to the reality of the situation, balancing humor and heartbreak expertly. It’s brutal but he never makes a misstep.

    1. Of these, Brassed Off is the only one I've seen, and I've only seen a part of that.

  3. That picture you used for #3 Tom Cruise may need a second look...

    1. Yep--got so caught up in thinking about Magnolia that I used the worng piccy.

  4. I'm with you here on the order. Nothing against Rush, but I'm also surprised that he won. Thornton for me all the way, but at least he won screenplay.

    1. Rush seems like such a weird choice for this. I mean, I tend to like his performances, but he wins here?