Paul Newman: Absence of Malice
Dudley Moore: Arthur
Burt Lancaster: Atlantic City
Henry Fonda: On Golden Pond (winner)
Warren Beatty: Reds
I’ve been doing this Oscar posts since 2014, and as I near the end of my fourth year of these round-ups, I’ve come to realize that the 1980s are miserable for Oscar. While there’s a bright spot or two, the decade is almost uniformly miserable when it comes to comparing what was released with what was nominated. 1981 is no different in this respect. There’s plenty of horror movies from 1981 that I love, and some of them, like David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, Sam Neill in Possession and especially Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead are the type routinely ignored by Oscar. In the “still pretty unlikely” category, we have Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior and Sean Connery in Outland. Steve Martin’s turn in Pennies from Heaven was probably too odd and unexpected to warrant attention here and Ragtime was probably too ensemble to give anyone (like Howard Rollins) any play. Even ignoring all of these, I have an entirely new set of performances I’d rather see as my nominations. These start with Sylvester Stallone in the almost-forgotten Nighthawks, James Caan’s marvelous turn in Thief, and William Hurt in Body Heat. These three are completed with the two that I literally cannot fathom being ignored: Jurgen Prochnow in Das Boot (which got nominations the following year) and Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. Once again, I want to put everyone in third or fourth place. I don’t love any of these performances, but I don’t greatly dislike any of them, either. Of all of these movies, Reds seems like the biggest dose of ego and the film most needlessly pushed out to epic length. I might be doing some disservice to Warren Beatty here because this is my least favorite of the five films, but it very much feels to me like it was nominated specifically because it’s an epic-length film that didn’t fall apart, so it got nominations everywhere it could.
4. I like Dudley Moore well enough, but the best part of Arthur, John Gielgud’s performance, did win an Oscar. Moore’s performance is very much of its time, and it hasn’t aged well. Moore’s character spends the bulk of the movie drunk, and while he seems to find that unbelievably funny, it quickly becomes annoying. The bulk of the performance that I remember is Moore laughing at his own antics. It’s not as funny as it could be, and not nearly as charming as it thinks it is. Like I said, it hasn’t aged well.
3. Henry Fonda won this award, and that puts me in an uncomfortable position. I like Fonda. I like a huge amount of his career. On Golden Pond is a fine movie with a good performance but there’s no way to look at this nomination and win without thinking that it was done to cap a tremendous and storied career. Fonda was (and is) a legend, and finally giving him a competitive Oscar before he died could be seen as a nice way to send the man off. Fonda earned numerous accolades in his career and certainly deserved an Oscar before this. But he didn’t deserve this one.
2. My biggest problem with Atlantic City is in the plot, not in the performance of Burt Lancaster, which is as good as I tend to expect with Burt Lancaster. I almost always like Lancaster, but I wasn’t a fan of the cobbled romance here that ended up simply being creepy. Honestly, in most years Lancaster was nominated, he wouldn’t be the worst choice, and in Atlantic City, he is properly tragic. It’s a good performance, especially when compared with the rest of the nominations, but in an open field, I wouldn’t put him on the list.
1. This leaves me with Paul Newman and Absence of Malice, another movie where my problem is less with the performances than it is with the story itself. Newman’s performance is a subtle one, with a lot happening internally and playing out on his face. Again, I don’t entirely buy the romance between the characters, but Newman does the best he can with what he’s given, and in his capable hands, that’s quite a bit. This is an unenthusiastic top placement on my part, though. Honestly, even though I think Newman is the best of this lot, he wouldn’t make my final five.
For me, there’s not a choice aside from Harrison Ford. I could happily argue for Jurgen Prochnow as well, although Das Boot got its nominations in 1982, which could arguably keep him out of the 1981 list of actors. William Hurt and James Caan would easily make my list as well, and I might argue for Caan as being in a more “Oscar”-ish film, but in an open field, and for a film that was nominated for Best Picture, the exclusion of Harrison Ford from the Best Actor ranks is almost unconscionable, and this should have been Ford winning the Oscar he’s deserved pretty much since 1981.