Monday, October 16, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1981

The Contenders:

Paul Newman: Absence of Malice
Dudley Moore: Arthur
Burt Lancaster: Atlantic City
Henry Fonda: On Golden Pond (winner)
Warren Beatty: Reds

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. I don't really think Ford has enough to do in Raiders to make him deserve the award. In fact I'd probably put all the actual nominees except Moore (whose performance, like Ford's, isn't deep enough) over Ford. The strengths of Raiders are the direction and screenplay, not the acting. I think Fonda, whose performance greatly outdoes the script (unlike Ford), deserved his Oscar.

    Mel Gibson was far, far better in Gallipoli (have you seen that?) than in Road Warrior.

    1. I have seen Gallipoli, and I don't love it.

      I'll disagree on Raiders as well. Yes, the direction and screenplay have a lot to do with its success, but it's nothing without a believable and charismatic hero, and that's what Ford did. Ford makes the film work.

    2. I am not completely sure whether Ford's performance works because his acting is great or because he is so well cast in his role. As your comments on Lancaster's and Newman's performances in this post show, believability is a lot more important to you in analyzing great acting than it is to me.

      Though Raiders is probably the best film he's ever starred in, I think Ford has given better performances, either by having a wider palette of emotions (Witness, The Mosquito Coast) or by completely transforming himself into a character (Sabrina).

    3. It's no secret that me as a film reviewer (I don't have enough pretension to call myself a critic) and this blog in general are much more concerned with narrative than anything else. To that end, while there's a lot that can go into evaluating a performance, that which concerns the narrative experience and how that story is relayed is always going to be of paramount importance to me.

      So, I guess, yeah. I agree with that.

  2. Oh yeah, so glad you mentioned Nighthawks! I saw it on TV as a young adult and loved it! Stallone made a lot of movies that are entertaining garbage, but from time to time he was REALLY GOOD in a movie that was also REALLY GOOD.

    I finally saw Nighthawks a second time a few years ago and it completely justified my fond memories.

    I also love Demolition Man. That's the one Sandra Bullock will be remembered for. (By me anyway.)

  3. I don't have a whole lot to say about these nominees otherwise. I seem to like Reds a lot better than you (mostly for Maureen Stapleton, but also because I've read so much John Reed). I barely remember Absence of Malice. I liked Atlantic City well enough but it's definitely NOT one of Louis Malle's better movies. Arthur is the only nominee I saw when it first came out and the main ting I remember about it is not liking it as much as everybody else seemed to.

    And I've never seen On Golden Pond. It's a bit of a blind spot considering how much I like everybody in it.

    1. Nighthawks is sadly forgotten, and it's a much better movie than its forgotten status implies. It's also very smart in terms of its screenplay and in making the story character-directed rather than directing the characters by the plot. Even better, it manages something like a twist ending that it completely earns.

  4. Out of this crew of excellent actors in indifferent films I'd go with Lancaster since he's the only I really even think should be in the mix for consideration but given my druthers he'd be an also ran. I love Henry Fonda and can think of at least five films off the top of my head that he could have won an Oscar for...Golden Pond ain't one of them.

    I completely agree about Harrison Ford. How in the world was he missed to even be in the running? My guess is that it was the genre that did him in. But no matter how well Spielberg directed Raiders without Ford's full bodied work, and charisma, the trip wouldn't have been half as much fun. Plus he's wonderfully alive and reactive in the film. Oscars don't always have to go to heavy emoting.

    Actually this is a year where my personal ballot would exclude the entire lineup and as I said only Burt would even be in my long list.

    Mine would run this way:

    Sean Connery-Outland-Glad you mentioned this terrific film and ace performance by Connery. I would have loved to have seen the fabulous Frances Sternhagen competing in Supporting Actress as well.

    Richard Dreyfuss-Who's Life Is It Anyway?-A hard to find film but both he as a quadriplegic and Christine Lahti as his sympathetic doctor are just great

    Harrison Ford-Raiders of the Lost Ark-Winner
    John Heard-Cutter's Way
    John Travolta-Blow Out

    Mel Gibson-Gallipoli-I agree the film has some problems, and I think Gibson is a destestable person but he's very good in the picture.

    Burt Lancaster-Atlantic City
    Steve Martin-Pennies from Heaven
    Treat Williams-Prince of the City

    Count me as another fan of Nighthawks! I usually think Stallone is one step away from evaporating on screen but he registered well in this and the film itself is an exciting thriller.

    1. For me, the power of Harrison Ford's performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark is that I can't think of anyone else in the role. It's completely iconic, and while sure, he's got a lot of help, it's still him bringing that role to life.

      I'd love to have Connery in my list of five. I really like Outland a lot, even if it's really just High Noon in outer space. I generally always want Frances Sternhagen nominated for something because I love Frances Sternhagen.

      Blow Out is on my "unlist" that I really need to get to. Prince of the City is the last 1981 movie I need to watch for the Oscars list, so I'm guessing I'll get there within the next year.

      As for Nighthawks, I seriously wonder why that film has faded into the background as much as it has. It's got a solid, entertaining plot that is smart enough to give us character-driven decisions throughout. Stallone is as good as he ever was in his early career, and it has great supporting performances from both Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer and a decent one from Persis Khambatta.

  5. I don't remember if I ever commented on this post, so apologies if this is a repeat post.
    I am too completely baffled by this set of nominations. 1981was not a bad year, even if it is neither 1980 nor 1981. I also loved Prochnow's performance and had he been eligible, he would have gotten my vote. Taking him out, it is between Ford and Hurt.

    1. It's a weirdly inexplicable set of nominations.