Monday, April 23, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1992

The Contenders:

Robert Downey Jr.: Chaplin
Stephen Rea: The Crying Game
Denzel Washington: Malcolm X
Al Pacino: Scent of a Woman (winner)
Clint Eastwood: Unforgiven

What’s Missing

So it’s completely unplanned on my part that I posted a review of Profumo di Donna that relied heavily on Scent of a Woman and find myself a few days later looking at the Oscar battle of this same year. Things simply happen that way—I plan out my Oscar posts a few months in advance, and this just happened to work out this way. Anyway, as is always the case, I have some ideas on changing our nominations. Russell Crowe’s work in Romper Stomper probably doesn’t really merit a nomination, but it’s pretty damn good. The same may be true of Tim Robbins and The Player, and is almost certainly true of Tony Todd and Candyman, but I like that film a lot more than it probably deserves. Jack Lemmon is near-perfect in Glengarry Glen Ross, and he’s the closest thing to a lead that film has. My Cousin Vinny scored a win for Marisa Tomei, but no nomination for a brilliant performance from Joe Pesci? Robert Redford may have been overlooked for Sneakers as well. My big addition, though, would be Tom Cruise for A Few Good Men, another movie I seem to like more than everyone else.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I hate putting Pacino last, especially for the one Oscar win he has, but it’s where he’s going. Al Pacino absolutely earned multiple Oscars in his career, and for him to have just one and for this performance feels wrong. It’s not only not his best performance, it’s not his best performance in 1992—he’s far better in a much smaller role in Glengarry Glen Ross. I get why he won. I understand that this is a function of the way Oscar works. And I hate that it’s the case because it gives us results like this.

4. One of the problems with The Crying Game is that everyone knows the big twist at this point. The genius of the film is that it still works even if you know the twist. Stephen Rea is an interesting nomination, but one that ultimately doesn’t work for me for one simple, important reason: Jaye Davidson is the most compelling person on the screen at all times, both in terms of character and performance. This isn’t to take anything away from Rea. It’s just the truth that he can’t stand up to one of the great confluences of performance and role of its decade.

3. I like Robert Downey Jr. as an actor and I liked Chaplin pretty well. He is the best part of a film that is good but ultimately pretty flawed. What works for him more than anything is that he gets the pathos of Chaplin’s persona correct. When he’s doing Chaplin’s bits, he’s both funny and tragic, and that’s everything that made the real Chaplin so effective on screen. It’s a good performance and one that would gain a lot of traction in a year that didn’t have two towering performances.

2. Unforgiven, which netted Clint Eastwood his first Oscar, is also the closest he’s ever been to earning an acting Oscar. In a lesser year, I would hand him the statute without a second look or a second thought. Eastwood made his bones playing a tough guy who couldn’t be stopped or kept down. In Unforgiven, he plays a broken version of the same thing, and that’s what makes him so damn interesting. The character is so flawed and damaged, but Eastwood isn’t. He’s a clear winner in other years, but in 1992, he’s just a clear second place.

My Choice

1. I’ve said before that Do the Right Thing is my favorite Spike Lee movie, and it is. Malcolm X is almost certainly his best and most important, though. A big part of this comes directly from the career performance of Denzel Washington, a guy who has had more than his share of career performances. It was his bad luck to give this in a year when the Academy decided that Pacino had finally done enough to be awarded. It’s what happens when the Academy gives frivolous awards and then has to make amends. This was so clearly Washington’s Oscar that I can’t imagine voting a different way..

Final Analysis


  1. We are in alignment this time. Denzel was far and away better than anyone that year. It's one of my favorite performances of all-time, to be honest. Of the other noms, I'm with you there, too, but I'd be tempted to flip-flop Clint and RDJ. I also agree that Cruise and Pesci would have been worthy nominees. Other performances from '92 that I really liked:

    Edward James Olmos in American Me
    Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover
    Larry Drake in Dr. Giggles (yes, it's a stupid slasher flick and would never get anywhere near a nom, but he sells it for all he's worth)

    1. Your other suggestions are ones I don't know.

      As far as the Oscar goes, though, I think you and I and everyone else can continue to suggest nominations, and no one is moving Washington from the top. In a real way, it's a performance of the sort Daniel Day-Lewis gave for Lincoln in that it's both a great performance and one that is culturally significant.

      I could live with flipping Downey Jr. and Eastwood. I mean, I'd fight you on it, but it's not like I'd get too aggressive.

  2. I thought "Malcolm X" was an incredible film.

    Eastwood is part of that category of actor who is very good within a narrow range—like Gene Hackman, who always plays Gene Hackman—so I'm not surprised ol' Uncle Clint didn't win, in this or any other year.

    1. Clint does have a specific range, but it's one that can be played with. Movies like Unforgiven and especially Play Misty for Me work within that range to do some interesting things.

      I think he's often more interesting as an actor when he's also directing.

  3. Oh the pain of thinking that the great Pacino was handed a consolation Oscar for this dog of a film and showboating performance! I'd probably switch RDJ and Eastwood but otherwise line up with your placement. As I've mentioned before I'm not a big Washington fan, and he wouldn't be my winner in an open field, but out of this lot he's the top. He'd be my second if the nominees were different.

    As to who is missing I'd also consider Anthony Hopkins in Howards End (though he skirts supporting but since that didn't hold him back with Silence of the Lambs where his part was much smaller it shouldn't matter here), Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, Bill Paxton in One False Move and Jeremy Irons in Damage.

    But my winner would be Joe Pesci for his brilliant work in My Cousin Vinny, making someone who should be a buffoon into a classic comic creation. Marisa Tomei is great but without him to play off her performance would never land like it does.

    1. Joe Pesci would make my list of five without question, but he wouldn't win. I think this is Denzel Washington's defining role. I do like him as an actor in general, although I admit that there are very specific Denzel Washington cliches that seem to show up in a lot of his roles. He pushes those aside for this and does something that I think is both great and important, which doesn't happen often.

      It's easy to forget just how much of a delight My Cousin Vinny really is. Top to bottom, it's fun and funny, and has one of my favorite Fred Gwynne roles.