Monday, July 16, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1980

The Contenders:

John Hurt: The Elephant Man
Robert Duvall: The Great Santini
Robert De Niro: Raging Bull (winner)
Peter O’Toole: The Stunt Man
Jack Lemmon: Tribute

What’s Missing

As is often the case, there’s some room for improvement, even in a banner year like 1980 and the Best Actor race. Truth be told, I’d have trouble replacing more than two of the actual nominees, but there’s a lot to choose from here. We can start, as I often do, with the people who would never sniff a nomination in a million years. That has to start with Joe Spinell in Maniac, a completely reprehensible movie. In fact, Spinell is the only thing about the movie worth seeing, but he really is great. William Hurt deserved a little consideration for Altered States, and while the Academy was likely done with George C. Scott by 1980, The Changeling is one of my favorites of his performances. For the horror genre, Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is probably the one most likely to be nominated. Now we can move into the category issues. Here, both Lee Marvin for The Big Red One and Donald Sutherland for Ordinary People (how has he never been nominated?) would be worth discussing, but possibly more as supporting roles than main ones. While it seems like the last thing we need is another Robert in the nominees, I can make a case for Robert Redford and Brubaker. With all of this said, if I can make only one change, the person who is getting a nomination is Edward Woodward for Breaker Morant.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I really wish the Academy didn’t put me in the position of having to speak ill of an actor I like, but Jack Lemmon doesn’t deserve to be here and Tribute didn’t deserve this (or any) nomination. Lemmon was such a good actor with good material, so easy to watch and to like on screen, and in Tribute we’re given someone who simply doesn’t want to be liked at all. Lemmon isn’t bad in the role—he was pretty much always at least watchable—but with so many other great performances in his career, to have this be one that earned a nomination feels like a slap.

4. What I just said about Lemmon I could also say about Peter O’Toole. I love O’Toole and there are so many movies of his that I think are spectacular…and The Stunt Man isn’t one of them. It’s shocking for me to say this, but I almost can’t remember the movie (aside from the movie they’re filming inside of it) and I can barely remember O’Toole in the role. In fact, the only reason that he’s in fourth place and not fifth is that I didn’t actively dislike this film as much as I did Tribute. In any event, O’Toole didn’t really earn this one, and I wouldn’t nominate him.

3. Robert Duvall’s performance in The Great Santini is one of the great ones of his career, and that’s saying a lot. It is a monster performance from Duvall, and in 1980, I don’t know if there was another person who could have done this role as well. In fact, in all of film history, the only other person I think who could give him a run for his money would be Robert Mitchum. In a lot of other years, I would hand this award to Duvall without a second thought. Sadly for him, there are two other performances from this year that top his.

My Choices

2. I have long been a fan of John Hurt, and The Elephant Man might be his best work. As with Duvall above, that’s saying a great deal. This is one of David Lynch’s most coherent films and one of his most human, and so much of that comes from the performance of John Hurt as John Merrick. That Hurt shines through as so perfectly and beautifully human under layers and layers of prosthetics and makeup is a tribute to just how good the man could be. I would give him this Oscar in virtually every other year in this decade, and I wouldn’t have complained if he’d won this one.

1. Raging Bull is an unpleasant film, and not one that I frequently want to watch. It’s an ugly story about an ugly person, and yet Robert De Niro makes it incredibly compelling from start to finish. I don’t know that there is someone else who could do this role even remotely as well as he did. So often at this point in his career, De Niro was the most compelling actor in Hollywood and one of the best parts of the best films of each year. In 1980, a lot of people will argue that Raging Bull should have won Best Picture. I disagree; this is the Oscar it should have won, and it won it. De Niro is ultimately my pick.

Final Analysis


  1. You couldn't really deny De Niro this year for this part. That being said, Hurt and Duvall would have been fine choices many other years.
    O'Toole is also good in The Stunt Man. Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard may have been another dark horse for a nomination, though I'd probably replace Lemmon with Nicholson as the fifth choice. A very good year for this category.

    1. Looking back at my review, I evidently liked O'Toole in The Stunt Man, but I don't remember it well, and that doesn't say a lot for the nomination.

      I briefly considered Paul Le Mat, but ultimately decided against him in a year that is already this strong.

  2. I hated Raging Bull with a passion but can't deny that De Niro really sinks his teeth into the role and I can't fault his win but my vote would go to John Hurt. He imparts so much into the part even buried under all those prosthetics.

    As to who else could have been here in place of Lemmon and O'Toole (both of whom I agree were often very deserving but not for these films) I'd say Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People-I know he won in Supporting but that was category fraud, his is the story that makes the picture run...Donald Sutherland belonged in his spot and should have won there. Also Ray Sharkey in The Idolmaker besides those you already mentioned. My first thought was Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday but that didn't make it to American shores until a couple of years later.

    1. See, that's kind of where I am with De Niro in this. I don't love Raging Bull and Ordinary People is my choice for Best Picture for 1980--it holds up really well. But De Niro is a beast in this role, and Scorsese should have been recognized as well.

      That said, had Hurt won, I wouldn't object. I'm a huge John Hurt fan and I don't know that he was ever better.

      The Idolmaker is one I don't know. I stand by Edward Woodward here--he's the biggest miss in my estimation.

  3. A strong year...I would also add Gary Busey in Carny as worthy of consideration. But no one deserved the Oscar more than De Niro.

    1. I can't disagree. It was Di Niro's year even if there were a lot of good performances.

  4. I agree with your rankings of the nominees. And I am totally on board with Donald Sutherland (lead or supporting, hard to say), William Hurt and/or Robert Redford being nominated as well.

    1. It's such a good year, that aside from their reputations, I can't imagine why Lemmon and O'Toole were nominated.

  5. I have not watched those two movies, but Lemmon and O'Toole likely got nominated for being... Lemmon an O'Toole.
    As much as I dislike Raging Bull, I cannot deny de Niro his Oscar. I would have given it to Nicholson and given a nod to John Belushi.

    1. In my heart, this goes to John Hurt, but it's such a razor-thin call that the tie goes to the Academy.

      Some of that might be sentiment--I love John Hurt.