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
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.
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.