Monday, August 27, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1990

The Contenders:

Robert De Niro: Awakenings
Gerard Depardieu: Cyrano de Bergerac
Kevin Costner: Dances with Wolves
Richard Harris: The Field
Jeremy Irons: Reversal of Fortune (winner)

What’s Missing

Based on nominations, 1990 feels like an odd year and perhaps a down one for Best Actor. That’s not the case, though, when you look at who could have been nominated. While Tremors isn’t the sort of film that seriously gets a nomination, I do love it, and I love both Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon in it. Sticking with movies that don’t tend to get nominated, we can look at Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder, a film that is so much better than it should be. Given that he didn’t do a lot more than lay in bed, I’m not shocked that James Caan was overlooked for Misery, but I’m not sure he should have been. There were a lot of good crime movies in 1990 as well. Ray Liotta could have swung a nomination for Goodfellas, and Christopher Walken could have gotten one for King of New York. I’d also consider Gabriel Byrne for Miller’s Crossing. The big miss for me, though, is John Cusack in what was in many ways his first adult role: The Grifters.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Dances with Wolves got so much love and attention come Oscar time that I’m a little surprised the Kevin Costner didn’t win. I’m happy he didn’t, ultimately. It’s not a bad performance in a lot of respects, but so much of the movie is just so self-indulgent. Dances with Wolves needed someone to edit it into something much shorter rather than the epic ego trip it ultimately turned out to be. This is what happens when a particular movie gets a lot of sudden attention—we get stuck with Costner nominated for this performance and Dances with Wolves as Best Picture.

4. And for a year that looks on the surface like it’s filled with performances that aren’t that memorably compared with those that weren’t nominated, I find myself wanting everything else to be ranked much higher than this. It’s not without some reservation that I put Robert De Niro fourth in anything, but in the case of Awakenings, his role feels more supporting than anything else. That said, I could have easily mentioned Robin Williams up top, too, and if Awakenings needed a nomination for Best Actor, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have gone with Williams.

3. Jeremy Irons is a fine actor who has made some really bad choices when it comes to roles in the past few years. In that sense, his winning the Oscar is a sort of validation that despite his diving head-first into things like the Dungeons & Dragons movie, the man has some real skill. The problem is that he won for the wrong movie. I think there is good evidence that this is one of those “we missed the right movie” awards. Irons wasn’t even nominated for his double performance in Dead Ringers, and in many ways, winning for Reversal of Fortune feels like a win from 1988.

2. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Richard Harris’s performance in The Field is that it feels like a natural progression from his performance 30+ years previous in This Sporting Life. While Harris is clearly older here, he seems no less vital and no less in charge of himself and his presence on the screen. There is a moment here where he drags around Tom Berenger and Sean Bean, and despite his being significantly older than both, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. It’s a performance that feels like it comes out of nowhere, and it’s pretty damn great.

My Choice

1. I have to admit that I’d be tempted to put John Cusack in the top spot for The Grifters had he been nominated, but had he been, he’d have much more likely ended up in second. My top position is reserved for Gerard Depardieu and his turn in Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a very specific role that requires a very specific type of person, and Depardieu was exactly the right guy for it in 1990. He is brash and has swagger, he has the grand persona required, and also has an air of real tragedy. It’s near perfect casting, and it’s a film that is sadly forgotten and shouldn’t be.

Final Analysis


  1. I agree that "Dances with Wolves" is a vanity project the way "Braveheart" is a vanity project (for the record, I liked "Dances" way more than I liked "Braveheart"), but you might be interested in the History Buffs take on "Dances with Wolves," which delves into issues of historical accuracy and cinematic quality/merit. That vid is almost an hour long, BTW.

    1. I liked Dances more than Braveheart as well. The single best review of Braveheart I have ever heard is someone who claimed that it would not be less accurate if it contained a plasticine dog and had been called William Wallace and Gromit.

  2. Even if it was someone as internationally respected as Gerard Depardieu, and no matter how good his performance, he didn't have a prayer of winning this year. No one in a foreign language film has ever won Best Actor. Frankly I'm still amazed Marion Cotillard won. Sophia Loren I understand she was an established Hollywood star venturing back to her home language, but Cotillard was an unknown up against a legend. She is very much an anomaly though, even someone as huge as Catherine Deneuve when she was nominated for Indochine said that the nomination was it, she had no expectation of winning in a foreign language film.

    All that aside Depardieu is excellent, probably the best of this lot. I agree that out of Awakenings it should have been Williams who received the nod.

    Though he was better in Dead Ringers I thought Irons very good in Reversal of Fortune so even if he wouldn't be my pick at least he won for a solid piece of work.

    Cusack was very good in The Grifters but eclipsed by Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening to the degree that I'm not surprised by his exclusion. As to who else is missing I'd suggest Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues and Johnny Depp, back before he went off the rails and became a paycheck actor, in Edward Scissorhands-a film that I think was too outre for the Academy. That's complex beautifully observed work which would be my choice for the award.

    1. As much as I realize this is outing me in some way, I am not a fan of Edward Scissorhands. I'll agree that Depp is fine in the role, but it's not a role I care a great deal for and not a film I'm fond of.

      And you're right, of course. Depardieu didn't have a prayer of winning despite being so good in the role that it's difficult to think of someone else playing a non-comedic Cyrano (yes, yes, I realize Steve Martin made a version of the role his as well). It's a shame, though, because this seems to be such a silly blindspot for the Academy. There are too many places where getting the nomination is the award because there's no hope of a win--a foreign language Best Picture, for instance.

      I rather like Jeremy Irons when it comes to it. I don't even hate his winning here, even if I wouldn't pick him. As you say, it's not like he won for something terrible.