Monday, September 17, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1997

The Contenders:

Robert Duvall: The Apostle
Jack Nicholson: As Good as it Gets (winner)
Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting
Peter Fonda: Ulee’s Gold
Dustin Hoffman: Wag the Dog

What’s Missing

This is another of those rare years where I like most of the nominations, and while I’m not satisfied that all five are nominations I’d go with, I’d definitely go with three of them. Still, there are some performances from 1997 that I think bear mentioning. The biggest surprise for me is the lack of Leonardo DiCaprio for Titanic. I’m not saying I would nominate him, but I’m a bit surprised he didn’t get a nod. I’m less surprised about Robert Carlyle and The Full Monty, although I love his performance. Guy Pearce was probably ignored because of the ensemble nature of L.A. Confidential. Genre probably got Ethan Hawke in Gattaca ignored. The biggest surprise for me? No nomination for Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, his single-best lead performance.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I don’t like As Good as it Gets that much as a story, and I don’t like Jack Nicholson’s character. That’s not always a deal-breaker; I’ve given my personal Oscars to characters that I dislike before. In this case, though, it seems like Nicholson was just told to act like a smug asshole as much as possible. This is a movie that goes a long way to give us a happy ending for a character who doesn’t come close to deserving one, and I object to that. Nicholson clearly earned Oscars in his career. He just didn’t earn this one.

4. Matt Damon is frequently an engaging actor and it’s worth remembering that Good Will Hunting was his breakout role. This is such a beloved movie that it feels a bit like sacrilege to place Damon in fourth, but I am very much convinced that he was nominated for two reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. The first is that he was a new, fresh face in a surprise hit. The second is that people really liked the character. There’s nothing wrong with Damon’s performance, but ultimately, I probably don’t nominate him.

3. Peter Fonda’s turn in Ulee’s Gold is the first of these I’d want to nominate. This is such an odd movie in so many ways, and Fonda’s performance is surprisingly nuanced and interesting, the kind of performance that I was surprised he had in him. It helps tremendously that this is a very smart movie, one that goes out of its way to avoid the obvious tropes and really allows the actors a chance to really spread out in the role. Fonda is damn good; this is probably his best work, and while I wouldn’t give him the statue, I’m happy he’s here.

2. In a lot of other years, I’d be pointing at Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog as my choice. Hoffman is so good in this, so completely capable of stealing every frame of every scene that he is in. It’s not a common situation that someone is capable of pulling the focus of Robert De Niro, and yet that’s what Hoffman does here. This could have easily become the sort of performance that slides into farce. Hoffman keeps it just on the edge of believability, though, and for that, it’s one of the great ones of his career.

My Choice

1. Robert Duvall’s performance in The Apostle is the only possible winner for me. This is one of the most towering performances of its decade and perhaps the pinnacle of Duvall’s storied career. There is not a frame of this nor a moment of it where he is not believable and the most compelling figure on the screen. The Apostle is a hell of a story and contains tremendous work throughout, but all of this starts and ends with Duvall, who has never been better. That he didn’t win is still shocking to me. There is no one who comes close in my opinion.

Final Analysis


  1. Hard to believe "The Apostle" came out that long ago, but yeah, it's easily the best of the bunch. Incredible film.

    1. Yep--21 years old, and it holds up as a piece of theater.

  2. I can't even begin to describe how much I loathed both As Good As It Gets and The Apostle and the characters played by the two leads in them. I'm variable on Nicholson, especially latter day Nicholson where he is often smug, lazy and self-satisfied as he is in AGAIG, but I'm a big Duvall fan and he was surely as good as anyone could have been in the role but I disliked it so much I just didn't care.

    Out of these five my vote would go to Hoffman by a slim margin over Peter Fonda but in an open field I don't think either would make my top list.

    The total shutout of all the L.A. Confidential performers except Kim Basinger is just mystifying to me. Both Pearce and Russell Crowe deserved nominations as did Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell in support. Outside of them I'd go with Clive Owen in Bent, Matt Dillon in Albino Alligator and Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar-an absurd movie but he is comedically brilliant in it.

    Pearce would be a close second but my choice would be Russell Crowe for his complex performance. I'm sure his snubbing in this and then his loss for The Insider fueled his win for Gladiator.

    1. Duvall's character is absolutely loathsome in The Apostle, so it's clearly one of those cases for me where the performance tops the character being portrayed. It is such a towering performance that I can't go anywhere else with my vote.

      Russell Crowe is one of those actors who I tire of quickly. He probably is better than I give him credit for being in L.A. Confidential, but Duvall is still my choice.

  3. I wasn't a fan of the film like I was of him in the mini-series, "Lonesome Dove," so my vote would have gone to either Wahlberg or Hawke, especially as "Gattaca" was criminally ignored by Academy geniuses who don't get why awards shows are tanking in the ratings.

    1. I really like Gattaca. It's my go-to recommendation for a science fiction film for people who claim not to like sci-fi. Hawke should definitely have been here.

  4. Nice rankings. I agree, a nomination for Wahlberg in Boogie Nights would've been great. Shame that movie didn't have a better showing at the Oscars. And I agree, Duvall's work in The Apostle is such a towering achievement.

    1. It's a rare instance where a religious character that I desperately hate will create this kind of reaction in me, and yet such is the strength of this performance.