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
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.
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.