Monday, April 22, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 2001

The Contenders:

Will Smith: Ali
Russell Crowe: A Beautiful Mind
Sean Penn: I am Sam
Tom Wilkinson: In the Bedroom
Denzel Washington: Training Day (winner)

What’s Missing

My process when I do these posts, at least initially, is to go to Letterboxd and look at the movies I have tagged for the year in question. In some cases, I know a few of the nominees, but I don’t look to see the nominations. That means I often want to nominate movies or performances that were actually nominated. In the case of this year, I was sure of two nominations going in and I wanted to nominate the other three. That bodes well. I’d consider adding Nanni Moretti for The Son’s Room, although a big part of that is the fact that I think Nanni Moretti seems like a really nice guy and he’d be fun to hang around with. I’d love to see Federico Luppi and Eduardo Noriega fight for a nomination from The Devil’s Backbone, not that it’s the Academy’s style. The same could be said of Bill Paxton and Frailty. I’d also consider Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball, but I don’t think he’d really make my list. I might also consider Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, since he’s as close to a lead that movie has.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Sean Penn is a more than capable actor, but I was puzzled by I Am Sam. This is a film that is manipulative to a disturbing degree, one that, if we’re given the ending we’re supposed to want would result in something horrible. This is not Penn’s fault, who approaches this role with as much honesty has he can. But the role itself ends up being so calculated that it’s hard for me to take it seriously. Penn is a fine actor and turns in a great performance here, but he does so in service of something that is ultimately reprehensible. I can’t reward that.

4. I often have to go back to my reviews when I do these posts just to see what I said about a particular role. In the case of Russell Crowe and A Beautiful Mind, I don’t seem to have said much of anything. It’s as if the performance didn’t really register with me as something that needed to be commented on. It’s a case where it feels like the role was nominated more than the actor—it’s a movie that Oscar was bound to love and that ultimately won Best Picture, so the guy who stars in it has to be nominated as well. Fine, but I wouldn’t nominate him.

3. I want to say straight away here that I love Denzel Washington’s performance in Training Day, but I think his nomination is a bit of category fraud. He was nominated for Best Actor here and Ethan Hawke for Supporting Actor. This is despite Hawke being the real main character of the film and being on screen more. I’d consider Hawke for this nomination before Washington, because Washington feels more like a supporting role. Admittedly, he dominates the screen when he’s on it, which makes me think he should have won a Supporting Actor Oscar instead of winning Best Actor. And even with that, he’s made it to third place.

2. I like Tom Wilkinson, and while I didn’t enjoy watching In the Bedroom, I was suitably impressed with it. There are a lot of great performances in this movie—Wilkinson no more than Sissy Spacek or Marissa Tomei—but no less than them, either. Much of the hard, emotional work in this film goes to Wilkinson, and he handles it brilliantly, expressing maddening grief and blinding, cold rage in equal measures. It’s the sort of performance that would win in a lot of years.

My Choice

1. I have a lot of problems with Ali, and none of them are Will Smith. I never would have thought I’d stump for Smith to win an Oscar, and yet here we are, with him having turned in a performance that I didn’t think he was capable of. The film creates a lot of unnecessary drama to keep the audience watching, and there are a lot of things that deviate from the history. But Smith doesn’t just get the look of Ali down. He acts like him. He sounds like him. He gets the pattern and cadence of his speech right. It’s not just a performance, but a remarkable piece of mimicry. It’s astounding, and he deserved to win.

Final Analysis


  1. I'm at a slight disadvantage here since I haven't seen Training Day because of my indifference to Washington and avoidance of all things Ethan Hawke.

    Of these five I'd go with Tom Wilkinson who is just great in In the Bedroom. The movie's a tough watch but he, Sissy and Marisa made it compelling.

    But in an open field he'd still make my list, the only one of the nominees that would, but he wouldn't be my winner. Along with him my list would include Lior Ashkenazi in Late Marriage, Ryan Gosling in The Believer, Guy Pearce in Memento and Anthony La Paglia who would be my winner for the wonderful Aussie mystery drama Lantana.

    1. I can't believe I skipped over Guy Pearce, who really should be here. I'd put him on this list over most of who is here.

      I understand the ambivalence toward an actor, but Denzel Washington is pretty great in Training Day, and Hawke is good in it as well. Still, since I tend to feel the same way about Colin Farrell, I get it.