Monday, June 3, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 2003

The Contenders:

Jude Law: Cold Mountain
Ben Kingsley: The House of Sand and Fog
Bill Murray: Lost in Translation
Sean Penn: Mystic River (winner)
Johnny Depp: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

What’s Missing

This is a really good collection of movies and performances for this award for this year. Sure there are a couple that I might replace, but for Oscar, it’s not a bad collection. Still, there’s some room for improvement. We can start, as usual, with the performances that would never earn a nomination in a million years. For actors in 2003, that list has to start with Will Ferrell in Elf, which is probably the best and purest performance of his career. Oscar has never loved the horror-tinged, which leaves out Choi Min-sik in Oldboy. The other longshot here is Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, a film that clearly flew under Oscar’s radar, much to its shame. The two performances of name actors in bigger releases that really could have been here are Paul Giamatti in American Splendor and Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I said above that it’s a good collection of nominees, and for the most part, it is, but I do wonder what Jude Law is doing here for his performance in Cold Mountain. The thing is that Renee Zellweger is absolutely the best part of the movie, and she deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she won. Because of that, it’s hard to justify Law’s place on this list. Giamatti, Crowe, and Dinklage deserved to be here instead of him. Truthfully, I have trouble remembering him in the film.

4. So what are we to make of Johnny Depp’s nomination in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film? At the time, I think most of the people who pay attention to this sort of thing were rather charmed by the idea that Depp was nominated for what was essentially a 150-minute impersonation of Keith Richards. Now, almost a dozen and a half years after the fact, this is not a nomination that holds up very well. It really is just a 150-minute impersonation of Keith Richards, and we can do quite a bit more with nomination than this.

3. When he’s given good material to work with, few people are better in a role that Ben Kingsley. He’s at his best in The House of Sand and Fog, something that is equally true of everyone else on the screen in this movie. It’s an impressive performance, and one that stands out well in a packed movie. Putting Kingsley third is not a knock on him, but a recognition of just how good the other two performances were from this year. This is the sort of role that would win in a lot of years, but not this year.

2. I understand the win for Sean Penn in Mystic River. Like most of the actors nominated in this year, Penn is as good as anyone when he’s been given something to work with. That he got this nomination over Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, both of whom are at the top of their games in this says a great deal about just how good Penn is and can be. I don’t really have a huge objection to him winning this Oscar even if he isn’t my pick. Penn has long been one of the best actors around, and Mystic River is some of his best work.

My Choice

1. My choice, though, is Bill Murray. Murray is always easy to like on the screen. He made a great deal of his career playing the guy who was a little bit smarter than everyone else, a little bit hipper, a little bit cooler. In Lost in Translation, he’s not that guy anymore. He’s befuddled and confused and sort ironically amused by it all. The reason I’m picking Murray here is not because it’s Bill Murray in a dramatic role or because it would be great for him to have an Oscar. I’m picking Bill Murray because I legitimately can’t think of a single person who could have played this role a tenth of as well as he did, and that’s what Oscars are made of.

Final Analysis


  1. Thank you. It should've been Bill's Oscar. I was so hoping for that big moment. Plus, I had hoped that if he had won the Oscar. He would host the season finale of that season's SNL with the Oscar and getting everyone who was on the show who are alive to be on that show and bow down to him.

    Plus, it's my all-time favorite film.

    1. It's a good call-back to the idea that Oscars really shouldn't be awarded for five years to see the sort of influence that movies and performances have. Murray's performance in Lost in Translation is a thing of beauty, and he handles that sort of constant position of irony and being amused by his own decline and decay perfectly. Murray has a face built for tragicomedy and the demeanor to match.

  2. I haven't seen Lost in Translation. I know and I'm hanging my head in shame. One of these days, I will. Of the others, Penn would get my vote but is not my top performance that year. I'd likely go with Giamatti or Min-sik. Both were nothing short of phenomenal. I know the latter has a couple strikes against it in the Academy's eyes (not only horror-tinged but foreign), but it seems odd Giamatti didn't get a nom. The role seems to tick all the Oscar boxes.

    1. I no longer give people grief about movies they haven't seen, since my own list of holes in my viewing has things you can drive a train through. It is worth seeing, though--it's a great film for a rainy day when you're in the mood to be a little depressed and get lost in your own version of existentialism.

      Min-sik had even more going against him--not just foreign, but Asian/Korean. European foreign movies are much more likely to get nominations than anything east of roughly Moscow. As for Giamatti, his performance does tick a lot of boxes but has one major negative for 2003--it was based on a graphic novel. Y'' stuff. Seems stupid today, but that's where the Academy was 16 years ago. I say that knowing that this was also the year they awarded a nomination for a film based on an amusement park ride, but Oscar isn't without it's strange ironies, too.

  3. I hate to say this since you're such a fan but Lost in Translation didn't do alot for me. Murray was probably the best I've ever seen him and I don't object to his nomination but he wouldn't be my choice.

    I like Penn too, at least as a performer as a person he seems rather jerky, but knowing that Milk-where he's even better-was in his future I'd snatch that Oscar right out of his hands.

    Out of these five I'd give it to Kingsley. I didn't enjoy House of Sand and Fog, it was just too grindingly bleak, but he was just brilliant in the film. I'll say the same for Shohreh Aghdashloo who gave the best performance man or woman in any category this year. Her loss really pissed me off.

    But in an open field my vote would go to Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent.

    1. I wouldn't object terribly to Dinklage, who would absolutely get a nomination from me. He benefits hugely from a a script that insists on making him a person before making him a person with dwarfism. Once upon a time, either Siskel or Ebert said that the genius of Danny Devito is that he doesn't play short guys, but guys who are short. While I won't take a single thing away from Dinklage's performance, a lot of the success of the film is a wonderful screenplay.

      Murray benefits from that as well, admittedly.

      I agree on Shohreh Aghdashloo, and I agree that Kingsley is fantastic in a film that is difficult to watch--true of Jennifer Connelly as well, despite her being skipped for a nomination. And to be fair, if we're going to give Ben Kingsley a second Oscar, my choice is to give him one for Sexy Beast.

    2. If he were to get two I'd say it should be for this and Sexy Beast not Gandhi. That one should have gone to either Finney or Courtenay (both Oscarless :-() for The Dresser even if my ultimate choice for that year was the un-nominated Nick Nolte for Under Fire.

    3. My vote for 1982 is either an unnominated Jurgen Prochnow in Das Boot or an unnominated Klaus Kinski in Fitzcaraldo. Finney and Courtenay were both nominated in 1983 and lost to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. I picked Courtenay for second that year.