Friday, April 24, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 2008

The Contenders:

Brad Pitt: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frank Langella: Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn: Milk (winner)
Richard Jenkins: The Visitor
Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler

What’s Missing

This is going to be a difficult one, because I really like a lot of these performances. We can walk through the longshot nominations first. I’ll start with the foreign language ones that I think are worth bringing up. These include Kare Hedebrant in Let the Right One In, Song Kang-ho in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Masahiro Motoki in Departures. Some others are good to great performances in movies I really didn’t like much, like Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt and Tom Hardy in Bronson. I’ve mentioned Oscar’s problems with race and gender before, and the lack of nomination for Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire smacks of that kind of bias. Pontypool is far too small a film and very much in the wrong genre, but Stephen McHattie’s gonzo performance is worth a note. This was a decade too early for superhero movie recognition, but Robert Downey Jr. deserved some notice for Iron Man. I think you can pick either Colin Farrell or Brendan Gleeson from In Bruges, and I think a case can be made for either of them. Finally, I love the nomination for Frank Langella, but Michael Sheen could be here for Frost/Nixon as well.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and I’m happy that he’s won an Oscar for acting. I also think he should have had more nominations in the past. But a nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like a nomination for the film and the production and not for him. The breakout performance in the film is that of Taraji P. Henson, who is far and away the best part of the movie. Pitt is a fine actor often not given credit for the choices he makes in roles, but this is one that didn’t belong in the list.

4. I don’t like putting Richard Jenkins in fourth because I like Richard Jenkins and I liked The Visitor. It hurts doubly in this case because Jenkins is from the town I live in and has had film festivals locally where this movie was featured. He had stiff competition this year, though. I like this nomination, but he doesn’t really have a chance against this competition. Jenkins is a fine actor, and I hope he wins an Oscar one day. This was a good place to get his name out there, but there’s no way he’s winning.

3. There is something about the screen presence of Frank Langella that is at least mildly intimidating to me. He plays impressive bad guys, and I suppose in some respect that’s what Nixon is in this case in Frost/Nixon. He’s damn good in this role, but he’s not specifically a lot better than Michael Sheen. I do find it rather disappointing that this is Langella’s only Oscar nomination. Surely the man who consented to play Skeletor across from Dolph Lundgren deserves more love from the Academy than this third-place finish.

2. In my review of Milk, I said that the film’s biggest flaw is also its biggest strength: the presence of Sean Penn in the lead role. Penn is one of the best actors of his generation and that won’t be taken away from him, but he is so distinctive that he is always Sean Penn on the screen to some extent. That’s perhaps not really his fault. When I did Best Actor for 2003, I put Penn (who won that year, too) in second place and said even though I’m not giving him the win, I don’t hate his win. I’m saying the same thing here.

My Choice

1. I am very far away from being a Mickey Rourke apologist. I think he was a very talented guy who pissed away a lot of that talent (and his looks) going after a completely different lifestyle and weird thrills. Say what you will about him, though, The Wrestler is an amazing performance. It’s not just the best of Rourke’s career, but one of the best of its decade and one of the best sports movie performances in film history. Rourke was both devastating and dominant in this film, and this should have been his Oscar.

Final Analysis


  1. Rourke is my winner, too. He is just phenomenal, taking nothing away from Penn and the others because this really is a stacked year. Though I would have loved to see RDJ get a nod for Iron Man, yeah - not happening. Patel probably should've gotten a nom, but ya know, brown people vs. the Academy.

    Jenkins was definitely great but his movie, while very good, is also very small. It's a cozy, little moment that I'm honestly (pleasantly) surprise made enough of an impact to get a nod.

    Yes to everything you said about Pitt. That's a nom for the production and Henson was easily the best part. And Blanchett behind her. Pitt probably gets 4th, behind the de-aging that happens to his character. I'm all for replacing him with Tom Hardy from Bronson. Or Patel.

    Honestly, I always think of Langella as supporting and Sheen as lead, so a nom for Sheen wouldn't bother me in the least.

    I'd venture to say that Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York (a film I dislike) were both excellent and worthy of consideration. Hell, even Jean-Claude Van Damme was great in JCVD.

    My foreign flick longshot would be Alfredo Castro in an underseen, dark, nasty, little movie called Tony Manero. It's from Chile and set in the late 70s. Castro plays a sociopath who is obsessed with Tony Manero, John Travolta's character from Saturday Night Fever. It's not for everyone, but I loved it.

    1. I really need to see Gran Torino one of these days. Same with JCVD. Regarding Patel, I was surprised he didn't get a nomination. I was honestly also surprised at the acclaim Slumdog Millionaire got in general. I wouldn't nominate the movie for much and I wouldn't have nominated Patel, but with the love the movie got, him not being here does very much smack of brown people vs. the Academy, as you say.

      I do like that Jenkins is on the list. I probably wouldn't nominate him in an open field, hometown boy or no. My daughter has met him--he's evidently a very nice guy, which is always nice to discover.

      As for Pitt, I still think he should have won for 12 Monkeys, but that was a packed year for Supporting Actor.

    2. No need to defend Pitt, I'm a fan. However, in this particular movie he ranks behind his co-stars, prosthetics, and cgi.

    3. Oh, I agree completely.

      Years ago, a co-worker introduced me to something he called "The Dirty Brad Pitt Theory." The idea was that any movie where Pitt plays someone who is physically or morally dirty is a good movie, and if he's physically and morally pure, it'll be a bad movie. This holds true remarkably well for a large chunk of his career.

  2. I hated The Wrestler and Rourke in it but it might be bias, not the hate of the film (I barely made it through) but towards him. I was never much of a fan even when he started out and then he proved to be such a total jackass fool I can never separate him from his performances.

    Out of the nominees I was pulling for Penn (also at times a jackass but at least professional enough to be a disciplined performer). I see your point about him always being a little bit Sean Penn but that holds true for most any star. I thought he subsumed his most apparent tics into a portrait of Harvey Milk.

    I adore Frost/Nixon and thought Frank Langella was phenomenal but no better than Michael Sheen and in a way I agree with Dell. The film is really a two hander but if either role were to be seen as supporting it was Langella's.

    As for Jenkins and Pitt you have them where they belong and in an open field I'd cut both. Actually in an wide open field I'd drop the whole lineup despite really admiring two of the performances.

    I like many of your alternates, especially the In Bruges boys, the only other suggestion I have is Francois Cluzet in France's "Tell No One".

    If it were up to me the nominees would run this way:

    Francois Cluzet-Tell No One
    Colin Farrell-In Bruges
    Brendan Gleeson-In Bruges
    Tom Hardy-Bronson
    Michael Sheen-Frost/Nixon

    Out of that group Colin Farrell would be my winner. Sean Penn would be in sixth place.

    1. Colin Farrell is one of those actors who has, at times, managed to surprise me. There are a number of his performances that I genuinely dislike. I didn't like him in The Lobster and I really didn't like him in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In Bruges is different, though, and I wouldn't mind him being in the mix--but I'd want Gleeson there as well, because much of the movie is how the two work off each other.

      I did not like Bronson, but it's a career performance for Tom Hardy, and it did deserve more acclaim.

      I get what you're saying about Rourke. I think he wasted the best part of his career and wasted his face as well, and it's a damn shame. I was never going to be a huge fan of his in the best of times, but he does pull out an interesting performance now and again (Angel Heart, for instance). The Wrestler is not a pleasant film, but in a lot of ways, it's a mirror of Rourke, or an analogy of his life. He plays it with great depth, and I didn't think he had it in him.

  3. One of the reasons why I despise Sean Penn as an actor sometimes is the fact that he tends to take himself way too seriously. I liked Milk and thought he was great in it but the Oscar should've gone to Mickey Rourke that year. Rourke's performance was so heartbreaking to watch as I'm glad Darren Aronofsky gave him that chance to do something great again as I'm waiting for Rourke to get another solid role and also do another movie with Eric Roberts so they can have their own comeback.

    For me personally, the one performance I can't believe no one mentioned is Benicio del Toro in Che though I'm not surprised considering that it was a two-part movie that not a lot of people saw. I was fortunate to see both films at a roadshow presentation as it's one of the best cinematic experiences of my life. del Toro went all-out and then some in that film.

    Other performances I felt should've been in consideration are Michael Fassbender for Hunger, Tom Hardy for Bronson, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Synecdoche, New York, Ron Perlman for Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Joaquin Phoenix for Two Lovers while I definitely agree with you on Robert Downey Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Colin Farrell/Brendan Gleeson, and Kare Hedebrant.

    1. It's a surprisingly packed year. I think you can legitimately make a list of ten nominations and still feel like there are some snubs.

      The thing that sells Rourke's performance to me is how ordinary it is in so many ways. The Ram is so normal and sad outside of the ring that this doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a real person who has one talent (a staggering pain tolerance) and who has essentially failed at everything else in his life.