Friday, November 6, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1988

The Contenders:

Tom Hanks: Big
Gene Hackman: Mississippi Burning
Max von Sydow: Pelle the Conqueror
Dustin Hoffman: Rain Man (winner)
Edward James Olmos: Stand and Deliver

What’s Missing

There are lots of interesting possibilities for Best Actor from 1988. As usual, I’ll go through the people who don’t really have a chance or don’t really belong here first. We can start with Roddy Piper in They Live, which is a great movie, but not really Oscar material. Oscar’s general dislike of horror is what I’m going to claim prevented a nod for Bill Pullman in The Serpent and the Rainbow. It might also be what kept Jeremy Irons from being justly nominated for Dead Ringers. A very popular choice here would be Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and while I wouldn’t object, I’d argue that Alan Rickman is the class of that film, and he’s clearly supporting. There are times when two people are essentially co-leads, and they cancel each other out. Dustin Hoffman won for Rain Man, but Tom Cruise could have just as easily been nominated here. Both Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins could have been eligible for Bull Durham, and I’d consider both. Similarly, I could see nominations for Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run. The last duo I could see here are Michael Caine and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Oscar has a love/hate relationship with comedies, nominating sometimes but more often ignoring. Kevin Kline won in a supporting role for A Fish Called Wanda, but that movie is nothing without John Cleese. Similarly, say what you will about where his career went, but Eddie Murphy has rarely been better than he was in Coming to America. We can talk Alec Baldwin for Beetlejuice, but Michael Keaton was clearly the best part of that movie, and just as clearly supporting despite being the title character. For the biggest snubs, I’d put up John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons and Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ. Finally, I did consider Jacques Perrin in Cinema Paradiso, but all of the roles in that feel more supporting.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. While there are some changes I would make to the lineup here, it’s not easy to place these five actors. Most feel like they belong in third. I’m going to put Dustin Hoffman in fifth for two reasons despite his eventual win. The first is that I honestly think Tom Cruise’s performance is better. He starts as such a hateful bastard, and by the end, we’re rooting for him. Second, it’s almost a cliché that the guy who takes the physically or mentally challenged role wins the Oscar. Hoffman is good in Rain Man, but he was the wrong nomination.

4. Mississippi Burning feels like the definition of “Oscar bait,” a term I try very hard not to use too often. It’s a fine film in a lot of ways and an important one, but it also has real structural problems with the way the plot and story work. It also has the problem that, at least in my mind, both Brad Dourif and Willem Dafoe are a lot more memorable than Gene Hackman, who was awarded the nomination here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the movie in a large sense, but with the snubs we’ve got, I’d have nominated elsewhere.

3. My issue with Stand and Deliver is that I like Edward James Olmos a lot more than I like Jaime Escalante, the man he was portraying here. Don’t get me wrong—Olmos is great in this role, but he’s playing a man who, while admirable in many respects, is also painfully rigid to a degree that makes him difficult to like. I’m on the fence about this nomination in general. Olmos should have had more acclaim in his career in general, but there are a lot of performances from this year that I could easily see in this position.

2. There was definitely a time when I would have loved to see Tom Hanks win this Oscar. Being nominated for a film like this feels like such an aberration for the way Oscar normally handles its nominations. And, while Big has some very serious issues concerning what would essentially be considered statutory rape despite appearances, Hanks is genuine in this role. He’s funny, he’s the right level of naïve, and his performance is one that is genuinely memorable. While he’s not my winner, he’s the first nomination I would clearly keep.

1. I try not to make a lot of decisions in these posts based on sentiment, but if I am stuck with the five nominations, I’m going with Max von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror. The reason for this is, admittedly, purely emotional. The man was a giant in the film world and was nominated only twice, and this was his only Best Actor nomination. He deserved better than that in his career, and so, gun to head, I’m going to reward the guy who should have had an entire museum of Oscars to his credit. But, of course, I am free to go elsewhere.

My Choice

Willem Dafoe had a good year in 1988, and he’s genuinely compelling in The Last Temptation of Christ, but I think I’d lean a lot more heavily toward John Malkovich. I’m of the opinion that Dangerous Liaisons is the objectively best movie of this year, even if it’s not my favorite or the one I watch the most. A lot of that comes from Glenn Close, but just as much comes from Malkovich, who has never been more filled with sneering contempt and joyful malice than he was in this.

Final Analysis


  1. I would've liked it if it went to Willem Dafoe for The Last Temptation of Christ or Kevin Costner for Bull Durham...

    Hoffman's win is often typical for Oscar-bait although he did an excellent job in being autistic, learning how to count cards, and tell the world exactly on what we all agree on... "tell 'em Raymond" "K-Mart sucks!" Remember, he didn't go full-retard.

    Yeah, Costner or John Cleese would've been my pick. I can't against Costner for things like.... "he still didn't touch the plate! Such a cock-sucking call". Yet, Cleese had lines like... "Winners, you mean like... North Vietnam!" "Oh yes they beat you. Boy, they whooped yer hide real good!"

    1. I still say Tom Cruise's performance in Rain Man is a better one. He starts that movie with no audience sympathy and ends with all of it, and that's all on him.

  2. I agree that von Sydow was an awesome talent who deserved more nominations than he received but I wouldn't hand him this Oscar because of it. He's his usual outstanding self in the film but he'd place sixth for me in an open field.

    Out of this lot Tom Hanks would be my pick, his mastery of the razor thin line he has to walk to play Josh Baskin believably is wonderful to watch. He's the only one of these nominees I'd retain.

    Alan Rickman was robbed of what should have been an easy walk to a supporting Oscar but the interplay between he and Bruce Willis is so strong and Bruce completely drives the movie and elevates it out of mere action genre stuff into a classic of its kind. A nomination should have resulted.

    I'd also include Jeremy Irons for Dead Ringers. I didn't care much for the movie but his playing of the dual role was fascinating.

    Harvey Fierstein's self penned Arnold Beckoff in Torch Song Trilogy is such a rich characterization full of humor, pathos, anger and a million little human touches. It's one of a kind work.

    But for me the big miss is River Phoenix in Running on Empty. I know he was nominated in supporting but he is so clearly the lead it's ridiculous that he was put anywhere else. He'd be my winner though both Fierstein and Willis would be thisclose right behind him.

    1. I freely admit that my pick of von Sydow is a sentimental one, but since I ended up going with someone off-list anyway, it's ultimately not a huge issue. I wouldn't have complained much if Tom Hanks had walked away with this.

      I didn't love Running on Empty that much. Torch Song Trilogy is already on my giant to-watch list.

      This was a very good year for this category in general, honestly.

  3. Looking over your "What's Missing" I am struck by what a fantastic year it was for actors. What an amazing list of performances.

    I agree that Rickman should have been nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Die Hard.

    1. It really was a damn good year--a year where you could literally nominate 10 people and still feel like you didn't get them all.

  4. I've seen 3 of the 5 noms (Big, Stand and Deliver, Rain Man). Of those I'd go with Hanks. Totally agree that either Costner or Robbins could be nominated for Bull Durham. Great point about the roles in Cinema Paradiso feeling like supporting ones. Speaking of the Academy's love-hate relationship with comedy, I'd be very open to a nom for Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun, and in an open field I'm going with Murphy's virtuoso performance...performances in Coming to America.

    1. Coming to America is such a good performance top to bottom. I mean, even taking out the "Eddie Murphy plays 15 different characters" aspects from it, the central performance is genuinely one of the best things Murphy ever did on camera, and it holds up today.

      And, beyond that, Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate is one of those rare things that will literally never not be funny.