The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1993
Ah, 1993. The year that no one can ever refute. Is there anyone that can really speak ill of Schindler’s List? It’s weird to find a film so well made and about such an important subject that the only real grounds you have to speak ill of the film end up saying bad things about you as a person. That’s funny. Even I, who takes such glee in not liking films the rest of the world says are masterpieces, can’t speak ill of that film. The worst thing I can say about it is — it’s long, and it’s heavy, so, it’s not the first thing I’m going to pop on to watch when I’m looking for something. Which, doesn’t really say anything about the film as much as it does about — well, my temperament.
Anyway, this was a year that was pretty much ser in stone from the start. For Schindler’s List to have not won Best Picture would have been a bigger deal than whatever it had beaten. I do, however, have several gripes with their acting choices for this year. Three of the four, anyway. The fourth — whatever.
To keep you informed, Best Director, obviously, went to Spielberg. Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress went to Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin (who was 11 at the time) for The Piano, and Best Supporting Actor went to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. So, before I start discussing my feelings on those categories, I’m gonna get right into the one I should be talking about.
Though one last bit of trivia before I go, because I find things like this fascinating. This year marked Tom Hanks’s first of two back-to-back Oscars. The only other actor to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars was Spencer Tracy (1937 & 1938). The great fact about these two is that, at the time they won both of their Oscars, they were both the same age — 37 & 38. That is, they won the first of the two Oscars at age 37, and the following year, both aged 38, won the second. That’s fucking awesome that it happened twice.
BEST ACTOR – 1993
And the nominees were…
Daniel Day-Lewis, In the Name of the Father
Laurence Fishburne, What’s Love Got to Do With It
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia
Anthony Hopkins, The Remains of the Day
Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List
Day-Lewis — This is a movie I went into — which might be the case with all Jim Sheridan movies — expecting some small drama about the Irish, and getting a movie that I found so incredible I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. Though of the four big Sheridan movies (haven’t seen The Field yet, and sorry, but Get Rich or Die Tryin’ doesn’t count), I’d probably rank this one third. I love In America dearly, and My Left Foot is nothing short of genius. This fits a cozy (and in good company) third, ahead of The Boxer, which I like, but, a strong fourth is nothing to be ashamed of. However, this film is nothing short of captivating.
It’s about Daniel Day-Lewis, a regular little troublemaker, just a regular guy doing regular things. And one day a bomb goes off in a pub, and him and his friend get blamed for it because they happen to have broke into an open house and slept there when the bomb went off. And they force a confession out of his friend and end up locking up Day-Lewis and his father, Pete Postelthwaite (who’s fucking incredible in this, as always), for, life, essentially. And it’s one of those, you know he’s not guilty, and you know the system is corrupt and they’re just looking to jail them. Then the rest of the film becomes a pseudo-Shawshank Redemption. Not similar at all except, it’s about keeping up hope in the face of life in prison. And they stick together as the years go by, try to stay sane — and then eventually, Emma Thompson, who is a yougn lawyer, comes by and gets the case reopened and discovers hidden evidence that clearly proves they were innocent and that the police willingly ignored it. It is a very, very, well-done movie that I can’t recommend highly enough. But I’ll pimp it more when I talk about Best Picture and Best Director for this year. This is about Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis is good in this, as he always is. Seriously, look at the films he’s done since his first Oscar (My Left Foot, 1989): The Last of the Mohicans, this, The Age of Innocence (which, let’s pause to appreciate two great performances in one year), The Crucible, The Boxer, Gangs of New York, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (probably the one film on here, next to The Boxer, that people haven’t widely seen. This is a small film directed by his wife), There Will Be Blood (let’s just pause to appreciate that performance), and Nine. And now he’s going to play both a monk for Martin Scorsese (a film that he’s been attached to for years now, and Abraham Lincoln, whenever Spielberg gets around to it (since Liam Neeson pulled out. I did appreciate that little connection when I read it). So, this man has never really given a bad performance. Like, ever.
And he’s good in this. The problem is, when you expect Oscar-worthy every time, if it’s not quite there, at least, compared to the last one he won for, then you are less inclined to vote for it. With the Oscar resume he’s built, with My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood, it’s at the point where, either you have to give him a statue for everything he does, or for ones on that level — which, how the hell do you top those two performances? So that does unconsciously factor into this race. But still, he is amazing in this movie, and really does evoke the change in this man. At first he’s playfully fucking with armed guards, and running away from them like it’s a joke, dancing to Jimmy Hendrix on a rooftop. When, in reality, if they caught him, they would have beaten the living shit out of him. And then he goes and becomes a beatnik for a while (not wholeheartedly, just in name only, really) until he’s arrested. Then you see him start to mature and become a different person in prison. He gets very serious, and very hardened. To the point where, by the time he comes out, you almost wonder if there’s anything left. It’s a great, great performance. Though, like I said, it’s hard to vote for him for this, because — I don’t know, something in me just felt it wasn’t quite worthy of a vote. Like I said — either everything, or the really exceptional ones. Maybe that’s just a personal thing. So, close, but no vote.
Fishburne — This is the kind of role that’s almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination. The abusive husband in a musical biopic. I say almost because — Tommy Lee Jones in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I guess he wasn’t totally abusive — I mean, he did love and support her. I guess it’s just that here Larry goes full-on Ike Turner. He beats the living fuck out of her in this movie. Like — real bruises. You can see ’em.
Anyway, this is a Tina Turner biopic, if the title didn’t give it away. Personally, I didn’t really think there was enough here to warrant a full biopic — but, there was enough here to warrant a movie about a woman overcoming spousal abuse. So, really, the film should have picked one. I feel it would have been stronger had it stuck with one. You can’t start with the whole music thing, then segue into the beating, then do the beating and then try to go back to the music. It just doesn’t work. But, that’s why the film didn’t get more than the two nominations. And personally — I thought he did a lot better than she did. I mean, she sings kinda like her, and they make her look enough like her (as much as any woman can, I mean. Because ain’t no actress ever gonna look like Tina Turner), but, it just didn’t feel like Tina Turner. It felt like a movie about someone who, oh, by the way, was also Tina Turner. Maybe that was the point, since they call her by her real name for most of it, but, like I said, you can’t have the cake and eat it too.
So, Fishburne is good in this movie. He does make Ike a mean bastard who is also the kind to weasel his way back into her life (almost) every time. It’s good and it’s effective. It’s just not gonna win any Oscars. So, nice job, nice nomination, nice to see Fishburne get some recognition, but, no vote.
Hanks — This Oscar hurts me. It hurts me because it feels like the Academy being too impetuous. They went and gave Hanks an Oscar and then he pulled out a better performance and they had to give him another one. I love the movie and I think Hanks is fine in the role, but, come on, it’s not Best Actor material. It’s not. Really all he does is put on makeup and fake sores and act like he’s dying. Denzel is the one that really has to do all the heavy lifting in this movie. And, the scene where they show him hallucinating — what the fuck was that, Jonathan Demme?
The movie, in case you didn’t know, is about a lawyer who is moving up fast in his company, but is also dying of AIDS. Though he’s hiding it from the firm. And one day, a coworker notices a lesion and deducts he has AIDS. And very suddenly an important film that he knows he left on his desk gets “misplaced” only to resurface at the last minute, making it seem as though he almost fucked up the case, and out of nowhere he gets fired. And he knows it’s because he has AIDS. So he goes and sues them. And Denzel, who is a homophobe ambulance chase, agrees to take the case. And they fight the case, while we also see him dying alongside it, and it’s uplifting and everything, but, really, to me it’s not a Best Actor-winning performance. It is, obviously, because the Academy made it so, but, it’s really not.
I don’t want to make such bold statements about the film because, I do really like this movie. I think it’s great. I just think Denzel was the one who should have been nominated instead. And if I wanted to go one step further, I might say that perhaps it’s that whole racism thing that once again reared its ugly head. (But that would take an argument, and it’s one I’m really not committed to making. Also, don’t give me that Laurence Fishburne got nominated crap, because it’s possible for two black actors to be nominated at once). Also, AIDS was the cause of the moment back then, and Hanks really was the only performance that was gonna get nominated. It was like they voted for the issue over the performance. But, it’s not like that’s anything new with the Academy. Am I right, Brokeback Mountain?
So, Hanks is good, and I suggest you see the movie for the movie’s sake, but, if you’ve seen any one of these performances, there’s no way you can tell me Hanks was the best of this bunch. There’s no way. No vote.
Hopkins — Here’s a performance that — in a rare instance, I had in my head before I ever saw the film. Very rarely do I actually read the source material of a film before seeing the film, unless it’s something I read in school — which, usually is some classic work or literature and it really doesn’t matter who plays it because it’s going to get remade ten times anyway. Though I guess Mockingbird is the exception there. But, Shakespeare, plays and stuff, all of that stuff they make you read in high school gets remade over and over with different people, so it’s a matter of which version you like the best rather than “how does it hold up against the source material?” I used to be a big reader, but, not so much anymore, unless it’s for research purposes for a script or whatever. And now I’m hesitant to read books because, everything is optioned and everything will one day become a film. And I really need a disconnect to exist between a book and a film because — they’re two separate entities and cannot (and shouldn’t, although they will regardless) be judged comparatively. So, being a film person, I stick to the films and leave the books where they are.
However, I read this book in an English class in college, and I fell in love with it. I loved the first-person narration of the butler and how he told the story with a very specific type of character. It allowed me, the reader, to read what he thought, and then translate it in my head to what was really going on. I just loved it. Then, after I got done, I saw it was made into a movie with Tony Hopkins, and was like, “I have to see this.” And, when I watched it, I thought, “Yeah, it’s good, but I saw this differently, and this differently.” I had trouble seeing the film on its own (mostly because I saw it like two days after finishing the book). Never again will that happen. That’s why I refused to read Never Let Me Go before seeing the film. I saw the film, thought it was great, and then had to hear how all my friends didn’t like the film because the book, “was so much better.” I don’t want that. I want to enjoy the film as a film. Reading the book first diminishes it. Film first, book second allows me to then discover what they changed and discover more. It’s a much more rewarding exercise, I find.
That was a free life tip by Mike. Back to the performance.
The film, and book, are about a butler, who was essentially raised to be a butler. He was trained to be a servant and to restrain all emotions in favor of what “the house” wants. His life is total devotion to the house and nothing else. And he works for years and years, and it’s mostly about how, at one point, a female housekeeper comes (played by Emma Thompson, who was actually the only part of the movie I said, the first time, “This is actually better than the book,” because she gives the character so much more life that the book didn’t, I felt) and is very — not what he likes. And yet, is. She’s very much one of those people who lives very, “Oh well, I fucked up, whatever, we’ll fix it now.” And he’s like, “No, you have to do it right the first time or else everything suffers.” He’s uptight, she’s not, they quarrel. And yet, he clearly has a thing for her, but forces himself to keep it repressed because that’s what his position requires (or so he thinks). And it’s kind of clear that she’s into him, but basically says it won’t happen unless he comes out and loosens up and does something. So the book is about him struggling between the two, and then finally getting old, ending up with nothing but the knowledge that he was “the perfect butler,” and now he’s like, “Oh fuck, have I wasted my life?”
It’s a brilliant performance by Tony Hopkins. The kind where, had he not won as Hannibal Lecter two years earlier (which, he almost didn’t, if that’s believable), I’d say he’d be my vote. But, fortunately, he did win, so I can, without guilt, vote for the performance that should have won, and say that this is a brilliant performance that absolutely should have been nominated, and was this close to being worth a vote and a win (though, against Hanks, he totally should have won).
Neeson — There’s your winner right here. Seriously, how the fuck did the Academy fuck up this badly and not give him Best Actor for this movie?
I’m not even going to talk about the movie — it’s Schindler’s List. Seriously, have you not seen it? I’m not even going to talk about the performance either. Just watch the movie and tell me, based solely on what you see — is that not good enough to win an Oscar? (Just him. We’ll get to Supporting soon enough.) And if not — was Tom Hanks really that much better?
I’m curious as to how many people would really say yes to this. (I already know part of this answer. The majority of the acting branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s a shame that we really have to sit here and say, Liam Neeson lost to AIDS.)
My Thoughts: The three best performances here are Neeson, Hopkins and Day-Lewis. But, since they have statues, and because Neeson actually did give an amazing performance, Neeson is clearly the one to vote for.
My Vote: Neeson.
Should Have Won: Neeson. Or even Hopkins or Day-Lewis. But since they have statues, Neeson.
Is the result acceptable?: Sorry Tom Hanks, but no. Hanks gives a good performance, but really, Denzel should have been nominated instead, I feel. Plus, he wins the next year for a better performance. And — did you not see how fucking good Liam Neeson is in that movie? There’s really no reason to not award Neeson here. Even historically, you knew someone as liked as Tom Hanks was gonna win one (and even if you wanted to give him two, he was so much better in Cast Away than he was in this. And that year had weak competition too). Neeson was the better choice here all around.
Performances I suggest you see: Neeson, Day-Lewis, Hanks (mostly for the film, and for Denzel. I want you to decide for yourselves what you think of the performance), Hopkins. I can take or leave the Fishburne. It’s nice, but, the movie’s not all that great. (Note: That was also the deciding factor in my choice of rankings.)
2) Day-Lewis (Hopkins gave the better performance, but Day-Lewis had two this year.)