The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1992

1992 Best Actor is almost the male equivalent to Best Actress 1956, which I discussed (in crazy detail) yesterday. This category is so fucking stacked it’s ridiculous. And what’s weird about it is, if pretty much anyone in this category won, no one would have found it weird. I mean, clearly there’s a winner here, but, I think we all know the reason for that (“Hey, we fucked up back in the 70s, here’s one for you now!”).

I love 1992 as a year. Unforgiven wins Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman. Then Emma Thompson (how can you not like Emma Thompson?) wins Best Actress for Howards End, and Best Supporting Actress goes to Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny. It’s great all around.


And the nominees were…

Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin

Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven

Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman

Stephen Rea, The Crying Game

Denzel Washington, Malcolm X

Downey — Wow. That’s the only thing I can say about this movie. I’ll say more, naturally, but wow pretty much covers it. First off — how many people even know this exists? I didn’t for the longest time.

In fact, it was junior year of college, and I was taking a class on Silent Cinema, and we were doing a bunch of the Chaplin and Keaton films toward the end (I believe this is how I stumbled on it. Or rather, when. The how I know, the when is kind of fuzzy), and I remember searching for Chaplin clips on Youtube, because for some reason Charlie Chaplin movies are the one set of movies I’ve been putting off the longest. Chaplin and Hitchcock for some reason were the two where I was like — “Well, everyone knows what they’re about” — because, really, even if you haven’t seen Rear Window or The Great Dictator, you know what they’re about. Especially if you’re into movies. And it’s the kind of thing where, even without seeing them, you know so much about them that you could always just use that innate knowledge to pass off like you’ve seen it until you have. So I always kept putting it off and instead was watching other stuff I felt more immediate. That’s always how I did things. I went to the more obscure stuff first and had such a back library of those films that no one was able to see the small, yet glaring holes in my resume. (I’ll give you one right now: I honestly hadn’t seen Casablanca until I was twenty. I don’t know why that managed to work out the way it did, but it did. I didn’t see Vertigo until I was almost 22. And I took a class on it and wrote a paper on it when I was 19. Figure that shit out. (Note: Friends, t was Roth’s class.))

Anyway, I was searching for Keaton and Chaplin videos, and I came across one in color. And as I clicked on it, I saw it was a movie about Charlie Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr. (and Anthony Hopkins), directed by Richard Attenborough (aka the old dude from Jurassic Park, for those of you who really don’t know who he is. The man who directed Gandhi. The man who played Big X in The Great Escape. The man who directed one of my favorite movies, Magic, with Anthony Hopkins. Which, check out that fucking movie. It’s crazy good). And I’m like, how the fuck did I not see this earlier?

Now — I assume you’re all familiar with Charlie Chaplin, right? The way he moved, the way he looked. He was truly a unique performer and is someone that can not be imitated at all. So I’m like — “How the fuck could this movie be successful? Wasn’t Downey on drugs this whole time?”

But, as you watch the video, you actually see Downey become the Tramp in a single shot. It’s really a thing of beauty. Then you see him do a Chaplin scene too. In fact — here’s the video:

After these four minutes I was hooked. I immediately went out and bought the movie. Didn’t even rent it, I just bought it, straight up, because I knew it would be worth it.

Keep in mind, the film is not just about the Tramp character. It’s about Chaplin the man. And he was almost 180 degrees different from that character. The film starts with his childhood. Shocking. But we see him being separated from his mother, and then going into vaudeville. And there’s a great early scene where Chaplin, aged 18 or something, is playing the character of an 80 year old man, and is so good at it that no one believes it’s him. He also does this drunk character that’s really good too. And you see Downey doing a great job moving like a slapstick comedian. And the rest of the film is about how he got into the movies, and his personal life, with all his wives and such. But the real joy of the film is how Attenborough shoots it. There are many tricks — one of which you saw in that video, with the mirrors. A lot of allusions to silent films, which is so right up my alley. Silent films are perhaps my favorite genre of films, if we can call it a genre. But I guess at this point it’s technically a genre. Silents, westerns and musicals. Those are my big three.

Anyway, Downey is amazing as Chaplin. Perhaps I’m overrating the performance a bit in my head, just because I love Downey and I love Chaplin so much, but there’s no denying how good he is in this role. Some people may find the movie overly long, but, considering how important Chaplin was, I don’t have a problem with it.

Also, just to show you how stacked this film is, check out this cast (and who they’re playing): Downey as Chaplin, Hopkins as his fictional biographer, Geraldine Chaplin, his daughter, playing his mother, Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett (look him up if you don’t know who he is), Marisa Tomei as Mabel Normand, Penelope Ann Miller as Edna Purviance, Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, Milla Jovovich as Mildred Harris, Chaplin’s first wife, Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, Kevin Dunn (aka the dad from Transformers) as J. Edgar Hoover, James Woods as Joseph Scott (big lawyer at the time), and even David Duchovny is in it as the cameraman, as you saw from the clip.

The movie is fucking incredible, and Downey, for money money, was the best performance on this list. Whether he’s getting the vote or not comes down to a technicality, which I’ll get to at the bottom.

Eastwood — Clint! It surprises me that Eastwood never won an acting Oscar, and at the same time, no, it really doesn’t. It surprises me in the sense that, I’m surprised they never gave him one the way they gave John Wayne one. Though I bet — nay — I guarantee you that if Pacino weren’t fucked over in the 70s (namely 74, which I will always hold up as perhaps the worst Best Actor decision of all time. Don’t quote me on that, because I haven’t sat down to figure it out, but, it’s up there. Top five almost certainly.), Eastwood wins this award hands down. Downey was probably seen as too young and Denzel had just won one. I think Eastwood slides into the veteran spot and wins this easily if Pacino weren’t involved. But that’s neither here nor there.

The film, if you don’t know (which, seriously, you haven’t seen Unforgiven?), is about an aging gunslinger who’s retired and has married and worked on a farm for several years. His wife is dead and he’s got two relatively young children (I think they’re like, 10 and 6 or something like that), and on top of it, his pigs are dying. Basically he can’t keep himself afloat as a farmer as he could have when he was shooting people. And early on in the movie, we see a prostitute get cut up and beaten by a cowboy, and then the madam places a bounty on the dude’s head. And Gene Hackman, who’s the sheriff of the town, doesn’t want her to do that. And then this kid, wanting to be a cowboy, comes to Eastwood and is like, “Help me do this.” And Eastwood goes along with him, partially because he needs the money and partially because of how sick the dude must have been to do something like that. And they go, pick up Morgan Freeman, Eastwood’s old partner, and they go to kill the two guys. It’s a western though, so it’s all part of the ideology and mythology and all the ologies that the western invokes. It’s kind of like the epilogue to the western genre that died almost twenty years earlier.

The film is crazy good and is a must see for any film fan. And Eastwood is great in it, because Clint Eastwood is like John Wayne in that, he’s a western in himself. The dude literally embodies a genre. And that alone puts him right atop this list for a vote. But, this year being as stacked as it was, I can see why he didn’t win. Although, I will say, I bet it was close.

Pacino — Hoo ah! It’s about fucking time Pacino got a goddamn Oscar. Let’s pause to reflect Al Pacino’s history at the Oscars:

1972, nominated Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather, along with costars James Caan and Robert Duvall. A likely vote split between the three causes none of them to win and Joel Grey to win for playing the androgynous emcee in Cabaret.

1973, Al is nominated for Serpico, losing to Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger.

1974, Al is nominated for The Godfather Part II, losing to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto.

1975, Al is nominated for Dog Day Afternoon, losing to Jack Nicholson for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

1979, Al is nominated for …And Justice for All, losing out to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer.

After this, Al isn’t nominated for another eleven years, until finally getting a nomination for Dick Tracy, playing comic book villain Big Boy Caprice. This seems like one of those reminder nominations. Usually when someone is overdue for an Oscar, the Academy starts a groundswell of, “Hey, this person should win one,” and they get one nomination, then it gets louder and louder until they finally have a performance worth voting for, and then everything aligns like it did this year. Which —

Aside from this nomination, Al was also nominated this year for Supporting Actor in Glengarry Glen Ross, which is basically the Academy’s way of saying, “No more fucking excuses. This. Ends. Now.”

So, Scent of a Woman — the film is wonderful. I think this is the kind of film that’s like Good Will Hunting. Everyone’s seen it and everyone loves it. It’s about Chris O’Donnell, a regular kid in a fancy prep school who clearly isn’t as rich as the majority of the student body, who witnesses a prank on the dean’s car and the dean pressures him into giving up the students who did it, going so far as to threaten to take away his scholarship and expel him if he doesn’t rat on the other kids. And while he’s contemplating what he’s gonna do on spring break, he gets a job “babysitting” Al Pacino. That is to say, Pacino is a blind colonel who lives with his niece and her family, and the family hires him to “assist” Pacino since they’re going on vacation. And O’Donnell thinks it’s just getting shit and what not, but Pacino’s got other plans. He’s booked tickets to New York, flies up there with O’Donnell, and they go on a crazy weekend of doing shit. Pacino gets a hooker, he gets O’Donnell into a bar even though he’s underage, they go test drive a car even though Pacino is clearly blind. Shit like that. And the catch is, Pacino is planning on killing himself at the end of the weekend. And that’s the major point of tension, if you will, that runs throughout the whole film. Anyway, me talking about it is meaningless, watch the movie. It’s fucking great.

Pacino, of course, is really good. It’s the kind of performance where, even if you think it’s a bit over the top and don’t necessarily want to vote for it, the fact that he’s overdue trumps everything else. This marks a turning point in Pacino’s career. This was sort of the beginning of the end. After this, all his performances either go full Pacino (The Devil’s Advocate) or they’re sedated as if he isn’t trying (Insomnia). Most of them are a combination of both, but, there’s a clear drop off after this, kind of the way De Niro’s career goes as well.

But, even though I count Downey as the best performance, I count Pacino as the most deserving. In some cases I’m okay with makeup Oscars, and this is definitely one of those cases. The performance is actually good enough to say it could have won. As opposed to some other performances, not gonna name names (seriously, not right now), where it’s clear they didn’t deserve to win for that.

Rea — I’m gonna get this part out of the way now, because it’s really not the important part. Rea is #5 in this category. He was never going to win and he was never going to get my vote. The real interest here is in the film, not the performance.

The Crying Game was a huge deal in the 90s. Now, I don’t know. I think it’s probably largely forgotten by younger generations. I think people my age might sort of know about the movie, mostly because they heard about it on “I Love the 90s” or something, but, people younger than me, I’m guessing probably wouldn’t have heard of this movie.

It’s the one about the IRA man who kidnaps a dude and holds him hostage, and then he gets to talking to him and starts to respect him. And then he ends up trying to help him escape, but he ends up dying. So the dude, this is Rea — and the guy who died being held hostage was Forest Whitaker — he goes to see the dude’s girlfriend out of guilt. And he starts talking to her and starts falling for her. And things progress, until finally — it happens. The reveal.

I won’t post a video of it like I want to, but — you know the reveal — that chick’s got a dick. That’s right. And the film takes a violent, 720 degree turn 2/3 of the way through. And then there’s a shootout at the end, but, still, chick with a dick.

Anyway, Rea is good in the movie, and the movie is good too, but, they had to know chick with a dick was always going to be this movie’s legacy. Right?

Washington — Here’s a movie I put off seeing for a while. Mostly because it’s so fucking long. It’s 200 minutes long. That’s almost 3 and a half hours. It’s the exact same length as Return of the King. So you can see my hesitance to sit down with a beast like this when I can watch three movies in that time otherwise. But, I finally sat down to watch it back in March, and I have to say — I was very impressed.

It’s a biopic, naturally, but is also kind of not. It’s interesting. And it has all the Spike Lee flourishes, which make it more interesting than if not. And I can’t really do it justice by explaining what happens except to say — Denzel is fucking incredible in the role. It’s like The Hurricane. Any problems you may have with the film and the storytelling, are taken away by the strength of Denzel’s performance.

This film for me is like most Spike Lee films after Do the Right Thing — it’s very good on the whole, but it takes things that one step further that turns you off a bit. He makes his point about race and racism, but then there’s that extra bit of needling and that extra statement, and it just makes him come off as angry. At first you completely agree with him, but then he takes that extra step and you’re like, “All right, man, we get it.” It’s the reason why Miracle at St. Anna failed as a film. Have you seen Summer of Sam? Have you seen how prejudiced that film is against Italians? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a nice chunk of it that’s 100% true, but it’s taken to the extreme, and that’s just not okay. And yet, I understand why he does take it to the extremes, so that’s why I do ultimately love his films, and I think it’s a shame that no one’s letting him make films anymore.

But, Denzel is amazing here, and I think he was just as good as Downey in his performance. However, tie goes to the film I like better, and for me, that’s Chaplin.

My Thoughts: So, coming down to a vote, it’s between any one of four. But, my clear favorite is Downey and the clear winner here is Pacino. So, I’m gonna do it the way I always do, which is, vote from the heart, yet know full well that Pacino winning was totally okay and that he definitely deserved it.

My Vote: Downey

Should Have Won: Downey, Washington, Pacino. One for the best performance, one for one that was just as good, and another for being astoundingly overdue and giving a damn good performance on top of it.

Is the result acceptable?: Hell yeah. Pacino was the most overdue actor alive at this point. There was really no wrong decision with this category, but this was the most satisfying.

Performances I suggest you see: Unforgiven is a must-see film for anyone who likes movies. None of that bullshit, “I don’t like westerns.” It doesn’t matter. You still need to see it. Chaplin, as I said, is an amazing performance and a great movie. I highly recommend it. Biopics are always interesting. And it’s old Hollywood, which makes it doubly interesting. I can’t quite label this a must-see, but I can say, it’s a personal favorite. And Scent of a Woman might as well be a must-see, because it’s so fucking great. Pacino is so fucking great in this movie, and it’s so great to watch. This is the kind of movie I’ll just put on on a Saturday afternoon and just watch. It’s that kind of movie. I think everyone should see it. And Malcolm X is a great movie, and if you can find a way to sit through it (because I understand attention spans tune out after 90 minutes nowadays), you won’t be disappointed. And The Crying Game is worth checking out because — well — chick with a dick.

(Note: Rankings here are tough. So, I’m going two favorite performances first, then ranking by the films. Because they’re all good. Go more by the ones I suggest you see over the rankings.)


5) Rea

4) Washington

3) Eastwood

2) Pacino

1) Downey

5 responses

  1. Kudos on the Downey vote. Being a Chaplin fanatic, maybe I’m biased, but his performance as both the tramp and Chaplin the man is scary perfect. I first bought this film on VHS and just this past year had to pick up the new 15th anniversary DVD.

    May 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  2. MovieFan

    I think Washington was far superior than Downe, he had to show you the entire canvas of one individuals life, wheras Downey’s performance while good and accurate was just repetitive, he dates women and makes movies but the film never really gives Chaplin the neccessary depth unlike the way Spike Lee gave Malcolm X

    May 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm

  3. Chad

    My rankings are:
    1. Clint Eastwood
    2. Al Pacino
    3. Denzel Washington (Tie with Downey)
    3. Robert Downey, Jr. (Tie with Washington)
    4. Stephen Rea

    August 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  4. My current rankings:
    1. Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
    2. Denzel Washington, Malcolm X
    3. Al Pacino, Scent Of A Woman
    4. Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin
    5. Stephen Rea, The Crying Game

    June 7, 2014 at 12:56 am

  5. samuelwilliscroft

    1. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X- Malcolm X
    2. Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin- Chaplin
    3. Clint Eastwood as William Munny- Unforgiven
    4. Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade- Scent Of A Woman
    5. Stephen Rea as Fergus- The Crying Game

    April 25, 2015 at 11:12 am

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