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The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1999

1999. This is the last category from this year, right? I feel like I’ve done them all. Supporting Actress, yes — that was Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted. Director, yes — that was Sam Mendes for American Beauty. American Beauty also won Best Picture. Actor is here. Which leaves, Best Actress. I haven’t covered that yet. That was Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry. And then Best Supporting Actor, which, I haven’t covered either. Really? It feels like this year is always coming up. Well, Supporting Actor was Michael Caine for The Cider House Rules.

What else do we need to cover here? Can we just get into it? Actually, let’s break this category down. I like how it’s structured. First, we have the veteran nomination. That’s Richard Farnsworth. Never really was one for the Academy, but is old and gives a fairly poignant performance. That’s all they need to nominate you. Then we have “actor’s” performance. Which is Sean Penn. That’s one where, he’s a dude who they know is completely dedicated to his work, and they saw what he could do in Dead Man Walking, and now have him on the radar. I feel like it’s, they makes them bridesmaids a few times until it’s their turn to be a bride. I really think that’s what it is. The Academy Awards are like marriage. Then the second time they win is either a marriage after a nasty divorce (the comeback) or the renewal of the vows. Oh, plus the Sean Penn one was a Woody Allen film. They’re just looking to nominate an actor in a Woody Allen film. Anyway, so there’s the veteran and then the actor who they’re sort of gearing up to win one one of these days. Then we have the other three. Here’s where I find it gets really interesting.

First we have Kevin Spacey. Here’s a dude everybody loves. He’s just great, all the time. He might not be reinventing the wheel with his acting, but he’s usually very good in his performances. And he’s very popular, which goes a long way. He’s already won one (Supporting Actor in 1995 for The Usual Suspects), and is always a threat to win one if the right role comes along (read: this one). Then we have Denzel Washington, a dedicated actor who is also popular. He’s already won one, and has already given a performance that many feel should have won (myself included). I think of him as a cross between Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn. Penn is someone they want to embrace, but he’s not exactly the most likable dude, so they’re waiting until they can. Spacey is a likable dude and, while he doesn’t have that “actor” reputation, is still a great actor and well-liked. Denzel is dedicated and well-liked. You knew they were gonna give him one at some point because he’s earned it, and because he gave at least one performance that should have won one before. That makes him due.

And then finally — Russell Crowe. A relative newcomer. He only showed up in America in the mid 90s. Then he did L.A. Confidential and was really the standout performance in that film (which was largely an ensemble). Then he does this movie — a great movie by a great director that’s right in the Oscar wheelhouse. And he knocks it out of the park. He really does. For my money he might have been the best performance in this race. He’s someone who is the electric new element. If he keeps it up, they’ll give him one (Note: He did).

So now, the Academy has to decide between an actor they love a lot in a film that is eventually going to win Best Picture, an actor they like a lot in a performance that many are saying deserves to win the award (who was arguably snubbed once before — which, he was, but, it was Pacino who won, so the Academy’s hands were tied from past mistakes there), and an actor who gives a tremendous performance, is coming on, and will probably end up winning one sooner rather than later at the rate he’s going. These are three types of actors who normally are the ones that win most years. So to have all three in a single category, it’s quite interesting to see which way they went.

Though, for my money (I’m wagering a lot of money today. Good thing I don’t have it. That can never lead to problems), I think they went the right way here. Spacey is a great actor who had a great part, and is also someone who isn’t much one for roles like this. He’s like Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’d much rather take interesting parts than play that lead role all the time. So I think it was right to go Spacey here. You never know when or if he’ll be in this situation again (this is why Hoffman and Forest Whitaker won). But what makes this situation even more interesting is that, the very year after this, they went and gave the award to Russell Crowe, for Gladiator. Which, of the two performances, The Insider is clearly the better of the two, but Gladiator is the better movie to give it to him for. So it’s kind of a makeup Oscar, kind of a Ben-Hur, carrying the film Oscar, and a “Hey, it was the best time to give him one,” there was really no one else to vote for that year, Oscar. But to top off the trifecta, the year after that, in 2001, they gave Denzel the award, for Training Day. Which, is a great performance, and is a lot of fun, but, let’s face it — if it weren’t for Malcolm X, The Hurricane, and the public outcry of “Why don’t you racist fucks give Oscars to black people?”, there’s no way he would have won for this. But that was also a year where there wasn’t really anyone to vote for. The only two other legit options were Crowe again, for A Beautiful Mind, a performance that deserved it more than Gladiator, but, one, they blew their wad already, and two, there was that racist outcry, and Sean Penn, for I Am Sam, a performance that would have won, except — he went full retard.

But I do find it interesting how the three top candidates here got the award in three consecutive years. And how this year is a major cause of that. Immediate makeup Oscars, and actually ones that make sense too. And then what’s even better, two years after that, Sean Penn (hey, look at that), won the Oscar for Mystic River. So this category seems directly responsible for four out of five Best Actor Oscars.

BEST ACTOR – 1999

And the nominees were…

Russell Crowe, The Insider

Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story

Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown

Kevin Spacey, American Beauty

Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

Crowe — I love The Insider. I love it to death. It’s fascinating on so many levels. I feel I just talked about this film like last week. Did I? I just did. Best Director. So maybe it’ll be fresh in your minds.

Crowe is a scientist at a tobacco company who is fired very suddenly because he looked into something he shouldn’t have (or found out about something accidentally and asked the wrong questions) and is forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement so he doesn’t tell anybody what’s going on there. But, since he can’t live with himself knowing what he knows, he goes to Al Pacino, who is a producer at 60 Minutes, and sort of tells him everything. And he sort of can’t, because of the agreement, but finds a way to. And then the thing airs, and then the shit hits the fan. They go to court with the tobacco companies, who have so much money they’ve never lost a case, and then Crowe is in trouble for violating the agreement, and it becomes a thing where, all they’re doing is just trying to get the message to the public, and the tobacco companies are trying to block it. And they know that, all they need to do is get it out to the public, because, well — the companies are knowingly poisoning people and don’t care. It is a great movie.

Russell Crowe superb in this film. He plays the dude who is nervous because he knows what happens when he opens his mouth, and then he begins sacrificing his family and his livelihood paying for all these court bills that he can’t afford (because NBC isn’t doing anything to help him), and then he has to worry because, he gets threatening phone calls and people break onto his property at night and things like that. He is incredible. Seriously, just watch the film, you’ll see how great Russell Crowe is.

As I said, he was the best overall performance here, I felt. Not my favorite, just because Spacey was so awesome, and, I’m not sure if I do vote for him because — well, I have history on my side. I know what happens later. But still, he really is amazing in this movie, and this movie is incredible.

Farnsworth — And now, this film. This is a film I like the idea of more than I like the film itself. (Film reference note: The Prince of Tides.) The synopsis of it is great. A dude finds out his brother had a stroke — he’s 70 and his brother is also 70, and they haven’t spoken in over 20 years, maybe more — and he’s worried his brother will die before he can patch up the differences, so he buys a bunch of supplies, and starts traveling across the country on a lawnmower.

That sounds awesome, right? Now how about if I tell you the film was directed by David Lynch? I know, right? How can you not see it? But, it’s really not all that interesting past the synopsis. It’s Lynch’s most straightforward effort of his career, and not much actually happens in the film. The first twenty-plus minutes don’t actually have him on the lawnmower, and mostly feature him with his daughter — Sissy Spacek, who, I’m guessing played the character as having a stutter, because she randomly pauses in between words all the time — and then buying food (which is like, beef jerky or something) and going out on the lawnmower. And the first one breaks down at one point, and then he has to buy another one, and he rides that one for a while, and eventually picks up a hitchhiker, or maybe that breaks down and he is picked up by a hitchhiker. I forget. But, most of the film has him talking to people around a campfire, sleeping in the woods. And he tells these stories about his past and whatever. I really didn’t find it terribly interesting, but, the film itself is an interesting film just for existing. So I’ll give it that. And I think this is a film that will definitely appeal to a certain group of people. I’m not sure who, but, I know this is one of those films where, if it’s for you, you’re gonna love it.

There’s a lot of interesting shit to say about Richard Farnsworth as well. He was a stuntman for almost thirty years before someone said, “Hey, let’s put him in a film.” They put him in Comes a Horseman, and he got a Supporting Actor nomination out of it. Then he did supporting roles for another twenty years before he got this movie. Interesting, right? But there’s another part too. By the time this movie came out, he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. He had it while filming this movie. He was in a lot of pain during this movie. He went through the Oscar ceremony (in March, 2000), then, went back to his ranch in New Mexico, and, not wanting to live the rest of his life in pain, put a gun in his mouth. Interesting, right?

Oh yeah, the performance. Yeah, I didn’t like it. I know he was in pain and all, and, I don’t want to be too hard on it, but, I just don’t like the performance enough to vote for it. I’m glad he’s here, but, to me, he’s a #5.

Penn — Sean Penn. It’s weird that this was his second Oscar nomination. Clearly his weakest (that is, of course, if you don’t count Mystic River, because, really, it’s fucking laughable that he won for that. But, I guess that counts as stronger purely based on the fact that he won for it, right?) of the bunch. I feel his strongest two are Milk and I Am Sam. But I’ll tell you now — it’s a Woody Allen film. So, you should know right there where we stand.

Though I will say, I mostly got through this one okay. But I think 80% of that had to do with Samantha Morton. I talked about how I loved her performance already. She was incredible here. Penn was really good too, but, just him alone wouldn’t have held my attention. I would have been like, “Well, he was good, but it’s still a Woody Allen movie.” Now I’m like, “Thank god for the two of them, because they saved this Woody Allen movie for me.” I can tolerate this film. It’s a 3 star Woody Allen movie. Not many of his films (post-Annie Hall) can claim that. In fact, I think it’s about, five or so. One day I’ll post a list.

Anyway, here’s the recap, in case you forgot or don’t know: Sean Penn is the world’s second best jazz guitar player (after Django Reinhardt), and his big problem is, he spends way too much money. Like, he’ll be out drinking, buying a round for the entire bar, losing money at pool, meanwhile he was scheduled to be on stage at the club across the street fifteen minutes earlier, and the money he’s spending is the money he’s making at that club. And the films is about how he continues to fuck up every time. Like, when he finally makes a lot of money, he immediately goes out and buys an expensive car that he doesn’t need. And also in the film, he meets Samantha Morton, who is a mute girl — she plays the performance just like Harpo Marx. It’s incredible. And that’s mostly the film. It’s Woody Allen, so, whatever. Shit happens.

So, Penn is really good in the movie. He completely sells the character and the performance. It works. but, really, he was never gonna be more than 4th in this field. The top three are just way too strong. Maybe he’d crack 3rd in a weaker year. But for me, 4th.

Spacey — Spacey! Sorry, it’s a reflex. You know about some American Beauty, right? I feel like this is a film that will only register to people who were there for it. And if you try to explain it to people in 20 years, it’ll be like — like trying to explain a joke that was really funny in the moment, and then, as you try to explain it to someone else later on, you realize how ridiculous and not really funny it is as you’re telling it, but at the same time you remember how funny the joke was. That’s what this movie is. I feel ridiculous trying to explain it, because — it sounds weird. And yet, this film is amazing. I’m just not sure how it’s gonna hold up in 20 years.

Kevin Spacey is a bored husband. He lives in suburbia, has a boring job, and the high point of his day is masturbating in the shower in the morning. And then he has a moment of epiphany one night at his daughter’s — who is basically an emo teenager, but, joined the cheerleading squad for, whatever reason — basketball game since she’s a cheerleader. And he sees his sister’s friend, the head cheerleader, and becomes smitten by her. And the movie is kind of about him wanting to fuck his daughter’s friend, but also waking up and seeing all the beauty that surrounds him every day. And he quits his job (but not before blackmailing his boss out of a lot of money), starts smoking pot, gets in shape, all of that. And he tells you straight up, he’ll be dead by the end of the movie. And then there’s a side plot with his (intense) wife having an affair with a real estate “king,” his daughter sleeping with the strange boy next door (whom he also buys pot off of), the kid’s father, a retired colonel who really hates gay people, and the colonel’s wife, who is seemingly a walking zombie. It’s a fascinating movie that I love a lot. I’m just real curious to see how it holds up.

And as for Spacey’s performance, it’s great. It’s probably the weakest, technically, of the three up here. But, like I said before, he was really the best choice here, because no one knew when or if he’d ever be in this position again. It really was the way to go. Denzel getting screwed here was not as bad as the X snub, and Crowe had other years to win as well. So I’m glad Spacey won here.

Washington — And now this movie. Here’s a movie that I liked despite its best efforts to make me not like it. Let’s start with a recap:

If you’ve ever heard the Bob Dylan song “Hurricane,” that’s exactly what this movie is about. They don’t make it subtle, either. They play the fucking song right there in the credits. And basically, Rubin Carter was a middleweight boxer who, one day, was arrested for killing several people in a bar. The way the story goes is — oh fuck it, let’s just post the song:

You can always count on Bob Dylan to give you the exact story of what happened. That’s basically it, albeit from a slanted, “This man was framed!” perspective. Which is fine. I’m situated mostly on the side that he didn’t do it. But, that’s what happened, mainly. Two guys came in, claimed to only be robbing the place, found everyone dead, then made up a story. And then the cops picked up Carter and a man who was driving him home, brought him to the one witness, who said they weren’t the men who did it. And then the cops charged them anyway because of some alleged tampering with the witnesses. And then he was in jail for thirty years and then eventually some people got hold of the story and worked on the case to get him out.

Now — I get it. I get there may have been some illegalities on the police’s part here. But, this film — this film, despite all the good it does, really wanted me to not like it. Why?

First — voiceover. I fucking despise voiceover. But that’s not a dealbreaker. I can live with voiceover if a film/performance is really good (and if the voiceover is interesting).

Second — the film takes the Dylan song, and then makes it extreme. They make it seem like the police had a vendetta against him, in the form of one specific cop played by Dan Hedaya. They make it seem like they specifically targeted him to put him in prison, because Hedaya didn’t like him for this thing he did as a child (which they paint in such a way that makes Carter the complete victim the entire time). Now, I believe they wanted to target Carter, but not specifically. I think it was more of a, “Hey, we have these guys. Let’s pin it on them, shut the case, and that’s that.” I don’t think it was remotely like the film paints it.

Plus, the film really romanticizes the character. They really make him seem as a martyr, when, in actuality, there is a chance the dude actually could have done it. I don’t really want to get into the whole politics and all that of the situation, but, if you watch the film after hearing the song and just reading up a bit on the case — it’s very clear the slant that the film takes. It’s really manipulative. In a really bad way.

And I think that manipulation really kills any momentum Denzel has to win this award. He really is amazing in the role. Denzel is great. But, when you see how manipulative the film is, you almost don’t want to vote for him. That’s why, when people say Denzel should have won here, I just point to the film and go, “look at it.” That’s your reason why he didn’t win. They made him out to be a saint when, if they made him more complex and a bit darker, he probably would have won in a landslide.

So that’s why, while I love Denzel’s performance — and he really is great — I can’t vote for him. He should have won for Malcolm X and Training Day over this, and it’s purely because this film is really manipulative.

My Thoughts: So, it’s pretty clear by now that Spacey is my vote. Crowe gave the best performance, but Spacey is my vote. Though Spacey, Crowe and Denzel all deserved it here. But it all works out anyway, since all four of these men won Oscars this year, 1999, in 2000, 2001, and 2003. So, they all got one (Penn even got another one), and that’s why no one can really argue too much with Spacey here. Everything (mostly) worked out. Though Bill Murray kind of got fucked over in all this. But hey, let’s not stir up that argument again.

My Vote: Spacey

Should Have Won: Spacey, Crowe, Washington

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. For reasons stated throughout the article. Spacey, then Crowe, then Denzel, for me, were the right choices. Any one of the three would have been okay.

Ones I suggest you see: American Beauty is a brilliant film. I think everyone should see it. I won’t fight too hard, because, I think it’s in a grey area now, where either people have seen it, or, people aren’t interested to, and I’m not sure how this film will turn out in the long run, so I’m really not sure what to do with it. And The Insider is a wonderful film. I’ve told you on many occasions you should see it, so why don’t you go and see it already? And I can’t quite bring myself to recommend The Hurricane, because the manipulation really left a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how good Denzel was in the film. And Sweet and Lowdown, while I don’t like the film, I love Samantha Morton’s performance. And The Straight Story, while I don’t love it, is a very interesting film and might be worth seeing.

Rankings:

5) Farnsworth

4) Penn

3) Washington

2) Crowe

1) Spacey

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