The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1996

1996 is one of the few dark spots of the 90s. After the terrible decision that was Dances With Wolves, we got a somewhat poor decision with Forrest Gump (based on the competition. I love the film, but, there were better choices), The English Patient here, and then the Shakespeare in Love choice (which is also kind of a competition choice). The two insanely glaring errors to me are Patient and Wolves, because, not only should they not have won, they aren’t even good films. Maybe it’s okay that Anthony Minghella won Best Director for The English Patient as well, but, it was still up against Fargo.

I guess what sort of saves 1996 from completely going under were the rest of the major categories. Or it might have made it worse, depending on where you fall. Frances McDormand as Best Actress is a good decision, since I’m glad they gave Fargo something, though there might have been (and probably were) better choices in the category. Juliette Binoche as Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient is a decision I haven’t fully made up my mind on, but I’m okay with it as far as, I like Juliette Binoche. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire is a decision I like a lot, mostly because I liked the character, but William H. Macy was also nominated for Fargo, so, there is a bit of complication there.

Oh, and to get it out of the way, I consider this category one of the worst decisions the Academy has made in the Best Actor category, ever. The reason for this is not because of who won, it’s what he won for and whether or not that performance was worthy of winning. And just to tell you — dude’s only on screen for like, fifteen minutes, so, he totally didn’t deserve it. And what makes it worse is the caliber of performances he did beat. That’s why, no matter how much I like Geoffrey Rush, this was a terrible decision.


And the nominees were…

Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire

Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient

Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flynt

Geoffrey Rush, Shine

Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade

Cruise — I need to separate the performance from the film here, because, while I love Jerry Maguire, I don’t think there’s anyone here who would vote for Cruise and not acknowledge that they’re voting for him because they liked him and/or the film so much.

Is there anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film before? If there is, don’t tell anybody. Or rather, stop doing it out of spite. You’re only spiting yourself. But I’ll go through anyway. It’s about a sports agent who one day has a crisis of conscience and writes a memo (which is more like a mission statement) that agents should care more about their clients. He says the industry has become about more clients and more money, when it should be about less clients and more personal attention. And for that, he is promptly fired. And he starts his own agency with the one client he has left — Cuba Gooding Jr. And the rest of the movie is about him taking the one employee who goes with him — Renée Zellweger — and falling in love with her. So he’s trying to make his one client successful in getting a new contract, so he can stay afloat, while also dealing with his relationship with Renée. It’s a wonderful movie. So perfect from top to bottom that it’s now become its own cliché. It takes a special film to do that.

As for Cruise’s performance, he’s great. He gets to play a nice range of emotions. But, from my end, it’s not the best performance on this list. There’s clearly one that’s definitely the one to vote for. Without that, I’d probably consider voting for him for a second just because I like him and the film. (Note: For all you haters out there, I, unlike you, am able to separate the actor from the crazy. I also like Mel Gibson too. So, have fun stewing on your hatred.) But, on a more, Oscar level, the film is a romantic comedy. The Academy would never vote for this kind of performance — from a man, anyway. They’re all about the double standards. So, even if I wanted to vote for him, he was never going to win here. Which is a shame, since the dude probably should have something. But, hey, shit happens.

Fiennes — Okay, now, The English Patient. You know my feelings on the film as Oscar winner, but, I’ll try to focus specifically on the performances here.

The film opens with a plane crashing in the desert. Ralph Fiennes is in it. He gets burned very badly. He is taken to this abandoned building thing and is cared for by Juliette Binoche. Then, over the course of the film, he tells her who he is and how he got there. Let’s focus on the two timelines. First, he’s in the bed, burned as shit, and is talking to Juliette Binoche. Her story is talking to him while also, sort of, dating a soldier. That part comes mostly later on. But, whatever. That whole thing is like, she thinks people who get close to her will die. And that big thing is, he’s a bomb defuser, so, she assumes he’ll die. Then he doesn’t. Anyway, also, Willem Dafoe shows up as a thumbless thief who has a history with Fiennes. But that’s all explained in story number two, which, I guess is the story of interest for most.

Story two, flashback. Ralph Fiennes is a cartographer or something or other that has to do with maps. Kristin Scott Thomas is a rich married woman. She’s married to Colin Firth. Her and Fiennes start fucking. It gets “romantic.” As in, the movie says it was, I was pretty apathetic toward the romance. They fuck for a good portion of the movie. Then Firth finds out. And he puts his wife in a plane with him and tries to run it into Fiennes. Firth dies but the other two don’t. Thomas, though, is fucked up by the crash and is bleeding internally. Fiennes takes her to a cave, because, she can’t travel, and leaves her there until he can get help. He goes back for help, and, naturally, the help doesn’t show up in time. So, he gets up in a plane, right where the film started, and tries to crash it, so he can be with her again. But he lives. So, when he gets to the end of the story, Binoche, feeling bad, agrees to kill him with an OD of morphine. And that happens.

This is a movie that exists purely to win Oscars. Other than that, I saw no reason for it to exist or be entertaining. Seinfeld had it right.

As for Ralph Fienne’s performance in this — he’s really fucking good. Pretty much everyone in this film is. And by everyone, I mean Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. That’s the film for me. I could care less about anything in this film except the scenes where he’s in the room with her. The reason I think he did so well is because he had to act a lot of the time in prosthetics that make him look like Cate Blanchett in Benjamin Button. I chose to ignore the romance aspect of the film. To me, this film would have been great if they cut out the useless Willem Dafoe storyline, cut down the Juliette Binoche romance, shortened it by about 45 minutes, and kept it mainly to the scenes in the room with a few specific flashbacks. It’s just overdone.

Anyway, Fiennes is really good, but, I wouldn’t vote for him. But he totally deserved the nomination. Really great work by him here. I also would have been happy if he won, since, he totally should have won for Schindler’s List. This dude needs to win one of these awards sooner rather than later. He seems like a good candidate for a Supporting Actor, since he usually shows up and is the bright spot of movies, like In Bruges, Red Dragon, The Duchess, even — fuck, Harry Potter. Motherfuckin’ Voldemort. Nominate this motherfucker next year! Who cares if it’ll never happen, it’ll be awesome.

Harrelson — This is a movie I’d known about for a long time, and never really sat down and watched. I was always a fan of Milos Forman’s films. Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Man on the Moon — these are three really great films. And this one, for some reason, always managed to elude me. Not sure why. I think I saw a small part of it once, but somehow always missed it. Thank god for this quest.

The film is a biopic of Larry Flynt, who starts at small time strip clubs printing low quality porn rags to the Hustler magnate, then fighting in court to protect his right to put bush in the magazines. And then the middle portion of the movie is all trial scenes, which, as I always say, are always interesting in no matter what context they’re in. So you get scenes of Ed Norton as Flynt’s lawyer arguing for him, and Flynt making a mockery of the courtroom, shit like that. Then he gets shot, and is paralyzed, and him and his girlfriend descend into drug use, then he pulls himself out of it when she dies, and he comes back to win his final case and it’s happy and all. It’s a great movie.

Harrelson, as you can expect, is really fucking good in the movie. I’m not sure I loved the performance enough to vote for it, but, for me, he’s like a #3, and probably, #2 for a vote. He’s really good, as he always is in everything he’s in. I just, I don’t know, can’t throw it up there for a vote. Which isn’t so weird, because, for me, there’s only one person to vote for in this category.

Rush — Yeah, this, will be quick.

The film is about an Australian piano prodigy. We see him from a young age, being abused by his father, mostly mentally, in order to be a great pianist. The father is very strict and makes him dedicate his life to practicing. And most of the movie is the kid when he’s younger, then as a young adult (played by Noah Taylor, who is in some of the Wes Anderson stuff and is Charlie’s father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Then, he achieves his goal of getting into some prestigious piano school, then has a mental breakdown, then comes back from it, and is all fucked up, but still plays a great piano. That’s the film. Why it became a film, I have no idea. Why it did so well as a film, I had no idea. I thought Armin Mueller-Stahl was good as the father, and I thought Noah Taylor was great as young David. But, Geoffrey Rush was literally on screen in this movie for fifteen minutes.

I am not kidding. Dude shows up, at the beginning, in the rain. And we see he’s not okay. He talks a mile a minute, is almost incomprehensible, and it’s clear that everyone is aware there’s something wrong, so they act nice to him and keep him calm while people come to get him. That’s about a five minute scene, tops. Probably shorter. Then we flash back, see all the shit with him as a child, Noah Taylor takes over, and then Rush pops up maybe once or twice for like, two minutes total, and then, he comes back at the end of the movie. And he plays piano. And even if he did play the piano by himself — which I highly doubt, but never bothered to check because of what I’m about to say — it doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to make this worthy of an Oscar. At all. At best he should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And maybe I’d have even been okay if he won Best Supporting Actor. But not this. Really not this. Watch the film. You’ll see what I mean. You might like the film more than I did, but there’s no way you can tell me that was a lead role. At least with My Left Foot, Daniel-Day Lewis got a lot of screen time as adult Christy. He got to do shit. Here they literally keep Rush off screen and build the performance through flashback. Which would be okay, except — it’s not fucking him in the flashback! This is really not okay that he won for this. I’m glad the man has an Oscar, because he’s awesome and he’s always good, and in the three and a half minutes he’s on screen here, he is really good, but, nuh uh. Nuh uh at all.

Thornton — Here’s your motherfukin’ winner in this category, folks. Tell me how you don’t give the man an Oscar for this performance. How fucking spellbinding is this dude in this role? You actually believe every inch of this character. And he wrote and directed the movie as well, which is even more impressive.

The film’s about a dude who’s been in a mental hospital in Arkansas since he was 12 for killing his mother and her lover — with a sling blade, though, as he points out, “some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a Kaiser blade.” And they decide that he’s fit enough to be sent out into the world. So he goes out, gets a job in his town, and befriends a small boy — who is actually Lucas Black — who lives with his mother, and his father is dead. And he moves in with them, which pisses off the mother’s abusive boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam, whom you may know from his music, or from the creepy killer dude in Panic Room or as Doc Miles in Crank). And we learn more about Karl (that’s Thornton), about his past and stuff. And his problems stem from him having to dispose of a premature baby brother, whom the mother didn’t want, when he was only 8. So he killed an infant child at 8. And then there’s a scene with Robert Duvall as Karl’s father, and we get that story, and eventually the mother’s boyfriend starts getting hostile toward Karl, which leads to Karl killing him in order for the mother and son to be spared having to live with someone like him, and also so he can be sent back to the mental hospital, where he feels more at home.

The performance is fucking amazing. Seriously, I don’t even want to heap adjectives upon it. This performance is hands down the only performance worth voting for here. And Billy Bob deserved this award so much that really anyone else who won it would have been a bad decision. And the fact that Geoffrey Rush got it for a performance that doesn’t last any longer than a strong supporting performance (kind of like Yul Brynner in The King and I), makes it the worst possible decision that could have been made.

My Thoughts: There’s really no other choice here except Billy Bob. He really did deserve to win. I guess they knew it too, since they gave him Best Adapted Screenplay to make up for it. But, even so, it’s not okay. His performance is beyond classic and should have won here. But even up against Rush, everyone else here was better. In terms of voting, Thornton was the best, then maybe second best was Harrelson, then Fiennes, and then Cruise, because even though Jerry Maguire is my favorite film on this list, and I’d vote for Cruise in a heartbeat here, it still is mostly a romantic comedy. But again, against Rush, all were better choices.

My Vote: Thornton

Should Have Won: Thornton. Though, against Rush, everyone else was a better choice.

Is the result acceptable?: I told you at the top, I consider this to be one of the worst decisions of all time in the Best Actor category. That sentiment still stands. But I love Geoffrey Rush. So, if I take him simply having an Oscar at face value, I’m cool with it. But anything past that, terrible decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Jerry Maguire is a brilliant movie. It’s become its own cliche since it’s come out, but, fuck that, the movie’s still great. Hate on this movie all you want, you’re wrong. It’s still great no matter what reason you pick not to like it. That movie is the best all around one on this list, and one you probably need to see because its effect on our culture is so ubiquitous. Sling Blade is a film you need to see because it features one of the best male performances of all time. Billy Bob Thornton is incredible beyond words in this movie. The People vs. Larry Flynt is a great movie, but is one that you don’t necessarily need to see. I highly recommend it though, because the performances are great, the material is interesting, and, it’s a courtroom movie too. Those are always interesting. And, The English Patient, while it’s long, its boring, and it shouldn’t have won Best Picture, is not completely terrible. It has its moments. They just get dulled because it won when it shouldn’t have.


5) Rush

4) Fiennes

3) Harrelson

2) Cruise

1) Thornton

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