The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1982

Oh, 1982. A good year capped off by a boring Best Picture winner. Gandhi is many things — a great film, a terrific biopic on one of the most important men of the 20th century — but an interesting film it is not. It didn’t need to win Best Picture. It’s just too on-the-nose. Which, kind of what the 80s were for the Oscars — a boring decade. Think about it. How many interesting decisions did the Academy make in the 80s? Amadeus? Platoon? Rain Man? Terms of Endearment? Even the ones that won weren’t great decisions. At best they’d be strong films in other decades. So, I just count this as one in a long line of boring 80s choices.

Richard Attenborough winning Best Director this year was — well, I talked about it already. Recently too. Meryl Streep winning Best Actress was — well, I talked about that too. Jessica Lange winning Best Supporting Actress was a fine decision, and Lou Gossett Jr. winning Best Supporting Actor was — well, it was. Which leaves this category. The most interesting of all the categories this year. It’s tough talking about it. Because on the one hand, he played Gandhi. But on the other hand — well, is the other hand. It’s kind of a lose-lose.


And the nominees were…

Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi

Jack Lemmon, Missing

Paul Newman, The Verdict

Peter O’Toole, My Favorite Year

Hoffman — Thank god Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor in 1979. Because now I’m not compelled to vote for him for this.

Tootsie, if you don’t know, and if you don’t know why don’t you (because, really, this is one of the funniest movies ever made), is about an actor who is, shall we say, difficult. He’s not the nicest guy to work with. He’s talented, but, difficult. He’s burned a lot of bridges and can’t now get an audition to save his life. So what he does is, when he hears of a part opening on a soap opera, decides to become a woman. He pulls a Mrs. Doubtfire (I use that because, if you don’t know Tootsie, you’re certainly going to know that film. And for the record, Robin Williams pulled a Tootsie in that film. This one came first. Even though, really, they’re all pulling a Some Like it Hot.) and dresses up like a woman. Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels. And she gets a part on the show, and ends up becoming the biggest thing on it. And all the while he’s trying to romance the show’s leading actress (Jessica Lange), who ends up liking the woman he’s playing. It becomes kind of a screwball comedy, and then a romance, naturally. It’s the kind of film that would seem trite nowadays, but, back then everything really came together. The film is really great.

Hoffman’s performance, naturally, is very good. When isn’t Dustin Hoffman very good? But the thing is, he’s won already, and this isn’t really the type of performance you can vote to win. For one, you can’t vote for it because Jack Lemmon didn’t win in 1959. You can’t give an Oscar to the second iteration of something if you didn’t give it to the first (if both were nominated. If no one knows about the first one then it’s okay). And second — I don’t know, I just wouldn’t vote for this above some of Hoffman’s other performances, namely Lenny. So, I’m glad he won, because now I don’t have to feel bad about not voting for him. But still, this might be my favorite performance on this list, it’s so fucking good. The movie is incredible.

Kingsley — This is one of those once in a lifetime roles. Ben Kingsley was almost 40 by the time he got picked for this movie, having been middling around in TV for so long. The reason they picked him for this is because — he looks so much like Gandhi it’s scary. There was seriously no other actor that could have pulled this off (and yet, at the same time, probably anyone could have who looked remotely Indian). But, still, we love Ben.

The film is just a biopic of Gandhi, from his days as a lawyer to his whole — spiritual period. You know all about it. And if you don’t, it’s because you haven’t seen this movie (I won’t dwell upon the other alternative — this country’s unstable education system). There’s really nothing to say about this movie except, it’s great. It’s fucking Gandhi. Whether you think it should have won or not, you can’t deny that it’s a good film.

So, Kingsley’s performance. He doesn’t have to do anything here except be Gandhi. I mean, he’s just there. But that alone makes it a great performance. The dude took care of like 60% of the work for him. But, still, a great performance is a great performance. Plus we all like Ben Kingsley, so we like seeing him having an Oscar. Will I vote for him? Well, that all depends. I’ll explain later.

Lemmon — Jack Lemmon. Dude’s a legend. And here, well — I think he got nominated because he is who he is. Another actor in this part probably wouldn’t have been nominated. Actually, this film didn’t really register with me as well as it probably would have done with someone in the 80s. I guess those military dictatorships were a big deal back then.

Anyway, the film is about a left-wing journalist dude who’s down in whatever country it is — I assume South America, because, it’s always South America in the 80s unless it’s explicitly east Asia — and he’s down there with his wife, and, he’s really not doing anything that’s openly illegal, but it’s also the kind of thing where, he wants to lie low because, one wrong move, he’ll just be killed and no one will know about it. Then one day he just disappears and his wife — Sissy Spacek — not knowing what to do, calls in his father — Jack Lemmon. And the thing here is, Jack Lemmon is supposed to be a conservative dude in the film, so he’s going around like, “I’m sure this is all a mixup, there’s no way there’s any wrongdoing going on,” and then, over the course of the film, he basically sees how corrupt everything is and how the US government is implicitly keeping everything hidden. It’s the kind of thing where, at first he doesn’t believe his son was killed, yet, you just know it from the start. And by the end, he kind of figures out, “I know he’s dead, but, I want to at least see him.” And then he finally sees the body and then moves on to, I think, tell the world about it, but I think the end there’s some kind of thing where, he’s told he can’t do that. I forget specifically what happens, but, the feeling the film leaves you with is, the US government wants to keep everything going on there quiet, and that no one will know that people are just being killed indiscriminately down there.

Lemmon, as you can imagine, is really good in the movie. It’s not the kind of performance I can vote for to win, but, his performance single-handedly took a film that I probably would have voted a throwaway three and not cared about and turned it into an almost 4-star movie for me. I think I rated it a 4 but felt it was more like a 3.5. I wasn’t terribly interested in the film until Lemmon took over, at which point I was interested because he acted the hell out of this part. So, he deserved to be nominated but, I can’t vote for him. Plus, he won already (twice), so, I don’t need to.

Newman — Oh boy. Where to begin here? I was introduced to this film with the resounding statement, “Paul Newman should have won an Oscar for this movie.” And I’m talking about back in the day. Like, when I first started getting into movies. And for some reason I’d never actually seen the movie until fairly recently. I tried watching it once, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and only got about thirty minutes in. Or rather, I think I actually tried watching it on a Saturday when I was scheduled to go back to school after break on the Sunday. So I was doing other stuff at the time. And I remember only getting to the part where James Mason is addressing his team, and writes on the chalkboard. Amazing the things we can recall. But, when I started this Quest, I finally went back and watched this movie the way it deserves to be watched.

This film, simply put, is why I watch movies. It’s amazing. The courtroom movie is — as I always say, and will continue to do so until systematically proven wrong (good luck) — is always interesting. Whenever a film goes into trial mode, it gets exponentially more interesting than whatever it was doing before. It’s always interesting. Always. Even if the movie sucks. This one though, most decidedly does not suck. Directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by David Mamet — hooked yet? — Paul Newman gives the performance of — well, not a lifetime, since, the dude gave performances of a lifetime throughout his lifetime, so, more like, performance of the decade — this is Paul Newman’s performance of the decade.

Newman plays an alcoholic lawyer who is pretty much chasing ambulances now. And in his lap falls the case of a lifetime — a woman checked in for what seemed like a routine surgery and ended up a vegetable. The reason for this is, its required that you had not eaten for 8 hours before going under anesthesia, and she ate an hour before, and the doctor, rather than postpone the surgery (he had a golf trip or something in the Hamptons to attend to. You know how it is), went ahead, and went shit went wrong, had a nurse forge the chart to say she had eaten eight hours before so they weren’t liable. And Newman has to go up against the archdiocese, who are the ones backing the hospital. And they have unlimited funds and have never lost a case. And Newman has to overcome years of alcoholism and poor lawyering (I’m also pretty certain he fucked up a case pretty badly some years prior to the film, and is still feeling guilty about that) in order to do right by this woman. And the film shows him trying to get witnesses and facts that hold up, because the opposition will do anything to discredit or otherwise silence his case. And the whole thing of course hinges on finding the nurse who forged the chart, who has since disappeared (naturally). It’s a great, great film.

Newman, of course, as you can imagine, is incredible. His closing statement is a thing of beauty. But the joy of this film is watching Paul Newman do what he does best, which is play a character who is kind of a loser, who strives for redemption in the way he knows best. It’s such a great performance, and really, it’s amazing that he went this long (and, knowing the result, longer) without having won an Oscar, especially considering this performance. Wow. (In case you can’t tell, he’s probably getting my vote.)

O’Toole — And now, My Favorite Year. This is a film I knew — while he didn’t write or direct it, it is based on his experiences working for television and babysitting a drunk (but that’s redundant, isn’t it?) Erroll Flynn — was a Mel Brooks movie. He had his production company that produced some very classy films, specifically this and The Elephant Man, which Mel didn’t put his name on because he didn’t want people thinking they would be like his films. I’d also heard from people (and Mel himself. He still says it) that Peter O’Toole should have won an Oscar for this. It was always near the top of my Netflix queue, and, for whatever reason, my heart or my shoes, I just never got around to seeing it. Thank god for this Quest, let me tell you.

The film is about a dude who is a low level TV employee, and he works on a show that’s very much like SNL (or rather, the Sid Caesar show, which its really based on). It’s a sketch comedy show that has a host each week that plays off of their celebrity persona. You know the drill. So, since they don’t have a host for the next week, the kid pitches having Peter O’Toole on. And Peter O’Toole is clearly based on Errol Flynn, right down to when they show clips from his old films and he essentially recreates the sword fight from The Adventures of Robin Hood. The thing is though, he’s mostly washed up by this point, and is a raging alcoholic. The words raging alcoholic cannot be stressed enough. And basically, the kid is told to keep him in line for the week. And, of course, shit goes wrong. Most of the film has wacky hijinks of O’Toole escaping, drinking, causing mayhem, all that good stuff. And it gets to the point where they’re not sure if he’s gonna make it to the show on time (or, sober). I don’t want to ruin what happens, but, the finale of the film is quite amazing. Anyone who’s a fan of movies or the old school Errol Flynn movies will not be disappointed.

As for O’Toole’s performance — he’s amazing. He really did deserve to win this year. He’s great all around. He plays the character as fun, charming, every bit as magnetic as the perception of the character suggests, but also as a pitiful drunk. There’s the tendency to make the alcoholism charming too, but O’Toole goes the full distance here. He makes himself totally game for the film, and that makes the performance even better. I’d also say, that without a performance of this caliber, the film might not be as good as it is. Now, the problem with him being as deserving of this award as he is, is that there are two others equally as deserving as him. That’s where all the trouble is.

My Thoughts: See what I mean about a strong category? This is tough. First off, we can take off both Hoffman and Lemmon. They won already, and don’t need another one at the moment. (Hoffman got his for Rain Man anyway. I think it’s okay.) So now we’re left with a crazy overdue Paul Newman, a crazy overdue Peter O’Toole, and Ben Kingsley who was amazing as Gandhi. What the fuck do you do?

I hate to do it, but, the first person I have to take off here is Peter O’Toole. Because, really, he should have won an Oscar before this. And putting a (great) comic performance like his up against Gandhi, it’s almost Gandhi every time. I’m sorry but it just is. Now, though, we have Gandhi against Paul Newman. And that’s where we deadlock. So, here, tie goes to personal preference, and — let’s put it this way — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting — the man in all of those had not won an Oscar before this. I think that pretty much seals it.

My Vote: Newman

Should Have Won: Newman, Kingsley, O’Toole

Is the result acceptable?: It has to be, right? It’s fucking Gandhi. Plus Paul Newman got his Oscar four years after this. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the right film for him to get it for (he should have gotten it for The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or even and especially The Verdict), but he got one. So that’s okay. Peter O’Toole did get fucked (again), but, really, by this point he should have had one. The Lion in Winter was the optimal film and year to give him one, and they didn’t do it. So, this is their own damn fault. I could see him winning for this (as can a lot of people, especially Mel Brooks who continues to say O’Toole should have won here), but, in such a strong category, him not winning isn’t the worst thing, because, really, he should have had one. Plus, Ben Kingsley is awesome, and ultimately, yeah, this is okay.

Performances I suggest you see: Tootsie is one of the funniest films ever made and should be seen by everybody. It’s almost impossible to dislike the film unless you’re completely fucking ignorant (read: teenager who ignores everything before 1990). My Favorite Year is a great film and a great comedy. Peter O’Toole is awesome as “Errol Flynn.” It’s a movie that, at first I wasn’t totally along with, but by the end loved unconditionally. It’s just so great. The Verdict is also a classic film and one of, if not the best courtroom film of all time. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. And Gandhi, it’s a great film, but very long, kind of boring at times, but should be seen by everyone. The kind of film you see once and don’t see for another ten years. But definitely see it.


5) Lemmon

4) Kingsley

3) Hoffman

2) O’Toole

1) Newman


One response

  1. Jason Hawkins

    Ok, they are both playing men pretending to be women, but I think that the type of performance Jack Lemmon gave in Some Like It Hot (while very good) is a completely different than what Hoffman did in Tootsie. In Some Like It Hot, you are always watching Jack Lemmon dressing up as a woman, that’s where the humor comes from. There is never a moment where Daphne gets even close to becoming a real character, it’s always Lemmon’s male character in drag. But again, that’s never the intention. But with Hoffman, he creates this character with so much depth and personality, that at times you are on the verge of fortetting it’s not a seperate character. I don’t know if you have ever seen Hoffman talking about this film in interviews, but for him this was never a comedy. He took what he was doing very seriously, and while I believe it is a great comedy and extremely funny, in large part because of his performance, it is a whole lot more.

    April 3, 2012 at 2:17 pm

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