The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1991

1991 is a near perfect year, Oscar-wise. Were it not for one tiny shitty decision (and one upsetting one), the entire year would be flawless.

The Silence of the Lambs became only the third picture (after Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night, in not that order) to win the Big Five, i.e. Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Screenplay (Ted Tally, in case you were interested). Rightfully so, too. It’s a perfect film. No one seemed to see it coming, since Bugsy was winning most of the awards that season, but, now, twenty years later, it seems like a no-brainer, right? Best Supporting Actress this year went to Mercedes Ruehl in one of those “best choice in a weak category” kind of deals. And Best Supporting Actor went to Jack Palance, which I talked about, in a decision that’s upsetting, but cool, since it’s Jack Palance. That’s the decision that’s upsetting, but the one I can live with.

The shitty decision I mentioned earlier was The Prince of Tides being the fifth Best Picture nominee. It’s clearly a terrible film, and the only reason it got on the list seems to be the fact that it’s a Barbra Streisand movie, and the Academy loves Babs about as much as the Hollywood Foreign Press loves Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. If the Academy had picked a better film as the fifth Best Picture nominee, like, say, Barton Fink, The Fisher King, Boyz N the Hood, or the most obvious choice (since it was nominated for Best Director in the Babs spot), Thelma and Louise, we’d have had that film, along with The Silence of the Lambs, Bugsy, JFK and Beauty and the Beast as the five nominees. How fucking great would that lineup have been? (Ooh, I kind of want to rank the Best Picture years now, based on how strong I think their nominees are. That’s getting done at the end of this Quest. Write that shit down.) So, in all a perfect year, since, they made all good decisions. But it’s like the little pockmark at the end of it that’s annoying because, one little fix and it would be perfect.


And the nominees were…

Warren Beatty, Bugsy

Robert De Niro, Cape Fear

Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs

Nick Nolte, The Prince of Tides

Robin Williams, The Fisher King

Beatty — Bugsy is a great film. It has a little bit of everything in it.

It starts off with Bugsy Siegel as a New York mobster, then goes out to California and decides it’s his town. He’s taken in by the sights and very quickly gets involved in the lifestyle there. He buys a house (or rather, steals a house by intimidating an opera singer) and immediately falls in love with Annette Bening (his wife and children are still in New York). And one day, while he’s traveling out in the desert, he gets the idea for what’ll eventually become Las Vegas. So he recruits Harvey Keitel, an Irish gangster, to help him out, and also asks Ben Kingsley, playing Meyer Lansky, to lend him the money. So he borrows a million dollars from the mob to build a casino and resort there, which eventually becomes six million dollars, and basically he builds Vegas and no one else understands what the fuck he’s doing. They all think he’s crazy. But he agrees they’ll get their money back, so they let him do it. Then he builds it, and at first, nobody comes. And then they realize that two million dollars or the budget is unaccounted for, which really makes things look bad, because, they think Bugsy stole it, and they’re just gonna kill him. And then Bugsy finds out Annette Bening stole it, and, here’s the part of the character I liked best — he tells her to keep it. He knows it’ll mean his life, but he tells her to save it for a rainy day. And then he tells Ben Kingsley not to sell his share of the casino and to trust him. So they kill him, and the postscript says that — well, it became Las Vegas, and we know what that means. It’s a great movie. Not entirely accurate, but, enough. It’s close enough for a Hollywood movie.

Warren Beatty delivers what might be the best performance of his career. He’s had a lot of good ones, but not really before this had he done one that I actually considered voting for. He’s really fucking good here. Because at first he’s this celebrity gangster, almost, and he’s this hothead, and then you actually see him change over the course of the film. You see him fall head over heels in love, then get crazy obsessed with this Vegas idea, and dealing with all of that, and then you see him almost content that he built his life’s work, and okay with the fact that his girlfriend condemned him to death (he was close anyway, since he killed the wrong person one time and spent the money on a project everyone expected to fail). It’s a great performance, and I can see why he should have won here. For me, this comes down to Beatty and Tony Hopkins, and really the only reason I vote Tony Hopkins is, how many people remember Bugsy over Hannibal Lecter today?

De Niro — It’s Cape Fear. Everyone should know this story. They use it as a template on so many shows. Think of that Simpsons episode when Sideshow Bob says he’s gonna kill Bart (hold the remark, I know that’s every one) and the family is relocated to the houseboat, on Cape Feare. (It’s the one with Bob and all the rakes.) That whole episode is basically them doing this movie. Well, the original, but more so this version.

And in case you still can’t remember, the film — both versions. I highly recommend the Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum version as well — is about a lawyer who put a man away years earlier, and the man, when he’s released, comes back and begins stalking the man because he thinks he was falsely convicted. So he starts popping up in public places and giving veiled threats at the man’s family, like, “Nice family. Sure would be a shame if something happened to them.” Shit like that. It’s the kind of thing where, the police can’t do anything about it unless — “show me the knife. Sticking out of your back” — that sort of thing. And the guy knows his family is in danger, but nothing can be done. So he tries to find means of getting rid of the dude, and the dude worms his way closer and closer until eventually they decide to go away on the houseboat and lure the man into a trap, and then the climax takes place on the boat — sadly, in these versions the H.M.S. Pinafore is not involved.

The difference between this version and the Peck version is that Scorsese — did I mention this is a Scorsese version? — delves deeper into the psychological aspects of the situation. For instance, he makes the Bowden character a lot less heroic. They make it so that he did sort of fudge evidence to get a bigger sentence, because it was clear the dude did it. So, in a way, they make Cady sort of justified in being upset, but it’s still clear the man is unstable and is going to kill these people. And here they also have a great sequence where Cady starts seducing Bowden’s daughter — Juliette Lewis, who got nominated for the performance as well — because he sees that she’s upset because her parents fight all the time and yell at one another, and he uses that to really fuck with them. And Scorsese also ups certain aspects of the film, like the scene where Bowden hires men to beat up Cady he makes crazy violent. Like, really violent. And when Cady beats the woman Bowden is having an affair with, he makes it look brutal. And, perhaps the three most memorable things he did in the film are, 1) he added the scene in the movie theater, where Cady is smoking and laughing obnoxiously at the movie — this version is the one everyone remembers for that — 2) he made Cady very tattooed and Bible quoting, which makes De Niro really fucking sadistic here. That accent and the shouting. It really makes the character work a lot better than the Mitchum one (but that I blame on the fact that it was 1962, and there was still some sort of production code at play), and 3) my favorite, he shoots a lot of the film with these oppressive and looming shots. The one everyone remembers is the scene at the very, very beginning, where Cady is released from prison, and he walks right into the camera. Literally, just walks right up to and into the camera. There are a lot of shots like that, that present the threat right in your face. And that, I feel, really enhances the film.

Now, De Niro’s performance is, understandably, great. He’s always great. (Well, before 1995.) However, two things. One, if he didn’t win for playing Travis Bickle, Michael in The Deer Hunter, Rupert Pupkin, or Jimmy Conway, why should he win for this part? Especially when Robert Mitchum didn’t win for playing the same role. I don’t think (though don’t quote me on this) anyone’s ever won an Oscar for playing a part originated on film by someone else. And if they did, it might be the kind of thing where, it was a musical whereas the original was just a regular film, or something like that. And the second reason here is, if you’re gonna vote a villain here, who’s it gonna be, Max Cady or Hannibal Lecter?

Hopkins — Oh what a movie they made here. You’ve seen it, right? I bet if you haven’t you’re one of those people who are like, “It’s too scary. I don’t like scary movies.” Well man the fuck up and stop being such a woman. (Note: Note being sexist. I know plenty of women with the exact same feelings.”) (Note from those women: “Fuck yeah. Stop being such a pussy.”) Seriously, this is one of the greatest thrillers ever made.

I have no idea why I’m bothering with this, but we’ll keep it succinct. Jodie Foster is a cadet in the FBI. A serial killer — Buffalo Bill — is at large. They want Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant but cannibal psychiatrist (how often that happens), to try to figure out who Bill is. However, he’s locked up in an asylum. So they send Foster, and she starts talking to him, and he becomes enamored, so he starts helping her figure it out, but through very roundabout methods. That’s really all I’m at liberty to discuss to you — people — who haven’t seen it.

I think everyone who has seen it can agree, Anthony Hopkins deserved this award, hands down. It’s not even close. Some people would say, “Oh, but he’s only on screen for like twelve minutes.” I say, fuck that, you found that shit out from IMDB trivia. Watch the film. I guarantee you Anthony Hopkins is all over that fucking film. He’s all over that film the way Colonel Kurtz is all over Apocalypse Now, the way Harry Lime is all over The Third Man. Screen presence means so much more than screen time. For him to be able to control the film the way he does is the mark of a brilliant performance. It’s seriously a no contest here.

Nolte — Okay, let’s clear the air on this one right now. Well, not really. I still don’t like this film. But Nick Nolte is really good in it. So, if there’s anything to take out of this film, it’s that, between this and Cape Fear, Nick Nolte deserved an Oscar nomination this year. And it’s probably best that he got it for this film because even though De Niro was never going to win, you don’t want dueling nominations from the same film if you can help it.

Now, the film — fucking sucks. It’s about a dude whose sister tries to commit suicide, so he travels up to New York (he’s from the south) where he starts talking to a shrink because she wants to find out why the sister did it and the sister isn’t talking. It’s like a, “You talk to me and I can help her,” sort of deal. So he starts working through his childhood issues and shit. Like, parents beat him or whatever. Sibling died. And how they all coped with it. And Barbra Streisand is the psychiatrist (and director of the film), and really, the only part of this film I remember is the one everyone makes fun of, which is the — “You’re not in love with me, you’re in love with the idea of me.” Other than that — it’s just a film. Babs has issues with her son, and Nolte acts as a surrogate father to him, and I don’t know what happens. It’s not that good at all. It should not have been nominated for Best Picture. But Nolte deserved this, he’s really the only reason this movie is even remotely watchable. You should probably skip this film, but know that Nick Nolte is good in it. This isn’t a pity nomination.

Williams — And, Robin Williams. Interesting final nomination. I’d have gone with Jeff Bridges here, but I can see why they went with Williams instead. He was more — crazy. He kind of veered into his stand up persona a little bit, but not really. He did reign it in enough to make it work.

The film is about Jeff Bridges, as a disc jockey, who is kind of like a Howard Stern. That’s how they paint him at the beginning. And one day, he makes asshole comments to a caller, which is something he does all the time, except — this time, the caller goes into a restaurant and kills a bunch of people and himself with a shotgun. And this hits Bridges hard. He becomes suicidal, quits radio, and ends up working in a video store with his girlfriend, Mercedes Ruehl (who won for the role). And one day, he stumbles around drunk, when he’s attacked by some twenty-somethings, who beat him up and are about to set him on fire, because, kids are assholes. and he’s saved by Robin Williams, who is, for all intensive purposes, a crazy homeless man. He scares the kids away, and Bridges and brings him back to his boiler room that he lives in. And he finds out from the landlord that Williams is crazy because his wife was actually one of the people killed by the dude in the restaurant. So Bridges feels guilty and befriends him. And Williams believes he’s on a quest, that they’re Arthurian knights on a quest to find the holy grail. And Bridges goes around with him on this quest, at first jokingly, then eventually for real, and starts to really see him as a friend.

Most of the middle of the film is scenes of Bridges and his girlfriend doing a sort of Pygmalion on Williams, helping him get the girl he’s really interested in. They give her a fake “prize” from the video store, then have her come in so Williams can ask her out, then they help him through the date, and it’s all very charming the way they help him out. And this whole time, Williams believes he’s being chased by a red knight. And whenever his confidence goes up, the red knight comes back and saps it right back. And one time, during one of his hallucinations, he’s beaten by the kids from the beginning, and it causes him to go catatonic. So Bridges, who believes himself responsible for it, agrees to get the grail for him. Which, the grail is a trophy that a famous architect has in his apartment. And Bridges breaks into the building (it’s a very wonderfully simple heist) and brings it back to Williams to help him come out of the state.

It’s a fucking fantastic film. I had my doubts for the longest time. It was one of those films everyone was like, “You’re gonna love this,” because, based on all the shit I like, this is a film that people like who like the same shit. But I was always like, “I’m not really a fan of Terry Gilliam,” which, isn’t exactly true. I just don’t love Brazil that much. And I feel that, if you don’t like the seminal work of a filmmaker, it’s almost like saying you don’t like the filmmaker’s work. But I actually really like a lot of his other stuff. His Monty Python stuff, Fear and Loathing, Dr. Parnassus, Twelve Monkeys (I like but don’t love). So I just assumed I wasn’t going to like it. But I actually really love this film. A lot. It’s a wonderful film.

Williams is really good in this too. So is Bridges. Like I said, I’d have nominated Bridges instead here, but, it’s cool. They both have Oscars, and Robin Williams is the more charming of the two in this. I think the real reason they nominated him are the scenes where they’re setting him up with Amanda Plummer. Those scenes are really great. Williams plays them perfectly. I almost wish I could vote for him here, but, with the whole Bridges thing, plus the whole Hannibal Lecter thing, he’s really like a #4 for me. #3 for a vote, but #4, just because De Niro is so fucking entertaining.

My Thoughts: It’s Hannibal Lecter. This is a no-contest.

My Vote: Hopkins

Should Have Won: Hopkins

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. The most acceptable decision that could have come out of this category. Nolte shouldn’t have won because his film (and performance) were the weakest here. He was good, it’s just, this was a stacked category. Then De Niro won already, and there’s no way I’m allowing De Niro to win another Oscar for this role above some of his other ones. Not to mention, Robert Mitchum was Max Cady first, and he didn’t even manage so much as a nomination. Then, Robin Williams was good, but, not Hannibal Lecter good. He won his Oscar six years after this. And supporting for him just felt more appropriate. Then, Beatty. He was really the second choice here. Only problem is, it’s not as iconic a performance as Hopkins’s is. Plus, he had an Oscar already (albeit for directing) and Hopkins didn’t. So no matter how you factor it, Hopkins was the best decision here. It’s Hannibal fucking Lecter. How do you not give it an Academy Award?

Performances I suggest you see: Well, Silence of the Lambs is an essential film. Everyone needs to see it. I don’t want to hear any of that, “I don’t like scary movies” bullshit, you need to see this. It’s a flawless film. Second, Cape Fear is a Martin Scorsese film, and that alone makes it very close to being essential. Granted, this is one of his “lesser” works (if there is such a thing), and doesn’t need to be seen, but, yeah, it still kinda does. Especially with the original. Watch them both. They’re both great, and the story is iconic. You need to see this film too. Then, Bugsy, as I’ve said before, is an amazing film. Not for everyone, but for most people. Some might find it kind of boring (I know, because I thought I would), but really, this is just a great film, through and through, carried by Beatty’s fantastic performance (and probably also his lack of direction on the film). I recommend this film very, very highly. And The Fisher King is also a great film. That’s one of those movies everyone was saying I needed to see before I saw it. And I didn’t think I’d like it. And when I started watching it, I didn’t think I’d like it. But the film won me over, and I think it is a tremendous film that everyone should see. Also very, very highly recommended.


5) Nolte

4) Williams

3) De Niro

2) Beatty

1) Hopkins

One response

  1. Chad

    My rankings:
    1. Anthony Hopkins (BY A MILE)
    2. Warren Beatty
    3. Robert DeNiro
    4. Robin Williams
    5. Nick Nolte

    August 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm

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