The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1990

Quite possibly the weakest Best Actor category of all time. This is just awful.

In fact, 1990 as a year is just awful, Oscar wise. Dances with Wolves. Yeah. One of the worst Best Picture choices of all time. Because it’s not a very good film. And I could have accepted it winning Best Picture if Kevin Costner, an actor, didn’t win Best Director for the film (which I talked about here), over Martin Scorsese, for Goodfellas. I think that about says it all, doesn’t it? Then Best Actress was Kathy Bates for Misery (which I talked about here), which is a good decision, albeit one that’s not very memorable historically. Best Supporting Actor was Joe Pesci for Goodfellas (which I talked about here), which is one of the best decisions of all time in that category. And Best Supporting Actress was Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (which I talked about here), which I hate as a decision, but respect (you can find out why in the article).

So, in all, I really only love one decision from this year. One I like, one I respect but don’t like, one is fine but the product of a weak year (this one), and two are just god awful. So, I just hate 1990. What a sore spot for the Academy.


And the nominees were…

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Robert De Niro, Awakenings

Gerard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac

Richard Harris, The Field

Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune

Costner — Let’s get this straight — we all love Kevin Costner. He’s awesome. But the only reason he got nominated here is because of the film. The only reason.

The film itself is just not good — Best Picture-wise. If this were just a regular film, it would be fine. But because it won, it has to meet a certain standard. And it doesn’t. It’s about Kevin Costner — an army dude who wants to die. In the middle of a battle, he rides in front of the enemy, hoping they shoot him. He survives, is given a medal for bravery, and transferred to a post out west, in the middle of nowhere. Low responsibility. And he goes out there, meets the natives, becomes friendly with them, becomes one of them, marries a white woman who was raised by them (because god forbid he marry an actual Indian woman), and then the whites come and take him back and are like, “You have to leave now,” and he goes back to living with the whites. That’s the film. Oh, and it’s three hours long. And here we all thought The English Patient was bad…

Costner is just kind of there in the film. He doesn’t really act well enough to deserve the nomination. Plus his voiceover on the whole thing just kills it. Really, he was only nominated here because they had to nominate him. He’s clearly a #…well, actually, he may be a #4. I’ll explain why later. But he did give the worst performance in the category.

De Niro — De Niro also did Goodfellas this year. That must be taken into account. And he couldn’t really get nominated for Goodfellas, because, Ray Liotta was the technical star of that one. Plus this is more a performance that’s the Academy’s speed.

The film is about Robin Williams as a doctor who works at a hospital with lots of catatonic patients. That is, there was an encephalitis outbreak in the 20s or 30s, and a lot of kids ended up catatonic. And now, they’re all older, and are still catatonic. But the thing is, Williams realizes they’re still functioning. They respond to certain stimuli. The big thing is, he throws a baseball at one lady’s head, and she instinctively catches it, despite being catatonic. And they invent a certain drug that magically starts getting them out of their catatonic states. And De Niro is the main patient that comes out of it. And it’s fascinating, because, here he is, 50, and the last thing he remembers is being 14. So now he’s going around, adapting to the world around him, and we see him discover all this shit, and he meets a woman and starts building a relationship with her. (All based on real events. Not, totally, obviously, but, enough.) And the drug eventually starts wearing off. And he starts losing control of his motor functions. And he documents all of it in the hopes that it helps the medical community, who were leery on conducting research into the whole thing. And eventually he returns to his catatonic state, and it’s sad. It’s actually a really good movie.

De Niro is good in the role, but, not quite at Oscar level. You know what I mean? The performance you can appreciate as being good, but would never vote for in an Oscar scenario? Dude won for Raging Bull and The Godfather Part II, for christ’s sake. And he didn’t win for Taxi Driver. Are you really gonna give him an Oscar for Awakenings? He is really good in this, though. He didn’t stop trying until after Casino.

Depardieu — Here’s a performance that, by most accounts, is amazing. Depardieu is really good here. But, there’s a big caveat to him winning. Which, I’ll get into after the synopsis.

Cyrano is a very famous play, so I won’t spend too much on this. But, it’s about poet with the long nose who is very confident, but secretly can’t get the woman he wants. The opening scene is him being a badass, interrupting a theater performance and goading someone into calling him out and then toying with him in a sword fight, writing a poem as he duels, and killing the dude when he finishes the poem. And the film is about him being in love with his cousin, Roxanne. But she doesn’t love him. And there’s this other guy who loves her, and Cyrano helps him get her, because she shows more interest in this other guy. So he uses his words to woo her (she loves his poems, but not his nose), and she falls in love with this other guy. And it gets out of hand, and eventually Cyrano is going to say something, but the dude is killed. And then later, as Cyrano is dying, she figures out it was him, but he denies it. And he dies. That’s the film.

It’s a very famous play, and a good one. Now, the thing is — you know me. You know how I feel about important stage works being nominated for Oscars. This is not 1937, we shouldn’t have to do this. Giving someone an Oscar for Cyrano in 1990 is like giving whatever the major music award is to a 50s pop-type album, like Frankie Avalon or something, in 2011. That’s a bad analogy. It works better the other way. But, if someone won Best Actor next year for playing Hamlet, wouldn’t you think that was a weak decision? That’s what it is. There have been so many film adaptations of these seminal works that — you can’t keep giving Oscars to them. Are you gonna give the national book award to someone who writes a book about Oedipus or Caesar? It’s been a thousand times.

The other thing that hurts Depardieu is the fact that José Ferrer won for the same role in 1950. He shouldn’t have, but this isn’t a matter of opinion by this point, it’s sheer fact. Dude won an Oscar for playing Cyrano. There is no way you give another actor an Oscar for playing a stage role that another dude won an Oscar for. You just don’t. So, no matter how good Depardieu was, he was never winning this Oscar, for those two reasons. That’s just how it works.

Harris — Okay, so we have three off the bat that were never going to win. Actually — I didn’t look for alternative nominees here. I guess I could go with the De Niro nomination, but, I think I need to look to see if there were better choices here, or if the year just sucked for lead male performances. I’ll do that after I get done with these two. Which, as I was about to say before I lost track, are the only two that ever had a shot at winning this.

The Field is a Jim Sheridan film, and was his follow up to My Left Foot. And the film he made before In the Name of the Father. So, it tends to get lost in the shuffle, with those two films out there. This is a film that I found really fascinating to watch. I find most of Jim Sheridan’s films fascinating to watch, especially the ones about the Irish, because, that’s what he knows. It’s like watching Scorsese do a film about Italians. He knows the culture. So there are little details in all of the films that firmly ground you in their reality. Like Paulie and the garlic in prison. That sort of stuff. Sheridan has these little moments in his films that add to their authenticity.

The film is about a dude, Bull McCabe, played by the great Richard Harris (who, I feel, was robbed of an Oscar in 1963, but in a very acceptable way, sort of ), who has worked a field for a woman for twenty years. He’s tended to it, treated it like his child, for a long time. And he figures, the land will be his when the lady doesn’t want it anymore. He’s always sort of considered the land as his. And the woman announces she is leaving and is selling her land. Problem is, she says she’s going to auction it. I forget why. I think the reason is because she doesn’t like how confident he is that the land will be his. And what he does is, he intimidates most of the local people into not bidding on the land. They know its his, and they know what he’ll do to the man that prevents him from getting his land. So the first half hour of the film is them getting ready for this auction, which they know is a laughingstock, because he’s gonna be the only one bidding, and will end up paying the price for it he wanted to pay all along.

But what ends up happening is — an American, played by Tom Berenger, shows up and bids on the land, hard, with Harris. And he ends up in a bidding war with Harris for the land. And Harris gets so obsessive about the land, it comes to the point where he ends up killing Berenger over it, and hiding his body in the marshes. And then there’s this whole subplot with Harris and his son (played by Sean Bean), and his son wanting to be with a woman, and Harris intimidating him out of it, and Bean standing up to Harris, which ends with Bean accidentally getting killed by falling off a cliff onto some rocks. It’s a big tragedy of a film. You just know how it’s gonna end up from the start. It’s a really fascinating film. Not perfect, but really good. It’s the kind of film where — this would have been great if it were made in the 40s or 50s and directed by John Ford or John Huston or somebody. That would have been awesome. But this is still pretty good.

Harris’s performance, while not quite something I’d vote for, most years, is actually really, really good. He really captures this dude fully. And the thing is — with such weak competition and the fact that he should have won back in ’63, he’s getting some serious consideration for a vote. It’s really between him and Jeremy Irons.

Irons — And Jeremy Irons…well, is Jeremy Irons.

Reversal of Fortune is actually a really great film. I had a nervous feeling when I started, because it begins with voiceover, but it passed quickly. Plus, the voiceover is by Glenn Close, who is comatose and dead for the entire film. So that’s something. And it’s about Irons, as a cold wealthy baron who is on trial for killing his wife (Close). And a lot of evidence leads to him seeming guilty. Plus his distant demeanor doesn’t exactly endear him to anyone. And he hires Ron Silver (love Ron Silver) to be his attorney in the case. And the film becomes about Silver dropping all his personal differences to defend this man. And it becomes like a procedural. We sit with Silver and his team as they go over all the facts of the case. And, as I always say — trial movies are always interesting. Always. And this film is utterly fascinating because, you never really know if Irons is guilty or not. You end up swaying back and forth between whether he is or he isn’t (I just assume he is, because that’s who I am). But it’s really fascinating and I highly recommend it.

Irons is good here, but — I honestly can’t see him winning based on the performance alone. I think the reason he won is because, “it was his time.” That’s what they say about actresses when they win. See: Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock. They win because some random sentiment pops up that says, “We need to give them this award.” I don’t know where it comes from, but, it happens. Plus, I think — or at least, this is what most people say — that he was supposed to get nominated for Dead Ringers, where he played twins. A lot of people say that performance was good enough to win Best Actor, but he wasn’t nominated for it. This seems to be backed up by Irons himself, since, when he won this award, he said in his speech, “thank you — and some of you may understand why — thank you David Cronenberg,” which is basically him saying, “Your film is the reason I’m here now.” So, a lot of him winning has to do with that film, methinks.

My Thoughts: I looked to see if there were any other possibilities in terms of alternate nominees — I said I’d do that if I disagreed with three nominees. And here, I’d honestly be okay with just about any three being swapped out, so, I’m taking it. And, I looked, and, I didn’t really see any serious contenders. I know a lot of people would be like, “Oh, Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing.” — Are you serious? No. No. That’s not a serious contender. That’s a, “I’d like for that to happen,” contender. That’s not the same thing. So, this year was just bad for lead male performances. (Also, no Al Pacino in Godfather Part III. That would just be reminding everyone of the drop between 2 and 3. No one wants that.)

So, this is between Jeremy Irons and Richard Harris. The thing is — I really only see one person to vote for. I love Jeremy Irons, but — I saw nothing in his performance that tells me he should have won. Richard Harris is a legend, should have won once before, and gives a really solid performance. I don’t see how you don’t just give it to him. So, that’s what I’m voting for. Even though I’m totally okay with Jeremy Irons winning.

My Vote: Harris

Should Have Won: No preference, really. But based on who shouldn’t have won, I guess that means either Harris or Irons really should have won here.

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. This category was so weak. Depardieu should not have won for a performance that someone previously won for, and De Niro should not have won for this if he didn’t win for Taxi Driver. And Costner — no. So, that only left Harris or Irons. And I personally side with Harris, because he’s a legend who arguably should have won in 1963, and also because I just liked his performance better. Irons, though, is a great actor and is someone I don’t mind having an Oscar. I actually liked his film better than Harris’s, but I just didn’t love the performance all that much. But, that’s fine. It seems as though he won for Dead Ringers, which he wasn’t nominated for back in ’88. I’ve yet to see the film, but if the performance is as good as everyone’s leading me to believe, I can be like 90% okay with this result. The other 10% will always be there, just because — Richard Harris. But, on the whole, this is pretty acceptable, I’d say.

Performances I suggest you see: Awakenings is a really great film. Utterly manipulative and Oscar bait in every way — but I don’t care. It’s still a great watch. Check this out. You probably won’t be disappointed. Unless you’re an asshole. Then you’ll probably be disappointed.

Reversal of Fortune is also a really great film. If you’re like me and you love trial movies, and movies about trials and people preparing cases, you’ll love this movie. I’m serious. It’s just amazing in that regard. If you love movies like Anatomy of a Murder, and The Verdict, and Inherit the Wind, and A Few Good Men — not specifically for all reasons, but because the idea of the courtroom film appeals to you — you will really enjoy this movie. I’m serious. It’s awesome. A really, really great film. It might be the one film on this list I’ll end up watching most often.

The Field is a really great film. Not as good as Sheridan’s other films, but, the story is so simple and engaging, and Harris’s performance is so good. The film kind of loses its legs in the last twenty minutes, but the first 70 minutes are just really good. I was really with this film until the murder happened. Then it sort of went on movie pilot. But if you like Jim Sheridan’s other work, check this out. And hey, Sean Bean doesn’t play a bad guy here!

Dances with Wolves — see it just because you need to know how bad of a decision it was. You need to see just how not good a movie this is. How nothing happens. How backwards the Academy can be sometimes. You need to see this to know why people get upset when things like The King’s Speech win Best Picture. (Actually, you need to see The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love for that, but this is kind of in that same vein.) Just see it. You’ll be amazed at how this film won Best Picture over Goodfellas. Shit, over The Hunt for Red October, which wasn’t even nominated.


5) Depardieu

4) Costner

3) De Niro

2) Irons

1) Harris


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