The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1986
I love this category. Why? Because it’s strong enough to not suck and weak enough to where what had to happen could happen and not seem like it upset anything. Because Paul Newman had to win this year. There was no other option. And, because the category is the way it is, not only is it a great decision, nothing was upset by it.
As for the rest of 1986, the Academy surprisingly made almost all great decisions. It remains one of the few bright spots of the black hole that is the 80s. (I fucking hate the 80s when it comes to Oscars. And movies too. I think it was a really shitty decade for movies.) Platoon wins Best Picture and Best Director for Oliver Stone, both of which were by far the best decisions they could have made in those categories (with all due respect to David Lynch). Then Best Actress was Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God, which I like a lot as a decision (mostly because, were they actually gonna vote for Sigourney Weaver for Aliens? Really?). Then Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress were Michael Caine (talked about here) and Dianne Wiest for Hannah and Her Sisters. I respect both actors, but I don’t particularly like either decision. But, really, the Supporting categories don’t make a year, so overall I consider this year a success.
Now, let me take a brief second to point out how badly the Academy needed to make this one up. Paul Newman was nominated for seven Oscars before he won here (and they gave him a career achievement Oscar the year before this, because they realized they’d fucked up), for these films: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Rachel, Rachel (though that one was for Best Picture), Absence of Malice and The Verdict. He should have won, probably three times out of those. Him not winning here would have been like Martin Scorsese not winning for The Departed. Throats would have been cut. (Or, torn out — Swayze style.)
BEST ACTOR – 1986
And the nominees were…
Dexter Gordon, Round Midnight
Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa
William Hurt, Children of a Lesser God
Paul Newman, The Color of Money
James Woods, Salvador
Gordon — Dexter Gordon was a saxophone player and not an actor. So him being in this movie was not the biggest stretch in the world. But, on the other hand, very few non jazz musicians could have played this role as convincingly as he did. This feels like they put a camera on Dexter Gordon and he just lived. (Not really, but you know what I mean.) The fact that he was nominated was more of a respect thing. He was never going to win. Which is great, because it’s nice to only have between four to choose from.
Round Midnight is a film I call the “Bleeding Gums” movie, because that’s really what it is. This is where the character of “Bleeding Gums” Murphy on The Simpsons came from. It’s basically about this jazz musician who is an alcoholic. And a French dude who idolizes him meets him and sort of becomes his friend and tries to get him to overcome the booze and get back to all the great music he used to make. And the film is basically just that. Gordon is constantly leaving to go drink, despite saying he’s going to quit, and eventually dies at the end of the movie. That’s it, really. Not really much to the film, narratively. It’s just a film about this guy.
Gordon does a fine job. He has the life experience and the raspy voice to pull off the role. But it’s the type of thing, like I said — a musician nominated for an Oscar. It’s a respect thing and not an acting thing. He was never going to win, but the nomination was their way of showing him some love. And I’m all for that. But I’m not voting for him. Get the hell out of here. Are you gonna give Jeff Bridges Album of the Year at the Grammys?
Hoskins — Bob Hoskins is one of those actors I grew up knowing, between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Super Mario Bros. And when I got older and into movies more, I was always surprised when I found out he never got any major recognition. This was his only Oscar nomination. So I figured it had to be one hell of a performance by him, because otherwise why would someone like him get nominated?
Mona Lisa is about Bob Hoskins, a small-time gangster who just got out of prison, who ends up being the driver of a high-class hooker. And he and her don’t mesh well at first, but eventually become friends. And then Hoskins’s boss is Michael Caine, and he wants him to find out about one of her clients, and then she wants Hoskins to help her find a friend of hers who disappeared. So Hoskins starts helping her out, which leads to everyone telling him to lay off, and then eventually it leads to him doing things he shouldn’t do, and making enemies he doesn’t want to make, and then of course there’s a big shootout at the end. It’s a good film.
Hoskins is pretty solid here, but the performance wasn’t as good as I’d have thought it to have been. When an actor you really like has only been nominated for one Oscar, it leads you to think it had to have been a great performance, one that should have won, but didn’t because they’re not one of those “major” actors. But here — it’s just a good performance. It’s good, but not good enough to make me ignore the fact that Paul Newman needed to win this one.
Hurt — William Hurt was such a boss in the 80s. He had a crazy string of great performances. He won his Oscar the year before this for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which, even though I think he gave a better performance here, I like better as a decision because him winning there allowed Paul Newman to win here. Plus he was awesome there too. So everything worked out.
Children of a Lesser God is about a teacher in a school for the deaf. And he’s young and enthusiastic — one of those 80s teachers — the Edward James Olmos kind. Not a hard ass, but the ones that the students love. You know what I mean. And he meets Marlee Matlin, who was formerly a student at the school and now works there in a janitorial capacity. And she’s rebellious and prone to losing her temper, and he befriends her and tries to get her to talk. That’s the thing. All the students are encouraged to talk, and not just rely on sign language, and she refuses to do so. And she and Hurt become lovers and move in together, and we just see their relationship develop. And the whole thing just feels really real. (“Really real?” “Really real.”) And eventually she leaves him and goes back to live with her mother, and amends her relationship with her and then goes back to him. The plot doesn’t really matter, just watch the film. It’s really engaging and really well-made and well-acted. It’s a great film.
Hurt, as I said, in my opinion, gives a better performance here than he did in The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Which is why I’m so glad he won for that film, because I’m not tempted to vote for him here. This is Paul Newman’s year, and ain’t nobody ruining that.
Newman — I think we understand by now that he’s the only one to vote for in this category. Almost completely independent of the film, too. Which really takes a special kind of actor to pull off. So far I think it’s been just him and Henry Fonda who’ve done it. And John Wayne. He’s the other one.
The Color of Money is a sequel to The Hustler — the film Paul Newman should have won Best Actor for — made exactly 25 years later. We catch up with Fast Eddie, now a liquor salesman (if you remember, at the end of The Hustler, George C. Scott tells him to never enter a big time pool hall again), who meets Vince (Tom Cruise), a young pool player. He’s cocky and talks a lot, but Newman sees something in him. He knows he’s got some things that need working on, but he thinks he can be good. So he takes him on, and starts staking him — the way George C. Scott staked him in the first film (though obviously he’s not as much of a dick as Scott was). And he teaches Cruise how to hustle, and they end up making a lot of money together. But eventually they have a fight and Cruise leaves. And then Newman starts playing again himself, first in pool halls, and then on the pool circuit — because there’s now a professional league, and not the crooked halls there used to be. And then there’s the big tournament at the end, where of course Newman and Cruise have a big face off.
What’s great about this film is that it doesn’t give in to the desire — like the first film did — to give things a nice bow on top. The happy ending. It doesn’t do it. Here, even after Newman beats Cruise, and gets his confidence back, he finds out that Cruise deliberately lost the game in order to win a lot of money. And Newman, thinking he beat him legitimately, forfeits his game and loses the tournament (which he probably would have won). And the movie ends with him challenging Cruise to one game — kind of like Rocky and Apollo — and Newman is like, “I don’t even care if I beat you. I just want to play you. And if I lose, it’s fine, because I’ll beat you next time.” And they freeze frame on the break. I like the ending a lot.
The film is pretty great. About the closest Scorsese came to making a conventional film. Some might say The Departed, but if you look at it, it has Scorsese all over it. It’s the Goodfellas aesthetic, plus he has lots of flourishes that he’s known for. So I don’t count that. Here, his style is almost muted, and he makes a straight Hollywood picture. And that’s interesting. But, as for the voting here — if it’s widely accepted that Paul Newman should have won an Oscar for playing Eddie Felson, and he hasn’t won an Oscar for that film, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke or the Verdict, and here he is playing Felson again, in a category like this — is there any reason he shouldn’t win? No. So it’s cut and dry, and no one can complain. And if you do, you’re a huge asshole.
Woods — James Woods is another actor you’d think would have been nominated more than twice at the Oscars. And then you look at what he was nominated for and are like, “Really?”
What’s great about Salvador is that it was directed by Oliver Stone. So if there was any doubt he was winning Best Director this year, thats was erased by the fact that he made two good films. The film is about Woods, a photojournalist who goes to all the war zones and takes pictures. And he’s pretty freewheeling — drinks, does drugs — and he’s also a pretty big prick. As only James Woods could play. So he heads down to Salvador with his friend, convinced he can find some work. And they go down there, and see some really horrible shit. They realize this is a lot worse than they expected. So now they figure, “Okay, we need to get the fuck out of here.” Problem is, Woods has got himself a woman, and he doesn’t want to leave her, which complicates things. And the rest of the film is about him looking for that big photo that will make him famous, and pretty much failing at it. He gets it, but it was taken by another guy, who is killed in front of him.
It’s a good film. I prefer Platoon, just because, as I said, these South American/East Asian political turmoil films just don’t do it for me. Woods is really good, though. This is a perfect role for him, and he knocks it out of the park. Problem is — Paul Newman. So, even if we weigh the performances, he wouldn’t be more than, maybe second, for a vote. Great performance, though, and I did like the film. But, it’s Paul Newman’s year.
My Thoughts: There really is no other choice here, it’s Paul Newman all the way. The fact that they can make up for not giving it to him in ’61 by giving it to him for playing the same character eliminates even the .01% of doubt that he shouldn’t have won this.
Also, just to get it out there, William Hurt may have had a shot at winning had he not won the year before this. Bob Hoskins, as much as I love him, had no shot. Neither did James Woods, who I also love. And Dexter Gordon is one of those “nomination is the reward” type deals. He was good, but — not here.
My Vote: Newman
Should Have Won: Newman
Is the result acceptable?: Best possible result here. The only two truly worth voting for are Hurt and Newman. And Hurt won the year before this. So Newman takes this one easily. It’s the role he should have won for 25 years earlier, so it makes a lot of sense. Best possible decision. Finally Paul Newman gets his Oscar.
Performances I suggest you see: The Color of Money. It’s Paul Newman reprising a role from a movie you need to see in The Hustler, and it costars a young Tom Cruise and is directed by Martin Scorsese. I’d say that all adds up to a movie you need to see. So, see it. Go.
Children of a Lesser God is also a great, great movie. I was leery about it at first, like, “A movie about a dude teaching sign language nominated for Best Picture?”, but it’s a really great movie. I highly, highly recommend this movie. If you’re gonna see any of the Best Picture nominees outside of Platoon, this should definitely be the first one you watch. It’s definitely the best of that bunch.
Mona Lisa I liked a lot, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a small little movie. I don’t really know how to qualify it past — it’s really well-made and I liked it a lot. So there.
Salvador, I liked, but I don’t do these kinds of 80s South America movies. The ones that are about issues and stuff. Like the movies today about the Middle East that aren’t thrillers or war movies. I just don’t do them. But, this was a pretty good movie, and I enjoyed it, which is the best endorsement I can give it. If you’re into these types of movies, then you’ll probably really enjoy this.
Round Midnight is definitely not for everyone. But it is a good movie and I did enjoy it moderately. It’s just a portrait of an old jazz man. That’s it. You get some nice music. I didn’t particularly love it, but Gordon’s performance was good and Martin Scorsese has a nice little cameo of sorts. So that was nice. See if you think you’ll enjoy it.