The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1985

I hate 1985. Nearly every decision was wrong. It starts at the top. Out of Africa wins Best Picture and Best Director for Sydney Pollack. Let’s start with Best Picture. It was a terrible decision. The film just — isn’t that good. I mean, it’s a fine film and all, but — The Color Purple was also nominated this year. That, by all accounts, is clearly the better film. The fact that it didn’t win speaks to the oldest tradition in Academy history — racism. That’s the only explanation. Steven Spielberg, who directed The Color Purple and won the DGA Award for it, wasn’t even nominated for Best Director! (Which makes the Sydney Pollack decision okay, since he did a good job with his film and was a good director. Though the Academy did have the chance to award Akira Kurosawa here. But, I do understand the choice, if Spielberg wasn’t nominated.)

Then, Best Actress was another racist decision. Whoopi Goldberg was clearly the best performance in the category, and yet the Academy gives Best Actress to Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful (talked about here). Oh, this racism is killing me inside. Geraldine Page was a respected actress with 8 nominations to her name. But don’t let that fool you. They used her veteran status as an excuse to be racist. Watch the performances — you’ll see what I mean. Then Best Supporting Actor was Don Ameche for Cocoon, which was a veteran win, no more, no less. This one I can kind of get behind. I mean, Klaus Maria Brandauer was strong in Out of Africa, but I don’t like that film, and Eric Roberts was awesome in Runaway Train, but I don’t think the Academy would have voted for him. So I guess this result is kind of okay. Then Best Supporting Actress was Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor (talked about here), which, I don’t really like all that much. At all, in fact.

So that’s 1985. Of the 6 decisions, I like one of them. This one. Then three of them are terrible, I don’t like one (Supporting Actress) but can live with it a little bit (though my dislike still stands) and can live with the other one (Supporting Actor). All in all a terrible year.


And the nominees were…

Harrison Ford, Witness

James Garner, Murphy’s Romance

William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Jack Nicholson, Prizzi’s Honor

Jon Voight, Runaway Train

Ford — Witness is a film that has a special place in pop culture. As action films go, it has a very unique premise. I’m sure it’s been repeated a lot of times. I can’t think of specific instances, but I’m sure it has.

An Amish widow wants to show her son the outside world. She visits her sister in the big city. On the way back, in the train station, the boy goes to use the bathroom. Inside, he sees two men kill another guy at the urinal. Later on, when the police arrive (one of whom is Harrison Ford), he identifies one of the men in the bathroom as a cop. Ford tells this to his superior officer, who also happens to be a dirty cop. So, knowing they’re after the boy, he goes undercover as an Amish in order to protect the boy. And he learns their ways, and falls in love with the boy’s mother, and then the guys come, and there’s a big shoot out. It’s that kind of film. It’s pretty good. I didn’t love it. But a lot of people do.

As for Ford’s performance — get the fuck out of here. He wasn’t winning for this. You know what this nomination is? Harrison Ford was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time. (Schwarzenegger and Eddie Murphy weren’t quite there yet. Murphy was, but Ford had a decade head start.) He’d been in so many major films, and was in the two biggest franchises of all time. And this film is an action film that’s wholly unique, and directed by a well-respected director. They nominate it for Best Picture. It makes sense that he comes along for the ride. When you can nominate the biggest star in Hollywood, it adds prestige to your ceremony and gets viewers. That, to me, is what this is. Because there’s no one that can convince me this was an Oscar-worthy performance.

Garner — I honestly don’t know what this was. I guess it was a “Hey, you’re James Garner” nomination. Because I can’t explain this at all, otherwise.

Murphy’s Romance is a romantic comedy. That’s it. Sally Field divorces her husband and moves to a small town. She decides she wants to raise horses. Who knows why. And she has a young son. And she meets James Garner — drugstore owner and town eccentric — he hasn’t moved his car in ten years, and refuses to. The spot is illegal, but he refuses to move it and always pays his fines. That kind of eccentric. And he meets Field, through her son and takes a liking to them. And she starts trying to raise horses — or rather, tend to other people’s horses. And Garner puts his horses with her and tells others to do the same, trying to help her out. And they get closer together, except, he tells her, “I’m too old for you.” But she doesn’t care. And — well, guess what happens.

I didn’t much like this film at all. It just seemed like a generic romantic comedy to me. Of course, it being part of an Oscar Quest probably diminished my enjoyment of the film, but I still wouldn’t have liked it more than a passing, “Meh,” regardless.

As for Garner’s performance — there is no way he wasn’t nominated here for any other reason than the fact that he’s James Garner. None. He is clearly a #5 and is one of the weakest Oscar nominees in the history of the Best Actor category (hmm, that would be an interesting list…). No vote.

Hurt — Kiss of the Spider Woman is about two men in a Brazilian prison. They’re cellmates. One is Raul Julia, the other is William Hurt. Julia is part of a revolutionary group, and Hurt is a homosexual window dresser who had sex with an underage boy. He’s very flamboyant, and dresses in drag most of the time. At first, things are pretty terse between the two of them. Julia just wants to lay there and disappear into his own head, and Hurt does nothing but talk, talk, talk. He talks about this old movie he saw once — which gives the film its title. And eventually the two become friends. However, we find out that Hurt was promised parole if he gets information on the revolutionary group’s members. But — Hurt ends up falling in love with Julia, and the two actually end up having sex right before Hurt is released. And as Hurt is released, Julia gives him contact information for his fellow revolutionaries. And Hurt, as he contacts them, is surveilled by the police, and a gunfight ensues, and Hurt is shot, since the revolutionaries think he’s a spy. Then, the police, finding him, order him to give them the contact information, which he refuses to do, and he dies. And the film ends with Julia in prison, slipping into a dream state after being given morphine by a sympathetic doctor treating him after he was tortured.

It’s a good film. Definitely not for everybody, but a good film. Hurt is really great in this film. He does a really good job with it. Independently of the category, this is a performance I’d probably rank a #2 most years. I’d respect it, but probably wouldn’t vote for it. However, in this category, I see him as an easy winner. Plus, him winning makes the year after this a lot easier. So I support this win.

Nicholson — Prizzi’s Honor is a great film that actually took me a while to come around on. I saw it — just before the Oscar Quest, I believe. I saw it back during my senior year of college. I remember renting it from Netflix, because all the parts intrigued me (Nicholson, Huston, all the Oscar nominations — I figured I needed to see it). And I ended up having the DVD for like a month without watching it. So I put it on one day, and I remember not really getting involved with it. It was one of those movies you put on as you eat lunch. And I wasn’t really paying complete attention to it. After twenty minutes I was doing other stuff as I watched, and by the time it ended, I really didn’t completely know what was going on — I totally missed a major hit in the middle of the movie — and came out of it going, “Well, it wasn’t terrible, but, I didn’t like it so much, but, I didn’t really pay attention to it, so I can’t tell people I didn’t like it, because it’s probably because I didn’t pay attention. And I don’t want to watch it again, so I’ll just say it was okay and nothing special.” Of course, this was before the Oscar Quest. Little did I know that less than a year later I’d need to see this film again. And, the next time I saw it, I enjoyed it a lot more.

The film is about a mafia hitman — Nicholson — who isn’t very bright. He’s loyal, and good at what he does, but, not the brightest guy in the world. There’s a story about how, before every take, John Huston would turn to Nicholson and say, “Remember, he’s stupid.” The film begins at a wedding, which is a nice twist on The Godfather. Since this film is a comedy at heart. And Nicholson is there — and we get introduced to all the major players. Nicholson used to date Anjelica Huston, who is the don’s daughter, and after they broke up, she was shunned as being a whore by her father. But, at the wedding, Nicholson meets Kathleen Turner, and he’s immediately smitten with her. And he tracks her down, and goes on a date with her. And they fall in love. But then, on a job, Nicholson discovers that she’s the wife of the guy he just killed, who stole a lot of money from the mob. So she gives the money back and convinces him she knew nothing about it. So he protects her. And then later, we find out that she’s actually a hitwoman who had done a couple of high profile jobs for the family. And the two of them, knowing who they are, marry nonetheless.

And then Huston, who spends the whole movie trying to get Nicholson back, ends up turning her grandfather (who is like Brando at the end of the first Godfather — retired, but still holding a lot of sway) and father against Nicholson, and they end up ordering both Nicholson and Turner to kill one another. And Nicholson has to figure out a way to get out of the situation. And he ends up killing Turner and getting her half of the money back, and then ends up with Huston (seemingly) as well.

It’s a great film. Really well done. Nicholson does a great job with it, and I love that he was nominated for it. Only problem — he’s Jack Nicholson. With people like Jack, you have to take into account what they didn’t win for. Like Meryl. Meryl has two. So when Meryl is nominated, you have to say, “Does this hold up to her other performances that she won for? Is this as good as the ones she didn’t win for?” Of course, it’s all dependent on the category, but, still, the other performances are part of it. Because, at this point, Nicholson had two. He didn’t need a third (just yet). So if you’re gonna give him a third, it has to be for something good. And this — it’s good, but it’s not quite good. For example — Nicholson was also nominated for, and did not win for, Chinatown and The Last Detail. Do you think this performance was as good as those? That’s why I can’t vote for him here, despite really loving his performance. (Plus, he won for As Good as It Gets, so this technically would have been a fourth. He didn’t need this.)

Voight — Runaway Train is a film I expected to be — two men, escape from prison, get on a train — Unstoppable. I didn’t expect to love it. I expected to think, “It was exactly what I thought it would be.” But I was wrong. This was actually a really good movie.

The film begins with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Voight is the big badass of the prison and Roberts is the young (and dumb) boxer. He’s the kind of guy — like the sidekick character. He’s the dumb guy who looks up to Voight and wants to be like him. And Voight puts up with him, but he doesn’t really like him so much. And then we find out Voight’s planning an escape. And Roberts is like, “I wanna help, I wanna escape!” And Voight’s like, “No, you can’t. You’ll only slow me down.” But then Roberts impulsively goes and joins him anyway. And the two escape, with Voight telling him he’s on his own if shit goes south. And they get on this train after a long hike through the wilderness (this is Alaska), but, as the train pulls away, the condutor has a heart attack and dies. And in trying to stop the train, he pushes it forward at full speed.

So now Roberts and Voight are on this train, and they realize it’s not stopping. So they have to find a way to stop it. Meanwhile — the whole time, they’re being pursued by the warden of the prison, who has a vendetta against Voight (he’s the high security prisoner who is a big thorn in his side. Think Sean Connery and John Spencer in The Rock. Only, less Michael Bay). And they find a train employee on board — a woman — and basically the rest of the film is them trying to stop this train. I won’t give away what happens — but it’s awesome. This film is really, really great.

Voight’s performance is actually really good. I actually prefer this performance to his Coming Home performance (which he won for). I thought he was great here, and added a lot of depth to what could have been just a mean son of a bitch. But, he won already, and that, to me, is the kind of thing where, I’d only vote for him is I had to. But the thing is, with this category — I almost have to. Thank God for William Hurt.

My Thoughts: There’s really no other choice here. It’s William Hurt. Let me explain.

First off — James Garner should not have been nominated. Not at all. This is a light romantic comedy, and I cannot explain for the life of me why he got on here. But I like James Garner, so I won’t get too upset. But the performance — shouldn’t be here at all.

Then, Harrison Ford — come on. This is a stature nomination. Ford was the biggest star in the world during this time, he made all the money. Therefore, he had to get nominated for something. He came along with the film on this one. His performance is not really Academy-worthy. I’m cool with it, but — never gonna happen, vote-wise.

Which leaves us with only three real choices. But…

Jack Nicholson had two Oscars by this point, one lead, for Cuckoo’s Nest, and one Supporting. Now, his performance here, while good, and funny, is not a performance that should have won him an award. Why? Because he was already nominated for, and didn’t win for, The Last Detail, and Chinatown. Voting for him here, to me, is saying this performance is better than those two. Or, the category really sucks. So I’m not voting for him, because there is someone to vote for.

Jon Voight — he won already. And, this is an action movie. But, he is strong here. He’s really strong. I liked his character a lot. But, like I said, he won already. So I wasn’t voting for him unless I had to. And, by immediate process of elimination, I almost had to. But…

William Hurt gave a great performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman. By default, he becomes the vote. His performance automatically jumps up to a #1 or #2 based on its strength alone. That, coupled with the fact that there’s no one else to vote for makes him the clear and easy winner in this. And it works out, because, the year after this, he gave what I felt was a better performance in Children of a Lesser God. But, the year after this was the year Paul Newman needed to win his Oscar. So Hurt winning here actually made things a lot easier for the year after this.

So, really, I can’t see people voting for anyone else here. I feel as though if you got people to vote on this, having seen all the performances, this would be one of the biggest consensus votes out there.

My Vote: Hurt

Should Have Won: Hurt

Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. Everything about it is good. It’s the best performance for my money in the category and the most vote-worthy. Plus Hurt was gonna win one anyway with his track record, and him winning here made everything easier the year after this. It’s a great decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Runaway Train is such an awesome film. If you’ve seen Unstoppable — this is better. I liked Unstoppable too, but this film — this film puts you right in the shit. This is character-driven. Unstoppable is situation-driven. Voight and Roberts are so good here. It’s definitely a film you should check out. Definitely one of the better action movies of the 80s.

Prizzi’s Honor is a really great film as well. It’s pretty funny. A top notch performance by Nicholson and a great supporting turn by William Hickey. The film is really strong, and definitely worth checking out. Recommended highly.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a film I like a lot, but, I’m not quite sure how many other people will. It’s not an essential film, so I can’t tell you to see it, and I don’t think its subject matter is the kind of thing most people would find interesting. But I can vouch for the fact that it’s a good film, and features a really good performance by William Hurt, and it’s a Best Actor winner, so for those looking to see Oscar winners — this is one. So, those are all reasons to see it. It’s a good film, and I recommend it. Do with that what you will.

Witness is a film that I respect marginally. A lot of people love it. I thought it was just okay. But I recognize that a lot of people will love this film, so I will recommend it based on that. It’s an action film, so that’s a reason to see it — it doesn’t require much brain power. Plus, it’s a film that gets referenced a lot due to its conceit and subject matter. So that’s another reason. I liked it marginally, like I said, but, a lot of people really do love it. You may want to check it out.


5) Garner

4) Ford

3) Voight

2) Nicholson

1) Hurt


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  1. Pingback: Blues – Paul Thorn and his daughter Kit perform in Memphis | YouTube Guitar

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