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The Oscar Quest: Strongest Best Actor Categories

Oh, this is a rich category.

Best Actor is great. There’s such a strong history here. I’m not even going to introduce this one. Just look at all the categories. They speak for themselves.

Just know — as always — the actual rankings are a matter of personal preference. It’s about the categories, not where I put them.

Here are my choices for the strongest Best Actor categories of all time:

10. 1995

  • Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
  • Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • Anthony Hopkins, Nixon
  • Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking
  • Massimo Troisi, Il Postino

Look at this — Cage, Hopkins, Penn. Brilliance. Then Dreyfuss in a great role, and Troisi as a sentimental nominee. Of course this is here.

9. 2002

  • Adrien Brody, The Pianist
  • Nicolas Cage, Adaptation.
  • Michael Caine, The Quiet America
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
  • Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Cage is brilliant, Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher speaks for itself, and Nicholson is just great beyond words. And Brody is really the one who puts it here. And Michael Caine, he works as a solid five. He’s a vet. The performance isn’t great great, but it got great notices. This really is a strong category.

8. 1967

  • Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde
  • Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate
  • Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke
  • Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night
  • Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Just looking at this category, you can see why it’s here. Clyde Barrow, Benjamin Braddock, Lucas Jackson. Three iconic roles right there. Then you get Rod Steiger and Spencer Tracy, who were both great in classic films. Honestly, my gut reaction at just looking at this category says it should go higher. But, I have reasons for putting it where it is. You’ll see as we go along.

7. 1962

  • Burt Lancaster, Bidman of Alcatraz
  • Jack Lemmon, Days of Wine and Roses
  • Marcello Mastroianni, Divorce, Italian Style
  • Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia
  • Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird

Pretty self-explanatory, right? T.E. Lawrence and Atticus Finch pretty much assured this a top fifteen entry at worst. But then you have Burt Lancaster and Jack Lemmon, who are just fucking incredible in their movies. Seriously, those two are what bumped this to where it is. And, honestly, I almost even put this higher. But, the categories from here on out are so stacked, I just couldn’t. Though, actually, give me more time to think about it (I won’t change it, since it’s not meant to be anything final. The order is fairly meaningless), I might even switch this out to be #6 and bump #6 down here. I don’t know, it’s tough. They’re really close in my mind in terms of overall quality. But, there’s one on #6 that probably beats everything. So, we’ll leave it. But still, this is an amazingly good category.

6. 1972

  • Marlon Brando, The Godfather
  • Michael Caine, Sleuth
  • Laurence Olivier, Sleuth
  • Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class
  • Paul Winfield, Sounder

Not one you’d think off the top of your head would be one of the top ten strongest categories of all time, is it? Sure — Brando. But outside of that, if you just glanced at this as an average filmgoer, you wouldn’t really know why this was so strong. But — Sleuth — two amazing performances. Just incredible. The performances carry that film (they have to), and they’re both just perfect. Especially Caine. What he has to do in that movie — definitely those two with Brando puts it top ten. But then you have Peter O’Toole — whose performance is so batshit insane and yet brilliant at the same time — you really need to see the film to believe it. At first you think it’s just crazy and over the top, and then he hooks you in, and you fall in love with how crazy it is, and then — it just gets better. He’s so fucking good here, I can’t even begin to describe it. And then Paul Winfield — I don’t love the performance, but, a black actor being nominated, that makes it a strong entry on the list. The Academy, nominating a black man for Best Actor that wasn’t Sidney Poitier or Denzel Washington (pre-2000)? To me, that’s automatically a top five placement for the category. But, it’s not actually a top five, and that’s because —

5. 1992

  • Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin
  • Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
  • Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman
  • Stephen Rea, The Crying Game
  • Denzel Washington, Malcolm X

Do I even need to say anything? When Stephen Rea in that performance is a #5, that’s a good year. At worst, he’s a solid #4 in most years. And then you have the iconic Malcolm X performance, Clint Eastwood doing what he does, Robert Downey Jr.’s sublime performance as Charlie Chaplin, and then Al Pacino “hoo ha’ing his way to some hooha” — easily a top 5. Easily. I almost bumped this to #6, but, it’s really a #5. 1972 had a clear winner. This is one of those categories where, thank god they owed Pacino one, because, otherwise, this would have been impossible to decide.

4. 1976

  • Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
  • Peter Finch, Network
  • Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties
  • William Holden, Network
  • Sylvester Stallone, Rocky

Two of the performances — Travis Bickle, Rocky Balboa — speak for themselves. Right there, this goes in top fifteen. Then, Howard Beale and Max Schumacher — just Howard Beale puts this in top ten. But then you also have Holden, who really is the backbone of that movie, which easily puts it top five. Now, I know Giannini isn’t really the best #5 you can have, but I think the other four performances more than make up for it (it’s like Best Picture 1991. Sure, The Prince of Tides sucks, but the other four nominees are incredible. Plus, Giannini is really good. It’s just the lack of profile for the film and performance that makes it seem weak).

3. 1982

  • Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie
  • Ben Kinglsey, Gandhi
  • Jack Lemmon, Missing
  • Paul Newman, The Verdict
  • Peter O’Toole, My Favorite Year

This list speaks for itself. Gandhi — done. Paul Newman — iconic performance. Peter O’Toole — amazing performance. Dustin Hoffman — iconic performance. Jack Lemmon — solid performance, not a very memorable film, but he’s Jack Lemmon. There are much worse fifth nominees. This category is so fucking strong, it’s ridiculous. It’s also probably the hardest of the top three (or even top ten) in terms of picking a winner.

2. 1974

  • Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  • Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  • Dustin Hofman, Lenny
  • Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  • Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

High risk, high reward. Shit happens. Still, Carney aside, this is a fucking stacked category. This is like the Major League Baseball steroid era, the 70s. Everyone was fucking amazing. But, really, look at this — Michael Corleone, Lenny Bruce, J.J. Gittes and Hercule Poirot. And — the dude with the cat. Who also happens to be Norton. But still — four of those are iconic characters/people. Eventual decision aside, this category is incredible.

1. 1973

  • Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  • Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  • Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  • Al Pacino, Serpico
  • Robert Redford, The Sting

The reason I consider this to be the strongest category of all time is because of the sheer names involved. Just look at these five actors. Titans. All of them. Sure, Redford’s performance wasn’t really that strong, Oscar-wise (he himself said he got nominated for running around a lot), but still, he’s Robert Redford, and this was his only acting nomination. Then, Frank Serpico speaks for himself. Lemmon was amazing. Last Tango in Paris, while I don’t love the performance, it’s widely regarded as great. And then there’s Billy “Bad Ass” Buddinsky. This whole category is stacked from both a performance standpoint and an actor standpoint. Clearly this had to be #1.

– – – – – – – – – –

11. 1979

  • Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome
  • Al Pacino, …And Justice for All
  • Roy Scheider, All That Jazz
  • Peter Sellers, Being There

You have no idea how hard this was for me to leave off the top ten. Joe Gideon, Chance the Gardener, Ted Kramer — and then Lemmon and Pacino. I’m gonna stop before I put it on the top ten and have to rearrange everything.

12. 1936

  • Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • Walter Huston, Dodsworth
  • Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur
  • William Powell, My Man Godfrey
  • Spencer Tracy, San Francisco

Longfellow Deeds, Godfrey, Louis Pasteur — iconic roles or performances. And Tracy — iconic actor. Then — Dodsworth. Seriously, watch that performance, and you’ll see why this is here. And why it belongs here.

13. 1980

  • Robert De Niro, Raging Bull
  • Robert Duvall, The Great Santini
  • John Hurt, The Elephant Man
  • Jack Lemmon, Tribute
  • Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man

Speaks for itself. Jake LaMotta and Joseph Merrick put this in the top twenty. Then Duvall and O’Toole — honestly, on the right day, this is a top ten for me.

14. 1941

  • Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
  • Cary Grant, Penny Serenade
  • Walter Huston, The Devil and Daniel Webster
  • Robert Montgomery, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  • Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

Charles Foster Kane, Sergeant York, Mr. Scratch, Joe Pendleton — speak for themselves. And Cary Grant’s performance is also strong. Another on that would be a top ten on another day.

15. 1939

  • Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind
  • Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights
  • Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
  • Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

See what I mean about how much fun Best Actor is? Man, I love this. Rhett Butler, Jefferson Smith, Charles Chipping, Heathcliff — this is great.

Honorable mention to #16, because it was really too close to call:

1991: Warren Beatty, Bugsy, Robert De Niro, Cape Fear, Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lamb, Nick Nolte, The Prince of Tides (and also Cape Fear, in spirit, Robin Williams, The Fisher King

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One response

  1. I wonder if you’re ever going to update these articles with new categories. This year (Bale, Dern, DiCaprio, Ejiofer, McConaughey) was VERY strong.

    April 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

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