The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1998

I deliberately held back on this one. This is a major category that a lot of people have strong opinions on. So of course I was gonna hold back on it. Anticipation is key.

As for 1998 — Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench (talked about here). Steven Spielberg wins Best Director for Saving Private Ryan (talked about here), and James Coburn wins Best Supporting Actor for Affliction (talked about here). I think everyone knows these categories pretty well. No need to editorialize in this intro.

Now this one. Obviously a sore spot for many people. I think we all understand that Roberto Benigni was one of the worst choices ever in this category. That’s not really the part people argue over. The part people argue over is who should have won instead. Some people say Edward Norton, some say Ian McKellen. Which do I take? You’ll have to keep reading to find out…

Look at me, mysterious fucker.


And the nominees were…

Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful

Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan

Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters

Nick Nolte, Affliction

Edward Norton, American History X

Benigni — Life is Beautiful, I’d imagine, is a film a lot of people have seen. Roberto Benigni tries to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust by turning their stay in a concentration camp into a game. It’s actually a good film. I like it. I mean, it’s a balancing act. It’s a film that could be really offensive if not done right (see — but not actually, since you can’t, since he refuses to let anyone see it — Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried). He does it mostly right. I don’t love the film the way some people do, but it’s effective.

Benigni, however, should not have won this award. I think everyone acknowledges that this is one of the worst Best Actor awards of all time. This seems like it might have been one of those Adrien Brody scenarios, where the other nominees all logjammed and he came out the other side. I don’t know. All I know is — he shouldn’t hav won.

Hanks — Saving Private Ryan is a film you need to have seen. I’ll leave it at that.

I watch this film a lot. And very rarely do I watch it and pay attention to Hanks’s performance. It’s never my concern. There’s so much to enjoy with this film. But I knew I had to write this category, so I went back to watch this specifically with Hanks’s performance in mind. And I was actually really surprised at how good he was here. This is a legitimate nomination. And I’d even consider him for a vote, had he not had two already. I probably wouldn’t vote for him, but still — this is a really solid performance. There’s a lot of nuance there. Good job, Hanks. This was really solid.

McKellen — Gods and Monsters is a terrific film.

Ian McKellen plays James Whale, director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein two of the best monster movies ever made. And now, in his old age, he’s haunted by flashbacks of his time in the trenches during World War I, and is in so much pain. But he enjoys himself — he plays the part of the lecherous old man, making a male interviewer strip down to his underwear for his own enjoyment. And the film is about him meeting Brendan Fraser, his gardener, and striking up a bit of a strange friendship with him. If you haven’t seen it, a synopsis won’t do you any good. Watch the film. Ian McKellen is terrific here, and even Fraser is really good.

He’s definitely a finalist for this vote. It’s him and Norton. Always was.

Nolte — Affliction is a film about Nick Nolte’s relationship with his father and how it fucked up his personal list. It’s a pretty boring film, overall, but apparently the Academy really liked it.

Nolte is fine here. He does give a pretty good performance. But there’s no way anyone votes for him. This film just isn’t very good. And the rest of the performances are pretty strong. So he’s a #5. I’m not even gonna waste time on this.

Norton — American History X. I assume you’ve seen this, because how else has this become a top 40 film on IMDB’s top 250? (So undeserved, too. It’s a good film, but it’s not great. It’s a 3-star film made 4-stars because of Norton’s performance. People really overrate the shit out of this one.)

Norton is strong. We all know that. And he’s a finalist. I won’t say anything more, since anything more comes down to a vote, and we’re at that point right now, so let’s just get right into it.

My Thoughts: It comes down to McKellen or Norton. If you think it’s anyone else, you should just stop reading this blog, because chances are, we don’t agree on anything.

And honestly, I take McKellen. Without hesitation. I don’t love American History X the way some people do (and quite frankly, other people — people who rank the film in the top 40 on IMDB but still haven’t seen The Grapes of Wrath — their enthusiasm for the film has really turned me off of it), and even though the performance is strong, I don’t think it’s an automatic winner. And I really liked McKellen’s performance.

McKellen was so good here, and he is definitely going to be my vote. I know a lot of people are gung ho Edward Norton, but to me that’s a fanboy vote. That’s one of those, “Everyone loves the film and everyone says he should have won” things where everyone just goes along because it’s one of those films people see at 16 and automatically think it should have won. This is one of those decisions inexperienced people are more likely to choose. The ones that have only seen half the nominees are vote for it anyway because they really liked that film.

I vote McKellen all the way.

My Vote: McKellen

Should Have Won: McKellen, Norton

Is the result acceptable?: No. One of the single worst decisions of all time. Probably the worst. Terrible.

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, you’re dead to me, the world, and you don’t really like movies.

I’d assume you need to see American History X too. And Life is Beautiful. Just see them, to be on the safe side.

Gods and Monsters is amazing. You need to see it. It’s terrific. Highly, highly recommended.


5) Nolte

4) Benigni

3) Hanks

2) Norton

1) McKellen


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