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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1981-1982)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1981

Warren Beatty, Reds

Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond

Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City

Dudley Moore, Arthur

Paul Newman, Absence of Malice

Analysis:

Reds is Warren Beatty’s communist epic.

He plays John Brown, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. And the film is about his relationship with Louise Bryant as well as him following the rise of communism up through the Russian revolution.

He’s fine here, but it never feels like his film. Behind the camera, I can see why they’d want to reward him, but the performance never quite felt all there for me. He’s very solid and delivers a lot of good moments, but the character never quite comes together for me. Not enough to want to vote for him. He feels like a solid #3 at best.

On Golden Pond is admittedly, a movie that seems more like a Lifetime movie with each passing year. Yet, I love it.

Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn are retirees who have gone to the same lake house every summer for over 40 years. And they go up once again and are visited by their wayward daughter who has gotten married on a whim and is dropping her new husband’s son off while she goes on her honeymoon. So Fonda and Hepburn must deal with the kid, while also dealing with aging and all that brings about.

Henry Fonda is really entertaining here, but let’s call this for what it is — a career win. Everyone knows that, and it’s hard to be upset with it. Fonda earned at least one of these over his career, and now he finally got one. I get it. I can’t say this is the best performance in the category, but then again, it’s possible he might be. I really don’t know where to go here.

Atlantic City is a very 80s movie. It just feels like the 80s.

Burt Lancaster is an aging, small time gangster who ends up embroiled in the life of Susan Sarandon, his neighbor, and her husband, who steals some drugs and tries to sell them. And this gives Lancaster a chance to get into some real gangster shit like he’s always wanted to do and also feel young again around Sarandon, on whom he’s had a sort of crush.

Lancaster gives a very energetic performance, and a lot of people I know do like this one, but this isn’t entirely for me. I think he does a great job and should have been nominated, but this performance never did a whole lot for me. Fourth choice for me. I love that he got a final nomination, but I just don’t like the performance enough to take it.

Arthur is one of the great comedies of all time.

Dudley Moore is heir to a fortune, and spends his days getting drunk and carousing around New York with prostitutes and the like. He’s set to marry a woman he doesn’t love as a marriage of convenience. One day, he meets Liza Minnelli, a lower class woman, and is smitten with her. And he begins a relationship with her, which threatens the autopilot of his cushy existence. It’s actually a really great film about a man growing up.

Dudley Moore is tremendous here. I’m actually pretty shocked he got nominated. I love the performance, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing they go for. But still, I love this movie so much that I want to vote for him. And since this category is weaker than I thought, I might have a legitimate case for doing so.

Absence of Malice is another one of those movies that never quite did it for me. It’s got classy people all over it, but it never quite clicked for me.

Sally Field is an ambitious journalist who gets a hold of a story about the murder of a union guy that implicates Paul Newman in the man’s disappearance. Newman is the son of a criminal who has tried really hard to live a non-criminal life. Because of the story, his business is shut down by the union and the mob is following him because they think he might give up information to the government. And he has to go around with Field and acquit himself of the murder.

Newman is fine here. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying particularly hard. Either that or the material just isn’t all there for him. Whatever it is, this is one of the more underwhelming of his nominations for me, and I honestly would have him straight fifth of all the nominees. It’s weird that the category looks like a heavy hitter based on the actors involved, but in actuality it’s actually quite mediocre.

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The Reconsideration: Great actors, not overly great category. Usually Paul Newman makes top two or three for me, but here, he’s fifth. Not a huge fan of this performance, voting-wise. Lancaster’s performance doesn’t land with me the way it lands with others. Beatty feels like a good performance without much of a character arc. The epitome of a #3. So without effort, I’m left with Dudley Moore and Henry Fonda. And I love Fonda, and he should have had an Oscar 41 years before this. And I love On Golden Pond. But this would be a vote for the actor, and not the performance. But I love Arthur, and I love that performance. So I need to take Dudley Moore here because I can legitimately make a case for voting for him in this category. Which brings us into the comedy argument, which I won’t get into now. But I have no legitimate affection for any performances except Moore and Fonda, and I think Moore does way more effective work. So I take him.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Dudley Moore, Arthur
  2. Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond
  3. Warren Beatty, Reds
  4. Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City
  5. Paul Newman, Absence of Malice

My Vote: Dudley Moore, Arthur

Recommendations:

Arthur is one of the great comedies of all time. Anyone even remotely in tune with my taste in film will really enjoy this movie. It’s absolutely hilarious. I call it essential for film bufs, but objectively it’s just a really high recommend because it’s so wonderful. But this is legitimately one of my favorite films of all time, so I’m not gonna ever say you don’t need to see this.

Reds is an essential film. It may not be everyone’s favorite film, but it’s definitely a film every film buffs needs to see. It’s pretty important, historically. The cast is loaded with famous people in relatively minor roles, it won Best Director and it’s generally just a great movie. So film buffs must see it. And it’s worth it.

On Golden Pond is one of my favorite films. It definitely feels like a Lifetime movie now, but it’s Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. And it’s fun as shit. Not essential for most film buffs (Oscar buffs, yes), but if you love movies you’re probably gonna want to check this out because it cross lists in three of the four major areas you have for selecting what movies you need to see.

Atlantic City is a really solid film. Solid to high recommend, very well done, even though it’s very dated. Good work out of Lancaster and Sarandon and well worth seeing. Check it out.

Absence of Malice is okay. 80s kind of movie. Newman’s good, Sally Field is good, and Sydney Pollack directs. So there’s that. Moderate to solid recommend, and a lot of people are gonna see it for the people involved. And it’s worth it, but not especially essential.

The Last Word: Fonda is a great choice. He deserved and Oscar and this is a way for them to get him an Oscar in a not-very contested category. Lancaster had one, and his performance wouldn’t have held up as a winner. Beatty would have held up as well as Fonda on performance, but it would have just been a so-so winner. It would make sense on paper, but it would just be a mediocre winner. Newman would get one, and this feels like one of his weakest nominations. Definitely not a good winner for him compared to other nominations. And Moore didn’t need to win. This is like voting for Johnny Depp in Pirates. You’re doing it because you like it the best but you don’t think it’ll win or need to see it win. Henry Fonda gets an Oscar, and it’s a very nice moment for an acceptable performance. They made the right choice.

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1982

Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi

Jack Lemmon, Missing

Paul Newman, The Verdict

Peter O’Toole, My Favorite Year

Analysis:

Tootsie is one of the great comedies of all time.

Everyone knows this movie. Dustin Hoffman is a “diffcult” actor who can’t find work anywhere, so in order to get work, he dresses like a woman. Hilarity ensues.

Hoffman is incredible here. He’s great as himself and great as Dorothy. You completely understand where he’s coming from in every situation, and it’s just a masterwork comic performance. Did he need to win Best Actor for it? No. Would I take him? I might. It’s tough in this year, of all years, but I could definitely make a case for him and be perfectly fine voting for him should I want to go that way. This is a really strong category, and we’re starting with a really strong nominee.

Gandhi is… Gandhi. I mean, I hope you know everything about this movie from the title.

gandhi-oh-god

Okay, that was mean.

Ben Kingsley plays Gandhi. And he’s fantastic here. One could never argue with him winning for this award. However, there are some great choices to be had here, and forgive me for saying… but it’s a bit of a dull choice. I have no issues with it, but I’m also not jumping to vote for him either. There are some really amazing performances here

Missing is a very 80s film. These 80s political films don’t really age well. But it’s real solid.

It’s about a man who is living in Chile and is very left wing, writing against the government. One day, he disappears and his wife is concerned he may have been murdered by the military. She calls his father down and she and his father, who is very conservative, try to find out what happened to the man.

Jack Lemmon plays the father. He’s the kind of rich white dude who can’t believe that there’s corruption and injustice in these parts of the world and believes the government is doing everything they can to help find his son. And gradually things get more desperate and he becomes completely disillusioned as he realizes there’s a cover-up happening and that his own government may be involved.

It’s a really solid performance. Definitely the best of the later Lemmon nominations and one of his better performances of his career. One could say it’s even a better performance than the one he won for, with which I would not disagree. In this category, however, he is difficult to take due to the strength of all the other performances around him. He might not be straight fifth in the category, but I’ll probably rate him as fifth, purely because of how much I love the other performances.

The Verdict is one of the great trial films of all time. Just absolutely incredible.

Paul Newman plays an alcoholic, ambulance chasing lawyer. His friend throws him a gift of a case — a woman went in for surgery at a catholic hospital and when she got there, she told them she’d eaten just a few hours before. Which you’re not supposed to do when going under anesthesia. They fudged the forms and performed the surgery anyway and she ended up in a coma and totally brain damaged. All he has to do is go in, collect a hefty settlement, and he’ll get a piece of that. Easy peasy. But his conscience gets the better of him (as does a member of the woman’s family) and he decides to take the case to trial. So he, a drunk who hasn’t won a case in years, is now going up against the Catholic Church, and their endless supply of money and high priced team of lawyers. And naturally it’s a story of redemption. With a fucking great performance out of Paul Newman.

This is generally regarded as one of those iconic Newman performances that got shafted out of a win. I really love this performance, and I’ll probably take him, but I can’t say for sure that he should have won this over the other nominees. I can make a case for almost everyone in this category. (Lemmon is more difficult than the others, but I could eventually make my way around to a case for him.) So in the end, I could say that some may have held up better than he would have, but it’s also a really tremendous performance that still holds up today.

My Favorite Year is such a hilarious film. Not enough people know about this one.

It’s based on Mel Brooks’ experiences working on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, when he, as a writer, had to babysit a drunk Errol Flynn all week and make sure he made it to the show.

Peter O’Toole basically plays a fictional version of Flynn, a swashbuckling actor who likes drinking almost as much as he loves fucking women and jumping off of stuff. And he manages to drag this writer all around all week and do everything except rehearse for the show. And it’s absolutely hilarious all the way through, because O’Toole is basically drunk throughout the entire film and still an absolute movie star.

Here’s my thing about this performance — he’s borderline supporting. I get why he went lead, but if he was actually put supporting, as his role is central but more of a featured role than the lead role of the story, he might have won the award. He’s a leading man for sure, and I get it, but the character isn’t as central to the story as you’d think. However — O’Toole is awesome here, and I wish I could take him. I love this performance enough to try to put him as high as second or third for the vote, but I don’t think I’d end up taking him against this competition. Damn shame he constantly got the short end of the stick on his nominations.

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The Reconsideration: This is one of the stronger categories all time. You could make a case for all five of them. I already know where I’m leaning, but I’ll reason my way through it.

Lemmon is my fifth choice. I just don’t love the performance enough to take it, and I legitimately really like all the others and have personal affection toward them. So he’s off first.

It’s too hard for me to make a case for O’Toole over the remaining three, despite my love of his performance. My love pushes him far, but not far enough to take down all three of the others. The role doesn’t feel substantial enough for me to take him.

Hoffman — as much as I want to take the Tootsie performance and as much as I love it as a piece of acting, I honestly would take the other two over him and felt more impressed by those two overall. So Hoffman ends up a very solid third choice who would be top two most years and a major contender for a vote.

The vote, as it probably does for a lot of people, comes down between Kingsley and Newman. And right there, my choice is made. Because I love the Newman performance. I just really like and respect the Kingsley one. So I’m perfectly fine with the win and think it’s a great choice, but Paul Newman is definitely my choice here. I just love that performance something fierce.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Newman, The Verdict
  2. Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
  3. Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie
  4. Peter O’Toole, My Favorite Year
  5. Jack Lemmon, Missing

Rankings (films):

  1. The Verdict
  2. My Favorite Year
  3. Tootsie
  4. Gandhi
  5. Missing

My Vote: Paul Newman, The Verdict

Recommendations:

Gandhi is essential. Just because it is. This one’s more like the vegetables you have to eat to be a film buff than the fun main course or dessert, but that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a good movie, it’s just one you have to see. Plus it won Best Picture, and I say all film buffs should treat those as basic essentials just on principle.

Tootsie is an all-time essential film. Must see for all film buffs, and one of the greatest comedies ever made. Everyone loves this movie and with good reason. It still holds up today. It’s perfect.

The Verdict is essential for film buffs. Not an all-time kind of essential like the “big” movies, but it is essential for those who love movies, because it’s so wonderful. Paul Newman delivers one of his best screen performances, and this is one of those films that everybody loves. It just is. See it.

My Favorite Year is a great comedy that is sorely underseen. Peter O’Toole is so fucking good here and the movie is so enjoyable. Very high recommend and I’d call it essential for film buffs just because it needs to be seen more. It’s so good.

Missing is a very solid film. Great performances. Worth seeing, but not essential. Deep queue kind of movie. See it when it comes around, but don’t rush out to it. It is worth seeing though.

The Last Word: Kingsley is a great choice. You look at Ben Kingsley winning an Oscar — great. And then winning for Gandhi — makes total sense. Can’t argue with it. It’s not a sexy winner, but it’s really good. Newman would have been a great winner for his role, even Hoffman could have been a good winner (though I don’t think he’d have held up as well as the others). I think the two choices here were Kingsley and Paul Newman, and while Newman will have more fervent support, Kingsley is the performance that holds up best over time. So I think they made a great choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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