The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1983-1984)
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.
Michael Caine, Educating Rita
Tom Conti, Reuben, Reuben
Tom Courtenay, The Dresser
Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies
Albert Finney, The Dresser
Educating Rita is basically Pygmalion, but livened up a bit with lower class folk.
Michael Caine plays a drunk linguistics professor who is hired to teach a lower class housewife how to be proper. And that’s it. That’s the film. It’s well done and funny and both leads are immensely entertaining.
Caine does a good job. You’d expect him to be wildly over the top, but he isn’t. He actually plays more subdued to Julie Walters, who gets to be wildly over the top. It’s a perfectly capable performance, one that would be a third or fourth choice most years, but only on charm more than anything. I certainly like the performance a lot, and he probably rates second for me in this category just because it’s so weak and a lot of it is so theatrical, but I wouldn’t want to take him unless I had to.
Reuben, Reuben remains one of the more difficult Oscar films to find, and one of the more completely puzzling nominations of all time.
I’ve only seen this film once, just the one time to complete the category. But that meant I watched it much later than all the other nominees and focused on it completely so I could talk about the performance. So I do have somewhat of a memory of the performance.
Conti plays a poet who drinks and sleeps with women, even though he hasn’t written anything in years and pretty much lives off the generosity of those who like his work. (Almost like Llewyn Davis, now that I think about it.) He starts to date a college student, and tries to get his shit together, and the film is about him being unable to.
I don’t much get the nomination. I remember thinking he was completely fine throughout, but it’s basically the same performance all the way through. There’s no real scene that makes you go, “Oh, that’s nice.” It’s just kind of steadily okay. This feels like one of the weaker nominees all time. Just because — ehh, all around.
The Dresser is one of the most theatrical films ever made. And it was nominated for Best Picture! That one I can’t believe. Well, I guess Best Director is really the one. But the performances are beyond reproach. So there is that.
The film is about an actor, Sir, and his dresser, Norman. Albert Finney plays Sir and Tom Courtenay plays Norman. Finney is one of the most respected Shakespearean actors in the world, but he’s a fucking mess. He’s one of the most mercurial actors in the world. And Courtenay has been his dresser for ten years and has been through all of it. He knows how to deal with him. And the film is about Finney going on his rampages, yet delivering wonderful performances, and also having his mental state deteriorate more and more as things progress.
Both actors are really great, even though the film and performances are so theatrical it almost hurts. I hate seeing overly theatrical performances, and that’s totally what Finney is here. Courtenay too, but at least he gets some semblance of a toned down character to play. One might argue that’s the point of it all, but I’d also argue you can be over the top and not be overly theatrical. These performances feel designed for the stage. Most people would prefer the Finney performance to the Courtenay performance, but I actually prefer the Courtenay performance. Finney is showy and loud, but Courtenay is more steady and gets to modulate his performance more. And I responded to that. I still wouldn’t want to take either, because goddamn. This is too theatrical for me. And I’d rather let them split their votes and take Michael Caine if it came down to it. But then we also have to deal with…
Tender Mercies is the film that Robert Duvall won his Oscar for. That’s really all I know it as.
Duvall plays an alcoholic country singer who wakes up at a gas station motel after a binge. He offers to do some work to pay for his room and ends up befriending the owner of the motel and her young son. They grow close, and all that. He tries to stay anonymous, and that proves impossible, so the film is about him trying to redeem himself in some way and live some semblance of a normal life even though the music business has passed him by.
It’s a quietly solid performance, and while it normally wouldn’t something I’d want to take, I do appreciate how effortless Duvall makes it seem. He’s so solid throughout that I barely saw him give into any of the tics or mannerisms that most actors would use for a role like this. And in a category with three very over the top performances and one essential blank, he’s really the only one that registers for me, and I think I’m gonna take him on that alone. The category is the category, and he sure seems like the best in the category.
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The Reconsideration: This, to me, is one of the weakest category of all time. There’s nothing I love here. Tom Conti is a blank, the Dresser performances are too theatrical to vote for, and they cancel each other out, even though I prefer Courtenay. Caine is amusing, but he’d never contend for a vote most years. But here, I do consider him strongly, because I have no other choices. And then there’s Duvall, who’d earned an Oscar by this point, delivers a terrific performance, and even though I’d never vote for this otherwise, he does come off as the best performance in the category, which means he’s the vote. I’m very okay with taking him even though part of me doesn’t love the performance enough to want to. But it’s the nature of the category, so it works. Duvall it is.
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- Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies
- Michael Caine, Educating Rita
- Tom Courtenay, The Dresser
- Albert Finney, The Dresser
- Tom Conti, Reuben, Reuben
- Educating Rita
- Tender Mercies
- The Dresser
- Reuben, Reuben
My Vote: Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies
Tender Mercies is only essential for Oscar buffs and pretty much just a solid recommend for everyone else. It’s similar to Crazy Heart. If you like Crazy Heart and those types of movies, then see this. Also based on Larry McMurtry, so if you like Brokeback Mountain — western-set, character-driven with quiet moments — you’ll also like this. Definite solid film but not overly essential outside of the Oscars.
Educating Rita is lower-class Pygmalion. Michael Caine is great, Julie Walters is great, and it’s a very amusing film. Not a particularly great film, but the performances are really good. High recommend for the performances, solid recommend for the film. You can skip it, but it is worth seeing for the actors.
The Dresser is a stage play on film. Good performances out of Finney and Courtenay, so if you like stageplay kind of films, go for it. If you can’t stand that stuff, then you can skip this and be fine. I give it a moderate to solid recommend. It’s entertaining for the actors, but otherwise it can be skipped if it’s not for you.
Reuben, Reuben is an “ehh” film. It’s fine, see it if it sounds interesting to you, but it’s just okay and I don’t recommend it all that highly. You decide if you want to see it, otherwise it’s not particularly something you need to seek out.
The Last Word: Duvall was the only correct choice in the category and holds up as a winner. All-time, he’s middle-of-the-road, but in context of this category and in terms of him having an Oscar, yes. The choice. No one else holds up nearly as well in any sense. This was the right decision.
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F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus
Jeff Bridges, Starman
Albert Finney, Under the Volcano
Tom Hulce, Amadeus
Sam Waterston, The Killing Fields
Amadeus is one of the great films of all time. It’s just so wonderful.
It’s about the relationship between Mozart and Antonio Salieri. They were friends, but Salieri was deeply jealous of Mozart, who was infinitely more talented than he was, with much less drive and determination. So here you have someone who worked very hard to make music and someone who can make the most brilliant compositions imaginable, and wastes his talent constantly.
F. Murray Abraham plays Salieri and Tom Hulce plays Mozart. Both of them are absolutely tremendous here. There is the notion that the Mozart performance is such that no matter who was in there was gonna get nominated, but Hulce brings a certain pizzazz to it. That laugh of his is worth nominating alone. He’s really very strong here. But I think we can all agree that it’s Abraham who steals the show. He’s absolutely astounding as Salieri, and this is one of those performances that’s so good you don’t even care that his career never panned out after this. This performance speaks for itself and holds up as one of the better winners of all time. Maybe — maybe if there were a strong alternative, there’d be a discussion here, but this one feels like Abraham all the way and everyone else vying for second.
Starman is a very simple film that is one of the more surprising nominees of all time. Not because he’s not good, but because of the type of film and everything about it.
Jeff Bridges plays an alien. An alien lands and scans the immediate area and takes of the form of the first thing he finds — that of a woman’s dead husband. So she comes outside to find an alien that looks like her dead husband outside. And she has to help him get where he wants to go before the government can find them. This movie, and Close Encounters, became the basis for Midnight Special.
Bridges, as an alien, is perfectly fine, but I don’t think he’s exemplary enough to really warrant a nomination, let alone a win. I feel like so much of the performance is us reading into him, which is fine. I’m not downgrading on that. But I do feel like there’s a bit of a Kuleshov Effect going on with this, and I just don’t like the performance all that much as it relates to Oscars. On its own, it’s a great performance. But not in this category. He’s fifth for me, which is weird, since the Waterston performance would normally be fifth for me most years.
Under the Volcano is not a very good movie. I remember thinking the movie wasn’t very good but that Finney was very good, which has been the downfall of many an actor in this category.
Albert Finney plays a drunk down in Mexico during the Day of the Dead. And it’s about him being a pitiful drunk and fucking up everything in his life. He is absolutely terrific here, and I remember thinking he played alcoholic better than I’ve seen most people play it. In another year, he might be top two. But I just can’t take him because I love the Amadeus performances, which are both great and in a great movie, whereas here this is a great performance in a not very good movie. And I just don’t love it enough to take it.
The Killing Fields is another one of those 80s political thrillers. I didn’t like this last time. I gave it a “I get why this is good but I don’t really like it, but I guess it’s solid” rating. This time, I’ve seen it again and come around on it.
Sam Waterston plays a journalist in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge take over. He’s there with a Cambodian photojournalist who helps him get scoops. He stays much longer than he’s supposed to and puts himself in danger. One day, his photographer is captured and thrown in a labor camp. And he goes back home to tell the story to millions of Americans.
It’s a really solid film. It’s quite good. And Waterston is very good in it. Can’t say this is a performance I love. He’s just okay in the movie. He feels replaceable. You could put in any other actor and gotten the same performance. Plus, he disappears for a long stretch in the middle when he leaves the country. He’s fine, ultimately, but he’s an easy fifth choice in the category for me. Not much here I love at all, outside of Waterston himself.
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The Reconsideration: It’s F. Murray Abraham and then everyone else. He’s the winner here, and he’s the only choice. I prefer Hulce second, but one could easily put Finney there. The other two feel like afterthoughts to me. This one’s all about Amadeus and Abraham is completely undeniable in this one.
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- F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus
- Tom Hulce, Amadeus
- Albert Finney, Under the Volcano
- Sam Waterston, The Killing Fields
- Jeff Bridges, Starman
- The Killing Fields
- Under the Volcano
My Vote: F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus
Amadeus is all-time essential. Must see for all film fans and even those not really into film that deeply should see it too. It’s fucking wonderful. Everyone pretty much knows this, it’s referenced rampantly because it’s so iconic, and it won Best Picture and swept the Oscars this year. No reason for anyone not to see this.
The Killing Fields is a big film for the 80s, very well made, very political, even though I’m sure millennials have no idea what the historical basis for it is. But as a film it’s very solid, high recommend, and worth seeing for film buffs, essential for Oscar buffs, but it’s not something that you need to rush out and see. You could be okay without it if you’re just a casual film buff.
Starman is a solid film. John Carptenter. Cult favorite. Good film. Really entertaining. Worth seeing. Not overly great, let’s not overrate it, but it’s definitely a good film that film buffs should see.
Under the Volcano is not a great film, but Albert Finney’s performance is great. So solid recommend for his performance and because John Huston directed it, but the film is just okay. It’s all about the performance here.
The Last Word: This is one of the better winners of all time and was the best choice in the category. Finney had more of a career, but his film is much weaker and the performance would not have held up nearly as well as Abraham’s has. No contest. Abraham was the only right choice here.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)