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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1985-1986)

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.

1985

Harrison Ford, Witness

William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

James Garner, Murphy’s Romance

Jack Nicholson, Prizzi’s Honor

Jon Voight, Runaway Train

Analysis:

Witness is such an awesome film. I had some issues with it five years ago, but I think that was just because… “all these Oscar nominations? Really?”

A young Amish boy traveling with his mother witnesseses the murder of a cop in a train station bathroom and is the only one who can identify the killer. He is introduced to Harrison Ford, another cop, who asks him what the killer looked like. The boy eventually identifies another police officer, threatening both his own life as well as Ford’s, as he uncovers a web of police corruption in his own precinct. Ford takes the boy and his mother back to Amish country, laying low there with them and staying to protect them, and must adapt to Amish life while also falling for the mother, awaiting the eventual retaliation attempt from the corrupt cops.

Ford is good here, but it’s a pretty straightforward performance. Mostly he came along with the film. This is not a particularly memorable performance in terms of acting. Ford is much better in The Mosquito Coast the year after this. I maybe put him third just because the category is so weak, but this would be a #5 most years, maybe a #4. I can’t vote for this.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a pretty good film with a really great pair of lead performances.

Raul Julia is a revolutionary thrown in prison by the military government. His cellmate is William Hurt, a window dresser who had sex with an underage boy. The two are complete opposites, but eventually they become friends. Hurt is originally there to get info on Julia and his revolutionary friends, but eventually he falls in love with Julia.

Hurt is absolutely incredible here. This might not be a #1 most years. Typically this would be a #2 and a great starter nomination, but this category is so weak around him I see no one else that even comes close to competing with him. He’s an automatic winner here. The performance would compete in a strong year. This year, he towers over the competition.

Murphy’s Romance is a completely forgettable romantic comedy that serves as an odd choice as James Garner’s only career Oscar nomination. So many actors have that one weird one. Like Doris Day, etc.

Sally Field is a divorced mother who befriends James Garner, much older than her. He’s the eccentric guy in town, and of course they’re gonna end up together. There’s not a whole lot here, plot-wise.

Garner is nice. He’s charming and gets to do all the things that make him a good actor. It’s not a particularly great performance in terms of acting, but he’s charming and I get the sentimentality of nominating him for this. But he’s a fifth choice here, and I can’t imagine anyone saying otherwise. There’s just no real substance here. To want to vote for him is to reject the other nominees.

Prizzi’s Honor is a great mob comedy and John Huston’s last big film. (Second to last in all, but The Dead isn’t particularly a well-remembered film as compared to this.)

Jack Nicholson is a mob hitman who, at a mob wedding, meets a woman and falls for her. He seeks her out and eventually finds out that she’s also a hitman (hitwoman, I guess) who stole a bunch of mob money. So now he’s torn between this woman he ends up marrying and the mob. It’s really well done.

Nicholson plays the dumbest hitman possible, and it completely works. With Nicholson and John Huston, it’s never quite comedy, but this is a very effective comic performance. Nicholson is dumb as a post and the character tracks all the way through and holds your attention and sympathy all the way through. Great performance. He’d be a #4 most years, and only ends up #3 here because the bottom two are just complete blanks as nominees. Or rather, probably even #2, now that I think about it. I’m cool with this and like the performance a lot, but this isn’t something you vote for.

Runaway Train is an awesome thriller. Can’t believe Voight and Roberts were nominated for this, but sure.

Jon Voight is a high security prisoner in a prison in Alaska. The warden hates him and wants him dead and he’s tried to escape several times. He eventually makes it out with the help of Eric Roberts, another inmate who looks up to him, and they board a train to get out of dodge. But the train’s brakes… err, break, and they are stuck on this train, trying to stop it before they get killed. It’s an awesome action movie.

Voight is really good here, but this isn’t a Best Actor type performance. I guess he “transforms” himself into a hardened criminal, but it’s a very weird performance, thirty years after the fact. This doesn’t quite hold up and might even be a fifth choice here, even though I feel he accomplishes more than Garner does. Still, not a whole lot here I like and is kind of a throwaway nomination for both Voight and the category.

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The Reconsideration: No contest. William Hurt wins this category. The end. Ford and Voight are pretty throwaway nominations. Garner is nice and all, but of zero substance, and Nicholson gets third in a good year. No one comes close. This is one of the easiest decisions in all the Oscar Quest.

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Rankings (category):

  1. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  2. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi’s Honor
  3. Harrison Ford, Witness
  4. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  5. James Garner, Murphy’s Romance

Rankings (films):

  1. Prizzi’s Honor
  2. Runaway Train
  3. Witness
  4. Kiss of the Spider Woman
  5. Murphy’s Romance

My Vote: William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Recommendations:

Witness is an awesome film that I recommend very highly. It’s just so watchable. Kinda dated, but it actually still holds up. Definitely something film buffs ought to check out. You’ll enjoy it.

Prizzi’s Honor is a great action comedy. Nicholson, John Huston, Kathleen Turner. All the performances are great, especially the supporting ones. Essential for Oscar buffs, very high recommend just for watchability and just something film buffs ought to check out and something a lot will organically and enjoy.

Runaway Train is awesome. It’s the granddaddy of the runaway train films (well… The General… but you know what I mean) and is just so well done. High recommend. Great fun and one of those movies that’s just easy to watch and really enjoyable. Definitely check it out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is essential only for Oscar buffs but recommended highly for film buffs. You could skip it, but I don’t know why you’d want to. It’s just such a great movie. I think film buffs should see it. I’d put it on a recommended watch list.

Murphy’s Romance is fine. 80s romantic comedy. Nothing more. Moderate recommend, not essential. Up to you.

The Last Word: Great decision. One of the more solid decisions of all time, which alleviates one of the weakest categories of all time. William Hurt absolutely deserved this, and this performance came at the beginning of his great run of performances in the 80s. Complete no-brainer and it holds up.

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1986

Dexter Gordon, Round Midnight

Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa

William Hurt, Children of a Lesser God

Paul Newman, The Color of Money

James Woods, Salvador

Analysis:

Round Midnight is a jazz movie. There were a few of these in the 80s.

Dexter Gordon plays a fictional jazz musician based on, I’m sure, a composite of real people. Not to mention, Gordon himself was a great musician, which I’m sure helped in terms of making it feel like it could have been a real person. He plays a sax player who is deeply addicted to booze who encounters a younger guy who makes movie posters who wants to help him overcome his addiction and get back to making great music.

This feels like Hollywood nominating someone outside their circles while they have a chance to. I can see why people would love this performance, but I feel a lot of it is them rewarding Gordon for his sax playing, much like they nominated Mikhail Baryshnikov for his dancing. Gordon is good here, but it’s not like this is some revolutionary, life-changing performance. He fits the role really well, and that’s about it. I put him straight up fifth in the category, even though I could be persuaded to rate him higher because it is such a great fit for him. But I’d vote for him fifth, so it doesn’t really matter one way or the other how I rate him.

Mona Lisa is one of those movies that I heard going into this category was the one that should have won. It was always Hoskins as the best performance and Newman as the sentimental winner. So this one had high expectations going in.

Bob Hoskins is a low leve gangster who is tasked with driving around a high priced hooker to her gigs. They don’t take to one another at first, but of course eventually they become friendly and he begins to fall in love with her.

Hoskins is great here. He gets to play a lot of different emotions and is just really great in the role. I always wished I liked this performance more than I have. Maybe in five years. But this time, he rates maybe second for the vote and third in terms of how much I liked the performance. He’s really solid, but I still don’t see enough here to actually say he was the best performance in the category. Wish that were the case, but not yet.

 

Children of a Lesser God is a movie that I just love. I don’t know why. Certain movies just hit you at the right moment. This was one of those.

William Hurt plays a new teacher at a school for the deaf, who has very unorthodox methods that the kids really respond to. He meets Marlee Matlin, a former student at the school who now works as its janitor, who is just a troubled woman, and he begins a relationship with her. And that’s pretty much the film. They have a relationship and she has this unresolved issue with her mother she needs to work out.

Hurt is really good here. I really like his work. It feels like more than just a romantic performance, and he had a couple of great scenes I really responded to. I can’t say it’s a better performance than the Spider Woman performance he won for, but I do like it better. Though I’ll admit I wouldn’t vote for him over Paul Newman. He’s good, but he had an Oscar, and all things being equal, I’d rather vote for Paul Newman.

The Color of Money is the sequel to The Hustler. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Newman reprises his Felson role, playing him 25 years later, after he was banned from playing the big time pool halls. That time has passed, and now he’s a liquor salesman who mentors young wannabe pool players. He finds Tom Cruise, a raw talent, hustling his guy, and decides to take Cruise up and show him how to hustle pool for real. It’s so great.

It’s hard not to love Newman in anything, especially what might be his signature role (it’s probably this and Cool Hand Luke with a little bit of Butch thrown in). It’s not the most amazing performance ever put to screen, but it gets the job done really well. And in a category like this, it’s hard not to automatically make him the vote, especially with him being so overdue for an Oscar. I must have voted for the man at least three times up to this point without him winning shit. So this is a nice way to give him an award in a category where there’s not that much else to love.

Salvador is Oliver Stone’s first big… oh wait, this was the same year as Platoon. So this is one of his first big political films.

James Woods plays a photojournalist down in El Salvador because he can’t get work in the US. He likes to do too many drugs and fuck too many women to get the good gigs. So he ends up covering the country’s civil war, and gets caught in some fucked up political situations.

Woods is awesome here. He’s always pretty good, and this is a role suited to him. I wouldn’t take him, but I appreciate the nomination. He feels like a fourth choice that some might bump to third because they like it. More of a solid nomination than something you vote for. But we like James Woods, so that’s good, seeing him here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m gonna take Paul Newman purely because I got nothing else I like as much. And goddamnit, guys, give the man his Oscar.

Gordon doesn’t rate anything more than a nice nomination. Woods is fine but I wouldn’t vote for him. I love Hoskins but the performance wans’t one I loved enough to take, and Hurt had an Oscar and is just good in the role. I don’t need to take him over Paul Newman. Meanwhile, Newman is really good in a role he’s played before, is in a movie I really like, and goddamnit he’s at least 25 years overdue for an Oscar, so just give the man his damn statue already. If there were a legitimate performance to take over him, I’d do it, but I don’t have one, so I’m fine with the veteran vote.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Newman, The Color of Money
  2. William Hurt, Children of a Lesser God
  3. Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa
  4. James Woods, Salvador
  5. Dexter Gordon, Round Midnight

Rankings (films):

  1. The Color of Money
  2. Children of a Lesser God
  3. Mona Lisa
  4. Salvador
  5. Round Midnight

My Vote: Paul Newman, The Color of Money

Recommendations:

The Color of Money is a sequel to The Hustler, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. You tell me.

Children of a Lesser God is a film I like quite a bit. Essential for Oscar buffs and just highly recommended for all else. It boils down to a simple romance, but I really liked it for whatever reason and was incredibly drawn to all the characters. So I really like it and recommend it to all, but unless you’re super into the Oscars, it’s not required viewing.

Mona Lisa is a solid film that really only is remembered for the Hoskins performance. I like it and definitely recommend it, but it’s not for all and it’s not essential. So I recommend looking into it and seeing if it sounds like something you’d want to watch.

Salvador is an Oliver Stone film, which gives it a degree of essentialness to it. Otherwise, I think it’s just okay. Moderate recommend from me. Not essential, so you can skip it if you feel the need to.

Round Midnight is a good film that I enjoyed. It’s not essential and can be skipped if it’s not your speed. But I give it a moderate recommend and think it’s worth checking out if it sounds up your alley.

The Last Word: The fact that Paul Newman has an Oscar makes this one of the great decisions of all time. In terms of the actual performance — ehh. He’s fine. But he’s reprising a character many thought he should have won for. This feels like a career/makeup win all around. But I also can’t really point to anyone who would have been a better choice. Hurt had one for arguably a better performance, Gordon’s nomination was the reward, Woods wouldn’t have held up any better, and Hoskins, while really great and a great actor, felt like he’d have been a better Supporting Actor winner in his career. So yeah, great decision, though that’s more about all the surrounding factors than the heart of the matter. But since the category is pretty forgettable overall, I have no issues with this whatsoever.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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