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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1989-1990)

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.

1989

Kenneth Branagh, Henry V

Tom Cruise, Born on the Fourth of July

Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot

Morgan Freeman, Driving Miss Daisy

Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

Analysis:

Henry V is Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare.

This was Laurence Olivier’s first Shakespeare adaptation and first Best Director nomination, so it’s fitting that this is also Branagh’s.

Branagh plays Henry and directs the film, and it’s really good. He’s great here and completely earned this nomination. He actually impressed me way more than I thought I could be by a Shakespeare performance this late in the game.

But, as I always say — I cannot vote for a Shakespeare performance. I just can’t. But I will say, while he is fifth for the vote for me, he’s third on performance. He’s really good here. He’s legitimately strong enough to make me almost consider putting him in contention for the vote.

Born on the Fourth of July is the second in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy. The first being Platoon and the third being Heaven & Earth.

Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic, who was (insert title here). He enlists to fight in Vietnam just out of high school and ends up getting his legs blown off. And part of the film is him dealing with his newfoudn disability, trying hard to rehabilitate himself and keep his legs. But then he ends up losing them and coming home a very different person, eventually becoming an anti-war activist fighting for veterans rights.

Cruise is really good here. It’s not quite a starmaking performance, since he was a star already. But this was him giving a real performance, if that makes sense. You know, the “oh wow, he can act” moment where the Academy takes notice. It’s a really great performance out of him, and he’s really good in the film. Not sure I take him over the eventual winner in this category, but I’ve always thought this was a good enough performance to contend for a vote in a legitimate way.

My Left Foot is a biopic of Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy left him with only the control of one body part. (Insert title here.)

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy as a teenager and adult, and he is great here. This is one of those roles where, like Geoffrey Rush in Shine, a lot of the performance is owed to the child who played the character in the early scenes. Since he does share screen time with the child and does transition seamlessly. But either way, this is one of the most gripping performances you’ll ever see, because you can see the disability and you never once question it. And while you can see him working (something he slowly peeled away over his later nominations. Just wait til we get to Lincoln), it’s still phenomenal what he accomplishes. It’s hard not to see him as an easy winner in this category. This isn’t the kind of “stunt” performance you’d think something like this would be. It’s really impressive.

Driving Miss Daisy is one of the most divisive Best Picture winners of all time. But you take that away — it’s still a film people like a lot. It’s reall entertaining.

Jessica Tandy is a retired schoolteacher who loses her license. So her son hires a chauffeur to drive her around. That’s Morgan Freeman. And Tandy doesn’t want him at first and is stubborn, but eventually she relents and they become best friends. It’s a really good film, no matter how people feel about it winning Best Picture.

Freeman is really strong here. One could argue he’s playing part magical negro in the role. The way he appears to fix the elevator in the beginning doesn’t look great. And then part of his storyline is that she teaches him to read. Which isn’t great. But in terms of his actual character and performance, there’s such wonderful subtlety there that never feels false, even if the character is written somewhat stereotypically. I’m very impressed by this performance and think he’s actually a solid fourth choice in the category who might be third in another year. He fares well in a role not everyone would fare well in.

Dead Poets Society is a pretty iconic film. Carpe diem, kids.

Robin Williams plays a new English teacher at an elite New England prep school. His methods, of course, are unorthodox, and the principal of course doesn’t like them, but the students find their lives changed by what he teaches.

The film is told through the lens of Ethan Hawke, and Williams is more of a strong supporting role than anything. He probably would have won had they put him in Supporting. This is a nice blend of Williams’ comic and dramatic performances, as we’d later come to know them. (You know the old rule — beard, dramatic Robin Williams. No beard, comic Robin Williams.)

He plays that teacher that everyone remembers because they helped them become the person they are. It’s an iconic performance and I wouldn’t have this any other way than nominated. That said — he doesn’t do a whole lot for me in the way of a vote. Voting is a nasty business, and you have to make the tough decisions. And for me, he’s fifth. On performance. I might take him over Morgan Freeman and probably also over Kenneth Branagh because of the Shakespeare rule, but ultimately I wouldn’t vote for him over Daniel Day-Lewis, and that’s all that matters here, no matter how awesome the performance is.

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The Reconsideration: Five years ago, this seemed like a tight, two-man race with Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Cruise. Going back, it’s not even a race. Sure, Cruise is very good, but I actually think his work in Rain Man was stronger than this performance. This performance is more high profile and noticeable, but overall, he puts in a lot of work for a character that doesn’t quite come together as much as I’d want it to. He’s not even really close to what Day-Lewis achieves with his performance, and actually, I’d argue that Branagh is even a second choice over Cruise. That said, no one can compete with the Daniel Day-Lewis performance, and he’s an easy winner here.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot
  2. Kenneth Branagh, Henry V
  3. Tom Cruise, Born on the Fourth of July
  4. Morgan Freeman, Driving Miss Daisy
  5. Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

Rankings (films):

  1. My Left Foot
  2. Driving Miss Daisy
  3. Henry V
  4. Born on the Fourth of July
  5. Dead Poets Society

My Vote: Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot

Recommendations:

My Left Foot is essential because seeing this performance is a rite of passage for all film buffs. It’s one of the most famous ever put to screen. You gotta see it and you know you do.

Dead Poets Society is essential. Because —

Don’t be the person who hasn’t seen this. This is requisite viewing for anyone who loves movies.

Driving Miss Daisy is essential. Best Picture winner, iconic film — there’s no reason to not see it. Especially if you want to complain about it having won. Plus, I guarantee you’ll probably really like it. That’s the part that drives people nuts. It’s really good, but it also doesn’t feel like it should have won. But yeah, you need to see this one.

Born on the Fourth of July is essential for Oscar buffs, and given the win, the iconic nature of the film and performance, Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone, I’m not sure why you’d want to skip it. It’s a high recommend and something every film buff will probably see, so you might as well just consider it essential and get it out of the way if you think it’s not your cup of tea.

Henry V is oddly the least essential film on this list, but it’s really good. Highly recommended, as Shakespeare films go, and I think film buffs should see it because it’ll actually keep you engaged with material some people just can’t stand. I definitely think people ought to see it, but I understand if some people just don’t want to.

The Last Word: One of the best decisions they ever made. Everyone knows how good this performance is. No one else would have held up as a winner. Cruise would have looked good on star power and not a whole lot else. Shakespeare should not win this late in the game. Freeman would have maybe maked the whole Miss Daisy thing slightly better because they went all in on it, but I doubt that would have looked great over Daniel Day-Lewis. And Williams — ehh. They made the right choice here, and it’s one of the ten or fifteen best they ever made.

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1990

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Robert De Niro, Awakenings

Gerard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac

Richard Harris, The Field

Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune

Analysis:

Dances with Wolves is a really good film that happens to be a contentious Best Picture winner because… you know, Goodfellas.

Here, we’re only talking about Kevin Costner, who is much less contentious.

The film is about Costner, a Civil War soldier who gets injured and is told he’s gonna lose his leg because they can’t properly operate during a battle behind the lines. Rather than have that happen, he rides between the lines, trying to be killed. This actually surprises the enemy and helps his side win the battle. He’s then given the proper care and his leg is healed. But since he basically tried to commit suicide, they have to get him out of there. So they dump him in a remote outpost out west, the furthest outpost that existed at that point in the then United States. So he’s sitting out there, and it’s basically him, the buffalo, the wolves and the Native Americans. And he befriends the Native Americans, and that’s pretty much the bulk of the film. Then the whites come and are like, “Yeah man, you need to leave.” So he leaves.

Costner is not an actor with the biggest range in the world. No one will confuse him with Daniel Day-Lewis. But, as we all know, loving so many of his films, he’s a great leading man and can hold a film together really well. And that’s what he does here. He holds this film together with his performance. It’s not sexy, but it’s sturdy. And that’s why he got nominated and that’s why I won’t begrudge the nomination even if some people would laugh at the prospect of this performance being nominated for an Oscar. So I appreciate what he did, but I also am not gonna pretend like this is anything other than fifth in the category. Sure, I’d vote for him over at least one of the other actors, but the performance is a straight fifth in the category. He got his reward elsewhere for this film.

Awakenings is an awesome film. And I’ll get it out of the way now by saying — Robin Williams is better than De Niro in this movie. But De Niro is nominated, so we won’t discuss it any further.

The film is about Dr. Oliver Sacks. He works in a hospital where there are a lot of patients who were victims of an encephalitis outbreak in the 30s and all became catatonic. He realizes they’re all still in there, as they can respond to things like baseballs being thrown at them, but they are otherwise unresponsive. So he develops a drug that helps them come out of their states.

De Niro plays one of those patients, who became catatonic when he was a boy and now wakes up, age 50. So it’s kind of like Big, where the last thing you know you’re 15 and now you wake up and suddenly you’re 50 with the mind of a 15 year old. And Sacks bonds with him and everything is great, until the drug starts wearing off, and he slowly loses control of his motor functions and starts slipping back into catatonia. So the first half is really nice, you get the fun scenes of him doing things he never got to do and all that. So Big. And the second half is Charly, where he realizes it’s all going away and watches helplessly as it does. It’s a wonderful role and De Niro does a fantastic job with it. It’s one of those performances that works great in the context of the movie, but it doesn’t quite feel like something I want to vote for. I appreciate it, but I don’t love it. I was, as I said, much more impressed by Williams’ performance. So I’m left with another “ehh” kind of performance in a category full of them.

Cyrano de Bergerac is another version of that story. Guy with a big nose who is a great swordsman and poet, who longs for a beautiful woman. So he uses a nice looking guy to spout his words to woo the woman, which of course only leads to her falling in love with the other dude. It’s tragic and all that.

I thought Jose Ferrer winning for this in 1950 was a travesty. There is no fucking way I’m gonna vote for Gerard Depardieu for it in 1990. Just no way at all.

Depardieu is really energetic and lively here and I can totally see why they nominated him, but in terms of voting he is a straight fifth choice and I will never take him. This is the same as Shakespeare for me. Can’t do it. Shakespeare after 1940 and whites playing non-white characters. You have to basically force me into doing it to get me to vote for those two things. So he’s fifth for a vote even though he’s fourth, potentially third, on performance.

The Field is the weakest of the Jim Sheridan films. Well, the weakest of his early films. He had the run of My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and In America, before he started taking paycheck films and coming out with stuff like Dream House and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Of the early five, this is the weakest.

Richard Harris plays a man who has worked on a plot of land for many years. It’s the kind of thing where someone else owned it and he worked on it for her in exchange for being able to live there and all that stuff. And he always thought of the land as his own and figured it would be his when the lady died or didn’t want it anymore. But then the lady says, rather than give him the land, she’s going to auction it. So he starts intimidating all the locals to not bid on the land so he can win it. But then an American shows up and bids for the land, and it becomes a battle between the two over it.

The character is very much a Victor McLaglen special. Brutish and stern and a bully, but also with moments of likability there to not make him a complete asshole. And you know exactly how the part will play out — rather than do the noble thing, he lowers his morals to get what he wants, and eventually either he’ll get it and it won’t be what he wanted, or it’ll be his downfall. Or both. Very standard trope. But Harris does a great, great job with it. The thing that hurts him is how weak the film is around him. It’s a great performance, but this wouldn’t have held up at all as a winner, and really only would have served as a veteran win for a great actor. I love the performance and strongly consider him in this category, but I’m not sure just how much I love this as a choice in any other year but this one.

Reversal of Fortune is generally thought of as Jeremy Irons’ makeup Oscar for Dead Ringers. Which I doubt he’d ever have won for anyway even if he were nominated. But that’s beside the point.

This film is about Claus von Bulow, married to an upper class woman who has slipped into a coma from which she will never awaken. He is on trial for having put her in this coma. And because he’s not the most likable guy, comes off as really cold and seems like he probably did it, most people assume he did it. But the film is about his defense team who concoct a strategy to find him not guilty.

Irons is really good here and plays the role well. You’re constantly unsure about whether or not he did it. I always assume he did, just because I always assume rich white guys did it, but by and large it’s kept ambiguous for most of the film, and a lot of that is due to how Irons plays it. The one knock could be that he’s more of a supporting character who gets to come and go and get his moments, while Ron Silver has the unshowy role as true lead of the film. But performance is performance, and Irons is great here. It’s not like there’s a whole lot better to choose from. This is a pretty weak category, and potentially one of the ten weakest of all time. So we gotta deal with what we got. And in terms of what we got, Irons figures very strongly for a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I don’t like this category. De Niro technically also had Goodfellas here, but I don’t think I like either performance enough to take him for this one/both. And that’s before I think about the fact that he won for two of the most iconic performances in two of the best films and that this isn’t even remotely on that level (though still very good!). Meanwhile I refuse to take Depardieu and I already said Costner is fifth on performance.

So my choices here are Richard Harris and Jeremy Irons, who are good but wouldn’t be higher than third most years. I prefer the Richard Harris performance on entertainment value, but I feel like Irons gives the better performance overall. So I’m gonna take Irons this time. I don’t love it, but that’s the best in the category I was given.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune
  2. Richard Harris, The Field
  3. Robert De Niro, Awakenings
  4. Gerard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac
  5. Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Rankings (films):

  1. Dances with Wolves
  2. Awakenings
  3. Reversal of Fortune
  4. The Field
  5. Cyrano de Bergerac

My Vote: Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune

Recommendations:

Dances with Wolves is an essential film. Best Picture winner, classic of its era, and if you want to complain that Goodfellas didn’t win, you gotta see this. Which means no film buff should not see this.

Awakenings is a very high recommend. One of those movies you should see in your high school years. That’s when this is best viewed. Not wholly essential, but something film buffs ought to see. It’s just really well made and such a gripping film. It’ll tug at the heartstrings, trust me.

Reversal of Fortune is only essential for Oscar buffs, but it is a trial film that’s also really engaging, so I give it a high recommend. Not something you really need to seek out, but it’s worth throwing on a list somewhere and getting to at some point.

The Field is a solid film, but otherwise not something anyone needs to see. Even hardcore film buffs haven’t seen this movie and probably don’t even know it’s a Jim Sheridan film. I recommend it because it’s pretty good and Harris is awesome, but otherwise you’re fine without it.

I don’t really care for Cyrano de Bergerac, but Depardieu is good in it. If you care for the material or are super into these types of films, go for it. Otherwise I can’t recommend it and don’t think it’s something you need to see.

The Last Word: It’s a good choice, because that’s how the category worked out. It’s one of the weaker winners of all time, but that’s how it shakes out. This is one of the more forgettable categories of all time as well, so the result doesn’t really matter. You didn’t need De Niro here. Depardieu would have been bad. Costner would have been really bad (though he as an actor would be fine to see with an Oscar, and seeing them go super all in on the movie would at least make it seem slightly better, it having won). And Harris would have been just as forgettable, and a veteran Oscar. So sure. Irons holds up just fine. We like Jeremy Irons.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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