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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1995-1996)

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.

1995

Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas

Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland’s Opus

Anthony Hopkins, Nixon

Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking

Massimo Troisi, Il Postino

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. They missed Dreyfuss and instead had James Earl Jones for Cry, the Beloved Country. Which, I’m gonna be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve even heard of this film or knew of this nomination. I had no fucking clue.

BAFTA is irrelevant, but they did have Cage and Troisi.

BFCA had no nominees until 2001, and for what it’s worth, Kevin Bacon won this year for Murder in the First, a movie that I love that nobody’s ever heard of.

The Globes matched 4/5. They missed Troisi in favor of Ian McKellen in Richard III. Also all nominees were in Drama and not comedy.

Cage won both major ones, so he was a pretty solid winner here.

Leaving Las Vegas is, quite possibly, Nicolas Cage’s most restrained dramatic performance on screen, and it’s actually quite extraordinary.

Cage plays a screenwriter who can’t find work because he’s an alcoholic. So he decides to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death, because there’s nothing left for him. So he goes there and starts doing just that. And along the way, he meets a hooker, and they start up a relationship. He agrees not to try to stop her from doing what she does, and she agrees not to try to stop him from drinking himself to death. It’s a quiet, beautiful film.

I love this performance. I truly do. And I think that — well, we’ll get to what else I think when we get to another performance. But in this year, in this category, this is always gonna be my vote. I think this performance is so good that even people who don’t respect Cage for the kinds of performances he’s turned in during the years since this one can’t deny how good he is here.

Mr. Holland’s Opus is one of those movies I always watched growing up and loved, and never really associated it with the Oscars until I saw it was nominated. It’s weird to see something like that. Like, “Oh, you mean people actually respected this too? It’s not just something I love?”

It’s about an aspiring musician who takes a job as a music teacher at a high school in order to supplement his lack of income composing. And we watch as this job, which was meant to pay the bills, becomes his life’s work.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Mr. Holland, and it’s a really nice performance, albeit a sentimental one and most assuredly a veteran nomination. This movie is apt to be dismissed by people as saccharine nonsense, which is why I almost wish it weren’t nominated. Because people are vicious to stuff like this when it comes to Oscar nominations. I love the movie, and I love Richard Dreyfuss, but this isn’t much more than fifth in the category.

Nixon is Oliver Stone’s biopic of Richard Nixon.

Anthony Hopkins plays Nixon.

And you get it. You get why he was nominated.

Hopkins doesn’t particularly look like Nixon, nor does he particularly sound like Nixon, but the performance captures the general feeling of the man, which is what ultimately matters. Hopkins is terrific here. He really is. I think the film somewhat lets him down and I think that this is a performance that, were I not so in love with the Cage performance, I’d strongly consider voting for. He’s really great here, but I just don’t love it enough to take it over Nicolas Cage in this one.

Dead Man Walking is the film that launched Sean Penn’s dramatic career. No one particularly took him seriously before this.

The film is about a nun who gets a letter from a death row inmate who says he didn’t commit the crimes he was convicted of and wants her to come see him and take on his case to overturn the conviction. Thus begins many visit and many long conversations between the two of them as she tries to mount an appeal for him.

Penn plays the inmate, and he’s good here. I’ve always felt this performance was overrated by people. Three times, looking at it closely for the purposes of this category, and I still don’t see what everyone else sees. Maybe next time. For me, it’s just a solid performance that ends up third. I don’t take him over Cage and I don’t like it better than Hopkins. So he’s fine, but I still don’t see what’s so great about this performance that people say is one of the great snubs of all time.

Il Postino is a movie I like to call a “Harvey Weinstein special.” Because it’s a perfectly fine movie that he marketed and got nominated for a shit ton of Oscars.

Massimo Troisi plays an illiterate Italian mailman who befriends an exiled Pablo Neruda. Neruda helps him learn to read so he can write poems for a woman he has a crush on and woo her. And the film is about that relationship as well as the friendship between Troisi and Neruda.

The film is okay. Troisi is fine in it. Not something I love. He died shortly after filming finished and held off having heart surgery so he could finish the film, which also helped exacerbate his death. I’m sure that, along with a sweetly delicate performance, gave Weinstein all the ammunition he needed to push him through to a nomination. For me, I don’t love the film and think the performance is just okay. He ends up a fourth choice for me, just because Dreyfuss doesn’t really give a performance I can say is any better than fifth. Most years, Troisi would be fifth for me. But here, he’s fourth. Would not take him at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Nothing to reconsider for me. It’s the same as I felt five years ago. I think Cage gives the best performance, and I love the Anthony Hopkins performance but not enough to vote for it. And Penn, I just don’t get it. I don’t think it’s bad, I just don’t see what’s so great about it and don’t love it enough to take it over the other two. Just not for me, as it stands. So I vote Cage, and I think that performance of his is wonderful.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
  2. Anthony Hopkins, Nixon
  3. Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking
  4. Massimo Troisi, Il Postino
  5. Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland’s Opus

Rankings (films):

  1. Mr. Holland’s Opus
  2. Leaving Las Vegas
  3. Nixon
  4. Dead Man Walking
  5. Il Postino

My Vote: Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas

Recommendations:

Leaving Las Vegas is essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise it’s just a very high recommend, because both Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue are incredible in it. Great film. Dated, but still great.

Nixon is highly recommended. Oliver Stone is nearly essential on his own. Oliver Stone doing a movie about Nixon with Anthony Hopkins — politics aside (for everyone), why would you not want to see that movie?

Dead Man Walking is a high recommend. Essential for Oscar buffs. Not sure it’s full essential for everyone, but film buffs should probably consider it closer to essential than not. So you might as well just see it.

Mr. Holland’s Opus was, at least for my era, a film we all saw growing up. So it wasn’t a matter of being essential, it was just something we saw. I never thought of it as essential or not, because you just saw it, and if you didn’t, how did you manage not to? Now — I just love it. It’s not a film that’s particularly essential, but I’d tell everyone to see it.

Il Postino is fine. Moderate recommend. It’s okay. I don’t love it. See it, don’t see it, you decide.

The Last Word: I think this is a great decision. All-time, I’m guessing people might look to Penn as the best choice, but I think Cage fits just fine. Penn got his awards later — one for a great performance, one for a not so great performance. No one else would have been a good winner here. So I think they made a great choice. Above average, historically.

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1996

Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire

Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient

Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flynt

Geoffrey Rush, Shine

Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade

Analysis:

SAG matched 5/5.

The Globes matched 4/5 across both categories.

BAFTA had Rush and Fiennes.

Rush won BFCA, the Globes and SAG. He was a runaway winner here.

Jerry Maguire.

Everyone knows this movie. We all love this movie. Tom Cruise is awesome in it.

But do we really vote for him? I love both the film and the star, but there’s no real performance here worth taking. He’s awesome, but no. This is fifth in the category. I think we all know this.

The English Patient is one of those films that I always say — if they made it in 1953 instead of 1996, it would have been a masterpiece. Because it wouldn’t be two and a half hours long and contain the unnecessary subplots that it does. Or if it did, it would truncate them into a workable amount of screen time.

The film is about Ralph Fiennes, a cartographer, who is first seen deliberately crashing his own plane into the desert, trying to kill himself. It doesn’t work, and he’s left horribly burned over like 95% of his body. So he’s taken to some villa and cared for by Juliette Binoche, a nurse. And while she cares for him, he tells her his story, which involves a doomed love affair with a married woman.

What’s impressive about this performance is how Fiennes gets to play romantic lead, do both the leading man and romance angles, not to mention play half the movie laying in a bed covered in burn makeup. Which he pulls off quite beautifully. I’m much more impressed with the work now than I was five years ago. I daresay I might even consider him a second choice for me in this one this time. It’s really solid work that feels like it never could have won.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a biopic of Larry Flynt. And those people he was opposing.

It’s about him, the man, and his constant battles against censorship, even as he starts Hustler magazine. Most of the film is about him fighting various court cases, and then at one point he gets shot and paralyzed. And then the second half is about his descent into despair and addiction, which is quite good stuff.

Woody Harrelson plays Flynt, and he’s great here. He really is great in this one. I love this performance. I’m not sure how much he captures the man, but he sure as shit is entertaining. It’s a nicely complex role too. I’d never take him, but I really enjoy the performance. This is a solid third if I’ve ever seen one. Love it.

Shine is a biopic of David Helfgott, a brilliant piano prodigy who suffered mental breakdowns and years in institutions.

Helfgott is portrayed by three actors over the course of the film, the main two being Noah Taylor in his teenage and young adult years and Geoffrey Rush as an adult. My big problem with this performance used to be that Geoffrey Rush wasn’t the lead of the film. But after rewatching it again, I found that I’d just been blinding myself five years ago because I really hated the fact that he won this. He does get the entire last forty minutes to himself and gets small moments at the beginning. It’s tough to say he’s truly the lead, but I get why he can be considered as such.

Rush is the kind of actor who — a lot of people don’t like him because they think he overacts. Which I totally understand. So much of this performance might seem like a gimmick. He mostly talks fast and gets to play mentally unwell. I get it. I think he’s very good here, but this is definitely not the performance I’d want to take in this category. The performance feels more of a shared one between him and Taylor, and between the two mentally unwell characters in this category, I’d for sure go with this next one over Rush.

Though I will also say — the shots of him actually playing piano, especially to things like “Flight of the Bumblebee,” are quite impressive work that must also be factored into the performance.

Sling Blade is a movie about them french fried potaters. Mmhmm.

Billy Bob Thornton plays a disabled man who killed his mother as a child and has been institutionalized since. They release him now, as an adult, and he gets a job and befriends a small boy. It’s — fascinating.

Thornton is absolutely incredible here. One of the iconic performances in recent history. He’s so fucking good here. Some people might not care for it, but I can’t watch this movie without being riveted by everything he does. He’s my choice here. I go through and try real hard to find an alternative choice, but there just isn’t one. This is the only performance that actually makes me feel legit excitement every time I watch it.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Thornton for me. Still Thornton for me. Might always be Thronton for me. Cruise is awesome, but I can’t take that seriously. Wouldn’t take Rush. Love Harrelson, but no. Fiennes is good, but I don’t like the performance nearly as much as Thornton. He’s the choice. That’s the only performance here that’s legitimately iconic. You might say Cruise, but his performance isn’t iconic. The movie and other elements are iconic. Not his performance. It’s Thornton.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade
  2. Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient
  3. Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flynt
  4. Geoffrey Rush, Shine
  5. Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire

Rankings (films):

  1. Jerry Maguire
  2. The People vs. Larry Flynt
  3. The English Patient
  4. Sling Blade
  5. Shine

My Vote: Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade

Recommendations:

Jerry Maguire is essential. Don’t make me say why. You should know why.

The English Patient is essential because it’s a Best Picture winner, is a divisive Best Picture winner, is a really good film and because it just is.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is not essential, but it’s a very high recommend. It’s really good. Great performances (specifically Edward Norton. He’s the one everyone is shocked by in this movie. Courtney Love too), great film, really, really worth seeing by all.

Sling Blade is iconic. Not essential. But really worth seeing. High recommend. GREAT performance out of Billy Bob. Film buffs should see this. I think you know by title that you should see this.

Shine is only essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise solid film, solid recommend, just pretty good but not overly great.

The Last Word: Rush as a winner is decent, but not great. For this performance, it’s below average. It’s nothing particularly memorable. Thornton didn’t necessarily need to win, and would have looked better as a Supporting Actor winner (say… two years after this). Cruise shouldn’t have won for this and wouldn’t have looked great. Fiennes might have been okay, maybe. Harrelson shouldn’t really have won for this. So I can be okay with the result, but it’s not a particularly great choice, or at least doesn’t feel like one.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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