The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1997-1998)
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.
Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
Robert Duvall, The Apostle
Peter Fonda, Ulee’s Gold
Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
SAG matched 5/5.
The Globes matched 4/5 across both categories. No Duvall.
BAFTA went off the board.
Nicholson won SAG, the Globe for Comedy and BFCA. He was an easy winner in this one.
Good Will Hunting is a film that everyone’s seen. Because that’s just how it is when you like movies.
Please. Like there isn’t that one asshole in college who only owns this DVD and has a movie night where people watch it and you stumble in on it during the “Gordon Wood” scene and end up watching the rest.
Matt Damon plays a janitor who is secretly a genius. He’s wasting his life by getting into trouble and not fulfilling his potential. One day, after getting arrested, a teacher at MIT, where he works, bails him out on the condition he study math with him and see a psychiatrist. And in doing so, they get to the root of his issues. It’s a pretty great movie, as we all should know.
Damon as Will is really good. It’s a very assured performance and shows the kind of range that Damon would later give us. It’s not a fully mature performance, so in a way the nomination is overreaching. But he is very solid and I would consider him at worst a fourth choice in the category, is not third straight up. I wouldn’t take him, but he’s definitely better than your standard “starter” nomination.
The Apostle is Robert Duvall hitting his veteran peak after a decent absence at the Oscars.
Duvall plays a preacher whose wife leaves him and forces him out of his church. He later attacks her new husband and accidentally kills him. He then runs away and rechristens himself “(insert title here).” He travels to another state and starts a new church, using his immense skills to get a new congregation.
Duvall is really charismatic here, and does a terrific job. I can see why some people think he should have won. I don’t know if there’s more than one speed he’s playing here. It just feels like a “loud’ performance, without the quiet moments to balance it out. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t say for sure, but I do know that I’ve never liked this performance more than Nicholson, so at the very best, he’s a second choice for me. Definitely don’t like it enough to take it.
Ulee’s Gold is one of those movies that I’d always read about as being one of the big snubs in Oscar history. My gut told me “this is probably just a standard indie with a good, but not great performance.” And this is how I learned to trust my gut when it came to the Oscars.
Peter Fonda plays a beekeeper whose daughter has run away because she’s a drug addict. And then his son asks him to find her, so he goes out and looks for her, then when he finds her he helps her detox, and then his son’s criminal associates come looking for some money his son has hidden. It’s a quiet indie about a man trying to keep shit together even though everything around him is a disaster.
It’s a standard indie with a good, but not great performance. That’s what it is. I think Fonda is good here, but I don’t think he’s good enough to warrant an automatic win. I think maybe he’s in contention, but I certainly don’t love the performance enough to vote for it. It’s fine. That’s what it is. It’s fine. Maybe in five years I’ll think more of it, but now — wouldn’t vote for it.
Wag the Dog is one of the great political satires in recent memory and even all time.
The president ends up in a scandal shortly before the election (one eerily similar to the Clinton scandal at that). So they bring in Robert De Niro, a fixer, who helps spin the situation and take attention away from the scandal until the president can secure reelection. In this case, the way he’s gonna do that is to create a phony war with Albania. Because why not Albania? And he enlists Dustin Hoffman, a film producer, to help create all this fake war footage and make everything seem legit.
Hoffman is a narcissistic producer who thinks he can change the world with this, and the whole time you see him full of himself and wanting to take credit even though he knows he can’t. It’s definitely an amusing performance. Can’t say I think it’s something that should have won, but sure. Nominate him. That’s fine. He’s fifth in the category, though, by far.
As Good As It Gets is just a fucking brilliant movie. It’s so entertaining. I don’t care what people think about this movie at the Oscars, but you can’t deny that this movie is so much goddamn fun to watch. I must have seen this a hundred times growing up on TBS or TNT.
Jack Nicholson plays a neurotic author who is incredibly OCD and is so misantrhopic he causes hell on just about anyone he meets. And the film is about him slowly learning to come out of his bubble and actually think about other people for a change.
Nicholson is awesome here. Is this the best acting of his career? No. But is he fantastic in the part? You bet your ass he is.
And honestly, this is the only performance in the category I love. And the category feels really mediocre to me. So he becomes my automatic choice. I think of it, as I’m sure the Academy did, as an easy way to get the man another Oscar for a career well-deserving of two (well, I guess three. But I’m thinking purely on lead here).
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The Reconsideration: It’s Nicholson for me. Like Duvall, don’t love it. Like Damon but wouldn’t take him. Fonda is just fine. And Hoffman is never gonna happen. Nicholson is my favorite performance in the category and I don’t see a clear #1, so he’s the choice.
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- Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
- Robert Duvall, The Apostle
- Peter Fonda, Ulee’s Gold
- Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
- Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
- As Good As It Gets
- Wag the Dog
- Good Will Hunting
- The Apostle
- Ulee’s Gold
My Vote: Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
Good Will Hunting is one of the most essential American films ever made, because every film buff has seen it, and if you haven’t, you will be ridiculed. That’s just how it is.
As Good As It Gets is essential. James L. Brooks, Oscar winner, Nicholson — and it’s great. Must see.
Wag the Dog is an essential comedy. It just is. Maybe not completely objectively essential, but it’s so fucking awesome that I’m calling it essential. Which should be enough.
Ulee’s Gold is okay. Only essential for those who want to talk about this category. Otherwise just a decent indie that’s all about the lead performance. Moderate recommend.
The Apostle is only essential, again, for those talking about this category. Otherwise same as Ulee’s Gold. Decent indie, moderate recommend, and the main reason to see it is the lead actor’s performance.
The Last Word: I think Nicholson holds up great. You may disagree, that’s fine. But logistically — Hoffman had two, Duvall had one and didn’t necessarily need two (a Supporting Oscar would fit for his second). Damon shouldn’t have won for this. Screenplay was his reward, much like it was Billy Bob’s award. And Fonda — no. Wouldn’t have held up at all as a winner. So to me, Nicholson is the choice that is the best and holds up the best. I can see differing opinions, but I think they made the right choice.
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Robert Benigni, Life Is Beautiful
Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan
Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
Nick Nolte, Affliction
Edward Norton, American History X
SAG matched 4/5. The had Joseph Fiennes for Shakespeare in Love instead of Norton.
The Globes matched 3/5. No Benigni, no Norton. (And Jim Carrey won for Drama for The Truman Show, interestingly enough.)
BAFTA only had Benigni and Hanks. (Benigni won, too.)
Ian McKellen won BFCA.
Benigni had BAFTA and SAG, which was more than enough to propel him to a win.
Life Is Beautiful is one of the more contentious Best Actor winners of all time. It’s not that it’s that egregious a choice (though it kind of is), it’s looking at who he beat that makes it look so bad.
The film is quite wonderful, and I think we can all agree on that. Roberto Benigni is… basically himself. I mean, he plays the same kind of character he plays in all these movies. The first half of the movie is him wooing a woman and all that, and the oncoming of the Nazis and all that stuff. The second half is him, his wife and his son ending up in a concentration camp, and him trying to shield his son from the horrors by pretending it’s all a game.
Benigni is utterly charming in the role, but there’s no real substance here.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the most famous war films ever made, and a film that everyone sees before getting into the Oscars. So you’ve already seen this.
What’s so great about this film and about Tom Hanks is, no matter how many times I go back and watch it, I catch more things each and every time that I never paid attention to before. Hanks specifically is one of those actors — I don’t realize how good he is until the second or third watch. He’s really fucking good here. I never thought of him as a legitimate lead or someone who really factored into this category. But there was one time I went back and watch this movie and it just clicked for me. Hanks is really fucking good here and, had he not already had two within the previous five years, he might have won this straight up. He’s that good. He’s so good I might still take him. And this is just one of the reasons why Benigni is looked at historically as such a terrible choice.
Gods and Monsters is a biopic of James Whale’s later years.
James Whale was the guy who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. He was secretly/openly gay and suffered real horrors in World War I and led a very tragic life.
Ian McKellen plays Whale and he’s absolutely wonderful in this film. Absolutely astounding. And you ask most people who saw all five of these nominees, and he’d probably be the majority choice. He’s really fucking good here, and it’s both his performance and the other two around him that make Roberto Benigni such a bad winner. It doesn’t matter if you take him or not, but you need to realize just how fucking good most of this category is, McKellen included.
Affliction is one of the more forgettable Best Actor nominations and another unfortunate Nick Nolte nomination where he stood no chance at winning.
He plays a small town police detective trying to solve a case and dealing with a lot of fucked up shit that happened to him in his past, mainly due to his father’s abuse and alcoholism.
Nolte’s fine here, but the film’s not particularly good and the performance isn’t as interesting or as memorable as the other four in the category. He’s an easy fifth and there’s no way he should be considered as the choice in this category. It’s too strong.
American History X is the intro to film person’s choice in this category. I can typically tell which person is just getting into movies and hasn’t really seen the other nominees by how they vote in this category and how enthusiastically they take Edward Norton without a moment’s hesitation.
Norton plays a Neo-Nazi, who I guess is a former Neo-Nazi when the film starts. But we get a lot of flashbacks. Everybody remembers the curb stomp. And the… prison stuff.
It’s a great performance out of Norton. There’s no denying that. This is something I could see someone taking and I’m not saying people shouldn’t take him. I’m just saying there’s a certain type of person that takes him without considering reasonably the others in the category. That’s what annoys me. This is a three-way category, and you can legitimately go any one of those ways.
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The Reconsideration: This is one of those categories — we can all agree that Benigni is a terrible winner. But when you get down to it, you can kind of see why they went for him in the moment. Though that said, he’s no more than a fourth choice in this category. How do you truly take him over at least two of the other people?
Nolte is an easy fifth, and with Benigni off, the real decision is between Ian McKellen, Edward Norton and Tom Hanks. It used to just be those first two, but going back, I see how great Hanks is and legitimately would put him among those other two. This, to me, is one of Hanks’ best nominated performances.
A lot of people would take Norton here, but I always thought that was a good performance in a pretty good movie, whereas Hanks was a great performance in an excellent movie and McKellen was a really good performance in a good movie.
Ultimately, my vote would be between McKellen and Hanks, not McKellen and Norton, and I would take Ian McKellen. He’s just that good, and I think really was as robbed as a lot of people say.
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- Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
- Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan
- Edward Norton, American History X
- Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful
- Nick Nolte, Affliction
- Saving Private Ryan
- Life Is Beautiful
- Gods and Monsters
- American History X
My Vote: Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
Saving Private Ryan is one of the 100 most essential American movies ever made.
American History X is a high recommend. Not really essential. But I guess it should be considered as such because everyone sees this movie. If it’s on the IMDB Top 250, you might as well consider it essential just because that means most film buffs have seen it. So yes. Essential
Life Is Beautiful is an essential film. For Oscar buffs and all film buffs. Just, you gotta see it. Trust me on this. You gotta see it.
Gods and Monsters is a high recommend. GREAT Ian McKellen performance and just a very solid film at that. Should be seen, but only essential for those dealing with this category.
Affliction is not a great film. Essential for Oscar buffs (and even then, a lesser one)
The Last Word: This is one of the worst decisions they ever made. It’s weak on performance, looks awful historically, and the main reason it’s bad is because he beat Hanks, Norton and McKellen, who were all better than him. That’s the only reason it’s awful. Take who you want among the other three, that’s fine. Just justify it in a reasonable way. I think, no matter who we take, we can agree that this was a pretty egregious decision historically.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)