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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1999-2000)

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.

1999

Russell Crowe, The Insider

Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story

Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown

Kevin Spacey, American Beauty

Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

Analysis:

SAG matched 3/5. No Penn, no Farnsworth. They had Jim Carrey for Man on the Moon and Philip Seymour Hoffman for Flawless.

The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories.

BAFTA had Spacey and Crowe and no one else.

Crowe won BFCA.

Spacey won SAG and BAFTA and Denzel won the Globe. Seemed to be very slanted toward Spacey here all the way.

The Insider is perhaps Michael Mann’s best film. I know people love Heat and I love Collateral. But this might be his best film.

It’s about something that actually happened. Russell Crowe plays a man who worked for Big Tobacco, and was unceremoniously fired. And he ended up going to CBS and 60 Minutes and saying that Big Tobacco knows that cigarettes are harmful and are lying to the public about it. And he goes public despite many NDAs and causes a whole shitstorm, which leads to a giant trial and the whole thing. It’s really good.

Crowe is fantastic here. He plays a regular man with a family who decides to do the right thing despite it being so easy to not do that. And he gets to play an honest man in a bad situation who has to deal with so much fear and paranoia (because of course he’s ratting out Big Tobacco, with all their money and scare tactics, etc), and go through some harrowing things on the stand — it’s a great performance. It’s actually kind of surprising he lost for this. And I think they knew how good he was, because they gave him an Oscar the year after this for something not as good as this is.

I think he’s for sure top two in the category, though I’m not sure if I ultimately take him. Since, as we know, Kevin Spacey is awesome.

The Straight Story is a David Lynch movie and it’s probably the most straightforward David Lynch movie there’s ever been. Even moreso than The Elephant Man. If you didn’t know David Lynch directed this, there’s no way you’d guess him when watching it.

Richard Farnsworth plays a farmer who finds out his brother had a stroke. So he gets on his lawn mower and rides across country to see his brother. And the film is basically him on a road trip to do so. Very reminiscent of Harry and Tonto, but with a tractor instead of a cat.

Also, fun fact about Richard Farnsworth. He was a stunt man for years and only occasionally was put in movies. He got nominated for Supporting Actor in Comes a Horseman, because I’m pretty sure (though I’m probably wrong, but my version sounds better) they couldn’t find an authentic ranch hand looking character so they just put him in the role and it worked out. And then, even better, when the dude was diagnosed with cancer a year after he was nominated for this movie, he shot himself. Which is fucked up, but also kind of hardcore. Like the Italian director of Big Deal on Madonna Street, who was told he was terminally ill, so he jumped out his hospital window.

Anyway, the performance is good. Very quiet and very affecting. Can’t say I love it enough to even remotely take it over at least two of the other performances, but there’s a legitimate case for him as third choice in this category. So there’s that.

Sweet and Lowdown is Woody Allen. And one of the more bizarre Best Actor nominations. I guess it’s one of those — Woody always is hovering around contention at any moment, and Penn was pretty loved (albeit reservedly, given his off-screen behavior) as an Actor. So it feels like a perfect fit. Even though when you watch the movie, it’s a very odd choice.

Sean Penn plays a fictional, moderately successful jazz guitarist (very Llewyn Davis-esque, in a lot of ways) who disappeared and was never heard from again. It’s one of those Woody Allen type stories.

There’s not a whole lot of story here, either. It’s half him going on a date and meeting Samantha Morton and then constantly making horrible decisions that are so self-destructive and not even noticing how horrible they are.

Penn is fine here. He’s amusing. He definitely takes a forgettable movie and makes it more entertaining. So there’s that. Not sure I consider him anything other than a straight fifth and one of the weaker Best Actor nominees of the 90s. There’s just not a whole lot here. Especially given how strong the rest of the category is.

American Beauty. This is a movie everyone’s seen, right? Feels that way. Feels like I don’t need to  say anything about it at all.

Spacey plays a man going through a midlife crisis. And he’s just wonderful here. It’s weird looking back at this, now 17 years later. This is gonna feel real dated in another ten years, isn’t it? But anyway, he’s awesome here, and I think this is definitely a top two performance in the category. I’m wondering how this will look to me in five years. But now, I love it, and he’s probably gonna be my vote.

The Hurricane is a film about Ruben Carter. You know, the… oh fuck it.

That’s basically the whole film. Oh, and the film is about as unbiased as the song is.

Denzel plays Ruben Carter, and he’s pretty awesome in the movie. I remember starting this Quest and hearing that he was robbed of this Oscar. But now, five years later, I think it’s more, “Denzel got robbed for Malcolm X and The Hurricane!” And it’s more about them not giving him an Oscar than anything else.

But he is really good here, and I guess you could take him. I’m not sure I think there’s a whole lot here, performance-wise to really make him the vote for me, especially with Spacey and Crowe to deal with. But he is very solid and takes what is otherwise a very mediocre movie and makes it work pretty well. So that is something to consider.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is pretty simple, actually. I mean, sure, there’s a decision to be made, but it’s not as complicated as it was for me five years ago. Because five years ago I was paying lip service to what I thought was a better performance than it is.

First off — Sean Penn is fifth and probably shouldn’t have even been nominated. He’s here, so fine. But he’s fifth and no one takes him in this category.

Then — Richard Farnsworth. There’s definitely a coalition of people who would make him the vote. Sure. I won’t say that’s a bad choice, but it definitely wouldn’t be my choice. So I’m staying out of it. I think he gives a quiet, memorable performance, but not one I’d vote for.

So now we’re left with the three that most people figure the category is and was between. But you know what….

I think Denzel gives a spirited performance in an otherwise so-so movie, and I think the fact that he carries it all the way to third is impressive. But I don’t think this is anywhere near what he accomplished in Malcolm X and honestly don’t feel the need to truly consider him alongside the other two. I think that a lot of the talk about this performance has to do more with getting Denzel an Oscar than anything else. I really don’t think this performance is overly special to want to take it in a strong year.

So I’m left with a toss up of Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe, who are both great and worth taking. And I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who went either way here for whatever reasons you want. But for me — it’s Spacey. I love him, I love this movie, and I love that performance. He’s an easy choie for me. I get that people don’t think he has to do a real lot here, and that the script is ultimately pretty hollow, but I’m not one of those people. So he’s my vote. Love this performance.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
  2. Russell Crowe, The Insider
  3. Denzel Washington, The Hurricane
  4. Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
  5. Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown

Rankings (films):

  1. American Beauty
  2. The Insider
  3. Sweet and Lowdown
  4. The Hurricane
  5. The Straight Story

My Vote: Kevin Spacey, American Beauty

Recommendations:

American Beauty is essential. And I think you know that, because you’ve probably seen it already.

The Insider is essential. If you don’t know what it is, you’re just gonna have to trust me on that. Go get a copy of the movie and watch it. Don’t worry, you’ll understand after you see it.

The Hurricane is a solid movie that’s worth a watch because it’s really entertaining, even if it’s pretty by the numbers. Denzel takes a decent movie and makes it really worthwhile. Not essential unless you’re talking about this category, but it is definitely a recommended watch.

Sweet and Lodown is a lesser/middle of the road Woody Allen, but I enjoy it, mostly because of Penn and Samantha Morton. Moderate recommend and in terms of Woody Allen films, it’s pretty okay. You don’t need to see it, unless you get that top tier stuff out of the way, in which case, yes, this is essential over that bottom tier stuff that almost nobody watches (September, Another Woman, etc).

The Straight Story is definitely worth a watch. Very solid. Solid to high recommend. Good stuff. David Lynch, too. Though you’d almost never know it. This deserves to be seen.

The Last Word: This is interesting. Because either you think Spacey is awesome and think he was a fine winner, or you think it was an egregious decision where a pretty good performance from an overrated movie won over something much better. I’m somewhere in between, leaning toward the former. I think the movie’s great and he’s great in it. Do I think he’s markedly better than Denzel or Crowe? No. But Denzel I’ve already said I don’t think should have won for this and Crowe probably could have won and seemed okay. But I get why Spacey beat him here. The other two wouldn’t have been good winners. I think they made the right choice here, historically.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2000

Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls

Russell Crowe, Gladiator

Tom Hanks, Cast Away

Ed Harris, Pollock

Geoffrey Rush, Quills

Analysis:

SAG matched 3/5, with the big note being that Benicio del Toro won SAG Best Actor and the Oscar for Supporting Actor. No harris, no Bardem.

BAFTA had 3/5. No Harris, no Bardem.

The Globes had 4/5. No Harris.

So Pollock completely came out of nowhere.

Crowe won BFCA only.

Hanks won the Globe.

Jamie Bell won BAFTA for Billt Elliot and was nominated for SAG, which makes him a curious exclusion.

This was a wide open year that I’m assuming went the way it did because they wanted to give Crowe a makeup for The Insider and because of the strength of Gladiator as Best Picture winner.

Before Night Falls is one of Javier Bardem’s two Best Actor nominations, both of which came out of nowhere and are not in English. So really only a certain sect of film buffs and Oscar buffs even know about them.

Bardem plays a gay Cuban poet who ends up in prison a bunch of times. And the film is about his life and times, so to speak.

Bardem is good here. A lot of purists take him on performance. I don’t love the film and the performance is just okay. I respect it, but I wouldn’t vote for him. So we’re left with a good performance that just kind of hangs around the middle of the category because I don’t like it enough to take it.

Gladiator.

This movie is to history what Godzilla is to biology. But it’s awesome, isn’t it?

Russell Crowe plays Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North…

I think you get it.

Crowe is pretty awesome here and we all recognize that. But you have to take a step back and realize — there is nothing he has to do here in the way of real acting. At all, really. The two performances he gave around this one, The Insider and A Beautiful Mind, are way better work than this. But this was the better year for him to win, so here we are. But as much as I love this movie and love this performanc, I wouldn’t take it. To take this would be to lie. This isn’t the best performance in the category. This isn’t the third best performance in the category. This is probably straight up fifth on pure acting and I probably bump him up to fourth on the fact that his star power carries the movie and third just because I like him and would take him over the other two. But on straight up performance, no way do I take this. Come on.

Cast Away.

You know he jerked off in front of that volleyball, right?

Hanks is pretty awesome in this. He has to carry a lot of the movie purely on his own acting and star power, and he does a great job with it. These films, where one person is solely on screen for the majority of it, they carry the catch-22 of, “Is it a good performance or isn’t it?” Because on the one hand, a lot of people can say, “What did he really have to do here?” And on the other — he was the only person on screen for like, 80 minutes and you were fucking riveted. To me, I wouldn’t take him if I had a clear #1 to take over him. But you know what? I don’t. I don’t have that at all in this category.

Pollock is a biopic of Jackson Pollock.

Ed Harris plays Jackson Pollock.

You pretty much get why he was nominated based on that alone. But honestly, the film is just okay. Very indie. Not overly great. Or, brilliant, I guess, depending on your point of view.

Harris is good here, but there’s nothing here to make him anything more than fifth in the category. Maybe you argue for him fourth, but he’s not much more than that.

Quills is a biopic of the Marquis de Sade. Of sorts.

de Sade is locked up in a mental institution and he fights with the head of the asylum, sneaking out his works through the help staff and things of that sort.

Geoffrey Rush plays de Sade, and he’s wonderful here. It’s a role suited to his abilities. He’s awesome. That’s the thing with him — he’s a natural ham and he comes off really great in roles, even though you don’t necessarily think of the roles as being too dramatically difficult. But he is great here, and you could consider him for a vote, though I doubt most people would. He’s definitely second for me in terms of how much I like the performances, so there is that.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I wouldn’t take Bardem or Harris at all, even though they’re both solid enough to be considered the vote. Crowe I love, but I’m not gonna pretend like voting for him is not either a) a vote for his performance the year before this, or b) washing your hands of the category and taking your favorite film/the most entertaining performance. But even then, I don’t think he’s either. Rush is awesome, but his film is lacking and that hurts him. Especially since he’s more a strong supporting performance that would have likely gone Supporting in a stronger year. So really, we’re left with Tom Hanks, who does give a performance that I find most entertaining, and is in what I also consider to be the best film. Add to that him being the only person on screen for the entire film, and being good enough to make you give a shit about a fucking volleyball covered in blood, I’ll take him. I wouldn’t most other years, but to me, he’s best here. So here we are.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Tom Hanks, Cast Away
  2. Geoffrey Rush, Quills
  3. Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls
  4. Russell Crowe, Gladiator
  5. Ed Harris, Pollock

Rankings (films):

  1. Cast Away
  2. Gladiator
  3. Quills
  4. Pollock
  5. Before Night Falls

My Vote: Tom Hanks, Cast Away

Recommendations:

What kind of animal hasn’t seen Cast Away or Gladiator?

Quills is a solid movie that’s really only worth it for Rush’s performance. And, I guess, naked Kate Winslet. But we saw that a lot since then. I just remember growing up in the early 2000s and movies like this (and Swordfish…. remember Swordfish?) were all we had. But yeah, the movie’s pretty good. Worth a watch for Rush primarily.

Pollock is okay. Essential only for Oscar buffs, but otherwise just a decent movie that’s only really worthwhile if you’re interested in the subject matter or the actors. Otherwise you’re fine without it.

Before Night Falls is Julian Schnabel. Either that name means nothing to you and you probably shouldn’t see this movie (or at least feel you need to see it, because you’ll likely only be disappointed), or it does, and you definitely should see this movie. Because it’s good.

The Last Word: Russell Crowe having an Oscar for the three performances he gave between 1999 and 2001 is a good thing. Him winning for this performance of the three? Not great. On performance this is one of the weakest winners of all time. On film and performance — weaker, but not bottom ten. The film winning Best Picture bails him out. It’s like Charlton Heston. Sure it’s not the best performance, but he carries a good movie and that counts for something. I can’t really say anyone else would have been better or held up any better than him, so I’m forced to be okay with this result. And honestly, this is the one year where Russell Crowe can win and not feel contentious against his competition. So that’s good, right?

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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