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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 2005-2006)

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.

2005

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

Terrence Howard, Hustle and Flow

Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line

David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

Analysis:

SAG matched 4/5. No Terrence Howard. They had Russell Crowe for Cinderella Man instead.

BAFTA matched 4/5. They had Ralph Fiennes for The Constant Gardener instead of Terrence Howard.

BFCA matched 5/5 out of six nominees. (Crowe was the sixth.)

The Globes matched 5/5 across both categories.

4/5 of this category was locked all throughout and the only question was Howard or Crowe, with Crowe looking to win on points and Howard sneaking through in the end due to, what I’m assuming is the natural fading of the Ron Howard Oscar contender that happens. Remember Rush? People thought early on that was good for five nominations, then come Oscar morning, people figured two, and then it got shut out completely. Cinderella Man had a similar trajectory.

Hoffman swept everything here, and this one was never in doubt from a competition standpoint.

Capote is a biopic of Truman Capote, specifically during the period where he was inspired to write In Cold Blood.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Capote, and I don’t think anyone would truly argue with this result. He’s really fucking good, and this was a perfect example of a great, underrecognized actor finally getting his due for the right performance. As good as some of the alternatives are, I don’t think anyone is as good as he is in this movie.

Hustle & Flow is a pretty awesome movie, and a somewhat surprising Best Actor nominee. But the energy and drive in Terrence Howard’s performance is pretty winning, so I get it.

Terrence Howard plays a pimp who wants to be a rapper, and he uses those around him to make his music, culminating in the iconic, Oscar winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”

Howard is really charming here, and does some fantastic work. But he’s no more than fifth in the category. Maybe you make the case for fourth, but the nomination is clearly the reward with this one. This isn’t the best performance in the category.

Brokeback Mountain is a gay cowboy movie that also stars Randy Quaid. Not that many people remember that.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are two guys who sign on to herd sheep. And during their time on the ranch, they end up having an affair together. And they continue to see each other after this in secret for many years, unbeknownst to their wives and families. It’s a quiet, beautiful film.

Heath Ledger is really great in this performance, and it’s an actors’ performance. Actors love the work he did here. He doesn’t have very many words, but conveys everything with looks and gestures. And it works perfectly. In another year, he would contend really strongly for me. But I don’t think this is a better performance than Hoffman’s and there’s another performance on this list that I personally like better than this. So he ends up a solid third for me and a very worthy nominee who unfortunately went up against a can’t-miss performance.

Walk the Line is a biopic of Johnny Cash.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash.

I remember at the time some site described this performance as “sweaty, method-y.” And that about sums up my feelings of it. He certainly sounds the part and does a great job, but this isn’t a performance that feels particularly outstanding. In the context of the movie, he’s very good, but it just doesn’t feel Oscar-worthy. You know? Even in 2005, when I was in love with this movie, I still wouldn’t have taken him. He feels like a fourth choice here. Solid and worth the nomination, but a bit of an obvious nomination that doesn’t make much headway for a vote once the category is locked.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a great film about Edward R. Murrow’s fight against Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. One of the only prominent individuals to take a stand when everyone else was afraid to do so.

David Strathairn plays Murrow, and he is fucking wonderful in this movie. This is a sure-handed performance that absolutely soars. It’s hard to watch this movie and not go, “Holy shit, he is great here.” He has always been my favorite performance in the category ever since the film came out. And I still want to take him, but I’m not sure if I will. It’ll be interesting.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: To start — no to Terrence Howard. Like him, like the performance, but he’s fifth for me. I love Walk the Line but wouldn’t put Phoenix higher than fourth. He’s not better than the other three. Love the Ledger performance, but I’d take the other two over him.

It’s really between Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Strathairn. I love both performances very much and my heart really wants me to take Strathairn, and I probably would have in the moment, knowing how much of a lock that Hoffman was. But honestly, I truly believe that Hoffman gives the best performance in the category, and since that’s my aim this time through the Quest, that’s what I’m taking. Hoffman gave the best performance, so Hoffman is the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
  2. David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck
  3. Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
  4. Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
  5. Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow

Rankings (films):

  1. Good Night, and Good Luck
  2. Walk the Line
  3. Brokeback Mountain
  4. Capote
  5. Hustle & Flow

My Vote: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

Recommendations:

Good Night, and Good Luck is an essential film. It just is. This will make you a better person and a better film buff. Must see for all. And it’s amazing.

Brokeback Mountain is essential viewing, as the title will suggest. There’s no self-respecting film buff who hasn’t seen this movie.

Walk the Line is probably essential, right? Because it’s great, because Johnny Cash is awesome, and because it’s just a great musical biopic that apparently means something because it was immediately parodied by Walk Hard, meaning they felt like it had some sort of timelessness to it.

Capote is a high recommend and probably essential. All the Bennett Miller movies are essential. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is so fucking good. Must see.

Hustle & Flow is an awesome movie that’s also a high recommend. Most people only hear the song, but the movie’s real good too. Definitely see this. It’s great.

The Last Word: One of the better decisions of all time. You may have an alternate preference, but there’s no denying how good Philip Seymour Hoffman is in this movie and how well deserved this award was.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2006

Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

Peter O’Toole, Venus

Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness

Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Analysis:

SAG matched 5/5.

BAFTA matched 4/5. They had Richard Griffiths for The History Boys and Daniel Craig for Casino Royale instead of Smith and Gosling.

BFCA matched 5/5. DiCaprio was on twice for The Departed as the sixth.

The Globes matched 4/5. No Gosling, DiCaprio twice.

The interest was which film DiCaprio would be nominated for, and since Gosling made SAG, that became the likely category. Little suspense here.

Forest Whitaker swept everything too, so even less suspense.

Blood Diamond is a really average film. I go back and watch this every time I go over this Quest, and I’m struck by how not great it is every time.

It’s about the diamond trade in Africa. Djimon Hounsou is a man forced to work at a diamond mine who finds a giant (insert title here) and hides it from the guards. This brings in all sorts of people trying to get their hands on it.

DiCaprio plays a gun runner who wants the diamond so he can finally retire. And he helps Hounsou along the way as well.

It’s — not a great performance. There’s not much of a character there, and he basically plays the role of a lead American actor in an action-thriller. Not really a whole lot of acting required there.

The reason he’s here for this performance is because he refused to campaign opposite the other actors of The Departed, which he for sure would have been nominated for, so they put him Supporting, which is what he wasn’t, and he campaigned lead for this, where he didn’t have to worry about conflict. So he got this nomination, and it looks absolutely awful. This is a complete “wrong film” situation, and he ends up fifth in the category because of it. There’s absolutely nothing here that makes me want to take him. This is a waste of a nomination, if you ask me.

Half Nelson is a standard indie movie anchored by a solid lead performance.

Ryan Gosling plays an inner school teacher who is also a crackhead. One of his students discovers his drug habit and the two form a friendship. That’s pretty much the film.

Gosling is really good here and is well worth the nomination. Most years he’d be fifth outright and be lucky to have been nominated. Here, in a weak year, he sort of contends a little bit. He may even be second for me in this category. I wouldn’t take him, but he definitely rates pretty highly on performance.

Venus is Peter O’Toole’s last nominated performance. Not quite Lawrence of Arabia, but we’re also 44 years removed from that film.

O’Toole plays an old actor who becomes fascinated by his friend’s granddaughter. It’s not quite sexual. It kind of is, but mostly it’s about friendship, as O’Toole gets to indulge in some pleasurable things before he dies.

It’s an okay movie. Not great. O’Toole is good in it. Not something I’d nominate usually, but given his stature and lack of a win, I get it. He’s probably third on performance and second for a vote. Most years he’d be fifth for a vote, but hey, you get what you get.

The Pursuit of Happyness is just such a complete emotion grab. Give me your tears, middle aged white people.

Will Smith plays a dude trying to raise his son while also being homeless. So he makes ends meet every way he can while, at night, sleeping in a train station bathroom.

Smith is good here. But it’s feel-good, wish fulfillment shit. Not a great film, even though most people watching this on cable will enjoy it. Smith is fine, but not something I’d vote for or even nominate, really. He’s a fifth choice for me all around, and fourth on performance, just because DiCaprio is never getting my vote for Blood Diamond. I’d give DiCaprio a slight nod over Smith because of the extra Departed performance, but neither one is ever getting my vote in this one.

The Last King of Scotland is about Idi Amin, who apparently declared himself king of Scotland. Because hwy not?

The film is told through the eyes of James McAvoy, a doctor who decides to work in Uganda. Because hey, we all need adventure, right? He ends up treating Amin by chance, who then decides to hire him as his personal physician. He then becomes a close friend and confidant, and all that stuff, and through that lens, we see Amin’s paranoia and genocidal tendencies and all that good stuff.

Forest Whitaker plays Amin. And he’s great in the role. He really is. He’s a supporting performance in the film, but this year was so weak they put him lead and he happened to give the best performance in the category. Hate the game. He’s an easy choice here, really, despite being a supporting performance in his own film. You can go down the list of what should have been here instead, but since he is here and he is the best performance, this is what we got.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: If you take nearly anyone from the category before this or after this, they pretty much jump to #1 or #2 in this category. This is truly one of the absolute weakest Best Actor categories of all time, and Forest Whitaker wins this without even a moment’s worth of thought.

DiCaprio is thrown out because it’s the wrong film, and I refuse to give him an Oscar for fucking Blood Diamond. Will Smith does nothing of consequence and is the result of a big star getting in on a weak year. Gosling gives a standard indie performance that’s good, but gets nowhere in the way of a vote. So that leaves only Peter O’Toole, who gives a fine performance, but the only reason I look to vote for him is because this is his eighth nomination and he’s won exactly bupkus so far.

So the best performance is Forest Whitaker by default, and that’s without even having to consider the fact that he’s kind of a supporting character in his own movie. But only a stronger category would have made that part of the discussion.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
  2. Peter O’Toole, Venus
  3. Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
  4. Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

Rankings (films):

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Blood Diamond
  3. The Last King of Scotland
  4. Half Nelson
  5. Venus

My Vote: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Recommendations:

Blood Diamond is a perfectly solid, entertaining movie. The Oscar nominations are the befuddling part. On its own, it’s perfectly fine. Recommended as a movie, but not as an Oscar contender.

The Pursuit of Happyness is one of those broadly appealing movies that will make you like it on a simple entertainment level. And isn’t that what we all want? Solid recommend, but it can be skipped.

The Last King of Scotland is only essential for Oscar buffs, and otherwise is just a solid movie. Decent recommend, but it’s nothing incredible.

Half Nelson is a solid indie worth it for Gosling and otherwise is just okay. You’re all right skipping it if it’s not for you.

Venus is really only worth it for O’Toole, and even then it’s just fair. Light recommend, but largely skippable if you’re not into it.

The Last Word: This is a good decision. Just because this is the only halfway decent performance worth taking in the category. All-time, it’s a below average decision, but that’s only when you rank him among the others. On its own, he’s the only choice this year, so he holds up fine. No one else would have been a good winner except maybe O’Toole, just on the career notion. So it’s fine. It’s a terrible, forgettable category they made the best choice with that they possibly could.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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