Having been dragged back to thinking about “Ben Hur,” the 1959 movie directed by the generally great William Wyler that set a record for awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stimulated me to think of the mistakes Academy voters have made in awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in addition to the 1959 one to Charlton Heston as Ben Hur.
In the best actor category (more than in any of the other three acting awards), there is a lifetime achievement segment apparent in the awards, as if Academy members were saying, “We slighted him when he was great in X, and we’ll therefore give it to him for Y.” IMO, many actors who should have won in an earlier movie or movies won later, creating a domino effect of the one who should have won joining the queue. Some, most notably Richard Burton and his Becket costar “Peter O’Toole” never win. Among those who won who should have won for an earlier role or roles (or were better in earlier roles) are Paul Muni, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Alec Guiness, Gregory Peck, Rod Steiger, John Wayne, Robert De Niro, Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, Peter Finch, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Javier Bardem, Alan Arkin, and Jeff Bridges. (I’d single out Marlon Brando, Alec Guiness, Gregory Peck, and Robert De Niro as deserving – or at east credibly excelling – in the performances for which they won, too! And Stewart and Bogart for later ones, as well…)
I have boldfaced what I consider the egregiously wrong (though not invariably outright bad) picks for particular years. Of course, these are matters of judgment. You can run the thought experiment of voting for each year from the slate of nominees listed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Actor. Even your vote plus mine will change history not at all, alas, however.
The first one I’d question was the 1931 one to the hammy Lionel Barrymore defending Norma Shearer who played the title role of” A Free Soul.” Barrymore has a big courtroom speech, but among the nominees that year, I’d retrospectively vote for Adolphe Menjou as the manipulative newspaper editor in” The Front Page”.” The most memorable male performance in a 1930 movie is Gary Cooper’s opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s “Morocco,” however.
I’d probably vote for Paul Muni’s WWI veteran in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” for the 1933 best actor Oscar, though I can’t raise serious objection to Charles Laughton chewing the scenery (and a memorable turkey drumstick in “The Private Life of Henry VIII.” I’d be more inclined to vote for Laughton in 1935 for his Captain Bligh in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Three actors, including the winners from the previous two years (Laughton and Clark Gable) were nominated (Franchot Tone was the third, and least-deserving), and Victor McLaglen was very good in John Ford’s expressionist adaptation of “The Informer.”
For 1936, my retrospective vote would have gone to either Walter Huston in the title role of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth or William Powell in the title role of “My Man Godfrey,” rather than the estimable Paul Muni’s Louis Pasteur.
I thought Muni was better the next year in the title role of another biopic of a 19th-century Frenchman, “The Life of Emile Zola.” I’d probably have voted for Fredric March as the boozy falling star Norman Maine in “A Star Is Born” (the first one, though it was a remake of “What Price Hollywood?”) opposite Janet Gaynor’s Vicky Lester. The winner was Spencer Tracy playing unbelievably the wise Portuguese sailor Manuel in “Captains Courageous” with MGM child star Freddy Bartholomew.
Tracy was better in his second Oscar-winning role, Father Flanagan, founder of “Boys Town.” I’d have gone with the romantic fatalist Pépé le Moko of Charles Boyer in “Algiers” (the Hollywood remake of “Pépé le Moko” in which Jean Gabin played Pépé, but without Hedy Lamarr as the stimulus for leaving the safety of the casbah of Algiers). If not Boyer, Leslie Howard as Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion.”
In the Hollywood miracle year of 1939, Robert Donat’s Mr. Chips was the surprise winner over Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in the multi-Oscar-winning “Gone with the Wind.” Donat was great and James Stewart was memorable in the title role of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A tough choice that I won’t criticize.
James Stewart got a consolation prize of the next year’s Oscar in “The Philadelphia Story.” I don’t even think he gave the best male performance in the movie (that would be Cary Grant). At the time I probably would have voted for Charlie Chalpin as “The Great Dictator” (he also plays a Jewish barber as well as a Hitler parody), though now I would go with Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Raymond Massey’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and Laurence Olivier haunted by his first wife “Rebecca” rounded out the nominees, and in a rank ordering, I’d place the winner in last place on this slate.)
The 1943 award to the German anti-Nazi Paul Lukas in “Watch on the Rhine” may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but, given that “Casablanca” was recognized as the best picture of the year, how did Humphrey Bogart not win as Rick? (Like Stewart, Fonda, John Wayne, et al., Bogart would win later…)
I like the suave Ronald Colman and he had a showpiece as the actor engulfed by the role of “Othello” in George Cukor’s “A Double Life” in 1947. I’d go with John Garfield’s boxer in “Body and Soul,” but can understand Colman winning.
I can also understand Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark (Louisiana Governor Huey Long fictionalized) winning in the 1949 best picture Oscar winner “All the King’s Men,” but think that Gregory Peck’s Air Force general cracking under the strain in “Twelve O’Clock High” would get my vote. Kirk Douglas as the boxer in “Champion” was also a serious contender.
Having lost the Oscar he should have won for “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart picked up one for the boozy steamboat captain of “The African Queen.” I like him in John Huston’s movie, but not in preference to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (which otherwise swept the acting categories in 1951) or Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.” (I’d guess that the outstanding young actors split the vote, letting Bogart slip through.)
I’d be tempted to press Alec Guiness in “The Lavender Hill Mob” in 1952, but for iconicity can’t really challenge the award to Gary Cooper as the Marshall in “High Noon.”
Probably Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster, both nominated in the 1953 best picture winner “From Here to Eternity” split the vote. William Holden was very good as the cynical POW in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17,” however, so this one is not an outrage.
Had Brando won the one he deserved in 1951, I’d not demur from supporting his award for Terry (I shoulda been a contenda) Malloy in Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” but Bogart’s Captain Queeg seems more acting to me, and James Mason was great as another Norman Maine (opposite Judy Garland) in George Cukor’s “A Star Is Born.”
Frank Sinatra had won a supporting actor Oscar in “From Here to Eternity.” As the heroin addict in Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” he probably should have copped another one in 1955. His tormenter in “From Here to Eternity,” Ernest Borgnine, was good as the shy Bronx butcher “Marty,” but Spencer Tracy was IMO better than in either of his Oscar-winning roles, and I’d have voted for James Dean as Cain (called “Cal”) Trask in Kazan’s adaptation of part of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
I enjoy Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam in the historically ludicrous Rodgers and Hammerstein “The King and I.” I think that Laurence Olivier, as another king, Richard III of England, better deserved the 1956 best actor award, however.
I also like David Niven, who played against his generally suave type as Major Angus Pollock in “Separate Tables,” but my retrospective vote goes to Paul Newman’s Brick resisting Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, “The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,”
For 1959, James Stewart as the country lawyer (opposing George C. Scott) in Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” shoulda won. If not Stewart, then Jack Lemmon as Jerry and Daphne in Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.” Charlton Heston did nothing I recognize as acting as Judah Ben-Hur. I think that Heston sometimes acted (Will Penny, as Cardinal Richelieu in the musketeer movies), but in “Ben Hur” he only posed and looked determined. He was outacted in it by his Roman friend-turned-enemy as played by Stephen Boyd.
Paul Newman’s “The Hustler” was a tough loss for 1961 to the German defense lawyer Hans Rolfe in Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but Maximilian Schell was also outstanding so this award is not a travesty. Peter O’Toole as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962 was also a tough loss, but I couldn’t vote or have voted against Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962 or Sidney Poitier itinerant handyman in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, though Newman’s “Hud” would tempt me.
I like Rex Harrison both in general and as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Also he turned in a very good performance the previous year as Julius Caesar opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, but if I were rank-ordering the nominated 1964 best actor performances, his popular stage recreation would have finished last, behind Richard Burton in the title role of “Becket,” Anthony Quinn’s in “Zorba, the Greek,” Peter Sellers’s in “Dr. Strangelove” (Sellers also played two other roles), and Peter O’Toole’s Plantagenet monarch Henry II who made his Anglo Saxon drinking buddy, Burton’s Thomas à Becket archbishop of Canterbury.
I similarly liked Lee Marvin, whom I think was a supporting actor even in a double role in 1965’s “Cat Ballou.” I’d have voted for Richard Burton in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” or Rod Steiger as “The Pawnbroker.” (Oskar Werner’s physician on “The Ship of Fools” also seems to me a supporting part).
Richard Burton lost yet again, in his greatest screen role, George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” in 1966 to Paul Scofield, who was a great actor and was great as Sir/Saint Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons.” Like 1964, there was formidable competition with Michael Caine as “Alfie” and Alan Arkin as the commander of a Soviet submarine commander on a Long Island sandbar in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.” Arkin and Caine eventually got Oscars, Burton never did. Rod Steiger got one sooner rather than later (1967 for “In the Heat of the Night.”
Having failed to get an Oscar for playing Henry II in “Becket” in 1964, Peter O’Tooole lost again in 1968 to Cliff Robertson’s “Charly.” This was wrong, and if not O’Toole, it shoulda been Alan Arkin in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
Since George C. Scott declined the 1970 Oscar for “Patton,” I wish it had been given to James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope” (he did not play the title character!”) or to Gene Hackman or Melvyn Douglas in “I Never Sang for My Father”
I’d have voted for Peter Finch’s gay doctor in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in 1971 rather than Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle in “The French Connection.”
Jack Nicholson was a contender for that 1970 one, and for 1973 and 1974 ones (The Last Detail, and Chinatown, respectively). Instead he won the 1975 one that I’d have given to Al Pacino for “Dog Day Afternoon.” Pacino, too, would eventually get one for the wrong movie… Similarly, Robert De Niro probably should have received the 1976 one that Peter Finch, who I think should have won earlier, got.
I’d voted for Marcello Mastroianni stretching from his usual persona in “A Special Day,” in preference to Richard Dreyfuss’s usual shtick in “The Goodbye Girl,” but the choice was not a travesty, nor was Jon Voigt’s the following year, nor Dustin Hoffman’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979, Robert De Niro’s “Raging Bull” in 1980 or Henry Fonda’s very late one for “On Golden Pond” in 1981 (I like Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” more and might have voted for Burt Lancaster in it.)
Ben Kingsley is an excellent actor and was convincing as “Gandhi” (1982). Peter O’Toole was probably judged to be playing himself in “My Favorite Year.” Dustin Hoffman was great as “Tootsie” and Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” but that got awards in other years.
One of the least deserved awards ever was the 1985 won to William Hurt‘s “Watch me act! Watch me act!” performance as an Argentine drag queen in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The field of nominees was not spectacular, but I’d have voted for Jack Nicholson in John Huston’s black comedy “Prizzi’s Honor.” If not Nicholson, Harrison Ford as the police captain in “Witness.”
Paul Newman finally won as the older “Fast Eddie” in Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” in 1986. He was overdue, but just looking at that year’s nominees, James Woods” in “Sakvador” and Bob Hoskins in “Mona Lisa” jump out.
I thought that William Hurt redeemed himself for “Spider Woman” as the anchorman on “Broadcast News” in 1987, though I’d have chosen Robin Williams as the frenetic DJ in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” or maybe the winner, Michael Douglas in “Wall Street.”
I have no interest in seeing “My Left Foot.” I’d have liked to see Morgan Freeman win in 1989 for “Driving Miss Daisy,” but can’t say that Daniel Day-Lewis did not deserve to win.
I recognize that Al Pacino was long overdue for an Oscar, but for “Scent of a Woman”? Confining consideration to performances that year, there was Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X amd Stephen Rea’s IRA dropout in “The Crying Game.”
I think that Sean Penn’s astounding performance of the convict on Death Row in “Dead Man Walking” was better than Nicolas Cage’s drunk in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Penn (and Denzel Washington) won two Oscars, so it doesn’t much matter.
I consider “Life Is Beautiful” a pernicious travesty and Roberto Benigni‘s antics when he won did not endear him to me. There were great performances, one of which should have won instead: Ian McKellen as James Whale in “Gods and Monsters,” Nick Nolte’s son of Oscar-winner James Coburn’s impossible father in “Affliction” or Edward Norton’s skinhead in “American History X.”
I liked “American Beauty” and thought Kevin Spacey was great in it, though I think Russell Crowe was even better as “The Insider” in 1999. Crowe would win the next year, in place of Javier Bardem, who should have won for “Before Night Fails” Bardem would win another Oscar later and Denzel Washington got the one he should have won as Malcolm X as a corrupt police officer in “Training Gay” in 2001.
I think that Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fine actor and provided a convincing impersonation of Truman Capote in “Capote” in 2005, but the Oscar should have gone to Heath Ledger as Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” (and my second choice would have been Terrence Howard in “Hustle & Flow”). The posthumous one as the Joker was inadequate recompense (also see Peter Finch above!).
Forest Whitaker gave a phenomenal impersonation of Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” in 2006. I thought that was a supporting role. Had the nominations treated it as one, I’d have a clear favorite in Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson.”
I was dismayed by the 2007 award to Daniel Day-Lewis for his one-note performance in “There Will Be Blood” (like Charlton Heston’s Ben Hur, D-L’s Daniel Plainview ran the gamut of emotions from D to D: determined to deadly). I thought that Viggo Mortensen nd Tommy Lee Jones were phenomenal, respectively in “Eastern Promises” and “In the Valley of Elah.”
I’d have liked Colin Firth to win the 2009 Oscar for “A Single Man,” but understand Jeff Bridges finally receiving one. George Clooney’s performance in “Up in the Air” was underrated or under-noticed, and Jeremy Renner was very impressive as the sapper in “The Hurt Locker.”
Once upon a time, I picked what I think has been the worst of the best picture Oscar winners by decade here.