Saturday, February 12, 2011

Right Actor/Wrong Film... A Meditation On Oscar

The Husband is so kind to DVR shows, even bits & pieces of broadcasts that would be of interest to me. Sadly, I go to sleep quite early 3 nights a week, having to be at work at 4:30am. So, I do marathon catching ups. He has recorded quite a few things I would been sorry to miss: a Robert Rauschenberg bio on PBS, a spectacular concert by Tap Dogs on HBO, A documentary about Jerome Robbins, male prostitutes on Oprah,The Making Of Sweeney Todd, The Kennedy Center Honors, Justin Beiber in concert on the Today Show

This week the Husband captured Colin Firth on Inside The Actors Studio with the always zany James Lipton. I am a very big fan of Mr. Firth’s work going all the way back to Apartment Zero in 1988 (note to self: revisit this film), & he was the best Mr. D'Arcy ever. I was struck by Firth's smarts, skill, sagacity, & striking storytelling as he bounced answers off the waxen Mr. Lipton’s queries.

Reflecting on his sure win at the Academy Awards in 2 weeks, & couldn’t stop myself from noting that he is just one actor in a long tradition of giving the right actor their due for the wrong role. I feel that Firth should have won last year for his restrained work in the brilliant A Single Man. I loved The King’s Speech; I give it a great big strong B+ on The Steve Report Card, & his performance is honest & heartfelt, but what he accomplished in the quite moments of A Single Man deserved an Oscar win. Jeff Bridges won last year, & he probably should win for True Grit this year, but the Oscars have a history of awarding the statue to actors in the wrong film, to make up for past slights & misses.

Katherine Hepburn, who had won a few: "the right actors win Oscars, but for the wrong roles."

The first example of conspicuous compensating voting in Oscar history that I remember, would be Elizabeth Taylor winning her first Oscar for the role as New York call girl who wishes for a better life in Butterfield 8. Her performance never even comes close to matching her nominated role the previous year as the emotionally disturbed Catherine in Suddenly, Last Summer. Butterfield 8 is a trashy movie that needed a trashy performance in the lead. Taylor: "it stinks… I have never seen it & I have no desire to see it." To her lasting credit, she also has publicly stated that she didn’t deserve the award.

Her win was a sympathy vote by the Academy after Taylor had been through a series of personal crises including a near fatal case of pneumonia. Debbie Reynolds, whose husband, Eddie Fisher, had been stolen by Taylor during g the filming of Butterfield 8: “Even I voted for her”. Shirley MacLaine, who was favored to win for The Apartment: “I lost out to a tracheotomy.”

Taylor proved a more worthy recipient when she won another Oscar 6 years later for Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Bette Davis’s award for her melodramatics in the dreary Dangerous, which has to be seen to be believed, was compensation for Academy’s failing to nominate her then revolutionary turn in Of Human Bondage the year before. 3 years later, they still felt guilty enough to hand her another little gold man for Jezebel. But, 12 years later they’d decided she’d had enough. & denied her the award for her career best as Margo Channing in All About Eve.

Here are some of my favorite Oscar winners that come to mind:

Jack Lemmon wins for Mister Roberts, a smart win for a sly turn by an upcoming talent, but he was looked over when he showed his comic genius in Some like It Hot & The Apartment. The Academy waited for a dramatic vehicle to come along to honor him again, but not quality The Days of Wine & Roses but the dreary Save the Tiger, a film & performance remembered & revered by precisely nobody. Had they known MissingThe China Syndrome were still to come, they might have contained themselves.

Judi Dench: “I should only get a little bit of him!” After winning her fun & flashy, incidental 8 minute cameo as Elizabeth I in one of my favorire films, the 1998 Oscar winner- Shakespeare In Love, Dench was responding with modesty. The award was the Academy’s response to a widespread belief that she was robbed the previous year, when her performance as that other Queen- Victoria, in Mrs. Brown began her late in career Oscar run. 8 years later, she deserved it for the nasty little Notes on a Scandal, but having rewarded her already, the Academy opted again for British monarchy, & Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II in The Queen.

Kate Winslet won for The Reader when should have won for Titanic or Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. This is the classic case of the make up award. I’m not certain that everyone would agree she was most deserving of the award for Little Children. I’ve heard great things about her performance in Revolutionary Road. Sometimes the Academy gives the award because it is about time.

James Stewart won for The Philadelphia Story & he should have won for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The Philadelphia Story is an ensemble piece with great performances by the entire cast, but Stewart’s monologue in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington should have by itself won him the Oscar. It’s not a movie that I really liked all that much but Stewart was the reason I kept watching. It is comparable to Gregory Peck’s work in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Paul Newman won for The Color of Money & should have won for just about anything else, but certainly for The Hustler. Another make-up Oscar, for sure. The Academy practically admitted they were wrong in 1961 7 gave him the Best Actor award even when he was the supporting character to Tom Cruise’s leading role. Newman was worthy of Oscars all throughout his career: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, HudCool Hand Luke & The Verdict. He wasn’t nominated for Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid or The Sting.

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire gave an iconic stage performance that translated well to the screen. Brando brought a new kind of passion & strength to films & an anti-establishment mystique to Hollywood. They didn't like him for it & the Oscar went to Jose Ferrer for the title for the stagy Cyrano de Bergerac. Of course Brando got his Oscar later for On The Waterfront, & then he won again for his creation of The Godfather. I think he was robbed of a nomination for his paraody of his Godfather role in the very funny 1990 film- The Freshman with Matthew Broderick.

I will never forget thestunning impact his performance as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy gave me at 15 years old. But in 1969, Dustin Hoffman lost the statue to the sentimental favorite John Wayne for True Grit. The Academy gave him a consolation Oscar for Kramer vs.Kramer which was a OK film made better by Meyrl Streep. Of course, Hoffman is interesting in almost anything & he won again for work as an autistic man in Rain Man, because the Academy loves to reward actors for playing a character with any kind of handicap or disease. 

Al Pacino loves to chew the scenery & there are times he is transcendent. He's been nominated for a bunch of performances in leading actor & supporting roles. So did he win for his memorable roles in Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather or Serpico? No, it was for that schmaltzy performance as a blind military man in the stupid Scent of a Woman. He was brilliant in Glengarry Glen Ross & nominated for best supporting actor for that role in the same year of 1993. But he was competing against himself so they gave him the Oscar for best actor although it was a lesser role.

John Wayne won his Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. But it wasn't his best role. He didn’t even receive a nomination for his own favorite role in The Searchers, or for Red River, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, or my favorite Wayne performance- The Quite Man. If the Academy was feeling sentimental, they also could easily have been considered Wayne for an Oscar in his poignant last film, The Shootist.

Henry Fonda was honored for his role as a creaky, cantankerous husband & father, playing against Katherine Hepburn & his daughter Jane in On Golden Pond. It was his 3rd nomination in an illustrious career, but it certainly was not his best work. Fonda, was equally good in both comedy & drama. His finest roles where characters that represented a “voice of conscience,” like in his 2 previous nominations as the Okie migrant, Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath & as 12 Angry Men. An Oscar for either of these  performances would have been more deserved.

Katherine Hepburn won over formidable competition in Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie & Clyde, Dame Edith Evans for The Whisperers, & Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark to win her second Oscar as the concerned mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a story of interracial love. It was not the best of her 4 Oscar wins. Her role consists of expressing shock when learning that her daughter’s fiancĂ© is a “Negro” & appearing teary eyed as her husband played by Spencer Tracy delivers the climatic soliloquy on race relations. Why did she win? Like Elizabeth Taylor, it was a "she is owed it" vote. This was Hepburn’s 10th nomination, but she had not won since 1932 for Morning Glory. Hepburn did not win for her superior performances in The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, or her greatest role as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Hepburn may have won because of her co-star & longtime companion- Spencer Tracy. He was gravely ill during the filming of this movie & died shortly after it wrapped. Many Academy voters feeling that the angst Hepburn showed in the film was actually a reflection of her own inner turmoil.

Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Oscar more than any other actor,16 nominations, but she has not won since 1982 for Sophie's Choice. She is due for a "you-have-waited-too-long" award like Hepburn's. Too bad Julia Child wasn't blind, she could have won last year for her career best- Julie & Julia.

Firth would have my vote to win, but Jeff Bridges probably really should win for True Grit, & Firth should have won for A Single Man. Maybe they can swap Oscars at the Vanity Fair party later that night.

Would you weigh in with your Right Actor/Wrong Film?


  1. I totally enjoyed this post. Thanks for reminding me of a number of films that I need to see again!

  2. Precisely my reason for not taking the Oscars that seriously. Wonderful entertainment, but not so sagacious when it comes to deciding winners.
    Paul Newman in The Verdict. Al Pacino in just about anything but that dreadful Scent of a Woman. And Lord knows, Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia!! No awards. Sigh.

    But,I'll still be watching!

  3. How about a Right Actor/Wrong Category for this year's noms in Hailee Steinfeld. She is the star of "True Grit," not merely a supporting player. She owns that movie. I can only imagine they thought she had no chance against Natalie Portman and gave her a nom in a category she could actually win...

  4. One of my favorite actors is Peter Ustinov. He was incredible as Nero in Quo Vadis. While he was nominated as best supporting actor in 1952, he didn't win. Karl Malden won for Streetcar Named Desire. He was better in Baby Doll, another of Tennessee Williams wonderful plays where southern women run around in Slips complaining of the heat. (Love those plays!) Peter Ustinov did win in 1961 for Spartacus. A wonderfully funny, comic relief role, but not nearly as textured as his performance as Nero. Karl Malden, of course did not win for either Baby Doll or On the Waterfront, both times he was better. But as those films were yet to come when he beat out Peter Ustinov, I can't say the win for Streetcar was compensation.

  5. I saw Apartment Zero too, and I figured Colin Firth was a cutting edge actor. I'm impressed by his range--from period sets to comedy to contemporary character roles. I agree: he deserved to win last year, but Jeff Bridges won because he has been ignored by Oscar so much that even they were embarrassed. Oscar is never about the best; it is about balance in the force. I was going to mention Pacino--he should have won for the first 2 Godfathers. I understand why he didn't get the first one; he was new and Robert Duvall and James Caan split the vote. But there is no excuse for Godfather 2 or Dog Day Afternoon. Oscar was uncomfortable with the ugly world Pacino reveled in.

    Don't forget Denzel Washington. Sure, he was great in Training Day, but he got blown off from winning Oscar a year earlier. Oscar really screwed up with Brando--to this day I cannot believe he didn't win for the whole he created: Stanley K. I've seen upteen stage versions of Streetcar, and every actor channels Brando. I even saw it in England and it was the same thing.

    Other should have wons: Daniel Day Lewis for Gangs of New York. But his second Oscar wasn't compensation; he is just that good.

    Mark Walberg for the Departed--I forget who won that year, but he deserved it.

    Annette Bening might win this year because they blew her off for American Beauty which she deserved: she never wins Oscar and everything she does is fantastic.

    Agreed on Kate Winslet--The Reader was not her finest moment--I really liked her in Revolutionary Road--she was competing against herself. Has Jim Carrey even been nominated? He was great in Eternal and Truman--he should skewer them.

    Don't get me started on Oscar! I am pissed that The Dark Knight didn't get nominated and they chose to ignore Nolan's great directing in Inception. The test of time proves which actor/film is the greatest. Who watches Driving Miss Daisy anyway?

  6. Read "role", not "whole" next to Brando. My bad.

  7. This Oscar piece was a peach of a post. Thanks for the invitation to weigh in.
    You didn't mention the Best Supporting Actress category, which in my opinion is the nuttiest of all. The Academy will give this award to ANYbody. This 'give this award to anybody' doesn't apply here, but surely the shortest amount of screen time for the award went to Beatrice Straight for Network. One scene. Like Martin Balsam in A Thousand Clowns. One scene.
    Kate Winslet in Little Children. Was Little Children one of the scariest moves you've ever seen? Was for me, though the screwing on the washing machine was -- How shall one put it? -- riveting.
    Paul Newman in The Verdict. Not getting the statue that year is reason enough to consider the Oscars meaningless, like Robert Altman not getting the award for directing Gosford Park.
    I opined on a two-comment Oscar forum last week (my comment didn't make the cut) that The Academy will love to do a Tom Hanks/2-Oscars-in-a-row thing with Jeff Bridges. The fact that it would be two separate Oscars for the same Rooster Cogburn role is almost too irresistible.
    This brings me to 'Bad Year to Be Nominated', which is to say, two or three out of five should win, and only one statue. Most recently Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger. Annette Benning in Being Julia? Robbed by Hillary Swank.
    Jeff Bridges could have given a sloppy, clownish performance in True Grit, but it was full of nuance, I thought. If Colin Firth wins, I'll be surprised, but not disappointed.

  8. You opened that can of worms. I have to say Renee Zelwegger. She won for cold Mountain (WTF) she should have taken it, at least, for Chicago, but not for that forgetful role in that forgetful movie.

    Judi Dench of course as you mentioned.

    Also I believe Kate Winslet won for a not so good performance, I mean, she was good but I definelty think she deserved it for Iris or Revolutionary Road, the least.

    Cate Blanchet should have for Elizabeth and not for the least in the best actress category, she deserves a spot on her own, plain Palathrow, ugghhh;

    Penelope Cruz, seriously for Vicky Cristina Barcelona? AWFUL movie, overacted, she was better in Nine.

  9. Steve: New to your blog, great reading! And this post on Right Actor-Wrong Oscar: my thoughts EXACTLY!

    Add to this:
    (1) Sigourney Weaver, "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1981), one of several;
    (2) Jamie Lee Curtis, "True Lies" - wonderful & overlooked performance, maybe because it was viewed as just another Arnold movie??
    (3) Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Trevor Howard, Dirk Bogarde - too many great roles to list. Were they ever nominated at all??
    (4) Van Johnson - YES, VAN JOHNSON!! Much underrated but we gals still love him! Good supporting role in "State of the Union" (1948).

    Best to you, Steve!
    Lisa H.


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