For the love of entertainment
Now that I dropped a bombshell in determining the Best Picture of the 90s, let’s take a trip to some less controversial waters.
Once again, in attempting to determine the best of the best I have decided to stick with the performances that won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. No snubs or also-rans can spoil the ranking–although I may comment on what might have been when appropriate.
No, seriously. Jack Palance won an Oscar for City Slickers. You read that correctly. Palance had enjoyed a popular albeit unrecognized career in Western movies for a long time by 1991, so chalk this little victory up to a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award–an unfortunately frequent occurence in Academy lore. To be fair, Palance is in fine, crotchety form as Curly, the experienced cowboy guide leading the titular bunch of city slickers on a cattle drive. He gets a lot of laughs by really just being himself and playing straight man to Billy Crystal’s wide-eyed central character. But if we’re being realistic, was Palance really better than Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley in Bugsy? Or Tommy Lee Jones in JFK? Speaking of which, you can thank Jones’ loss in this race for…
Should have won in 1991: I’d probably go with Tommy Lee Jones for JFK.
… the way he won an Oscar two years later for an action/thriller. Here we have another fine performance that shouldn’t necessarily be an Academy Award winner. I mean, Tommy Lee Jones is great as the gruff Federal agent chasing down Harrison Ford’s desperate doctor-on-the-run. He’s ruthless, he’s smart, he’s funny (in a deadpan sort of way). The Fugitive really comes alive because the man doing the chasing is just as interesting as the man on the run to prove his innocence. But if you think Jones was better than his competition, you should probably get your head checked. I’m concerned for your health. Because his competition? Pete Postlethwaite for In the Name of the Father, John Malkovich for In the Line of Fire, Leonardo DiCaprio for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and the big one: Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List. Think about that. Tommy Lee Jones beat Ralph Fiennes because Academy Award voters felt bad for snubbing him two years earlier.
Of course, that there was a more worthy winner doesn’t impact Jones’ place on the list. It’s just that his performance (and Palance’s, for that matter) feel hopelessly lightweight in comparison.
Should have won in 1993: Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List.
As the good doctor running a New England orphanage (who performs abortions on the side), Michael Caine should have been hopelessly miscast–and he is, to a degree. He doesn’t even try to trade his British cockney accent for a more New England sound, for one thing. In a movie so deeply situated in Americana, he sticks out like a sore thumb for being so perfectly English. But in the end it doesn’t really matter because he does manage to capture the complex nature of this man who is a father figure to countless orphans, a savior to countless women with no one else to turn to, and a serious ether addict. As he later did in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Caine provides a steady emotional center: a beating heart the audience can rally behind. That’s no small feat, but in the end it can’t overcome the competition. Caine’s competitors, Haley Joel Osment as the boy who sees dead people in The Sixth Sense and Jude Law as a petulant playboy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, might have gone farther.
Should have won in 1999: I probably would have gone with Osment’s youthful but iconic performance.
Is Gooding’s performance as Rod Tidwell, the bombastic football player out to make his name (and the titular agent’s only remaining client), Oscar-worthy? That’s debatable. But for sheer enjoyment, you can’t do much better. Besides, there’s no denying that Gooding stole every scene he was in. His infectious enthusiasm and joy set the tone for the entire film–a trait Gooding took with him to the stage at the Academy Awards, where his overjoyed acceptance speech has been a permanent fixture in the clip reel ever since. Jerry Maguire set the pop culture landscape on fire with several of its big lines: “you had me at hello,” “the human head weighs eight pounds,” “you complete me,” etc. Arguably the biggest line comes down to the way Gooding sold it–would people still be shouting “show me the money” if another actor had spoken the lines first?
Should have won in 1996: you could make a good case for William H. Macy in Fargo and I would listen.
I know for many people this is a sacred performance, but I always thought it was a touch overpraised. A big part of that comes down to the script, to be fair (I know, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won an Oscar for the script, but I have always found it cloying and a little, well, obvious). To be fair, Williams does an amazing job selling his role as therapist to the titular troubled genius. His rumpled, lived-in appearance perfectly fits the solemn, loving-but-tough, humorous personality he displays. It’s almost a shocking performance from Williams because he completely downplays all of the grandstanding eccentricities that made him a beloved entertainer. Well, it would be shocking if Williams hadn’t had a history of showing his range as an actor in films like Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, and Good Morning Vietnam. For what it’s worth, Williams sold the hell out of the famous “it’s not your fault” scene.
Should have won in 1997: after several previous nominations, this was Williams’ year.
Martin Landau shone as an aging, alcoholic Bela Lugosi enjoying a second act in his career thanks to the legendarily awful director Ed Wood. His profane, heavily accented tirades make the movie in my opinion. You’re so busy being entertained that you almost don’t notice the flawless craftsmanship at work here–truly, this is an astonishing recreation of Bela Lugosi, the actor most famous for bringing Dracula to life in the early days of cinema. Landau makes it look easy. You miss any time he isn’t on screen–which is the highest compliment you can offer an actor.
Should have won in 1994: Gary Sinise has my sentimental vote for Forrest Gump, but I can live with the way things turned out.
When casting Affliction, the director really thought carefully about filling the role of the abusive father. He needed someone who could appear to dominate and tower over Nick Nolte in order to sell the storyline properly. The entire movie hinges on it. Coburn seemed an unlikely candidate at the time, having mostly appeared in light fare up to that point. But boy did he knock it out of the park. He is terrifying. Not to mention utterly believable.
Should have won in 1998: Fun fact: Coburn’s Academy Award is the only acting Oscar the Academy got right that year (for the record, in 1998 Judi Dench got a consolation-prize Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow rode a wave of Shakespeare goodwill to a victory over Cate Blanchett, and Roberto Benigni inexplicably became an Oscar winner).
Unfogiven is unique in the western genre for having the audacity to be a western that actually questions everything the western genre stands for, particularly in terms of violence. Gene Hackman’s violent Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, is the perfect embodiment of that theme. And boy, does Hackman let loose. He chews the scenery like no one else, then dials it down, then ramps it right back up. It’s a towering performance full of verve and danger. So here’s a life lesson from Unforgiven: don’t cross Gene Hackman, you guys. It’s just not worth it. He will mess. You. Up. And he will do it with a smile.
Should have won in 1992: Jaye Davidson got a lot of people talking in The Crying Game, but that had more to do with his perfectly executed reveal than anything else. Hackman deserved his second career Oscar.
I would love to argue that Joe Pesci is basically playing a version of himself in Goodfellas and is therefore coasting on his own personality, but it wouldn’t matter. This performance has had a tremendous impact on the pop cultural landscape. Twenty-five years later people are still quoting Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, a pint-sized gangster with a larger-than-life attitude (to say nothing of his mouth). Which makes it ironic that Pesci had one of the all-time shortest Academy Award acceptance speeches on record. Who’d have thunk it? It doesn’t even matter what you think of the movie or even Joe Pesci in general (personally, I’m not a fan)–this is a performance that has reverberated for almost three decades. And there is absolutely no denying that.
Now go and get your shinebox.
Should have won in 1990: Pesci.
… But this performance has also had a monumental hold on pop culture since it debuted. And when you come down to it, Kevin Spacey’s turn as Verbal Kint had a significantly higher degree of difficulty than Tommy DeVito. And The Usual Suspects hinged on the big reveal about Verbal in the final scene–any false steps and the entire movie would have fallen apart. Spacey nailed it. He made it work–he made it believable. Spacey has currently been making waves as slippery, oily villains–particularly on House of Cards. And to be fair, he kinda does that here, too–but only kinda. It’s refreshing to see him showing a wider range. These days it would be hard to believe Spacey as an insecure, naive guy–and yet he made his entire career fooling you into believing just that.
Should have won in 1995: it was all Spacey.