Ranking Every Best Actor Oscar Winner of the 1990s

Best Actor 1990s

The Best Actor winners in the 90s are a wildly mixed bag–not just in terms of quality but in the variety of the roles themselves. There’s a little bit of everything here, including a cannibal.

Please remember that I will comment on snubs when appropriate, but the question of whether or not an actor should have won cannot hurt his place in the ranking.

Roberto Benigni-Life is Beautiful10. Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful (1998)

Roberto Benigni didn’t win his Oscar for acting–he won because he was crazy. Throughout award season he made outrageous appearances at award ceremonies. He won because people wanted to see what he would do. For those people, he didn’t disappoint–climbing onto the seats and literally standing on Steven Spielberg on his way to the podium to give a manic speech in broken English. It was only after the dust settled that people realized that giving someone an Oscar for being a clown at awards shows is actually mortifying. Benigni defeated Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Nick Nolte in Affliction, Edward Norton in American History X, and Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters. That is embarrassing.

Should have won in 1998: It should have come down to Ian McKellan and Tom Hanks. Most would say Hanks but I go for McKellen.

Al Pacino-Scent of a Woman9. Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992)

Al Pacino’s performance as an unlikable blind ex-colonel is a legacy award. In the seventies, Pacino delivered some of the most celebrated performances in cinematic history, yet he never won an Oscar. Winning for Scent of a Woman was pretty universally acknowledged to be a way to right that wrong and to recognize his career. Nothing against Pacino, but he pretty much coasted on his natural charisma in Scent of a Woman, not adding much to his storied career except the title “Academy Award winner.”

Should have won in 1992: Robert Downey, Jr. had a celebrated turn as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, but Denzel Washington’s fiery Malcolm X deserved it.

Jack Nicholson-As Good As it Gets8. Jack Nicholson, As Good As it Gets (1997)

Speaking of coasting on natural charisma, we have Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets. It’s not necessarily Nicholson’s fault that he has a larger than life personality that is very difficult to ignore when watching him perform, but he does have a way of basically playing himself in movies. To be fair though, his typical Nicholsonian persona gets a twist in this romantic comedy by having his Melvin Udall suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s also unexpectedly sweet as a curmudgeon who slowly learns to let disorder into his life. Besides, Nicholson is always fun to watch–even if he is just up to his old tricks.

Should have won in 1997: Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold.

Kevin Spacey-American Beauty7. Kevin Spacey, American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey won his second Oscar (after Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects) for playing Lester Burnham, a middle-aged suburban man who has lived his life as the dictionary definition of ‘mild-mannered.’ Well no more. Lester stops jerking off in the shower, quits his job, fantasizes about his teenage daughter’s best friend, starts smoking weed, gets a job at a fast food joint, and becomes a royal pain in his cheating wife’s ass. It’s your typical mid-life crisis, made better for having a measured actor like Kevin Spacey at the wheel. But asparagus throwing and Humbert Humbert fantasies aside, there aren’t many fireworks here. Spacey neatly walks the line between parody and drama, but that’s about it.

Should have won in 1999: Denzel Washington for The Hurricane.

Geoffrey Rush-Shie6. Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996)

To employ a truly terrible pun, Geoffrey Rush shone as mentally troubled Australian piano genius David Helfgott. Helfgott is mostly haunted by his abusive father, who survived the Holocaust, when he has a breakdown. Years later, he returned to the piano and began playing in bars, ultimately working his way back to concert halls. Rush gives a bravura performance charting the ups and downs of a complicated man. In some ways, Helfgott seems to be the perfect vehicle for Rush’s best skills as an actor. It’s a bit of a shame that he’s basically been relegated to supporting work in years since (in movies like Shakespeare in LoveThe King’s SpeechPirates of the Caribbean, and more).

Should have won in 1996: Rush all the way.

Nicolas Cage-Leaving Las Vegas5. Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Yes, that Nicolas Cage. These days Cage is synonymous with wild overacting in terrible movies, but there was a time when he was more than a bizarre Saturday Night Live parody of himself. He deservedly won his Best Actor Oscar for a pitch black turn as a man who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death. He’s lost his career and his wife, so now he’s determined to go all the way. Even a last-minute love affair with a prostitute can’t change his mind. Most movies would go for the happy ending and redeem this broken man, but not Leaving Las Vegas. Cage goes all in and sells the story for all it’s worth. He understood that sometimes there just isn’t redemption because some people don’t want it. It’s a shame that from here his career took a long, slow shame spiral into the bizarre. Now he’s a mainstay of the Razzie Awards.

Should have won in 1995: You could make a case for Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, but Cage had it in the bag.

Tom Hanks Philadelphia4. Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993)

Playing a gay man dying of AIDS took enormous courage in 1993. No one wanted to talk about AIDS, yet everyone was terrified of it. For another thing, no one wanted to be publicly associated with homosexuality. Ellen Degeneres wouldn’t come out on her sitcom for another four years. Will & Grace wouldn’t debut for another five. Homosexuality was taboo even in Hollywood, where gay actors remained firmly closeted. For a straight actor to take the plunge took incredible nerve.

But that’s not why Hanks is here. He plays Andrew Beckett, a lawyer suing the employer who fired him after he contracted AIDS. Beckett is a man fighting for dignity as he prepares to depart this life. He’s not a cliche or a stereotype, just a man trying to live his life as best he knows how. The power of Philadelphia is that an average Joe (which Tom Hanks is so good at portraying) found himself in the middle of an unfair fight.  Some criticize the movie for whitewashing details, and it does. But it was the movie we needed to bring these topics to the “mainstream” at the time, so I don’t fault it. Hanks gave Beckett a soul, and in so doing gave voice to a crisis that desperately needed one.

Should have won in 1993: Liam Neeson put up a fight with Schindler’s List, but Hanks rightfully claimed his first Oscar.

Jeremy Irons Reversal of Fortune3. Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Claus Von Bulow was accused of attempting to murder his wife with an injection of insulin, causing her to live the remainder of her life in a coma. The Von Bulows lived by a different set of rules than most. Keeping up appearances was their prime directive. Emotions were a weakness. In examining Von Bulow’s road to trial (where he was found guilty), the film toys with your perception of him. Did he mercilessly attempt to kill his wife? Or is he a man whose unhappy marriage drove his wife to attempt suicide? How culpable is he for that unhappiness? Is he really unfeeling or has a lifetime of playing his cards close to his vest made him incapable of showing what goes on in his mind? Irons hints at all these possibilities without trying to provide an answer. His Von Bulow is a portrait of a man in shades of grey, rendered with true artistry.

Should have won in 1990: Robert De Niro gave a heartbreaking turn in Awakenings, but this was Irons’ year.

Tom Hanks Forrest Gump2. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)

In 1994 Hanks became the first actor to win back-to-back Best Actor awards since Spencer Tracy in 1937 and 1938. Both of his performances are incredible, but while Philadelphia took enormous courage, Forrest Gump had a higher degree of difficulty. Can you imagine any other actor making this role work? Absolutely not. No one but Tom Hanks could do that. His Forrest Gump may be, well, simple, but he’s a good man with a solid heart. Hanks didn’t just make Forrest a character you care about, he made him one of the most indelible characters in cinematic history. Without Hanks, Forrest Gump just doesn’t work.

Should have won in 1994: John Travolta had a lot of momentum for Pulp Fiction and Morgan Freeman had resonance in The Shawshank Redemption, but Hanks deserved his second consecutive Oscar.

Athong Hopkins-The Silence of the Lambs1. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This is a hard choice because Hannibal Lecter is technically a supporting role. He only has 24 minutes and 54 seconds of screentime. Only one Best Actor performance was shorter: David Niven in Separate Tables. Nevertheless, Hopkins’ deranged doctor casts such a spell that you don’t notice he isn’t actually in much of the movie. He haunts every scene. You almost forget that Buffalo Bill is the big bad Clarice Starling is chasing. And while yes, technically this is a supporting role, Hopkins is so good and so towering that he makes it worth the leading distinction.

Should have won in 1991: Supporting actor/actor debate notwithstanding, I’m more than fine with Hopkins winning here.

For more, please visit my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Actress of the 90s.

Just for fun, here’s what the list would like like with everyone who should have won:

10. Peter Fonda, Ulee’s Gold (1997)

9. Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters (1998)

8. Geoffrey Rush, Shine (1996)

7. Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

6. Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993)

5. Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990)

4. Denzel Washington, The Hurricane (1999)

3. Denzel Washington, Malcolm X (1992)

2. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)

1. Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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