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Who is the Best Actor of the 1990s?

Best Actor 1990s

You may recall that I made a somewhat controversial choice in the Best Actor of the 2000s ranking. Well, I’m about to do it all over again, so get ready.

And please remember that I’ve decided to limit myself to the men who won an Academy Award for Best Actor between 1990 and 1999. 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)

It seems mean to make fun of a performance in such a heartbreaking movie (Life is Beautiful is about a father who tries to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust by pretending that it’s all an elaborate role-playing game). But if we may be real for a moment, Roberto Benigni didn’t win his Oscar for acting. His performance was incidental. Benigni won because he was crazy. At the onset of award season, Benigni was merely recognized for directing Life is Beautiful in foreign film categories (he also won an Oscar in that category). Collecting those, he made outrageous appearances at several typically staid award ceremonies. His crazed antics caught everyone’s attention and suddenly people wanted to give him more and more of a spotlight to see what he would do. So let’s be real. He didn’t win an Oscar for acting. He won because people wanted to see what he would do if he won. For those people, he didn’t disappoint–climbing onto the seats and literally standing on Steven Spielberg on his way up 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 pretty mortifying. Benigni’s work was good enough for a nomination but never the win, which makes him out of his league here. Think about this: Benigni defeated towering performances from 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. I’d give Hanks the slight edge for providing an essential human center Saving Private Ryan could pivot around.

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

Al Pacino’s performance as an unlikable blind ex-colonel is pretty synonymous with the concept of both make-up Oscars and lifetime achievement Oscars. In the seventies, Pacino had delivered some of the most celebrated performances in cinematic history. And yet he never won an Academy Award. Winning for Scent of a Woman was pretty universally acknowledged to be a way to right that wrong (as make-up Oscars do) and to recognize the incredible career he’d enjoyed thus far (as lifetime achievement Oscars do). 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.” In so doing, he denied Robert Downey, Jr. for his celebrated turn as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin and Denzel Washington’s fiery Malcolm X–two performances that would have been more deserving winners that year.

Should have won in 1992: Denzel Washington for Malcolm X.

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

Speaking of coasting on natural charisma, here we have Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets. Now, 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 and getting rewarded for it. To be fair though, his typical Nicholsonian persona gets a bit of a twist in this romantic comedy by having his Melvin Udall suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s a trait that doesn’t really gibe with the typical loose vibe you get from him, and Nicholson makes it believable. He’s also unexpectedly sweet as a curmudgeon who slowly learns to let disorder into his life in order to truly live. It’s a well Nicholson returned to since (as in Something’s Gotta Give), but in 1997 it felt fresh and new. Besides, Nicholson is always fun to watch–even if he is just up to his old tricks.

Should have won in 1997: a case could be made for Robert Duvall in The Apostle–a movie I confess I haven’t seen and therefore cannot adequately judge. But from what I’ve seen in clips, I would listen to your argument.

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

These days, Kevin Spacey has remade himself as slithery, oily, not-so-nice men–most notably on his Netflix series House of Cards, but also with turns in Horrible Bosses and Superman Returns. So it’s surprising to go back in time and rediscover him playing nice guys so well. Here, he won his second Academy Award (after Best Supporting Actor in 1995’s 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, begins fantasizing about his teenage daughter’s best friend, begins smoking weed, gets a job at a fast food joint, and becomes a royal pain in his cheating wife’s ass. AKA just 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 all that many fireworks here.

Should have won in 1999: Denzel Washington was more compelling in The Hurricane and Russel Crowe was more subtle in The Insider, but even in 1999 it was clear that Lester Burnham was the closest the category had to an iconic figure.

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

To employ a truly terrible pun, Geoffrey Rush shone as mentally troubled Australian piano genius David Helfgott. Yes, lock me away. I went there. Anyway, 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, haunted 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 ranging from Shakespeare in LoveThe King’s SpeechPirates of the Caribbean, and more). Rush plays a mean oddball villain against the already-oddball Jack Sparrow, but Rush is capable of so much 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 the name Nicolas Cage is synonymous with wild overacting in terrible movies, but there was a time when he was more than just a bizarre Saturday Night Live parody of himself. He deservedly won his Best Actor Oscar for a pitch black turn as a man who moves to Las Vegas in order to drink himself to death. He’s already lost his career and his wife to his alcoholism, so now he’s determined to go all the way. Even a sudden last-minute love affair with a prostitute can’t change his mind. Most movies would go for the happy ending and have the love story redeem this broken man, but that would destroy the bleak wonder that is Leaving Las Vegas. To his credit, Cage goes all in and sells the story for all it’s worth. He understood that sometimes there just isn’t redemption–and some people don’t want it. It’s a shame that from here his career took a detour into some surprisingly good action movies (Face/Off and Con Air), swerved back to a respectable drama (he got another Best Actor nomination in 2002 for Adaptation), then underwent a sudden sharp turn for the truly bizarre. Now he’s a mainstay of the Razzie Awards.

Should have won in 1995: Cage had it in the bag.

Jeremy Irons-Reversal of Fortune4. Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Jeremy Irons playing Claus Von Bulow is synergy at its best. Irons effortlessly brings this sinister-seeming, eloquent, very proper British man to full complicated life. It’s basically the role he was born to play. Von Bulow was accused of attempting to murder his wife Sunny with an injection of insulin, which caused her to live the remainder of her life (25 years, as it turned out) in a coma. The Von Bulows lived by a different set of rules than most. Their insane wealth and privilege made keeping up appearances their prime directive. Emotions were messy signs of weakness (and for the poor). In examining Von Bulow’s road to trial (where he was found guilty), the film toys with your perception of him. Is he a sinister man who mercilessly attempted to kill his wife (side note: why has Jeremy Irons never played a Bond villain?)? Or is he a man who was trapped in an unhappy marriage that drove his wife to attempt suicide? How culpable would he then be 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 not only embodies the idea of Claus Von Bulow, he hints at all these possibilities without ever 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-Philadelphia3. Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993)

For Tom Hanks, playing a gay man dying of AIDS took no small amount of courage in 1993. AIDS fear was still running rampant, for one thing. No one wanted to talk about it, and yet everyone was terrified of it. Remember, in 1993 AIDS in America was still a deadly disease. For another thing, Tom Hanks was a straight actor taking on a very homosexual role in a mainstream movie. No one in the mainstream media wanted to be associated with homosexuality. Ellen Degeneres wouldn’t publicly come out on her sitcom for another four years. Will & Grace wouldn’t make its debut for another five. Homosexuality was a pretty serious taboo even in Hollywood, where gay actors remained firmly closeted. For a straight actor to take the plunge on both of these subjects took incredible nerve.

But that’s not why Hanks is all the way up here at the top of the list. It deserves to be mentioned, but his performance earned its way here. He plays Andrew Beckett, a lawyer pursuing a wrongful termination lawsuit against his former employer, who fired him after he contracted AIDS and was outed. 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. That’s the true power of Philadelphia–that a seemingly average Joe (which Tom Hanks is so good at portraying) found himself in the middle of an unfair fight.  Hanks gave Beckett a soul, and in so doing gave voice to a crisis that so desperately needed one.

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

Athong Hopkins-The Silence of the Lambs2. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

I waffled back and forth a lot with the top two actors on this list. In fact, when originally published, Anthony Hopkins was on top for over a year before I had a change of heart. Here’s what I said at the time: OK. This was a hard choice because technically Hannibal Lecter is a supporting role. With only 24 minutes and 54 seconds of screentime it’s difficult to make a case for this as a lead. Only one Best Actor performance was shorter: David Niven in Separate Tables. I dinged Forest Whitaker pretty harshly for playing a supporting role in The Last King of Scotland even though he won Best Actor. Yet Anthony 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 regardless. He also haunts your dreams, but that’s another story. Countless psycho characters have been portrayed onscreen, but rarely do they have the menace and gravitas of Hannibal Lecter. I said that Forrest Gump is one of the most indelible characters in all of cinematic history, and so is Hannibal. You almost forget that Buffalo Bill is the big bad Clarice Starling is chasing. And that says everything right there, because Buffalo Bill was one messed up dude. I can’t even listen to “Goodbye Horses” at all. Shudder. I don’t even want to talk about it!

And here’s what I say now: yes, Hopkins made Hannibal Lecter one of the most indelible screen characters of all time. But now that I think about it, there have been lots of charismatic villain performances. You could argue that most happened post-1991 (using Hopkins as a template), but Hopkins is one of many. Heath Ledger as the Joker, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa–and that’s just sticking to Oscar winners. The new number one remains a true original.

Should have won in 1991: Hopkins.

Tom Hanks-Forrest Gump1. 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 Oscar-winning performances are incredible, but while Philadelphia took enormous amounts of courage, Forrest Gump had a higher degree of difficulty. I mean, 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 all of cinematic history. That should be something that comes along once in a lifetime, but Tom Hanks had two in a row. He should have won a third Best Actor trophy in 1998, but we’ve already discussed that so I’ll let it go now.

As a coda, since I changed this performance from number 2 to number 1, I’ll just add this: the big motivation in the switch was the realization that Forrest Gump the movie wouldn’t have worked with any other actor. Can you imagine any actor other than Tom Hanks playing Forrest? Now can you imagine the movie working without having Hanks driving it? Disaster. Without Hanks, one of the most iconic pop cultural milestones in cinema doesn’t exist. Without Hopkins, Silence would have been just fine. We might never have known what we missed out on, but it would have been fine. Jodie Foster and director Jonathan Demme could have carried it without him.

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

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


2 comments on “Who is the Best Actor of the 1990s?

  1. mordicai
    March 31, 2015

    Brutal. Hopkins by default.


  2. Midhun Antony
    April 4, 2015

    This definitely a hard one…..I love lester Burnham by kevin spacey….but the actor I must say, would be Tom Hanks


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This entry was posted on March 31, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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