For the love of entertainment
Get ready. Things are about to get a little brutal. Just like the Best Actor race in the 2000s, we have a lot of big contenders here. Upsets galore are coming. The top 7 actors here gave incredible, mostly iconic performances. Turns out the 80s were a fine decade for leading performances, because you may remember that we also had an unusually competitive race among the Best Actresses as well. That always makes things so much more interesting.
Once again, I must remind you that in trying to determine the best leading actor of the 80s, I have decided to limit myself only to the men who won an Academy Award for Best Actor between the years of 1980 and 1989. It makes things easier. I may comment on snubs when appropriate, and I’ll declare who I thought should have won in each year, but that cannot have an impact on the final ranking.
Word to the wise: there will be spoilers. You have been warned.
Like Katharine Hepburn over in the Best Actress category, a lot of Henry Fonda’s performance in this movie comes down to being an adorable elder. Fonda also had the added benefit of being the perfect candidate for a lifetime achievement Oscar–meaning that after a respected career churning out classic performances in films like Twelve Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda had yet to actually win an Academy Award. On Golden Pond was his last shot for Academy voters to make it right. In fact, he was unable to attend the ceremony because he had fallen ill, and daughter Jane Fonda had to accept on his behalf. It turned out to be one of the most heartfelt moments in Academy Awards history. Anyway, as one half of an adorable older couple going for one last summer trip, Fonda really was quite charming as the fusty old father. The role may not have enough heft to carry it far in this ranking, but in the end he deserved his trophy.
Should have won in 1981: Dudley Moore probably had a lot of Arthur fans in his corner, and Warren Beatty could have ridden on a wave of support for Reds if it hadn’t gotten crowded out by Chariots of Fire. The fact that those gents were Fonda’s biggest competitors clearly indicates it was a weak year and Fonda probably deserved it.
I love me some Paul Newman. I mean, the dude is one of the most handsome stars Hollywood has ever produced. Those eyes! That smile! The fact that Newman rejected his matinee-idol appearance in order to be a serious actor somehow only made him hotter. But here’s the deal: looks aside, Newman was a great actor who brought some of cinema’s most iconic characters to life. Just try to imagine Cool Hand Luke without him, or Hud, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They don’t work. And yet, by 1986 Newman had never won an Academy Award. Just a year earlier he had been given an honorary award, but he never won one competitively. So the success (and critical acclaim) of The Color of Money gave Academy voters a chance to make it right. And to be fair, his biggest competition was William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God–a performance that rightly gave all the spotlight to Marlee Matlin instead, mostly functioning as her own personal closed captioning (not to mention that Hurt had already won the year before). Like Fonda, Newman earned the win, but unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean he can hack it in this competition.
Should have won in 1986: in a weak year, Newman deserved his win–legacy voting or no.
Robert Duvall hasn’t always taken on subdued roles. He is, after all, the actor who gave us the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” And yet, his quiet roles are the ones I remember best (the subdued dignity of Tom Hagen in The Godfather comes immediately to mind). That’s the Duvall on display here as an alcoholic former country music singer. He does a lot just by staring in Tender Mercies, but in a decade as competitive as this it would have helped to be a little bit showier. The top seven mostly manage the subtleties of each moment while adding a dash of fireworks. Credit where it’s due, though: this is a spectacular, lived-in performance.
Should have won in 1983: It was all Duvall in 1983.
On paper, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko shouldn’t really compete against the big performances on this list. But here’s something absolutely undeniable: Gordon Gekko has come to personify corporate greed–not just in the 80s but beyond. He’s iconic and larger than life. And that all comes down to Douglas’ performance. Because let’s be real: Gordon Gekko is no one without Michael Douglas breathing life into him. At least he wouldn’t have half the slithery, charismatic menace, that’s for sure. And that “greed is good” speech wouldn’t be the quotable moment it is without Douglas delivering the lines.
Should have won in 1987: Robin Williams was larger than life in Good Morning, Vietnam while William Hurt was quietly solid in Broadcast News, but Douglas deserved the win.
William Hurt was an Academy favorite in the 1980s and widely regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, so the way he seems to have faded from the spotlight over time is somewhat surprising. He racked up three Best Actor nominations in a row, winning on the first try as a man in a South American prison for homosexuality in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Relying on his fantasy life to get by, Hurt’s Luis Molina spins a spellbinding web as he drives the narrative forward. Yes, his performance calls to a litany of cliches and sad stereotypes in portraying a gay man as effeminate and dramatic. I try to tell myself that this is probably a product of the time more than anything else–after all, in 1985 it would have been unheard of for a gay man to be portrayed as butch, let alone have any prominent role in a mainstream movie. Besides, part of the point of the plot is that Luis makes his cellmate, the macho revolutionary Valentin, uncomfortable at first. They are meant to be counterpoints who learn about each other as they are forced to share a small space. And to his credit, Hurt embraced the role and made it sing. He gave Luis depth and tragedy beyond the caricature most actors would have tossed off.
Should have won in 1985: This was definitely Hurt’s time to shine.
In a less competitive decade, it is entirely possible that this performance would easily have been number one. In fact, that’s true of all the performances in the top 5. That’s how tough it gets from here on out. What I really love about Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man is that it’s a truly uncompromising performance. Playing a deeply autistic man, Hoffman refuses to compromise the truth of his character. Raymond doesn’t grow or develop connections with his brother over the course of the film. He closes out the movie essentially the same person he was when we first met him. And yet Hoffman’s performance is so moving that it doesn’t matter. It helps that the movie uses Raymond’s brother (played by Tom Cruise) as a framing device: he also has limitations when it comes to connecting with people, but he actually does grow and learn. Hoffman makes Raymond utterly fascinating. You really want to understand him, even though you know on some level that Raymond will always be fundamentally unknowable in many ways. It’s world class acting: Hoffman doesn’t just make Raymond a parade of tics and eccentricities. He gives him a soul.
Should have won in 1988: Dustin Hoffman. No question. Although it is notable that Tom Hanks (a future back-to-back Best Actor winner) got his first Best Actor nomination in 1988 for his comedic role in Big.
This bears repeating: in any other decade this performance would have easily taken first place, and it comes in fourth here. That says a lot. Kingsley brings incredible dignity, humanity, and fortitude to a role that is beyond iconic. Not only that, this is a performance with scope: we first meet Gandhi as a young man experiencing racism in his native India upon his return from school in Europe. From there, we follow him all the way to his assassination at age 78. The transformation during that time isn’t just the physicality of aging, although that is part of what makes Kingsley’s work so incredible. It’s a spiritual and personal transformation, from a naive young man to a wise and determined leader of his nation. Gandhi is quite literally a man who changed the world. Kingsley’s performance manages the daunting task of being a fitting tribute, and I can think of no higher compliment than that.
Should have won in 1982: Kingsley found himself up against seasoned, respected actors like Jack Lemmon (Missing), Peter O’Toole (My Favorite Year), Dustin Hoffman (iconic in Tootsie), and Paul Newman (The Verdict). Even with that stacked roster, Kingsley was destined to come out on top.
I cannot tell you how much this hurts. F. Murray Abraham’s slithery turn as Antonio Salieri is one of my all-time favorite performances. Salieri was a composer who worked himself to the bone every day of his life to achieve recognition for his music. He is dignified, proud, and strict. Along comes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a brash and immature prodigy who seems incapable of both dignified behavior and the ability to take anything seriously. And yet incredible, beautiful, heartbreaking music bursts from him–without any apparent effort. In a moment, Salieri feels his spotlight threatened by an upstart he deems unworthy of such talent. And so the most spectacular slow breakdown in cinematic history begins, as Salieri decides to wage war not only against Mozart, but against the very God he believes unfairly bestowed such gifts on an extraordinarily unworthy man. It is a gorgeous, shimmering performance. It also happens to be in my all-time favorite movie and the movie I declared the best of the decade. Abraham’s virtuoso performance is a big part of that. Putting it in third place is terrible. But there are two competitors who cannot be denied, and I can’t let my personal preference stand in the way of that.
Should have won in 1984: you could make a case that Abraham’s costar Tom Hulce (who played Mozart) was the one whose thunder was stolen at the Academy Awards, but Abraham’s Salieri had far greater depth and nuance to him.
Robert De Niro has given us many iconic characters in his career. The young Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Even with those (and more), his turn as boxer Jake La Motta is quite possibly his finest achievement as an actor. Ben Kingsley’s performance as Gandhi has incredible scope, but La Motta is an explosive flash that jolts you and never quite leaves you. The title promises rage, and De Niro more than delivers. La Motta’s destructive temper makes him a celebrated boxer even as it destroys his personal life. It is what makes him great and it is his ultimate downfall. I’m not a fan of Raging Bull (I am one of those people who thinks Ordinary People deserved to win Best Picture instead), and even I have to give it up for Robert De Niro. This is far and away one of the most spellbinding performances in cinematic history. It’s basically the dictionary definition of ‘tour de force.’ It even has a physical transformation, because production halted for several months for De Niro to gain wait to play La Motta in his later years. So why is it number 2? Because there’s another performance in this decade that’s brilliance just can’t be denied.
Should have won in 1980: John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man has also proved to be iconic over time but De Niro deserved the win.
Daniel Day-Lewis has had two shots at the title and came up short both times. With his truly astonishing performance as Irish artist and poet Christy Brown, he finally gets there. What makes this so incredible? Christy Brown had cerebral palsy and grew up in a dirt-poor Irish Catholic family with 21 siblings. No seriously, his mother had 22 children (and Brenda Fricker, who played her, also won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). To say that the odds were stacked against Christy would be a tremendous understatement. In true Daniel Day-Lewis style, the actor completely disappears into the role. Even bigger, he makes it look totally effortless. There have been many movies about people with physical disabilities, but to have one captured so completely is rare. In the entire movie, he never once looks like he’s trying or hits a false note. That’s some Meryl Streep-level capital-A Acting (fittingly enough, Ms. Meryl took the top spot in the Best Actress category in this same decade). So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. I criticized Day-Lewis’ winning turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood for lacking anything resembling actual humanity, so perhaps it is fitting that his work as Christy Brown is one of the most authentically human performances on film. It looks like the third time is, indeed, the charm.
Should have won in 1989: Day-Lewis had stiff competition from Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July), Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society), Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy), and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), but in the end the right man won. Day-Lewis all the way.