Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
We only have three weeks left to go before the 93rd Academy Awards and so my series of favorite Oscar nominees and winners is slowly coming to a close. This week, I look at male actors in both leading and supporting categories. Some of these choices were difficult and I may have ultimately put more in than I should have, but there have been a lot of favorite performances nominated (and myriad other favorites that weren’t).
As important as all of the technical crafts are to the art of moviemaking, actors are still an integral part even if stage and the small screen are more effective vehicles for performances. Surprisingly, a category we now think of as ubiquitous at the Oscars wasn’t even in existence at the first Academy Awards. It wasn’t until the 9th Academy Awards for the films of 1936 that the Oscars for performances in supporting roles were separated out from the lead categories. This was done to ensure that great actors who were seldom given chances to lead an ensemble were recognized. On the male side of the ledger, this worked relatively well, but on the female side, ask actors like Agnes Moorhead, Angela Lansbury, and Thelma Ritter how often they were honored when big actors were slumming in the lower category. And that’s a trend that hasn’t abated, though the purposeful pushing of lead performances in support was something that began happening in earnest more recently.
Looking at the great losers alongside the great winners, it became clear in both lead and support, that I much more appreciated losing supporting performances than winning ones. This will be obvious when comparing my list of winners to my list of losers.
Favorite winners: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II (1974), Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People (1980), Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Joe Pesci in Good Fellas (1990), Gene Hackman in Unforgiven (1992), and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Favorite losers: Henry Travers in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Claude Rains in Casablanca (1943), Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Ed Wynn in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Alec Guinness in Star Wars (1977), John Gielgud in Arthur (1981), Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria (1982), Bruce Davison in Longtime Companion (1990), Al Pacino in Dick Tracy (1990), Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992), Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994), Tim Roth in Rob Roy (1995), Tom Cruise in Magnolia (1999), Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls (2006), Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (2008), Woody Harrelson in The Messenger, Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln (2012), Edward Norton in Birdman (2014), and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018).
Now, we get into my five favorites, which is almost evenly split between winners and losers, with losers barely edging out winners.
George Sanders in All About Eve (1950)
George Sanders is one of the few character actors who managed to win an Oscar for his work and it couldn’t have happened in a better film. In All About Eve, the performances were all legendary in one of the all-time great cinematic comedies. Sanders, the acerbic critic who observes the events of the film, was never better and this role may well have been the inspiration for plenty of barb-tongued performances that came after it.
The film is about the backstage rivalry between stage legend Bette Davis and ingénue Anne Baxter. A truly amazing set of performances, it’s no surprised that this film earned five total acting citations, one of the few films to accomplish such a feat. Alongside Davis and Baxter in lead were Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter in support. Being one of the few prominent male characters in the film, Sanders may have lucked out in his pursuit of the Oscar as he had no competition for the Supporting Actor Oscar, which he richly deserved, and the juggernaut of a film, the first ever to score 14 nominations (and one of, to-date, only three films to accomplish this, the others were Titanic and La La Land), and ultimately took home a total of six, including Best Picture.
Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List (1993)
Another Best Picture winner, Schindler’s List was Steven Spielberg’s look at the horrific events of World War II and the German extermination of Jews. The black-and-white film was lead by Liam Neeson, but it was Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goethe who delivered the best performance in the film. If you aren’t familiar with the story (and if you aren’t, you need to watch this movie), Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who provided work for numerous Jews in his munitions factory and, as the war raged on, eventually became their savior.
While the film is ostensibly centered around the rescue and protection of hundreds of Jews, it was a visceral indictment of the German Third Reich and their heinous assault on those whom they saw as different, a struggle the United States very recently came close to doing as well. Fiennes’ performance is richly textured as he almost personifies unrepentant evil, offering support he does not emotionally back and exemplifying all that we’ve come to associate with such awful historical figures. It’s certainly a performance for the ages.
Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights (1997)
Another categorically great performance, this time from an actor who few had ever seen deliver such, Burt Reynolds’ appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was a late-career triumph in a role that had Reynolds playing porn filmmaker Jack Horner. His masterful performance was one of many in a brilliant ensemble that featured Oscar-caliber performances from Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, and more. It was a delectable ensemble in a challenging film that explored an industry so seldom given credit for its professionalism and significance.
Anderson’s film is about rising porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and follows his rise to prominence in the Golden Age of Porn in the 1970s to his 1980s downfall to excess. Boogie Nights is a terrific ensemble piece, the kind of film that Anderson has excelled in making, and gives such wonderful roles to actors who aren’t always given the opportunity to rise to this level of brilliance and it may well be the career pinnacle for Reynolds, the one-time box office king of the same period in which this film is set, the late 1970s to the early 1980s.
Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
When we talk about iconic characters, the list is often populated with figures who were a huge part of our childhoods and well into maturity. Characters like the Wicked Witch of the West, Rocky Balboa, Atticus Finch, and many others, are so engrained in our psyches that we cannot picture the actors in question playing any other role, even though they have and have given so many other worthy performances. Sir Ian McKellen is one of those actors who has created a role on screen that will stand the test of time for its generosity, passion, and likability. As the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, McKellen delivered an indelible performance, for which he was nominated and lost.
Gandalf, as McKellen played him, was a compassionate and fatherly figure to young Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who had to embark on a perilous journey to destroy the One Ring, a vessel of power and potential global dominance, before it fell into the hands of a great evil. McKellen had already starred in X-Men by this time and had given voice to the popular mutant Magneto, a character who had survived a Nazi concentration camp as revealed in the second film in the series, but Gandalf is even more universally revered and will most certainly be the claim to fame most will make when speaking of McKellen’s career. And like those other iconic characters McKellen has delivered numerous other performances that are absolutely brilliant even if few people in society will be able to effectively associate him with them.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
Talk about a performance for the ages. The Joker is an indelible cinematic presence that has won accolades for Cesar Romero in the 1960s TV series, Jack Nicholson in the Tim Burton version, Mark Hamill in various animated adventures, and Joaquin Phoenix in the latest incarnation. And arguably, any of them could be ranked as among the best villain performances on the big or small screen. However, there is one performance that might just stand above them all. No one can match the unhinged brilliance of Heath Ledger’s rendition of the character.
In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second in a trilogy of Batman films that might well be the best of them all, Ledger gives Joker a malevolent glee that his predecessors sometimes played for its comic sensibilities. Whether or not you’re familiar with the comics, it has to be said that Ledger’s big screen interpretation was the closest, at least in terms of menace and physicality. Hamill is undoubtedly better in terms of his vocal delivery, but in the realm of cinema, you can’t really beat Ledger.
While supporting performers weren’t given their own award until 1936, acting was one of the core categories at the original Academy Awards. Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of prominent actors pick up Oscars, though Peter O’Toole claimed no Oscars out of eight nominations. There’s not much more to say here than I’ve already said, so let’s get on with my favorites.
Among winners, my favorites include Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931/32), Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972), Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007) and in Lincoln (2012).
For losers, there’s a larger list, and many of them were robbed of awards against performances that haven’t necessarily aged well in all circumstances. Here are the losers: Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941), Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1943), Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944), James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Design (1951), Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), James Dean in Giant (1956), Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974), Tom Hulce in Amadeus (1984), Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver (1988), Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Edward Norton in American History X (1998), Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. (2002), Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003), Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon (2008), Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009), Michael Keaton in Birdman (2014), Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2017).
With those out of the way, here are my favorite five, where losers clearly hold more positions of prominence in my heart than winners do.
Ray Milland – The Lost Weekend (1945)
As the only winner I chose to highlight, it might be a strange choice when I passed over Gable, Guinness, Peck, Brando, and Nicholson for selection, but watching Milland delve into the thorny issue of alcoholism is a rare feat in bravery. Many actors have taken on such a role and they all have to explore it from similar angles, but Milland may well have defined the best way to tackle it. In The Lost Weekend, Milland plays Don Birnam, an out-of-work writer whose addiction to booze keeps him from being the man he should be. An entire weekend of cat-and-mouse games eventually leads him to the brink of suicide, not being able to help himself while destroying everything around him.
Milland’s performance doesn’t play the drunkenness for laughs and never treats it as a separate disease, he meanders in and out of sobriety, taking the audience on a winding and harrowing ride through perceived sanity and deepening depression. It’s a masterful performance that never makes Don a caricature and explores alcoholism in a compelling and moving way. Having Billy Wilder as your writer and director certainly helps, but The Lost Weekend is every bit carried on Milland’s able shoulders with solid support from Jane Wyman and Phillip Terry.
Peter Sellers – Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The single greatest achievement in comedic acting, Peter Sellers reached his pinnacle with this trio of performances at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the film, the United States and the USSR are on the brink of nuclear annihilation as weary President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) tries to negotiate peace with the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) while a nuclear missile is making its way to Russia.
Sellers also plays the rational British RAF exchange officer trying to convince a paranoid Air Force General (Sterling Hayden) to call off the strike, which he ordered to stop the Soviets from stealing more of his precious bodily fluids through water fluoridation. The titular Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi scientist confined to a wheelchair, is Sellers third character and while the two others are more straight-laced lunatics, Strangelove himself is deranged and quite possibly partially possessed by the evil Nazism still inside his brain. Sellers effortlessly weaves his way through these characters and though he’s surrounded by some brilliant actors, each delivering terrific comic performances, Sellers is simply working on another level, which explains why he is one of the greatest comic actors in history.
Ian McKellen – Gods and Monsters (1998)
McKellen made my list of my favorite supporting actors and his lead performance in Gods and Monsters makes my second list today. In Gods and Monsters, McKellen plays legendary filmmaker James Whale decades after his Hollywood career has faded as he battles depression following a series of strokes that have left him frail. While his dedicated maid (Lynn Redgrave) disapproves of his sexuality, she dutifully attends him in the waning years of his life.
Redgrave earned a deserved Oscar nomination for her supporting performance, but Brendan Fraser should have been in the running for his strong performance as a gardener with whom McKellen’s Whale has become fascinated, asking him to pose for his portraits. McKellen’s performance here is his finest on celluloid, just slightly better than his work on Richard III and quite a bit more impressive than his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. McKellen might well have been an Oscar winner had he not had the misfortune to go up against the clown that was Roberto Benigni, whose Oscar win remains one of the most egregious in the Academy’s storied history of mistakes. McKellen gives Whale depth, emotion, and passion, creating a beautiful and rich performance that remains impressive all these years later.
Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Another of my supporting actor citations makes a return here in Best Actor, that of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, a film that helped change the course of gay portrayals on the big screen, certifying that gay men and women could take on leading roles in Hollywood without fear of reprisal or failure. Ledger’s humane performance as Ennis Del Mar is part of the reason with Jake Gyllenhaal’s wonderful supporting turn an equally important achievement.
Brokeback Mountain is about a summer job Ledger and Gyllenhaal take on to watch sheep in a remote mountain range where loneliness and pain bring these two disparate souls together. Creating characters that were far beyond the stereotypical, limp-wristed portrayals that were pervasive throughout Hollywood history, the pair were integral in the acceptance of gay characters in the mainstream. Ledger’s more distant and haunted portrayal towers above Gyllenhaal’s and remains one of the finest works that the Academy never recognized. Instead, they went with the more popular Phillip Seymour Hoffman as another gay character in Capote, a film about legendary humorist and actor Truman Capote, the epitome of the limp-wristed archetype. Hoffman not only didn’t resemble the man he portrayed, towering above the diminutive author, he was easily surpassed by the performance of Toby Jones in the delayed biopic Infamous, an all around better film. Hoffman’s performance was ill-fitting and felt like a caricature while Ledger’s was a wonderful, nuanced affair.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave (2013)
After watching 12 Years a Slave, much like Schindler’s List before it, the audience is bound to come out changed with a better and more nuanced understanding of the challenging or awful era of American history: slavery. Steve McQueen’s haunting film about a free slave from the American North who is tricked and sold into slavery in the South explores a horrendous part of history and brings with it a performance for the ages. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays that free man, Solomon Northrup, with a compassionate and unrelenting portrayal of a man who must face feelings of betrayal alongside the brutality inflicted on him for his defiance.
Ejiofor, along with a stellar cast, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, give McQueen’s film a resonant quality that seldom portrays its White characters in a positive light, highlighting both the villainous and benevolently racist in equally unflattering light. While we feel relief when Solomon is given even the barest of courtesy, we are reminded through Ejiofor’s performance that even the bravest and most impressive figure can be mistreated and harmed when all we see is the color of their skin. The film’s success is built not just on McQueen’s brilliant directorial capabilities, but on the efforts of its cast, with Ejiofor most deserving of praise.