That Best Actor Race

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In 1973 the frontrunners for the Oscar for Best Actor were Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) and Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1973) though admittedly Brando’s behavior the previous year in refusing his Oscar for The Godfather (1972) made him an unlikely winner. Come Oscar night winner was a jaw dropper, Jack Lemmon in the little seen Save the Tiger (1973). One year later once again it was Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) and Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974) as the frontrunners, but again the winner was right out of left field, Art Carney in Harry and Tonto (1974). Sometimes being the frontrunner means so little, and other times, as the expected winner you have it in the bag as you walk into the building. Did anyone really doubt that Jeff Bridges was going to lose for Crazy Heart (2009)?
Nope he had won the moment he was nominated because it was his time.
Lemmon won in 1973 likely because they split the vote, and I suspect Carney had the same good fortune in 1974. Through the years there have been clear cut cases of a frontrunner losing the Oscar on the big night to a lesser performance, leaving us shaking our hands in utter disbelief. Sometimes its sheer popularity, Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997) over Robert Duvall in The Apostle (1997), other times sentimental choices, split votes, or God forbid, because the actor is said to be, due, whatever that means.
The sentimental awards drive me crazy. An Oscar given for a life’s work, or to make up for past slights? Is that not what the Lifetime Achievement Awards are for? Or are they truly used for actors, directors and writers that have never won and it allows the Academy the chance to give them an Oscar? Peter O’Toole seemed downright offended by receiving this award did he not? The year Henry Fonda took Best Actor for On Golden Pond (1981) was very similar to Bridges winning; Fonda had won the moment he signed on for that film because the Academy wanted to honor him. Jane Fonda was on a mission to win her dad an Oscar, and she did just that. Fonda was terrific in the film, but does anyone really believe he gave a greater performance than Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City (1981)? Not this critic. The Academy honored Fonda for his career and for not awarding him the Best Actor Oscar in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath (1940). What was incredible was that he had been given a Lifetime Achievement Award the year before!! The same sort of sentimental thing happened in 1992 when Al Pacino won Best Actor for his shrill, wildly over the top work in Scent of a Woman (1992), defeating Denzel Washington for Malcolm X (1992). Having not awarded Pacino for his electrifying work in the seventies, in particular for The Godfather Part II (1974), they give it to him for this terrible overwrought performance!! For my money Pacino’s work in Scent of a Woman (1992) might be the worst performance to ever win the award!! If we venture back further in time we can find many sentimental awards that are simply foolish. I mean Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) wins over Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)??

This year we have two heavyweights likely to be nominated, Brad Pitt for Moneyball (2011) and George Clooney for The Descendants (2011). Pitt is a onetime Best Actor nominee, for his work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007), while Clooney has been in the Best Actor race for his stellar work in Michael Clayton (2007) and more recently for Up in the Air (2009). He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2005 for his work in the political thriller Syriana (2005) and has been a nominee for Best Director, Producer and Co-writer for Good Night and Good Luck (2005), and collected a host of critic’s awards including prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle. Pitt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Twelve Monkeys (1995), winning the Golden Globe for his performance. This year Pitt added the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor to his mantle for his work in Moneyball (2011).

Each is a film heavyweight, each a gifted actor. Each is movie stars who also cross that Paul Newman line into the realm of being a gifted actor. If given a vote, Clooney would be my choice over all actors this year because his performance was the profoundly moving of the year. Never before has he been so nakedly vulnerable, so weak, and so terribly heartbroken. Yet somehow in dealing with what he is dealing with in the film he emerges a decent man, a kind and generous man who put the interests of his children above his own despite anger and rage at being betrayed.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Pitt’s work in Moneyball (2011) very much however I think he has been better before, most notably in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). If Pitt continues to build steam, he could emerge the winner but my concern would be that it is because there is a feeling he is due. What does that mean exactly? I have always taken that it means that the Academy and Hollywood is ready to embrace the actor, to finally welcome them and say you are one of us, despite the fact Pitt has been making billions for the studios for years. Perhaps it is because he has not always been taken seriously as an actor, though he has always been very good, perhaps because they are looking deeper than his looks.

A split vote could benefit Michael Fassbender if he is nominated for Shame (2011) and he should be or Woody Harrelson for his riveting work in Rampart (2011). Harrelson is well enough liked to pull this off, having been in the race before. Fassbender’s work is in a challenging film that makes true demands on its audience, so for him to win would be a hugely progressive move for the Academy.

Come Oscar night, I have a hunch it will be Clooney standing with the little golden man, however I would not be one bit surprised to see Pitt pull off a win himself. No one knows till it’s done.