Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some revisionist Oscars.

It was recently pointed out to me that until Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor trophy for his turn in Silence of the Lambs, no actor had ever won that award portraying an evil guy. For the most part, not even an unpleasant one. They had all been Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous types. (Perhaps only Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest broke the rule.) Since Hannibal Lecter, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn have both managed to make Oscar gold out of fairly despicable characters. But, I thought - this is a travesty! There must be some injustice in Oscar history! And it turns out, there is. Here is my revisionist take, awarding Oscars to some reprehensible characters:

1931: Winner - Frederich March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Should have been - Peter Lorre (M). Of course, March played at least half a bad guy. But Peter Lorre played a character that was through-and-through evil, a child molester and murderer. That is still highly controversial material today (think The Woodsman). And in 1931, Lorre gave the performance of his life (which would have been the performance of ANYONE's career) in this film. The final scene, where he is dragged into the basement of an apartment building by an angry mob and put on trial, is one of the most anguished scenes in movie history. Despicable, but somehow human, Peter Lorre's child killer in M is one of the greatest performances of all time.

1949: Winner - Broderick Crawford (All The King's Men). Should have been - James Cagney (White Heat). Not to knock Crawford's performance, and in point of fact he was a bit of a reprehensible character by the end of that film. But Cagney in White Heat was the definition of gangster. Terrifying, insane, tough as nails but tormented and vulnerable, with an unhealthy and bizarre relationship with his mother. Cagney made a career out of playing such characters, starting with the brilliant The Public Enemy. But it wasn't until he portrayed George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a feel-good yay-America film, that he managed to get his Oscar. He deserved it far more for this one. Made it ma! Top of the world!

1958: Winner - David Niven (Separate Tables). Should have been - Orson Wells (Touch of Evil). Wells should also, of course, have won in 1941 for playing that Charles Foster Kane guy. (That one went to Gary Cooper for Sergeant York.) But in 1958, Niven gave a performance that was decent at best, and Wells was absolutely electrifying as a corrupt cop in Touch of Evil. Come to think of it, his role in The Third Man should have won him an Oscar as well, except that it came in 1949, so he also lost to Crawford. And my money's still on Cagney.

1960: Winner - Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry). Should have been - Anthony Perkins (Psycho). Come on! This is one of the biggest no-brainers out there, isn't it? Has there ever been a scarier bad guy than Perkins? Psycho is considered by some to be the greatest movie ever made, and by most to be Hitchcock's finest film. (I happen to disagree - I like Vertigo.) And Norman Bates was certainly the most enduring character in movie history until Lecter showed up. (James Bond doesn't count - he was in a series of films.) Anthony Perkins deserved this award as much as anyone has deserved a Best Actor statue ever.

1968: Winner - Cliff Robertson (Charly). Should have been - Henry Fonda (Once Upon A Time In The West). Henry Fonda's portrayal of "Frank" in Sergio Leone's brilliant spaghetti western was the best bad-guy performance until the 1970s. This was also the best western Leone ever made. Yes, even better than The Good The Bad And The Ugly. If only Clint Eastwood had signed up for this one instead of Charles Bronson. Fonda's Frank was cold, violent, sadistic and terrifying. This was just about the only time in his career Fonda played a bad guy, and it's too bad. This was his best performance ever, and he would have made an excellent bad guy in dozens of other movies. (This was also Charles Bronson's best movie. Well, until Death Wish Three.)

1971: Winner - Gene Hackman (The French Connection). Should have been - Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange). No disrespect to Hackman. I love that man, and The French Connection was as good as it got for him. However, this particular year, there WAS a better actor out there, and it was McDowell. No one embodied the ol' ultraviolence quite like McDowell, nobody since has been able to be quite as creepy while eating hospital food, and his performance in this film is embodied with such a sense of evil and charisma that I would not be surprised if Anthony Hopkins studied McDowell a bit to come up with Hannibal Lecter.

1983: Winner - Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies). Should have been - Al Pacino (Scarface). Duvall is a great actor, but he had better roles then this one in what has proved to be a forgettable flim. No, this year the award should have gone to his Godfather co-star, as Pacino was brilliant in Scarface. I am not one of those Scarface fanatics who believe that all movies revolve around this one and that nothing is cooler than having that Pacino shooting everything poster up in your dorm room, but his performance in this film was as good as anything he'd ever done.

Just a few thoughts there. Jack Nicholson in The Shining was fantastic in 1980, but DeNiro was much better in Raging Bull. John Wayne deserved an Oscar for his role in The Searchers, but Alec Guinness was doing his Bride On The River Kwai thing that year. And Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo came up against Laurence Olivier in Hamlet in 1948. So there are some others, but I have singled out what I believe to be the greatest injustices done to actors by Oscar, simply because they were not playing the hero role. Then again, were it up to me, James Cagney would have fourteen Oscars in his career, Christopher Walken would have seven, and I would nominate John Malkovich every year just because. Be thankful I don't have a vote. Yet.


  1. To get the flavour of the times in American gangster, go back and watch the French Connection 1 and II. These movies are simply brilliant and again Denzel does a great job

  2. French Connection is being shown on The Movie Network right now, leading up to the Oscars and all. Love those movies.