December is upon us, but as the nights grow cold the Oscar race heats up day by day. The studios are now in full-speed-ahead campaign mode, The Social Network and 127 Hours and The Fighter and The King's Speech all up in our face, and in the blink of an eye 2010 will be over followed by the nominations and the big show, during which lots of the wrong people will win. Coming off a decade where Chicago and Crash won Best Picture it hardly needs be said that the Academy can fuck up and fuck up big time, but if I tried to call them out one award at a time I'd be here all week. So I've decided to specifically highlight eleven instances between 2000 and 2009 where the Academy gave Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, or Best Supporting Actress to the wrong damn person.
I'm not gonna get into all the deserving folks who weren't even nominated (and in a few cases, such as Sam Rockwell for Moon, should have been nominated and won); I considered doing such a post and even started making a list but once it ballooned past thirty people I shelved the topic for another day. So note that this list only includes cases where someone else in the existing pool of nominees should have had their name read from the envelope come Oscar night. Starting with the least egregious and counting down to the appalling and inexcusable:
11. Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) over Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler) for Best Supporting Actress, 2008
While Penelope Cruz and Marisa Tomei were both playing stereotypes — Cruz a fiery Spanish sex goddess and Tomei a stripper with a heart of gold — Tomei brought a soulfulness to her part that Cruz's entertaining but shallow lustiness never came within a mile of. I won't go so far as to say Tomei was playing on an even level with Mickey Rourke, but if you look at the bar scene where the two discuss their shared love of the 80s and hatred of the 90s you'll see that she more than holds her own, something I doubt Cruz could have pulled off. Had Rebecca Hall been nominated in Cruz's place for her subtle and understated work as Vicky Cristina Barcelona's titular Vicky it'd be a much tougher call.
10. Jim Broadbent (Iris) over Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) for Best Supporting Actor, 2001
This is one of several cases on this list where the critical elite and Academy would pretend to blanch in horror at my mere suggestion to cover up the fact that they know I'm right. Of course McKellen was never going to win — he was in a genre movie for Christ's sake, a genre movie! — but while I respect Broadbent's work and acknowledge his talent (the only reason this misfire is ranked as low as it is), bringing sadness and oldness to your portrayal of a sad old man is nothing compared to dominating a beloved, iconic, half-century old literary character so perfectly that it's now hateful to imagine him being played by anyone else. Any jackass filmmaker and jackass actor can tell me and even show me that a character is powerful, but McKellen's booming, theatrical Gandalf is one of the few to truly convince me. "BILBO BAGGINS! DO NOT TAKE ME FOR SOME CONJURER OF CHEAP TRICKS."
9. Kate Winslet (The Reader) over Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) for Best Actress, 2008
I've said a hundred times and I'll say a hundred more how much I hate The Reader. The cheapest, coldest, most soulless Oscar bait in years and the Academy fell for it hook, line, and sinker, shoving infinitely more worthy nominees out of five categories including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and of course Best Actress. Yes Kate, you're a former Nazi struggling with illiteracy, a bloo bloo, a bloo bloo. Wake me when it's over. Anne Hathaway is one of the most likable and appealing people in the world so it's remarkable how, sans any Monster-esque makeup, she was able to make Rachel Getting Married's protagonist Kym the most awkward and repulsive screen character of 2008. It's that rare performance devoid of a shred of ego.
8. Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) over Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) for Best Actress, 2004
But don't get the wrong idea; I love Kate Winslet outside of shitty Oscar bait, particularly as Clementine Kruczynski in Charlie Kaufman's masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I've endured so many soulless, artificial onscreen romances that it was a visceral thrill to watch an actress give a romantic movie a warm, beating heart while grabbing you by yours. I have nothing against Hilary Swank, but playing up a southern accent and getting punched is something a lot of actresses can pull off. Making the frame come truly alive takes something magic only a few people have. Winslet has it. Too bad she won her Oscar for such a calculated role rather than the one she really deserved it for.
7. Sean Penn (Mystic River) over Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) for Best Actor, 2003
Here's another in the "critical blasphemy" category. I mean, c'mon, Sean Penn screamed in Mystic River. He screamed! No other actor on earth could hope to measure up to the brilliance of screaming! I guess Johnny Depp will just have to live with being arguably the only actor in the past ten years to create a truly iconic character directly for the screen, one he crafted the unique mannerisms and speech patterns of largely by himself. Someone should tell all young wannabe actors that their goal shouldn't be to create a legendary character that hundreds of millions of people want to see and is so immense a franchise is built entirely around him, but to shove a cop and go "IS THAATT MY DAUGHTER IN THHEEERRREE!!!!!"
6. Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) over Mark Wahlberg (The Departed) for Best Supporting Actor, 2006
I really don't know what happened here. It's not that Arkin was bad. He was perfectly amusing. He earned some chuckles. But his junkie grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine was not in any way, shape, or form a performance that warranted Academy Award attention, which is why he's so high up on this list — the sheer power of my "what the fuck?!" when they read his name on February 25th, 2007. Wahlberg on the other hand was brilliant, absolutely hilarious and bursting with incredible energy that you see onscreen a few times a decade. I've had my problems with Wahlberg before and especially since (his performance in The Happening is one of the worst of all time), but Scorsese unlocked something magic in the man that he thoroughly deserved to take home a statue for.
5. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) over Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) for Best Supporting Actor, 2003
Is The Last Samurai a movie that laughs maniacally while shitting all over history? Yes. Is is a movie that glorifies the exact same god worship of the Emperor of Japan that would contribute to the Japanese atrocities of WWII as being something heroic? Yes. Is it Dances with Wolves set in another country? Yes. Is it crazy entertaining despite all this? Oh yes. While Tom Cruise's name may be above the title the real stars are the gorgeous cinematography and Ken Watanabe as the samurai lord Katsumoto Moritsu, arguably the best interpretation of the wise-and-calm-until-he's-suddenly-badass warrior monk since Alec Guinness gave us Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977. I saw Mystic River in theaters but I honestly don't remember much about Tim Robbins. He was serviceable and forgettable. Watanabe owned the screen, and his final scene is a thing of haunting beauty.
4. Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) over Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) for Best Supporting Actress, 2007
I should clarify that me ranking Amy Ryan this high doesn't necessarily mean that I thought this performance was better than, say, Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. What it does mean is that the gulf between the performance that should have won and the one that did in this case is immense. Tilda Swinton showed up in Michael Clayton, she hit her marks and said her lines and served the story, nothing more and nothing less, and I forgot everything about her part within a week of seeing the film. She no more deserved an Academy Award for it than Ben Kingsley does for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
But as Helene McCready, a Boston mother grieving for her kidnapped daughter, Amy Ryan stole Gone Baby Gone out from underneath actors like Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris and ran away with it. If you compare Helene McCready to Ryan's characters Beadie Russell from The Wire and Holly Flax from The Office it becomes clear how talented she is; the vastly different yet completely believable ways these characters walk, talk, interact, and carry themselves make it startling to realize they're all played by one person. Ryan's an absolute fucking chameleon, a brilliant actor who deserves more big screen work, and she should already have an Oscar on her shelf.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) over Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) for Best Actor, 2005
Two things for the record: one, I'm a big Philip Seymour Hoffman fan. He's one of the best actors alive and had he been up against anyone other than Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh I would have been livid over him losing Best Supporting Actor for Charlie Wilson's War in 2007. And two, this is not some Johnny-come-lately "oh, Heath Ledger's dead, time to glorify him now!" kind of thing; I called bullshit over this award on Oscar night five years ago exactly as aggressively as I'm about to right now.
With that out of the way, bullshit, Academy! Brokeback Mountain is no great screenplay, but the power of the cinematography, the score, and especially Ledger's performance as Ennis Del Mar, a flawless portrait of American masculinity streaked with confusion and shame, lift it to the level of art. It's understandable — a shame, but understandable — that so many sexually uncomfortable Americans write off such a great film as "that gay cowboy movie," but if nothing else it should be acknowledged that no one else is likely to give a better gay cowboy performance in my lifetime. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote impersonation may have been accurate but it had 1% of Ennis Del Mar's heart and soul.
2. Sean Penn (Milk) over Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) for Best Actor, 2008
Mickey Rourke was never gonna win. I denied it at the time, but in retrospect I was like a circa 2008 Republican pretending McCain had a shot. Rourke was playing a dim, brutish, Z-grade entertainer and up against an Oscar favorite playing a real gay rights hero who was tragically gunned down in his prime. The Best Actor race was over before it began. But if you put aside the politics and the "playing a real person" bonus it's clear to anyone who sits up and looks at the screen that there's no comparison. Sean Penn put on a gay lisp and got the job done. Mickey Rourke bared his soul and gave one of the best performances of all time, something rich and stirring and emotional, something unprecedented in sports cinema outside of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. You only need to look at the trailer to see how good he is, but the kicker is that unlike most trailers they haven't sliced out the highlights; he's simply that amazing for two straight hours. I actually rank the performance very slightly above Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but Day-Lewis still gets the last laugh of the 00s.
1. Adrien Brody (The Pianist) over Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) for Best Actor, 2002
Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York is the greatest screen performance of all time. There's no "but" or "except for" or "of the decade" at the end of that sentence. The greatest. Better than anything Brando or Olivier or Welles ever did. Sweeps aside De Niro in Raging Bull as you or I might shoo a fly. Observe and weep for the inferiority of all other actors on earth.
I know that when you use phrases like "best ever" when it comes to film it's considered a major faux pas among the critical establishment to be referring to anything made after the 70s, with the 40s or 50s strongly preferred, but I don't give a shit and I will never again be caught reducing Bill the Butcher to being "one of" the best performances ever. The power, the terror, and the intensity of it is singular, has not been matched, and may never be matched. It's almost too good, devouring the movie it's part of and making every scene without the Butcher feel like an insufferable slog when they'd be perfectly good scenes in any other film. Is Gangs of New York a masterpiece? Not quite. It's great but falls just short of that plateau. But no movie since the advent of film has showcased superior acting.
Adrien Brody in The Pianist? He was okay, I guess. Comparing the two is like an arm wrestling match between 80s Schwarzenegger and a sickly toddler: it's cute to pretend there's a competition, but there isn't.