You might say I've got Oscars on the brain, because today's edition is comprised of occasions when the Academy absolutely got it right, in terms of awarding acting performances. I've talked before about times Oscar has snubbed a great performance, and about shocking upsets, but there have certainly been times the right person won for the right role. In fact there have been years when I've decided, "Regardless what wins Best Picture and all the others, as long as this person wins this award I'll be happy." Below is the list, in chronological order.
1. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull)
The Academy may have dropped the ball in many other categories from 1980 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor), but one award that absolutely went to the right guy was the Best Actor statuette. Robert DeNiro's tormented, violent turn as middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta remains his most famous performance, and it's also the most noted example of an actor altering his body shape for a film (DeNiro gained about sixty pounds for the later scenes in which LaMotta lets himself go and becomes a seedy nightclub owner). Had anyone else walked away with this award it would've been a crime.
Key Scene: Probably the most purely visceral scene is the one in which LaMotta goes to prison and throws a self-loathing-induced fit, pounding the crap out of the cement wall and wailing like a madman. I can't imagine an actor having to endure more than a single take of this scene.
2. Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda)
A rare case of a comedic performance outshining the competition, Kevin Kline's brilliantly hilarious turn as Otto provided dozens of quotable lines and managed to steal the show from comedy legends John Cleese and Michael Palin. Kline brought to life a dimwitted character in the smartest way possible, with an amazingly nuanced, uproarious delivery.
Key Scene: Probably my favorite moment (and my favorite to quote) is the profanity-laced chain of insults Otto hurls at Archie (Cleese) after catching Archie with Wanda. Such a magnificent tirade.
3. Kathy Bates (Misery)
Stephen King's thriller about a crazed fan taking her favorite author hostage was skillfully adapted by Rob Reiner in 1990, and the main reason the movie version worked so well was the performance of Kathy Bates. A relative unknown at the time of her casting, Bates adeptly alternates between matronly warmth and terrifying emotional instability. She is totally effective as this obsessed manic-depressive, but in a very realistic way, making the whole ordeal that much more harrowing.
Key Scene: Upon learning her guest Paul Sheldon has been out of his room, she ties Paul up and drugs him, and explains both her discovery, and his punishment. The calmness she conveys as she prepares to hobble him is truly chilling.
4. Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs)
Speaking of chilling, Anthony Hopkins brought to life possibly the most famous cinematic serial killer of all time, Hannibal Lecter. Defying genre conventions, Hopkins portrays Lecter not as a raving lunatic, but as a soft-spoken, well-mannered gentleman. His tranquil gravitas puts one in mind of a dangerous predator at rest, and we can only imagine how frightening he'll be when he strikes. That Hopkins won the Best Actor award for only about 27 minutes of screen time is a testament to how effective his performance is, and how his presence can be felt even when he's not in the scene.
Key Scene: Has to be Hannibal's introduction. We've spent the first ten or so minutes of the film being told about the character and what he's capable of, and Clarice's long walk down the asylum hallway to his cell conjures palpable dread. When we finally see Lecter, he's standing at attention, waiting for Clarice (and us), and looking directly into the camera. From that moment on we're petrified of him.
5. Frances McDormand (Fargo)
Another film in which the lead character has relatively skimpy screen time is Fargo. Frances McDormand crafts a tremendously memorable, likable character who accompanies us through the story, despite not being introduced until roughly a half hour into the film. Marge Gunderson is shown as vulnerable due to her pregnancy, but also displays fireplug toughness as the intrepid police chief who cracks the mysterious kidnapping case and never wavers even as she confronts one of the culprits.
Key Scene: The second time Marge interrogates Jerry Lundegaard about the missing car creates a wonderful, shifting dynamic between the two characters - as Jerry becomes more agigated, Marge becomes more surefooted in her questioning, until Jerry flees the scene and Marge is baffled.
6. Charlize Theron (Monster)
The stunningly gorgeous Charlize Theron seemed to literally transform into serial killer Aileen Wuornos for this film, gaining thirty pounds and becoming almost unrecognizable under the impressive makeup. But it's her performance that shines through; Theron becomes this severely damaged, misguided woman and makes the audience sympathize with her in spite of her heinous crimes. Wuornos became a serial killer almost by accident, killing her first victim in self-defense, and then realized that murder could be a much more lucrative business than low-level prostitution. She is motivated mostly by affection for her lover Selby, and is devastated when Selby breaks it off and then helps the authorities convict her. This is absolutely the performance of Theron's career.
Key Scene: Aileen's final victim shows genuine empathy for her and attempts to plead his way out, making it nearly impossible for her to go through with the killing. Aileen nearly implodes with remorse for what she's about to do, resulting in a heartbreaking scene.
7. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
One of the greatest actors of all time, DDL has the ability to completely disappear into every role. It's almost impossible to see the actor in any of the characters he portrays, and probably his most admired performance is as oil mogul Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis invents Plainview as a cold, calculating businessman who is essentially devoid of human compassion and whose every decision is guided by greed. It was amazing to hear Daniel Day-Lewis out of character at the Oscars that year, because in real life his voice and mannerisms are nothing at all like the character of Plainview. This performance was a complete assimilation.
Key Scene: Late in the film, Plainview's adopted son H.W. announces that he's leaving to open his own oil company, and a perpetually drunk Plainview scornfully drops the bomb that H.W. isn't actually his child. The hatefulness of Plainview's half of this exchange is palpable and saddening.
8. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Christopher Nolan created what is widely considered the definitive comic book adaptation with 2008's The Dark Knight. Its popularity is due in no small part to the iconic performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, a sadistic, gleefully destructive sociopath who duels with Batman over the very soul of Gotham City. Ledger took this world-famous, over-the-top villain and created a wholly original spin, making him both funny and horrifying (He famously kept an in-character diary for a full month to prepare for the role). He was also largely responsible for the makeup design, even applying the messy white facepaint himself. His untimely death sadly limited the character to this one film, but his incarnation of The Joker will forever be remembered as one of the great movie villians.
Key Scene: The proper introduction of The Joker occurs early in the film, at a summit held by the city's top criminals. The Joker unceremoniously kills one of them with a pencil, emasculates everyone in the room for "going soft," and then has the temerity to demand half of their cumulative savings to rid them of Batman. I'm not sure there's ever been a more note-perfect establishment of a major character.
9. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
In 2009, seemingly from out of nowhere, came this wonderful little Austrian actor to play Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's revisionist World War II film. Waltz's diminutive size doesn't in any way detract from the character's cerebral malevolence. Landa is always one step ahead of the protagonists, and as it turns out, his own superiors. Waltz has created a villian whose powers of intimidation are mostly the result of his prodigious intelligence and deductive reasoning, yet he's also the most charming character in the film. Discovering the unknown Waltz was truly a coup on the part of Tarantino.
Key Scene: The opening sequence is a masterful example of a script building tension without the audience even realizing it. Waltz projects humble geniality for most of the scene and suddenly shifts to deadly sternness in questioning a French farmer about whether he is hiding Jews under his house. When this scene was over I'd assumed this was Waltz's only appearance in the film and I was quite dejected until he showed up again an hour later.
10. Christian Bale (The Fighter)
After years of being ignored by the Academy, cinematic chameleon Christian Bale was finally rewarded with an Oscar for his portrayal of former boxer Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter. Now addicted to crack, emaciated, and missing several teeth, Dicky works as a trainer for his brother Micky, but his drug habit consistently gets in the way and creates family tension. Welshman Bale adopted a flawless Massachusetts accent and dropped thirty pounds for the role, and at times is unrecognizable. It was great to see this remarkable actor finally rewarded by the Academy.
Key Scene: I was blown away by Bale's performance from the opening scene, where an HBO crew is interviewing Dicky and Micky for a documentary. Bale's adopted accent, body language, and mannerisms feel startlingly authentic, and this scene sets the tone for the entire performance.
Well that about wraps it up for today. Comment below with any acting Oscars you think were well-deserved. Thanks for reading!