By John H. Foote
For the length of this piece, I am the Academy. Like Elliott in E. T. (1982) I have absolute power. No voting, nothing, I choose the actor I believe most deserving of the award, the winner for Best Actor. Where there are few comments, I agree, not much to say.
Best Actress is coming later in the week. The piece proved to me that the Academy, quite often, gets it right. In forty-eight years I disagreed with the Academy on Best Actor twenty-nine times, more than half.
Sentimental awards? Nope. Multiple wins, sure if they deserve it, why not? I have never understood a great performance not winning because they had previously won, does that make sense to you? In studying acting, I think it helped give me insight into the art of acting. I use that knowledge in film criticism.
Indulge me, argue with me.
1970 – George C. Scott in Patton
One for the ages. Iconic, turbulent, brilliant. The opening scene alone was award-worthy. As a military genius, Scott was superb in his portrayal of a warrior who loved war, the conflict, strategy, winning, yet mourned those brave men lost. Obsessed with the war he believed he had been reincarnated many times as a soldier.
1971 – Gene Hackman in The French Connection
Gritty, and honest. The most realistic performance of a narcotics detective ever put on screen. Hackman captures the anger cops must feel when losing a criminal, but more the hunger for the chase, his relentless, constant pursuit.
1972 – Marlon Brando in The Godfather
A superb study of quiet, lethal power. At forty-five, Brando convincingly portrayed a man in his Seventies, a man of great power for whom crime happens to be his business. Murder happens to be part of that world, business, never personal.
1973 – Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris
Raw, naked genius. Even more so when you learn how much of the performance was improvised and created by Brando, drawing from his own life. Courageous, indulgent, often searing in its honesty, the actor was never better. An extraordinary performance.
1974 – Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II
Seething with internal rage, Pacino was never better than he is here. How he lost remains a head-scratching mystery because this was, is a performance for the ages. As Michael, he will consolidate his already great power within his world of organized crime, but at terrible costs which leave him forever alone and morally corrupt.
1975 – Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Breathtaking, there is no other word. Among the finest performances in film history. You can imagine no one else in the role, only Nicholson. Perfection. He arrives in a mental hospital and helps the men take back their manhood from the vile, emotionally castrating Nurse Ratched. Just a beautiful piece of acting.
1976 – Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Like a time bomb ticking to its inevitable explosion, this is De Niro as the deeply troubled young man who explodes in a carnage of blood. The actor brings an alarming intensity to the role, something not seen before, not like this. There is a real danger to this character that hits us at once. That he is deluded with access to guns? Makes him beyond dangerous.
1977 – Bruce Dern in Black Sunday
A Vietnam vet convinced by terrorists to help them make a statement. Ashamed of what he did, ashamed of his country, angered by what he lost as a result of the war and being a POW, he is ready to lash out at America. Yet we also see the hurt and pain he carries with him every day. Terrifying, haunting and deeply moving in its raw visceral power.
1978 – Jon Voight in Coming Home
Former college jock returns from war paralyzed from the waist down and lashes out against Vietnam. Voight is astonishing as Luke, a man very aware of the ghosts he carries with him, but also aware others do not have his strengths. His final moments, speaking for the first time about Vietnam have a profound honesty and great power.
1979 – Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer
As a father who learns to be a father, mother and best friend to his six-year-old son, Hoffman is superb. Having been a workaholic, never having time for his boy, when his wife walks out on him, he becomes a good, loving father, always choosing his son over his work, his adoration of the son complete.
1980 – Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
Portraying Jake LaMotta, De Niro captures the angry man in the ring, fighting to belong and then the wasted, overweight slob he became, belonging nowhere. Much was made of the conditioning, the eighty-pound weight gain, but it is the pure fury that we see, and behold. At war with himself more than anyone else, his rage could never be quelled.
1981 – Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City
The old lion roared one last time as a deluded old man thinking he is a hotshot crime Lord, getting in way over his head. Trying to impress a much younger woman he loves, he pretends to be a one time gangster when, truth be told, he was nothing. The best work of his career.
1982 – Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie
Hoffman is astonishing as an actor who pretends to be a woman, lands a part on a major soap, and becomes a celebrated spokesperson for women’s rights. He becomes a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man. Incredible. One of the screen’s greatest performance.
1983 – Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies/ Eric Roberts in Star 80
A TIE!!!!… Duvall is terrific as a washed-up country singer climbing his way out of alcoholism in a quiet very sad performance. Roberts is seething rage as Paul Snider, the husband of Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratton whom he murdered and raped (in that order) before killing himself. It is impossible to decide who was Best and ties happen.
1984 – F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus
A veteran actor in the role of a lifetime and he never disappoints, throwing himself into the role. As Salieri, court composer of Vienna, he is blessed and cursed with the knowledge that the music of Mozart is immortal, while his own will be forgotten in his lifetime. Brilliant.
1985 – Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor
As a dimwitted Brooklyn hitman for the mob, Nicholson is very funny yet lethal in his work. Nicholson takes risks, speaking in a thick, authentic Brooklyn accent, in creating a man who is a slow burn, he will get there, but on his own time. A very funny, dark, great performance.
1986 – Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa
As a toadish driver who falls in love with a high-end hooker, Hoskins is heartbreaking and vulnerable. Helping her search the mean streets for her lover, he realizes, slowly, she never will love him, but he has a chance to show her how much he loves her. A terrific performance.
1987 – Jack Nicholson in Ironweed
Stunning as a hobo who left his family after dropping his infant son, killing the child, Nicholson (and Streep) rise high above the depressing script. Nicholson gives great insight into what those poor souls walking the streets talking to themselves might be experiencing as he sees the ghosts of his past. One of his best.
1988 – Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning
As the tough, break the rules FBI man looking for killers in a southern town, Hackman is remarkable as a grinning old boy with a knowing mean streak. In a world of racism in sixties America, it sickens him so he lashes out at the bigoted lawmen in the small town. What they do not realize is he grew up in a town like this. He knows them better than they know themselves.
1989 – Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot
Brilliant as Irish artist Christy Brown, Born with cerebral palsy but who through a fierce life force refused to let it hold him down or limit him in any way. Day-Lewis lived the role, refusing to walk or answer to his real name. Watch the fury in his eyes, he captures what drove him to greatness.
1990 – Robin Williams in Awakenings
Cast against type as a gentle, kindly doctor, painfully shy, Williams was never better. Based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Saks, Williams was superb as a dedicated physician who finds a way to awaken long-term coma victims. Unlike anything he had done before, Williams superbly captures the spirit of a healer committed to helping.
1991 – Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
In twenty-two minutes of screen time, Hopkins dominated the film because you are always thinking about him. He portrays the serial killer as a perfect gentleman, cultured, mannerly, who will if he gets the chance to tear your throat out and eat you. The performance became part of pop culture, just remarkable.
1992 – Denzel Washington in Malcolm X
As the militant civil rights leader, X went through several evolutions in his life, all beautifully captured by Washington. There are times you will swear you are watching footage of the real man, but I assure you every electrifying frame is Washington. Just a towering performance.
1993 – Tom Hanks in Philadelphia
Portraying an AIDS-afflicted lawyer fired from his firm, Hanks is heartbreaking as a man fighting for his right to be included. The first major film to deal with AIDS, Hanks gives a lovely performance as a man who understands where his life is going, and the cost. Hanks beautifully brings a fighters spirit to a man who knows he can never win his fight for life, but maybe he can protect his civil rights.
1994 – Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
An original, fine performance from one of our greatest actors. Listen to him, watch him, he is superb. Forrest takes us on a historical journey through modern American pop culture through Elvis to Reagan, meeting three Presidents along the way. As the dim-witted but entirely noble man, Hanks is flawless.
1995 – Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking
Like a King Cobra sizing up its prey, weaving back and forth, Penn creates a dangerous, though doomed young man seeking redemption. That he manages to make us care for this monster is a credit to his genius as an actor. Remember Penn gives much of this performance seen through a prison visitors window, using his expressive face and eyes. His confession to the sister is shattering in its raw, visceral naked power.
1996 – Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire
Cruise is brilliant here as a sports agent trying to be better at his job while being a better person, husband, and stepfather. It is the most emotional work of his career, and he deserved to win. Everything he does well as an actor was at work here and he shone ever so bright. Period.
1997 – Robert Duvall in The Apostle
Duvall gives a performance of volcanic energy as a flawed preacher who flees into the Deep South after accidentally murdering a man. Seeking redemption, he finds it building a church for a devout black community. An astonishing work, directed by the actor, Duvall gives one of the screen’s greatest performances.
1998 – Edward Norton in American History X
You all know the moment. He has killed two young men, the police have arrived. He turns to his brother, muscles rippling, the swastika on his chest clearly visible and he raises his eyebrows in mock triumph before smiling. Pure, evil, power. A devastating performance.
1999 – Russell Crowe in The Insider
Unrecognizable, chubby, completely under the skin of cigarette whistleblower Jeffrey Wiegand was interviewed by Sixty Minutes, then his life began to unravel. Crowe is superb in the film, supported beautifully by Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace. Crowe won the following year but deserved it for this.
2000 – Tom Hanks in Cast Away
Hanks deserved to be a three-time winner for this stunning work as a FedEx executive who is stranded on a deserted island when his plane crashes. The actor went through a startling transformation, becoming a version of primal man on that island. Superb on every level, Hanks is unforgettable.
2001 – Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
Portraying the rascally old patriarch of the clan, alienated from his family, he concocts lies and schemes to get into their good graces, but only further alienates them. Hackman is wonderful in the film, trying everything but the truth to get them to love him. He was never better.
2002 – Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt
In Portraying his age for the first time in his career, Nicholson was extraordinary as the meek and quiet retired insurance actuary. Losing his wife within a week of retiring, he hits the road to attend his daughter’s wedding but ends up learning more about himself than he ever thought possible. A beautiful, warm performance.
2003 – Sean Penn in Mystic River
Portraying the father of a murdered teenager, Penn is coiled fury, the poster boy for fathers of murdered children. Near miraculous. The rage he unleashes when they find his daughter is overwhelming, but not near as frightening as his constant seething anger as he closes in on the killer. Scary good.
2004 – Paul Giamatti in Sideways
The finest comedic performance since Hoffman in Tootsie (1982), Giamatti is Myles, a failed writer, Away with his friend Jack for one last blow out before Jack marries. Giamatti is quietly heartbreaking, telling us everything we need to know about him as he describes Pinot noir. Superb.
2005 – Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain
The final scene breaks my heart each time I see it. He is living in a trailer, his lover Jack long dead. After his daughter leaves he opens a closet to reveal Jacks shirt and a postcard of where they fell in love, Brokeback Mountain. His eyes fill with tears, and so many emotions go across his face, heartache, sadness, fear, loneliness, hurt…in an instant. A magnificent performance.
2006 – Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland
Idi Amin Dada, the dictator of Uganda was a monstrosity of a human being. Here he is brought to vivid life by the great Forest Whitaker who somehow brings a degree of dark humanity to this appalling human being. The actor is flawless in his creation of this madman who possessed no regard for human life.
2007 – Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Stalking the screen like a panther seeking prey, his voice sounding like John Huston, Day-Lewis gives what I believe to be the greatest male performance ever given. He has gained his wealth through a sheer contempt for humanity and mankind. Dark and magnificent, you cannot take your eyes off him. And that voice, both familiar yet brand new.
2008 – Sean Penn in Milk
Nothing he did previous prepared us for Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to office. Constantly smiling, filled with hope, it is extraordinary watching him in the role. He does not act Milk, he inhabits the tragic soul of this good and decent man. One of the screens greatest performances.
2009 – Viggo Mortensen in The Road
Near silent, this haunting physical performance dominates this bleak, dark film about a father and son on the road in a post-apocalyptic future. Mortensen is superb as the father trying to forget that which was as he gets his boy to a warmer climate as the earth dies around them. Extraordinary in its great power and one of the great silent and physical performances on screen.
2010 – Jeff Bridges in True Grit
As Rooster Cogburn, Bridges brings much of the swagger that John Wayne brought to the role yet is less mythical, more realistic. Fearless, tough as nails and quick with a gun, Cogburn is a Born lawman in an ugly, often cruel west. His courage is outdone only by the young girl he has with him, searching for her father’s killer. He won the previous year but deserved it for this.
2011 – George Clooney in The Descendants
Brilliant. Clooney was never better than he is here as a cuckolded husband who is about to lose his cheating wife to death while working out a huge land deal that would make his wealthy family, richer. The startling pain he is going through is etched on his face, his goodbye to his wife will rip your heart out. Imagine hating the one you love Best knowing they are going to die?
2012 – Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Before the first ten minutes of the film has gone by, we have encountered Lincoln, listened to him speak, been in his presence. Day-Lewis brings to life, makes flesh the most beloved President in history, creating a flawed, yet honourable man trying to end slavery while ending a war that tore apart the nation. A great, remarkable performance.
2013 – Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street
Hyper-energetic, his body and mind running on speed, DiCaprio is superb as financial rock star Jordan Belfort. Electrifying. DiCaprio blends his gifts as an actor with those of being a charismatic movie star to create Belfort, who made hundreds of millions, illegally. You can always see his mind working, even when he is so blotto stoned his mind thinks only of moving.
2014 – Michael Keaton in Birdman
The role of an actor who earned fame playing a superhero before walking away to do Theatre must have felt very familiar to Keaton. The actor had a great run as Batman before leaving to do more substantial work. He portrays an actor doing that exact thing here and is entirely wonderful. Insecure, paranoid, yet constantly driven by ambition.
2015 – Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
In this near-silent performance, the actor is magnificent in his use of his body and face. A powerful piece of courageous acting from one of the best at work. Using the outdoors as a supporting character, allowing it to beat him and torment him, the actor is simply extraordinary throughout. Like Mortensen in The Road (2009), a stunning quiet and physical performance, simmering with a seething rage.
2016 – Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
His portrayal of grief is unmatched through cinema history, a deeply moving, stunning piece of acting that left many weeping in the cinema, me among them. Affleck goes deep, slipping under the skin of the character, a father who loses his children in a fire, which kills him inside. The key scene takes place on a city street between him and his ex-wife.
2017 – James Franco in The Disaster Artist
In Portraying Tommy Wiseau, the Ed Wood of his generation, a terrible actor and director who has become infamous. His heritage and nationality known only to him, his age a mystery, Wiseau is wealthy, mysteriously so and wants to be famous so he funds a movie, which has become a success despite its shortcomings. The Room is awful, and everyone knows it, but it gave Wiseau the fame he so craved. Franco is sublime.
2018 — Tell you in December…
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.