By John H. Foote
If you think it does not help to pass away before the Oscar nominations are announced, think again. I am not trying to be either crass nor vulgar and I too mourn the loss of Chadwick Boseman, especially after seeing his astounding range in two films this year – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Da Five Bloods – the former a lead role, the latter supporting. Most of us thought that he would be nominated in both categories, but the Academy kept it to just one, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
And he will win. But should he?
I possess nothing but admiration and respect for the work of Boseman, honestly, and like so many others I mourn him. But I ask an honest question.
Peter Finch won Best Actor in Network (1976) after dying of a heart attack a couple of months before the awards were given out. No one was surprised he was nominated, though I was certainly surprised he was nominated for Leading Actor and not Supporting because his role was clearly supporting. Finch was superb as a once great newsman reduced to being a sideshow on TV in a film that predicted the realization of radical reality television, and not for the good. Network was critically hailed as one of the year’s best films, many critics topping their annual 10 best list with it, while All the President’s Men topped the others. It seemed the two were neck and neck for Best Picture.
But the second Finch was announced as a Best Actor nominee the Oscar was his. His co-star William Holden, who actually gave a stronger though less showy performance in Network, would have been a finer winner. But the greatest performance of the year and, as the years have proven a performance, for the ages was young Robert De Niro as the crazed cabbie in Martin Scorsese’s unsettling Taxi Driver (1976). Between he and Finch there remains no comparison. In fact, Finch was at the bottom of the five nominees, and his inclusion saw to it a couple of other truly great performances were not nominated! Sylvester Stallone received his first and only nomination for Best Actor in Rocky (1976), while Italian great Giancarlo Giannini rounded out the category in Seven Beauties (1976). The inclusion of Finch in this category rather than supporting saw to it John Wayne was not nominated for his haunting performance in The Shootist (1976), his final film, nor Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976) a superb thriller with Hoffman a historian being chased by living history, a Nazi.
Further back James Dean was nominated twice after his death in 1955, the first time arguably deserved for East of Eden (1955) but the second, no chance it should have been there for Leading Actor for Giant (1956). George Stevens found the perfect way to utilize Dean’s electrifying personality and gifts, put him in a supporting role so he did not intentionally steal scenes (which he did with deliberation), earning the wrath of his fellow actors and often directors. Casting Dean as the surly ranch hand Jett Rink who strikes oil to become a corrupt oil baron took the actor out of the film’s middle hour. In the beginning he was youthful, the rebel without a cause he became in death, but his weaknesses as an actor were on display in the final 40 minutes as he came back as a 50-year-old man.
And looked ridiculous trying to play it.
Dean looked like a high school actor playing old, a touch of silver on the temples, walked like he had messed his pants, his performance was awful. The Academy in their awe of him nominated him for Best Actor, again, and not Best Supporting Actor where he belonged and had a stronger chance of winning. Once again Dean’s inclusion prevented that of John Wayne (again) in The Searchers (1956) or Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments (1956).
Unless there is some kind of shock brewing in Hollywood he will win. He should be in the supporting category for Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, where a win would be just, but Best Actor? I don’t believe his fine performance was the best I saw last year, but then the finest I saw – Tom Hanks in News of the World – was snubbed!! Nor was Delroy Lindo, the critics’ darling and winner of the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and most deserving of a nomination up for Da Five Bloods. Boseman has competition, strong competition from Anthony Hopkins as a senior citizen fighting the hell of dementia and Alzheimer’s in The Father, a startling performance. His heartbreaking “I want my mommy” scene might be enough to push him into the winner’s circle, but I think Boseman will win. There is a movement cooking to have all four acting winners to be non-white, so he has that in his favor too.
Look, he was brilliant last year in both films, he proved himself not just a very good actor, but a great one. Maybe a Special Achievement and Memorial Award could be created for such circumstances, they do not happen that often do they? His inclusion in the Best Actor category meant Hanks was out, Lindo was out, which to me is obscenely unfair.
I like Chadwick Boseman, like his tens of millions of fans brought to him when Black Panther (2018) was a monster hit, the first superhero film to be a Best Picture nominee. He had given tremendous performances as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) and was equally brilliant as James Brown. But Black Panther made him an international star, and a couple of years later, after stunning performances in a single year, he was gone.
James Dean’s death made him forever young, forever immortal, and an Oscar nominee, twice. Peter Finch died early, but later was reborn an Academy Award winner, but history has shown an undeserving one.
Boseman? We will have to wait and see, but right now history is not on his side. Winning seems to be, but is he the right choice in a very complicated year?
Expect lots of heat from this, sorry if I offended anyone with my comments.
That said, it is what I believe.
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.