Wednesday, February 26, 2014

There's Only Five Days Until Oscar Night!

Ladies and gentlemen, we are officially five days away from this year's Academy Awards! It is an exciting time that is finally coming to a close. As everyone catches up with their last minute viewings and predictions, I thought that I would take a break and commemorate the countdown with a look at my Top 10 favorite acting nominees who have five or more nominations to their credit. After pointing out lists of favorite movies and directors, I figured that it was time to understand me through the performances that shape how I perceive the ceremony and thus better reflect what I look for in performances. 

In compiling this list, I had to set myself some criteria. Besides having to have five or more nominations, there were rules within rules. Since I am looking at performances, any actor who has five nominations but not all of them are for acting are disqualified. For example: Leonardo DiCaprio earns his fifth Oscar nomination this year, but because one of them is for Best Picture (as producer), he is ineligible until he receives another acting nomination. Same goes for Oscar record breaker and juggernaut George Clooney or Kenneth Branagh.

On top of this, I have decided to also only qualify performers whose films I have seen. While this leaves out a good portion of the more familiar names, including Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Due to the vast amount of nominations, I have also limited the selections to include those in which I have seen over half of their nominated performances with the general mean being three. This unfortunately cuts out personal favorites such as Audrey Hepburn and Kate Winslet. 

With all of this established, I decided to judge solely on the Oscar nominated performances instead of the body of work. This is to allow a better understanding of why I like these performers without misleading into tangential territory over career choices. Other than that, the following is ranked solely on how much I liked the performers and those with more enjoyable performances are likely to rank higher. I am aware that this list does seem a little familiar in terms of names, but please consider my rules and the understanding that I am trying to build my film viewing vocabulary each and every day to include those older greats. I have also placed asterisks next to work that I feel is noteworthy.

Jack Nicholson

Total: 18
Wins: 3
Best Actor: Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail*, Chinatown*, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest*, Prizzi's HonorIronweed, As Good as It Gets, About Schmidt*
Best Supporting Actor: Easy Rider, Red, Terms of Endearment, A Few Good Men

As anyone who has followed my Oscar challenge reporting knows, I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It ranks as one of the greatest films in Academy Award history to challenge societal norms and give us one of the many definitive performances by Jack Nicholson, who also is one of my favorite actors in general. His defiant cockiness has done wonders for him over the years and up until his much deserved nomination for About Schmidt, he has chronicled the defiant generation that came out of the Vietnam War eager to change the world, even as they grew older and noticed their weaknesses. Not only is he the most nominated actor, but he has some of the most iconic performances in the nominations as well. There is a reason that he has come to be the definitive Oscar guest and that only comes with receiving that many nominations in four different decades. An achievement that very few can match.

 Robert De Niro

Total: 7
Wins: 2
Best Actor: Taxi Driver*, The Deer Hunter*, Raging Bull*, Awakenings, Cape Fear
Best Supporting Actor: The Godfather: Part II*, Silver Linings Playbook

Say what you will about him turning in hammy performances nowadays, but the man has earned it. He was a method actor unlike any other working with one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation: Martin Scorsese, who lead him to three Oscar nominations and one win (Raging Bull). It isn't unearned either with his impressive dedication to dropping weight or even punching out his own teeth in order to look more menacing. His deprecation was backed by performances that captured the vulnerability of the common man and explored emotional depths with nuanced and enjoyably sincere performances such as The Deer Hunter. Even if he makes garbage films from now on, those nominations give him a life pass of going above and beyond what most other actor would do. With Taxi Driver being another one of my personal favorite films, his delusional esteem changes in a subtle fashion that you won't notice until it has happened. That is the power of a De Niro performance.

Tom Hanks

Total: 5
Wins: 2
Best Actor: Big*, Philadelphia*, Forrest Gump*, Saving Private Ryan*, Cast Away*

Of every actor on this list, I have had an affinity for Tom Hanks films the longest. Big and Forrest Gump were integral films in my childhood that became some of the most quoted and parodied works. The likable factor of Hanks is undeniable and in Big, he manages to give a performance that mixes comedy with the childlike sense of wonder that has helped to shape his career, even as he gets towards more morally complex features such as Philadelphia. It is strange to see an actor of his prestige not be nominated since Cast Away, especially since he has never really waned too far from quality. Still, with an impressive resume, he does rank as one of the most engaging and interesting performers of his generation who could do comedy, drama, or even kick butt in World War II in Saving Private Ryan. He is the definition of universal appeal and with Forrest Gump, he managed to create a defining character that people have talked about since the film's release 20 years ago.

Morgan Freeman

Total: 5
Wins: 1
Best Actor: Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption*, Invictus*
Best Supporting Actor: Street Smart*, Million Dollar Baby*

It is impossible to think of Morgan Freeman more as "The Voice." In every film, his candor is enough to compel audiences to give him attention. It has even been lampooned countless times on the internet. However, it is important never to forget that he has been a great actor, even when he was slapping people as a pimp in Street Smart. He brings charismatic smooth to each and every role and makes you feel at peace. In a sense, his singular win for Million Dollar Baby embodies everything about him that is amazing by having one of the best uses of voice over in recent decades as well as a performance that balances against the gruff Clint Eastwood.It is a film that may get flack for being one of the two sappy films that Paul Haggis won Best Picture for, but it is a powerful story, and a large portion of that is thanked to Freeman's brilliant voice work.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Total: 5
Wins: 3
Best Actor: My Left Foot*, In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York*, There Will Be Blood*, Lincoln

I may have put Daniel Day-Lewis on blast last year for his work on Lincoln, but do know that he is one of the greats. One would have trouble piecing together that the man from My Left Foot was also the crazy butcher from Gangs of New York whether physically or theatrically. Day-Lewis gives his characters so much dedication that you could almost read the back story in a still photo. Even if he never quite tops There Will Be Blood ever again, there isn't a reason to be ashamed of that. The magnum opus that explored greed and family through the oil industry is a performance that needs to be seen to be believed. It is Day-Lewis at his most unhinged and he is at times scary, funny, sad, and downright unlikable. He is an actor with a lot of acclaim because he has earned it, even if you just judge from all of those production stories. 

Dustin Hoffman

Total: 7
Wins: 2
Best Actor: The Graduate*, Midnight Cowboy*, Lenny*, Kramer vs. Kramer*, Tootsie, Rain Man*, Wag the Dog

Starring as the lead in three Best Picture winners in three different decades (and three additional nominees) is a rather impressive feat. What is strange is that despite this, Dustin Hoffman's place among the greats isn't quite as recognized as many of the peers on this list. He was a master at crafting contemporary characters who existed in the read world. They felt human while also having some strange moral code that made them feel like rebels. If anything, he has the most impressive batch of nominations simply because all of his films are downright enjoyable dramas that aren't too dark but never rely on sappiness. The differences between the highly underrated Lenny and Rain Man is also a sign of his range. He was an actor who could try anything and ended up making poignant stories that resonated long after their prominence, such as the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer or The Graduate. If one wants to understand why Hoffman is one of the greats despite not having a nomination since 1997, just watch his seven films that he was nominated for and you will fully understand his brilliance.

Al Pacino

Total: 8
Wins: 1
Best Actor: The Godfather*, Serpico*, The Godfather: Part II*, Dog Day Afternoon*, ...And Justice for All, Scent of a Woman
Best Supporting Actor: Dick Tracy, Glengarry Glen Ross

It would be easy to lampoon Al Pacino nowadays for his craziness, which is largely associated with his win for Scent of a Woman. However, in the 70's, he was on par with Robert De Niro for one of the greatest actors of his generation. One needs to not look further than his nominations for The Godfather films and the Sidney Lumet classics Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. He was an actor who brought vibrant energy to each role while keeping the human core somewhere in tact. He was manic without being a caricature. Even in the final moments of The Godfather: Part II, his tragic ending plays out in impressive ways, thanks largely to his facial reactions. Pacino is an actor who may never quite regain the spark that he once had, but with these seven nominations, it isn't necessarily a problem. He has proven himself a master at a very unique style of acting, and one that very few could imitate effectively.

James Stewart

Total: 6
Wins: 1
Honorary: 1
Best Actor: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington*, The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life,* Harvey*, Anatomy of a Murder

The quintessential nice guy actor who helped to shape American cinema and define the every man. From his brilliant turn in as a small town politician in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the drunk pooka-lover in Harvey, his career is about finding the humanity in the absurd. Even in times of despair, the actor brought a sense of optimism to his roles that transcended the culture and helped to add to the impressive and equally important filmmaker Frank Capra's portrait of the American family. Even with an impressive resume, his defining accomplishment remains It's a Wonderful Life, which continues to be played every Christmas on various networks despite not being overtly preachy or denominational. He fought for the little man and his nice guy persona helped to make him one of the most beloved and respected actors of his time.

Amy Adams

Total: 5
Wins: 0
Best Actress: American Hustle*
Best Supporting Actress: Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter*, The Master*

She still has a hopefully long and fruitful career ahead of her, but it still is a shame that Amy Adams has yet to win an Oscar. Even if her work can be described as a little understated, her slow rise to five nominations puts her in a prestigious league. Every performance that she has turned in has given a slightly different version of contemporary characters that are flawed and crass while being memorable. From her trashy girlfriend role in The Fighter to her disturbingly calm role in The Master, she has shown more range and given plenty of hope that she is one of the potential greats who will hopefully one day get her due. American Hustle could give her that chance, even though her odds aren't likely. Until that day, she remains one of the most overlooked and brilliant performers on this list.

Jeff Bridges

Total: 6
Wins: 1
Best Actor: Starman, Crazy Heart*, True Grit*
Best Supporting Actor: The Last Picture Show*, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Contender

Everybody's favorite optimist who made a career out of being the likable-yet-strange best friend on screens. Even if Crazy Heart was a problematic film in some ways, his win was much deserved and embodied a career full of highlights that ranged from sci-fi to comedy to westerns. Even in his acceptance speech, his cries of joy as he thanked everyone made it harder to dislike him and ended up making the whole experience feel like a big hug. With an impressive resume, it is hard to forget that even as a young actor in the classic The Last Picture Show, there was something endearing about him that made his journey in a small town something engrossing and exciting, even in the nuanced and dark places. He continues to turn in compelling performances worthy of attention and he will likely return to the nominations sooner than later.

About Meryl Streep...

Total: 18
Wins: 3
Best Actress: The French Lieutenant's Wife, Sophie's Choice*, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed, Evil Angels, Postcards from the Edge, The Bridges of Madison County, One True Thing, Music of the Heart, The Devil Wears Prada*, Doubt, Julie & Julia, The Iron Lady, August: Osage County*
Best Supporting Actress: The Deer Hunter*, Kramer vs. Kramer*, Adaptation.*

It would be impossible to recognize any list of multiple timed nominees without addressing Meryl Streep. As recently as my piece on August: Osage County, I have shown some small disdain towards the veteran actress who currently holds the record of most Oscar nominations. Just look at them. Many performers would be happy with one or two, but it seems like the Academy's go-to move is to nominate Streep in any given year. With only three wins, it also sets her record at one win for every six making her record one of the worst. Also, it is notable that of the films, very few actually win or even receive a Best Picture nomination. It isn't always suggestive that her work is subpar, but it does suggest that maybe she is a great actress in bland movies.

This isn't to insult her impressive career. Her relevance to this day is an accomplishment for any performer. The simple problem for her with me is not her. It is the Academy's obsession with nominating her because she has come to define prestige. It takes away chances for lesser known nominees to have a chance at competing. The nomination for August: Osage County is especially jarring, if not only because it feels like a supporting role, but because her role feels hacky and is the worst part of an otherwise excellent film. Besides this tactic that makes the Academy look lazy, it also diminishes the power that the award has when she does get nominated. Much like Stephen Daldry batting 100% with his Best Director/Best Picture nominations on every film he touches, it becomes tad predictable and ends up feeling like clutter. Had she not had so many nominations, her win for The Iron Lady wouldn't have felt so grating.

Like many other performers, her resume is important and her's is particularly exciting and vast. From her debut in the phenomenal The Deer Hunter, she has commanded the screen with poise and elegance. Maybe some of her films like Out of Africa didn't quite land, but looking at her work in Sophie's Choice is heartbreaking. She brings so much insular power to the performance that it helped to elevate her status. Even later films like Adapatation. and The Devil Wears Prada are testaments to her craft. Still, it is strange that she is so decorated while equally talented Daniel Day-Lewis has a fraction of the nominations.

So when I say that I dislike Meryl Streep, do know it isn't because of her skills. I think that she is good at what she does. I just feel that with several impressive actresses giving phenomenal performances, the Academy's decision to nominate Streep time and time again is just bullish. I like when the Academy gives random nominations to unknowns who deserve it, much like this year's Lupita Nyong'o or Barkhad Abdi. There's only a mystery as to what hypothetical nominations could have replaced even a third of her 18 nominations and made the races vastly more interesting.

Who are your favorite nominees to get more than five nominations? Is there anyone that will be joining this list in the next few years? Does Meryl Streep's nominations diminish her reputation on the Academy's?

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