On Sunday Hollywood’s annual orgy of self-satisfied backslapping reaches its climax, so this week The Shortlist is tackling some of the moments that AMPAS should, perhaps, be less than proud of.
10. Peter O’Toole – Honorary Award > Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Much like Pacino you can pretty much take your pick of great O’Toole roles, but for me nothing beats his performance in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence Of Arabia – one of the greatest films ever made. I don’t really have words to describe how good he is here – ambition burns in his steely blue eyes, and his perfect diction makes a masterpiece of every word spoken. It’s a calculated performance but you’d never know it- often it’s like watching a real person, despite O’Toole also investing the role with a degree of flamboyance and theatricality. Most of the time it’s a deeply controlled portrayal that exists in facial ticks and body language, but the actor seems so immersed in the part that it’s a wonder he ever got out of it. Of course it was an incredibly strong year for actors – O’Toole was up against Gregory Peck (winner), Jack Lemmon, Marcello Mastroianni and Burt Lancaster. With that in mind it seems almost unfair to put him on the list, but it’s such a towering, magnetic performance it seems criminal that he was only rewarded with an Honorary Award.
9. Robert Zemeckis – Forrest Gump (1994) > Back To The Future (1985)
Even those who like Forrest Gump (get to the back of the class) would surely have to agree that Zemeckis deserved the directing award for his 1985 classic Back To The Future – a movie so full of detail, charm and intelligence that only the most controlling eye could have made it an appealing adventure for all generations and not let it fall in on itself – after all, multi-dimensional plotting and science-jargon dialogue don’t normally make the most compelling blockbusters. Razor sharp writing is probably key to its success, as is the editing, which keeps events moving at a blistering pace. But it’s Zemeckis who is the hero of the piece, displaying a great knack for visual comedy and a talent with actors, drawing career bests out of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, who have perfect chemistry. Tonally consistent and crammed with period detail, the film richly rewards re-watches, and without Zemeckis’ observational eye it could have been a flop of epic proportions.
8. Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart (2009) > The Fisher King (1991)
Once known as ‘The Greatest Actor To Never Win An Oscar’, Jeff Bridges was finally rewarded last year, but almost two decades too late. His work in Crazy Heart is perfectly fine – in fact it’s his subtle and emotional performance which holds the entire film together – but it’s nowhere near his best work. I’d also considered his brilliant turn in The Door In The Floor (2004), but finally landed upon his portrayal of a former shock-jock DJ suffering from guilt after his cynically uncaring comments prompt a depressed caller to kill several patrons of a Manhattan bar. Jack Lucas (Bridges) soon befriends a homeless man searching for the Holy Grail, played by Robin Williams, who was somehow affected by the shooting. It’s a beautiful tale, perhaps Gilliam’s most heartfelt, and Bridges provides the abrasive, caustic element that in the majority of his work is most prevalent. It’s a powerhouse performance which even now is underrated, but the dark depths of his subtle performance means that his portrayal of a man on the road to redemption will endure for another two decades at least.
7. Steven Soderbergh – Traffic (2000) > The Limey (1999)
Soderbergh is one of the most prolific and consistently brilliant filmmakers working today – boldly experimental, even his most mainstream efforts have a streak of anarchy to their design and his off-kilter projects such as The Informant! (2009) – an experiment in trashing cinematic formalism and creating new language through mise-en-scène – are terribly misunderstood. With its probing handheld camerawork and strikingly diverse colour palette Traffic is still the least interesting of his experiments – its position as a ‘worthy’ film about the drugs trade and the US governments most solemn efforts to stop it no doubt secured nominations galore. The Limey, however, is much more interesting. Essentially an arthouse revenge movie – or Get Carter (1971) remade in L.A. – the film finds Terence Stamp foot-stomping his way through cockney-rhyming-slang and bouts of vicious violence as he searches for his daughters killer (the main villain is introduced through musical montage). It’s an experiment in film editing that mixes ideas from the Russian Film School and the nouvelle vague, and Soderbergh’s direction is remarkably controlled. Beyond impressive, it received no nominations.
6. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) > The Elephant Man (1980)
Okay, this’ll be a controversial one. See, I think Hopkins is absolutely awful in The Silence Of The Lambs – subtlety is thrown out of the window in favour of textbook killer histrionics, with tongue flicks and calculating eyes replacing any sign of a real character. He hams it up like a Shakespearian Lizard Queen, with nothing approaching reality in his performance of Hannibal Lecter – a man so obviously psychopathic that if he moved in next door to you, you’d move continents. It doesn’t help that he’s working opposite such an underplayed and layered performance from Jodie Foster either; it’s like he’s in a different film. But his performance in The Elephant Man, which he wasn’t even nominated for, is a much more impassioned and engaging performance. It may be a tad stagy, sure, but it’s also wholly believable and commanding, invested with depth beyond the surface, and he provides an emotional anchor that works in a consistent world to John Hurt’s character, John Merrick. Hopkins Oscar is just a shiny letter of apology.
5. Martin Scorsese – The Departed (2006) > Goodfellas (1990)
Let’s make one thing clear: The Departed is clichéd, cheesy and unsubstantial. An overlong compilation of genre tropes and ideas, it’s a loose remake of Infernal Affairs (2002) and lacks the tightly-knit narrative and aesthetic flair of that film. It’s not exactly bad but it does find Scorsese on routine form and has a studio-approved sheen that makes it look like every other cops ‘n’ criminals saga on the Hollywood production line right now. Goodfellas on the other hand is a savagely violent insight into 70s mob rule, featuring unpredictable character drama, kinetic camerawork and some astonishing editing. Intelligent, insightful and personal, the story of Henry Hill (a career best Ray Liotta), is so uniquely Scorsese that nothing else in his oeuvre feels quite like it. Furiously paced, the acting is electric and the camerawork is some of the most inventive from the period. The music selection is sublime too, and perfectly fits the material. Shame on you Academy. Shame on you.
4. Bernardo Bertolucci – The Last Emperor (1987) > Il conformista (1970)
It’s not that The Last Emperor is an especially bad film (although it was the best nominee that year) but it’s certainly not Il conformista. Il conformista is a breathlessly exciting, dazzlingly shot political drama/thriller, with an on-form Jean-Louis Trintignant, rich and absorbing colour and art design, and camerawork so inventive and audacious that it’s impossible to ignore. It’s a film very aware of its time and place, and its political agenda is clearly presented but does not take second place to character and story. At just 30 years of age Bertolucci shows a remarkable understanding of film form and mise-en-scène, perfectly balancing all of his story elements and despite providing unforgettable aesthetics (the music is great too), provides story and character hooks that ensure you’ll revisit it time and time again. If that’s not great filmmaking, what is?
3. Al Pacino – Scent Of A Woman (1992) > Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Frankly you can take your pick of any performance between The Panic In Needle Park (1972) and Sea Of Love (1989), or even pick up after the legendary actors win with Carlito’s Way (1993) and you’d find a better performance than the one in this routine cheese-fest. Pacino is known for his intense powerhouse performance, hoo-ah’s and New Yawkh yelling, but for me he was never better than in his frantic portrayal of Sonny Wortzik, a desperate man who turns to robbing a bank to pay for his male lover to undergo a sex operation. Although he also brings the same energy and deep-voiced simmering anger to the role, this performance also exists in the eyes – passion, fear, regret, love; they penetrate your soul and are frankly unforgettable. His scream of “ATTICA!” down the Brooklyn streets has become famous, and rightly so.
2. Federico Fellini – Honorary Award > 8½ (1963)
Much like my top entry into the list Fellini was nominated numerous times but didn’t win – that is until the Academy realized how much of a botch up they’d made and decided to reward his oeuvre in one flimsy sweep. He was nominated for best director four times, for La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963), Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Amarcord (1973), but unforgivably lost out to the likes of Tony Richardson and Franklin J. Schaffner (not that they’re bad directors, they’re just not Fellini). For me his crowning achievement is 8½, a film I described as “unbearably cool, impossibly stylish and achingly emotional.” Structured around memories, the film opens with a stunning dream sequence that ends with Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) soaring through the clouds – as apt a metaphor for the great filmmakers career as you’re ever likely to find. 8½ was autobiographical and for his heart and soul Fellini should have been rewarded. At least it won Best Foreign Film.
1. Alfred Hitchcock – Memorial Award > Psycho (1960)
Perhaps the most shocking oversight by the Academy is that they never awarded a Best Director Oscar to Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the most important and influential filmmaker of all time. He was nominated for Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), but was always beaten – but at least always by masters such as Leo McCarey and John Ford. Still, his pioneering use of tracking shots, Technicolor and 3D made a mark on the industry still visible today, and his classic vertigo shot (zoom-in, dolly-out) has been referenced in Jaws (1975) and Inside Man (2006). The Master Of Suspense made some of the most exciting films of his or any time and Psycho is, for my money, one of the best directed films ever. The mid-way sucker punch and final reveal are handled with tongue-in-cheek style, and it can be analysed forever in terms of mise-en-scène. A fascinating filmmaker, he’s sorely missed and it’s a shame we will never have another opportunity to rectify this staggering wrong.