Nicholson at the Oscars: 2002 ("About Schmidt")

And I thought 20 Years of Streep flew by!

As I bring this project to a close - my final 2017 "Oscar Flashback" before I focus exclusively on this year's awards season insanity - I of course want to thank my followers, both here and on Twitter, for joining me on this ride through Jack Nicholson's run at the Oscars.

Looking back on his dozen nominations and career as a whole serves as a testament to his richly deserved status as one of the finest feature film actors of the past half-century. And, I happen to think the Academy got it right - three wins, even though I'd switch out As Good As It Gets for Ironweed.

Who knows what or who I'll take on next year for an Oscar Flashback...

With that said, there is of course a 12th and final chapter to go in this project.

The 2000s, much like the 1990s and 1970s, marked a scattershot decade for Nicholson on the silver screen. Remarkably, 1997's As Good As It Gets would be Nicholson's final picture of that decade, the actor not returning to cinema until 2001's The Pledge, his second collaboration with director Sean Penn.

Like the first Nicholson-Penn picture (1995's The Crossing Guard), The Pledge was warmly received by critics but, despite one hell of an ensemble (including Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Robin Wright), the film didn't take off in theaters, never even cracking the box office top 10.

Then (whew) came 2002 and Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination. The film was About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne's much-awaited follow-up to his 1999 cult hit Election. With rave reviews and healthy box office receipts, the picture was a major player that awards season, also picking up an Oscar nod for co-star Kathy Bates. More, of course, on About Schmidt in a bit.

Nicholson's filmography post-About Schmidt has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.

In 2003, he scored two box office hits, one praised (Something's Gotta Give) and one panned (Anger Management). Three years later, Nicholson came roaring back into the awards season with a plump part in Martin Scorsese's Best Picture Oscar-winning The Departed. Co-star Mark Wahlberg, however, would ultimately emerge the film's sole Oscar acting nominee.

Since The Departed, Nicholson has graced the screen in two motion pictures, both maligned by critics. At least Rob Reiner's The Bucket List was a box office hit, unlike James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which hardly resonated on the level of Terms of Endearment or As Good As It Gets or even Brooks' 1994 flop I'll Do Anything.

That said, let's not dwell on Nicholson's last couple of pictures. It's time for the hilarity and heartbreak that is 2002's About Schmidt.

The 2002 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Brody portrays Wladyslaw Szpilman, an acclaimed Polish Jewish pianist who fights for survival in World War II. Once a mainstay of concert halls, Szpilman now finds himself forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, separated from his beloved family. He manages to escape and spends the remainder of the war hiding out as a refugee. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics, marked Brody's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and win.

Nicolas Cage, Adaptation

Cage portrays Charlie Kaufman, a Los Angeles screenwriter plagued by feelings of inadequacy as he struggles to pen the screenplay for a film adaptation of Susan Orlean (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep)'s book The Orchid Thief. Hardly helping matters is overbearing twin brother Donald (also Cage), who has moved into Charlie's house with his own screenwriting aspirations. This performance marked Cage's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Caine portrays Thomas Fowler, a London Times reporter who in 1952 is covering the early stages of the war in Indo-China. Fowler befriends Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an American supposedly visiting Saigon as part of a medical mission, and even introduces the young man to his mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The men's friendship is shaken by Pyle's growing infatuation with Phuong and Fowler's discovery of Pyle's actual intentions in Saigon. This performance marked Caine's sixth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York

Day-Lewis portrays William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a vicious New York gang leader who, toward the middle of the 19th century, vigorously fights against the waves of immigrants, namely those from Ireland, flooding into the Five Points neighborhood. His inner-circle is penetrated by Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of a priest (Liam Neeson) murdered by Bill. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Nicholson) and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award, marked Day-Lewis' third Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Nicholson portrays Warren Schmidt, a lethargic insurance salesman who finds himself at a crossroads upon his retirement and the sudden death of wife Helen (June Squibb). Schmidt, unhappy with his daughter (Hope Davis)'s engagement to a dopey waterbed salesman (Dermut Mulroney), embarks on an RV road trip, determined to prevent the nuptials. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (tied with Day-Lewis) and a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's 12th Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Kieran Culkin, Igby Goes Down; Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me if You Can; Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition; Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus; Edward Norton, 25th Hour; Aaron Stanford, Tadpole; Robin Williams, One Hour Photo

Won: Adrien Brody, The Pianist

Should've won: Michael Caine, The Quiet American

Woah. Could it be, for once, that the Academy completely nailed a category?

Almost. Only one contender strikes me as egregiously overlooked - Williams, chilling as "Sy the Photo Guy" in One Hour Photo. The thing is, I hesitate to boot any of the nominees here. All five are in strong form (in at least one case, career-best form) and I struggle to sort out a ranking for three of them (my #3-5). There is, however, a clear winner for me, and runner-up.

I can't fault the Academy for siding with Brody here. He was, after all, the only non-Oscar winner going into this race. He also graces, by far, the strongest film of the five - I happen to think The Pianist should've won Best Picture by a country mile.

That said, I don't find Brody a terribly compelling actor. He's spectacularly well-directed here and makes for a convincing and harrowing Szpilman but I've never once been enamored with Brody in another project. In fact, more often than not, I find him downright vapid. I see the success of this performance and picture as far more a result of Roman Polanski's exquisite grasp on the material than anything Brody on his own brought to the table. It's a commendable, clearly career-best turn by a middling actor who once, to his supreme luck, caught the eye of one of cinema's all-time great filmmakers.

Adaptation does not quite operate on the same sublime level as The Pianist. Still, it's one very sharp picture and essential to its vitality, beyond the distinct look and feel Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman give the proceedings, are the performances of Cage, Streep and Chris Cooper.

Cage, I think, actually gives the least engrossing turn of the three, which is to say he's still quite splendid (arguably, this is his last great performance before he emerged King of the Razzies) but doesn't wow in the awe-inspiring way Streep or especially Cooper do. Cage's effort, while a lot of fun, also feels a little labored vis a vis Cooper, who disappears with ease into the role of John Laroche. This isn't a Leaving Las Vegas-level performance but still a plenty memorable one.

Then, you have Day-Lewis, the best (only good?) part of a stunningly shambolic picture. He sinks his teeth into the role of Bill the Butcher like a starved barbarian, chowing down on scenery, steamrolling over all of his co-stars and somehow making something out of the dreadful Jay Cocks-Steven Zaillian-Kenneth Lonergan (if only they could've pulled an Alan Smithee) screenplay.

To lift Gangs of New York, one of the very worst Martin Scorsese films, into something worthwhile is one hell of a tall order and while I wouldn't say Day-Lewis turns the picture into a must-see, he does sport enough fortitude to hold interest over the film's near-three hour length. I do think his Bill the Butcher plays more like caricature than a convincing human being but hey, at least Day-Lewis is in there trying, injecting life into the proceedings, unlike DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, hopelessly lost at sea and miscast in their respective roles.

I would rank About Schmidt just behind Sideways and Nebraska and right alongside Election in the Payne filmography. It's a fabulous late-career vehicle for Nicholson, his best comic turn since Ironweed. As was the case in Ironweed, Nicholson sheds his trademark charisma, here convincing as a lost and spiritless man, for too long sleepwalking his way through life. He has great, laugh-out-loud scenes opposite Bates but plenty of sad and affecting moments too. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about the ending as I write this!

On more than just the rare occasion over his career, Nicholson has collaborated with a brilliant, challenging filmmaker and, for one reason or another, the project simply failed to gel. See, for instance, the late Nicholson-Rafelson pictures. About Schmidt is a testament to the movie magic that can come about when the pieces properly fall into place for the actor and the director/screenwriter. The combination of one of the greatest actors of his generation and finest filmmakers of recent years proves irresistible here.

Now, given my salivating over Nicholson, you might presume I'd be giving him the win here. Alas, there is one more performance, and it's a superior one.

Philip Noyce's The Quiet American should have been stirring enough to emerge a Best Picture contender in 2002. His direction of the film is steady and absorbing and the Christopher Hampton adaptation of Graham Greene's novel is for sure more compelling than Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script for his misguided 1958 picture. The film is handsomely designed and, as I'll soon mention, Caine has rarely been better. There is one problem, though, and it's a near-fatal one - Fraser, much as I've adored him in lighter fare, is woefully miscast as Pyle, so much so he winds up somewhat serving as an anchor to an otherwise sensational effort.

Thankfully, Fraser is not vapid enough to detract from Caine's mesmerizing work here. This is my second-favorite of his Oscar-nominated turns, just behind Hannah and Her Sisters (one of my all-time favorite performances period). Caine exquisitely captures a man replete with heartache, a sad and detached figure who does not realize how in love he is until he's on the verge of losing his partner. He says so much with a simple, nuanced glance. It's a beautifully unaffected, soulful performance, one of the actor's last (alongside Youth) truly great leading turns on the silver screen.

All 60 Oscar-nominated performances ranked!

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold
  16. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  17. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  18. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  19. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  20. Robert Duvall, The Apostle
  21. Michael Caine, The Quiet American
  22. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  23. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  24. John Gielgud, Arthur
  25. Harrison Ford, Witness
  26. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  27. Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
  28. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  29. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  30. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  31. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  32. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  33. Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
  34. Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
  35. Adrien Brody, The Pianist
  36. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
  37. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
  38. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  39. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  40. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  41. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  42. Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
  43. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  44. Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
  45. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  46. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  47. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  48. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  49. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  50. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  51. Robert Redford, The Sting
  52. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  53. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  54. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  55. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  56. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  57. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  58. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  59. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  60. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1997 ("As Good As It Gets")

In 1994, nearly a decade following the critical and commercial failure of Heartburn, Jack Nicholson and Mike Nichols collaborated for a fourth (and ultimately final) time on the horror film Wolf. Nicholson's second picture opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, the film was a modest box office success but garnered a lukewarm critical reception. The merely fair response to Wolf, however, would still dwarf the success (or lack thereof) of Nicholson's 1995 and 1996 releases.

Sean Penn, having recently garnered raves and awards season buzz for Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, ventured behind the camera in 1995 with The Crossing Guard,  a dramatic leading vehicle for Nicholson. The film reunited the star with, five years out from their high-profile split, Anjelica Huston. Both stars won warm reviews for their turns but the Penn picture failed to resonate with audiences and was ultimately labeled a box office flop.

Then, even worse, there was 1996.

Blood and Wine marked Nicholson's sixth picture under the direction of longtime pal Bob Rafelson. Despite their prior success and a starry cast including heavyweights Michael Caine and Judy Davis, the picture was even greater a box office failure than Man Trouble, the 1992 Nicholson/Rafelson collaboration.

Seven years after the smashing success of Batman, Nicholson and director Tim Burton reunited on Mars Attacks!, the filmmaker's tribute to 1950s sci-fi B-movies. While the film maintains a passionate cult following to this day, Mars Attacks! was largely met with shrugs from critics upon its December release and audiences, who flocked to see aliens invade Earth in that summer's Independence Day, did not swarm theaters for the Burton flick. Domestically, the picture scored a mere half of its beefy $70 million budget.

Also hitting theaters that winter was The Evening Star, the long-awaited sequel to 1983's Terms of Endearment, which of course won Nicholson his second Oscar. With Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling taking on directorial duties (as opposed to James L. Brooks) and without the presence of Debra Winger, expectations for the film were modest at best but few anticipated the critical pans ultimately bestowed upon the picture. Nicholson's return as Garrett Breedlove was praised but, alas, it was a mere cameo. The rest of the proceedings, Shirley MacLaine's labored leading turn included, did not impress.

Ultimately, it would take none other than Brooks, who himself recently endured a high-profile flop (1994's I'll Do Anything), to send a jolt through Nicholson's career and secure the actor his third Oscar.

The 1997 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

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Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting

Damon portrays Will Hunting, a troubled young man who, despite his immense intelligence, works as a janitor at MIT. His brilliance is discovered by Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who commits to helping Will reach his sky-high potential. After Will is arrested for assaulting a cop, Lambeau strikes a deferred prosecution agreement for his mentee that mandates treatment with a kind therapist (Oscar winner Robin Williams). This performance marked Damon's first Oscar nomination (he, alongside Ben Affleck, would win that evening's Best Original Screenplay prize).

Robert Duvall, The Apostle

Duvall portrays Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher whose idyllic life is shattered by the revelation of his wife (Farrah Fawcett, in the best performance of her career)'s affair. Sonny opts to flee Texas and settles down in a small Louisiana town, where he takes on a new name, works a series of odd jobs and preaches everywhere he can. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics, marked Duvall's fifth Oscar nomination.

Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold

Fonda portrays Ulee Jackson, a Vietnam veteran and widowed beekeeper desperately trying to hold his family together. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison and drug addict daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) is missing, leaving Ulee to raise his two granddaughters on his own. When Helen resurfaces, Ulee must assist her through withdrawal and deal with the drug dealers she got mixed up with. This performance, which won him honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe, marked Fonda's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog

Hoffman portrays Stanley Motss, a legendary Hollywood producer recruited by a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) to help fabricate a war in Albania, with the intent of distracting the public, two weeks prior to Election Day, from a sex scandal involving the U.S. president. This performance marked Hoffman's seventh (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets

Nicholson portrays Melvin Udall, an irritable, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist whose daily routine is rocked when neighbor Simon (Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear) is assaulted and hospitalized, leaving Simon's beloved dog Verdell in Melvin's care. While Melvin begrudgingly gets to know Simon and Verdell, he also grows close to Carol (Oscar winner Helen Hunt), the only waitress who will put up with Melvin's crankiness at the local diner. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, plus a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, marked Nicholson's 11th Oscar nomination and third win.

Overlooked: Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry; Jim Carrey, Liar Liar; Daniel Day-Lewis, The Boxer; Ian Holm, The Sweet Hereafter; Kevin Kline, The Ice Storm; Kevin Kline, In & Out; Sylvester Stallone, Cop Land; Howard Stern, Private Parts

Won: Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets

Should've won: Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold

At last, a year without an underwhelming nominee!

Sure, it would've been sweet seeing Holm (in a career-best performance) and/or Kline (preferably for The Ice Storm but also fabulous in the side-splitting In & Out) surface on nominations morning but this is a pretty damn great line-up, packed with four New Hollywood legends and, well, Matt Damon.

The least riveting of the five, though still quite a delight, is Hoffman, doing his best Robert Evans caricature in Wag the Dog. The film is middle-of-the-road Barry Levinson/David Mamet fare, entertaining on a purely sitcom level. De Niro's workmanlike performance is made up for by the comic energy from both Hoffman and Anne Heche, who chow down on Mamet's intermittently appetizing dialogue.

The performance is hardly among Hoffman's best - in fact, second only to Rain Man, I would argue this is the weakest of his Oscar nominations. The role isn't a terribly challenging one and only toward the end does it much showcase the actor's extraordinary range. Still, even if there were better comic turns to recognize this year, Hoffman is heaps of fun to watch, in one of his stronger efforts from the past 20 years.

Good Will Hunting has never been the object of my affection. I consider it an efficient, on occasion affecting drama but it never resonates on the level of say, an Ordinary People or Manchester by the Sea. It lacks the astuteness and nuance of those two pictures and Ben Affleck's acting is downright awful.

With that said, I do appreciate Damon's performance here. It's a sensitive, lived-in portrayal that very much rings of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, even if he doesn't quite reach those sky-high heights. Damon's scenes opposite Williams are by far the film's most moving and well-written. The actors have such a marvelous repartee, I'm left wondering how this material may have instead played on stage, focused exclusively on Will and Sean. I suspect that would have been a more satisfying and powerful experience than the more uneven proceedings that grace the screen here.

A film I am quite fond of, even if it runs out of steam with half an hour to go, is As Good As It Gets, the third picture in Brooks' trilogy (alongside Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News) of great heartfelt comedies.

Nicholson may not have much chemistry with his leading lady (Judi Dench for sure should've defeated Hunt for the Lead Actress trophy) but he's otherwise a ball to watch as an endearing asshole. He has a field day with Brooks' biting dialogue, which may also be no more sophisticated than sitcom-level but that's hardly a knock when Brooks' sitcom history includes the legendary likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.

This is hardly the most challenging of Nicholson's roles, in fact it's perhaps the most Nicholson-like Nicholson performance recognized by the Academy. He cruises on charisma here, even with Melvin being as despicable a figure as he often is. His scenes opposite Verdell make my heart melt and with a simple smile or rise of an eyebrow, Nicholson can be awfully irresistible here. It's an very entertaining turn, albeit not quite among his best.

The two finest performances here come from Duvall and Fonda. In most other years, I would almost certainly be giving the former the win.

Duvall, who directed, wrote, produced and headlined the picture (after more than a decade of working to get it off the ground), puts every ounce of his heart and soul into The Apostle. It's a fiery, absorbing performance that legit feels possessed by some otherworldly spirit.

The Grammy-winning country soundtrack is marvelous and the supporting cast quite strong too (Fawcett especially) but this is Duvall's show through and through. The turn doesn't quite rattle me in the same way his career-best work in The Great Santini does but this is still a performance that packs an immense punch and is for sure more transfixing than his Oscar-winning effort in Tender Mercies.

Alas, enamored as I am with Duvall here, I'm even fonder of Nicholson's old Easy Rider pal, Fonda.

After far too many years slumming it in direct-to-video garbage, Fonda at last found his comeback vehicle with this low-budget, completely unassuming film. Ulee's Gold was not, I'm afraid, a substantial box office success when it hit theaters over the summer of 1997. In fact, it was the final Orion Pictures release to ever garner an Oscar nomination, six years after the floundering distributor's much-publicized filing for bankruptcy.

What the film did have, however, were sterling critical reviews and none other than Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who assisted with the picture's financing. Ultimately, Fonda's notices were strong enough to survive into the Oscar season, where he emerged an early co-front-runner (with Nicholson) for the Lead Actor prize.

Ulee's Gold is undoubtedly the finest performance of Fonda's career. It's a warm, reserved portrayal that captures a man's desperation and vexation without resorting to the standard "time to chew some scenery" Oscar scene. He's nicely matched by Patricia Richardson (of TV's Home Improvement), also wonderful as Ulee's neighbor who assists Helen through detox.

What a shame Fonda never secured more pictures on the level of Ulee - he for sure sports the skill and range to tackle a challenging role and also seems far better-suited for a sober and serious part like this than the bombastic B-movies he so often did between this and Easy Rider.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold
  16. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  17. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  18. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  19. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  20. Robert Duvall, The Apostle
  21. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  22. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  23. John Gielgud, Arthur
  24. Harrison Ford, Witness
  25. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  26. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  27. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  28. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  29. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  30. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  31. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
  32. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
  33. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  34. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  35. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  36. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  37. Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
  38. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  39. Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
  40. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  41. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  42. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  43. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  44. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  45. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  46. Robert Redford, The Sting
  47. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  48. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  49. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  50. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  51. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  52. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  53. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  54. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  55. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1992 ("A Few Good Men")

The five years following Jack Nicholson's Oscar nomination for Ironweed marked a mix of epic highs and lows. For while the actor scored the biggest commercial success of his career in 1989, he would three years later garner his first (and to date, only) Worst Actor nomination at the Razzie Awards.

That 1989 film was of course none other than Tim Burton's Batman, a blockbuster summer release that fully delivered on all of its hype, and then some. Nicholson garnered warm critical notices for his extravagant portrayal of The Joker but it was the film's box office receipts, and the star's eye-popping paycheck for taking on the role, that really captured attention. At the end of the day, it was estimated that Nicholson reaped up to $90 million of the film's grosses.

From there, however, the star stumbled a bit.

The grand success of Batman at last gave Nicholson the license to embark on a pet project he'd for years yearned to deliver - a sequel to 1974's Chinatown. Production on The Two Jakes, directed by Nicholson himself, was troubled from the get-go, however, and the finished product, dumped in theaters in August 1990, failed to resonate with critics or audiences. Batman had spent 13 weeks in the box office top 10. The Two Jakes survived for one.

Nicholson was absent from the screen in 1991 but returned, to mixed success, with a trio of pictures the following year.

On paper, all of Man Trouble (reuniting with Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman, the team from Five Easy Pieces), A Few Good Men (the latest from Rob Reiner, then on a hot streak) and Hoffa (an epic biopic of Jimmy Hoffa from Danny DeVito and David Mamet) had heaps of promise, perhaps even Oscar potential. Only one of the films, however, proved successful.

Man Trouble, a romcom casting the star opposite Ellen Barkin, garnered Nicholson some of the worst reviews and box office receipts of his career. Hoffa polarized critics but was met with a collective shrug by audiences upon its Christmas release.

Ultimately, it was only A Few Good Men, in which Nicholson has a supporting role (opposite leads Tom Cruise and Demi Moore), that left a positive impression. Reiner again struck box office gold and, despite all of the negative buzz around his other two 1992 releases, Nicholson would go on to garner his 10th Oscar nomination.

The 1992 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game

Davidson portrays Dil, girlfriend of Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier kidnapped and killed during an IRA hostage situation gone awry. Jody's friend Fergus (Oscar nominee Stephen Rea), a disaffected IRA member, visits London to look after the mysterious Dil, who is full of surprises. This performance marked Davidson's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Hackman portrays "Little Bill" Daggett, the hard-nosed sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. After a local prostitute is left disfigured by a pair of cowboys, her colleagues take justice into their own hands, posting a reward for their murder. This doesn't sit well with Little Bill, who's all the most incensed when two groups of gunfighters (one led by Richard Harris, the other by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood) come charging into town to collect on the money. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, marked Hackman's fifth (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and second win.

Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

Nicholson portrays Nathan Jessup, a conniving colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps. Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a military lawyer tasked with proving a pair of marines innocent of murdering a colleague, finds himself with no option but to call Jessup, who wants the tragic affair kept quiet, to the stand. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, marked Nicholson's 10th Oscar nomination.

Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross

Pacino portrays Ricky Roma, a deceptive, long-winded New York salesman who, alongside his three colleagues (Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin), is fighting to survive in the real estate game. Complications arise with an overnight burglary of their office and the disappearance of critical sales leads. This performance marked Pacino's 7th/8th (he was also nominated and prevailed for Scent of a Woman this year) Oscar nomination.

David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night

Paymer portrays Stan Young, long-suffering brother and manager of Buddy (Billy Crystal, in an inauspicious directorial debut), a comedy legend of the early days of television. As Buddy's stardom escalates, so does his ego, as the comedian alienates just about everyone around him, including his brother. This performance marked Paymer's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross; Danny DeVito, Batman Returns; Tom Hanks, A League of Their Own; Sydney Pollack, Husbands and Wives; Christopher Walken, Batman Returns; Robin Williams, Aladdin; Bruce Willis, Death Becomes Her

Won and should've won: Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Come on, Academy. You gave his sleepy Out of Africa seven (!) Oscar victories but could not even bother to nominate Pollack for his incredible performance in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives?

The brilliant actor/filmmaker/producer should have been the winner here, and he should have been surrounded by the likes of Baldwin (stealing his single scene with thrilling gusto), Hanks (in the funniest turn of his career) and either Williams or Willis, both in spirited comic form. The winner, the always sublime Hackman, can stay.

Hackman aside, this category is a tad on the uninspired side. You have a marvelous character actor juicing what little he can out of a catastrophe of a picture; an intriguing but shaky debut performance in a fabulous film; and two New Hollywood legends ranting and raving to negligible effect in a pair of star-studded duds.

Let's start with Nicholson, in by far the worst Oscar-nominated turn of his career (see below the gap between this and Reds). I'll give him this much - he's pretty much the only watchable part of A Few Good Men. After killing it with a streak of hits that included This Is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally..., Reiner for once opted to play it safe and the result was this tedious courtroom drama.

While leading man Cruise and leading lady Demi Moore completely phone it in, Nicholson is at least in there trying to get some fireworks going. That's much easier said than done, however, when you're working with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay this dull and a director seemingly A-OK with keeping the proceedings as stagebound as possible. Worse, Nicholson's screen time is minimal - vis a vis his supporting work in Reds, for instance, this feels like a glorified cameo.

At least gracing his film for a fair amount of time is Pacino, playing to the last row of the balcony in James Foley's claustrophobic film adaptation of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

In all fairness to Foley, I'm not sure Glengarry could ever completely flourish as a feature film. Mamet's drama is perfectly tailored to the stage, where actors can feast on his succulent dialogue as loudly as they please, but plays as bombastic on film. Credit both Baldwin and Lemmon for expertly finding ways to tailor their roles to the screen - both deserved Oscar nominations (the latter was campaigned in Lead).

Pacino, I'm afraid, does not bring that same nuance to his part. This is Pacino the Ham, the Pacino that all too often surfaced with Scarface and on. His performance, while not without gusto, is like a dozen other Pacino turns you've seen - brash but kind of boring.

Beyond Nicholson and Pacino, the offerings here are much more satisfying.

I seesaw between Davidson and Paymer, both memorable and still totally inferior to Hackman.

I'm not convinced Davidson is necessarily the most talented or skillful of actors. For all I know, he's never given another great performance (I don't believe I've seen him in anything else). There are scenes in The Crying Game where he's clearly straining to sell this tricky role. That said, he's very well-directed here and has a shimmering screen presence that captivates from the moment he hits the screen. Davidson is essential to the film's success. It's a peculiar and refreshingly unaffected performance.

On the other hand, you have Paymer, a veteran character actor who has proven himself time and time again on both the big and small screens. Mr. Saturday Night marks both his best and most substantial performance and also possibly his worst film.

Mr. Saturday Night crash-landed with a resounding thud when it hit theaters that fall. The picture, Billy Crystal's directorial debut, was hyped as a surefire Oscar contender and, given the sky-high success of When Harry Met Sally... and City Slickers, a guaranteed box office hit to boot. The few moviegoers who ignored critics' pans of the picture were treated in theaters to an mawkish, haphazardly paced dramedy with Crystal as a character impossible to love.

The only thing anyone seemed to enjoy about Mr. Saturday Night was co-star Paymer, who steals scene after scene after scene from the leading man/director/writer/producer. It's a sweet, heartbreaking performance that somehow transcends the insipid schmaltz that plagues most of the proceedings. While Crystal blusters his way through the picture, Paymer's always there lurking in the shadows, and has our heart all along. It's a lovely turn from a wonderful actor in a flat-out trainwreck of a film. Oh, and one other qualm - the old age makeup on both Crystal and Paymer in this is horrendous. Like, Bette Midler and James Caan in For the Boys-bad.

Great as Paymer is, I ain't giving Mr. Saturday Night an Oscar. This is a slam dunk for Hackman.

Looking back on Hackman's exemplary career and Oscar run, I say he should have prevailed twice - first, for I Never Sang for My Father, and then for this. (I'm cool with his victory for The French Connection but prefer Peter Finch in 1971.) While I understand why Hackman took an exit from the screen (just look at how the likes of De Niro and Pacino have fared in recent years), his presence sure is sorely missed.

Unforgiven is one of the very best Hackman performances. It's a riveting and frightening portrayal of a figure who, in some of the more by-the-numbers westerns, probably would've been cast in a more one-dimensional light. Hackman is in commanding, barrel-chested form here and the sight of him going toe-to-toe with Eastwood leaves me positively giddy, even if I'm not generally enamored with western cinema. There's genuine, old-school movie magic to be found in Unforgiven and Hackman's barbarous villain is vital to that prosperity.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  19. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  20. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  21. John Gielgud, Arthur
  22. Harrison Ford, Witness
  23. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  24. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  25. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  26. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  27. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  28. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  29. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
  30. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  31. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  32. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  33. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  34. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  35. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  36. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  37. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  38. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  39. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  40. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  41. Robert Redford, The Sting
  42. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  43. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  44. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  45. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  46. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  47. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  48. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  49. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  50. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1987 ("Ironweed")

In 1986, nearly a decade after their collaboration on the epic misfire The Fortune sent the director fleeing from Hollywood, Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson reunited for what looked to be, on paper at least, a surefire smash.

Heartburn, based on Nora Ephron's eponymous best-seller (and adapted to the screen by Ephron herself), would not only bring Nichols and Nicholson back together but also the team from 1983's much-praised Silkwood - Nichols, Ephron and leading lady Meryl Streep. The film was stacked with star wattage, an ensemble including the likes of Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara. The effort simply had to be a grand success.

Alas, Heartburn was greeted that summer to a stunningly lukewarm, at times even scathing critical response. While the film opened to decent box office receipts, it quickly stumbled as poor word-of-mouth spread among moviegoers. There would, no surprise, be no love for Heartburn on Oscar nominations morning.

For 1987, Nicholson lined up a trio of pictures with heaps of potential.

First up was a big-budget summer blockbuster, The Witches of Eastwick, directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and featuring three of the decade's hottest actresses - Cher (who would go on to score that year's Best Lead Actress prize for Moonstruck), Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon. Audiences and critics alike ate up Nicholson's gleeful scenery-chewing as the mysterious Daryl Van Horne as Witches emerged one of the season's biggest moneymakers.

Garnering even greater acclaim, at least among critics, were Nicholson's two Oscar season releases.

Broadcast News, in which Nicholson graces the screen in a modest supporting role, and Ironweed, a leading man vehicle for the star, were released over the same weekend that December. The former, an enchanting romantic comedy, proved a commercial success, while the latter, a bleak Great Depression-era drama, did not.

Nicholson's reviews for Ironweed were, however, among some of the strongest of his career. So, despite the film being a box office bomb, Nicholson was about to land his ninth Oscar nomination...

The 1987 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Michael Douglas, Wall Street

Douglas portrays Gordon Gekko, the ruthless, extravagantly successful corporate raider who takes ambitious stockbroker Bud (Charlie Sheen) under his wing after the up-and-comer provides him with insider trading tips. Gekko's "greed is good" philosophy, and the burying of ethics that such entails, weigh heavily on his young mentee. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe, marked Douglas' second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination and second win.

William Hurt, Broadcast News

Hurt portrays Tom Grunick, a local sports newscaster who, on charisma alone, is promoted as anchorman for a national television network's evening news program. Tom becomes the apple of producer Jane (Oscar nominee Holly Hunter)'s eye, even though he represents all that she despises about the trend in news toward entertainment. This development doesn't sit terribly well with their colleague Aaron (Oscar nominee Albert Brooks), who has long been enamored with Jane. This performance marked Hurt's third Oscar nomination.

Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes

Mastroianni portrays Romano Patroni, a sad, middle-aged man who, while aboard an ocean liner in Russia, tells his life story to a curious stranger. Romano reflects on his loveless, if comfortable marriage to wife Elisa (Silvana Mangano) and how, while away for a spa vacation on his own, he fell head over heels for another woman (Elena Safonova). Complications arouse, however, when Romano returned home, determined to divorce his wife. This performance, which won him Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival, marked Mastroianni's third and final Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Ironweed

Nicholson portrays Francis Phelan, once a baseball star and now an alcoholic vagabond, for years guilt-ridden over accidentally killing his infant son. During the Great Depression, Phelan returns to his hometown of Albany, New York, where he bonds with his lover and drinking pal Helen (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep) and has a chance to make peace with the family he abandoned. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Nicholson's ninth Oscar nomination.

Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam

Williams portrays Adrian Cronauer, an irreverent disc jockey tasked with taking over the Armed Forces' Saigon radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War. While Cronauer's humor and enthusiasm resonate with the troops, his hard-nosed superiors aren't entirely sold on his schtick. Cronauer encounters greater hostility when, after facing the horrors of war firsthand, he takes to the airwaves to express some hard truths about Vietnam. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Williams' first Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Nicolas Cage, Moonstruck; Michael Douglas, Fatal Attraction; Steve Martin, Roxanne; Terry O'Quinn, The Stepfather; Gary Oldman, Prick Up Your Ears; Dennis Quaid, The Big Easy; Mickey Rourke, Barfly

Won: Michael Douglas, Wall Street

Should've won: Jack Nicholson, Ironweed

Ah, the year Michael Douglas portrayed the 45th president of the United States!

Even if I don't agree with all of the winners, I really love the 1987 Oscars. You have two of the finest comedies of the 1980s (Broadcast News and Moonstruck) contending for Best Picture, one of the all-time great line-ups in Best Lead Actress (Sally Kirkland!), Albert Brooks mustering a surprise Oscar nod, Morgan Freeman up for his most riveting and underrated performance (in Street Smart) and the likes of RoboCop and The Witches of Eastwick scoring multiple nominations.

Best Lead Actor ain't too shabby either, even though the best leading male performance by far (Rourke, superb opposite a comparably awesome Faye Dunaway in Barfly) wasn't even nominated.

The only nominee here I can't get terribly excited about is Hurt, nicely cast as the dashing dunce of an anchorman in Broadcast News but entirely overshadowed by his two superior co-stars.

As I noted in my review of the 1985 line-up, I so often find Hurt's turns (including his final three Oscar nominations) curiously sleepy, devoid of much in the way of vitality. In this film, where's he's portraying a dud, that kinda-sorta works and he has some nice banter with Hunter but that comic energy that drives the picture and is present among the rest of the performances is sorely lacking in Hurt's. Even Joan Cusack, with less than 10 minutes screen time, leaves more of an impression than Hurt does over the entirety of the proceedings.

Growing up, Williams was perhaps my favorite actor of all. I wore out my VHS copies of Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji in no time and loved the likes of Aladdin and Awakenings, among others, too. Looking back, though, much as I still adore Williams and terribly miss his comic genius, I'm not sure he was Oscar-nominated for the right performances.

I'm down with his nod for The Fisher King but the saccharin Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting have never much resonated with me. Williams' work in those two pictures is certainly credible but I don't think compelling enough to make the films quite worthwhile. Instead, I would've loved to see him recognized for Awakenings (surely over his hammy nominated co-star Robert De Niro), Mrs. Doubtfire (even though 1993 was such a busy and rich year for leading men) and also One Hour Photo.

While I don't think his turn in Good Morning, Vietnam is quite as inventive or poignant as his best work, it's still a very fine performance, one for sure strong enough to make the film worth a look. Like so many Barry Levinson films (including the other Levinson-Williams collaboration, Toys), it's an imperfect picture. Without Williams' exuberance, it probably wouldn't work at all but there he is, having a blast in a role perfectly suited to his talents. Moreover, he manages to sell the film's more dramatic (and less confident) material.

Likewise, Oliver Stone's Wall Street packs its punch on the shoulders of a performance, or, in this case, two turns. The film itself isn't as sharp as Stone's best (the likes of Nixon and Salvador) and in fact, some scenes, like those shared between Charlie Sheen and Daryl Hannah, are just plain awful. That said, the picture does get quite a bit of mileage out of Douglas and the other, better Sheen (Martin), both in prime form.

Douglas vividly captures the glossy barbarism of 1980s Wall Street. It's a performance equal parts alluring and intimidating and it sure doesn't hurt having a co-star who's so easy to steamroll over in acting prowess. I happen to much prefer his other performance from 1987 - Fatal Attraction - but this is still an iconic and absorbing turn from a performer who certainly deserved more than one acting Oscar nomination over his career.

Hats off to the Academy for recognizing the marvelous Mastroianni here as, while he did prove the toast of that year's Cannes Film Festival, he hadn't shown up anywhere else precursors-wise that awards season.

Dark Eyes is a terrific late-career showcase for Mastroianni who, while active well into the 1980s and 1990s, rarely came across projects as strong as this and his legendary earlier work (8 1/2, Divorce, Italian Style and La Dolce Vita, to name a few). The picture is lavishly designed, like a Merchant-Ivory production, with one hell of a Francis Lai original score, but, of course, its leading man is the heart and soul of the proceedings.

The film is a fabulous showcase of Mastroianni's range, as he paints a sad and weary Romano in his older age and a man far more ebullient and impassioned back in the day. It's a lovely turn from an actor with a career full of them.

Alas, much as I love Mastroianni (and would love to have seen him with an Oscar somewhere down the road) and am OK with the Douglas victory, I actually think Nicholson should have picked up trophy #3 this year.

Ironweed is perhaps the least Nicholson-like of Nicholson performances. It's a turn entirely devoid of his trademark charm and persona, instead a portrayal of a bleak and tortured man, as washed out as the Great Depression-era scenery around him. This is the most sorrowful Nicholson to ever grace the screen and it's an awfully jarring sight to contrast this performance with his other two 1987 turns, both of which find the actor largely coasting on charisma.

The best scenes in Ironweed, and some of the most haunting of any Nicholson film, are those shared between the actor and Carroll Baker, who evocatively portrays Phelan's abandoned wife. Both performances have a lived-in and tormented feel that is absolutely devastating. How was Baker not Oscar-nominated for this?

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Ironweed
  19. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  20. John Gielgud, Arthur
  21. Harrison Ford, Witness
  22. Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
  23. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  24. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  25. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  26. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  27. Michael Douglas, Wall Street
  28. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  29. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  30. Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
  31. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  32. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  33. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  34. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  35. William Hurt, Broadcast News
  36. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  37. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  38. Robert Redford, The Sting
  39. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  40. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  41. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  42. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  43. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  44. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  45. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1985 ("Prizzi's Honor")

In 1973, one year prior to starring opposite her legendary father in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Jack Nicholson began dating actress and model Anjelica Huston. Their tumultuous, on-and-off love affair would go on to span 17 years, a period in which the stars soared on the Hollywood A-list, the two netting a combined three Oscars.

It was not until 1985, however, that both Hustons - Anjelica and dad John - would collaborate with Nicholson, hot as ever after his 1983 Oscar victory for Terms of Endearment, on the same project.

Prizzi's Honor, a mob comedy that cast Nicholson as a professional hit man who falls head over heels for a hit woman (Kathleen Turner), was not, despite despite its hefty star wattage, expected to be a commercial smash or awards player. 20th Century Fox opened the film that summer with a modest release, playing less than half the theaters of blockbusters Rambo: First Blood II and The Goonies. The picture was presumed to be a little too dark and idiosyncratic to resonate with a wide audience.

To Fox's surprise, however, the film garnered critical raves, with the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert championing the picture as among the funniest of the decade. Come Oscar season, Fox would go all-in on Prizzi's Honor as their awards contender, and to great success. The film woke up on Oscar nominations morning to eight nods, including a trio for Nicholson and both Hustons. Ultimately, only one of the three would emerge triumphant on the big night...

The 1985 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Harrison Ford, Witness

Ford portrays John Book, a Philadelphia detective assigned to investigate the murder of a fellow officer, witnessed by a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas). In danger upon discovering the crime was part of a department conspiracy, Book flees the city for the Amish community and while in hiding begins an uneasy romance with the boy's widowed mother (Kelly McGillis). This performance marked Ford's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

James Garner, Murphy's Romance

Garner portrays Murphy Jones, a small town pharmacist who befriends new-in-town Emma (Sally Field), a divorced single mom yearning for a fresh start. Murphy finds himself falling for Emma, a development sorely tested by the resurfacing of ex-husband Bobby (Brian Kerwin) in her life. This performance marked Garner's first and final Oscar nomination.

William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Hurt portrays Luis Molina, a gay window dresser serving time, alongside anti-government journalist Valentin (the brilliant Raul Julia), in a Latin American prison cell for sexual relations with a minor. To pass the time, Molina tells Valentin romantic stories from his favorite movies and, over time, the cell mates form an unlikely friendship. This performance, which won him honors from the Cannes Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review, plus a BAFTA Award, marked Hurt's first Oscar nomination and win.

Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor

Nicholson portrays Charley Partanna, loyal hit man for the Prizzis, one of the nation's most powerful crime families. While attending a mob wedding, Charley meets and falls for fellow assassin Irene (Kathleen Turner). Their romance is joyous one, that is until Irene betrays the Prizzis, leaving Charley with an impossible decision to make. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's eighth Oscar nomination.

Jon Voight, Runaway Train

Voight portrays Oscar "Manny" Manheim, one half of a criminal duo (the other being Oscar nominee Eric Roberts) who have just escaped from a maximum security prison in Alaska. The two hop aboard a speeding train and appear to be in the clear. Then, disaster strikes as the train engineer suffers a heart attack, sending the locomotive out of control. Hardly calming the situation is Manny, descending into madness as prospects grow bleaker. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Voight's third Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Albert Brooks, Lost in America; Jeff Daniels, The Purple Rose of Cairo; Griffin Dunne, After Hours; Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future; Raul Julia, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Won: William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Should've won: James Garner, Murphy's Romance

1985, the year the beautiful but sleepy Out of Africa staged its inexplicable Oscar sweep over The Color Purple, was not among the richest of years for leading men. Even so, the Academy managed to cobble together a respectable fivesome for Best Lead Actor, including two arguably career-best performances and one of Nicholson's funniest turns.

The one nominee I don't get at all here is Voight, an actor I seem to adore (in Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and Coming Home) as often as I detest (here and most of his recent work).

Not unlike Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, this is a shamelessly hammy performance that no doubt will entertain some (as it obviously did many members of the Academy) but to me is mostly nails on chalkboard. Voight's accent is downright bizarre and while I guess I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which he tackles the role, the performance just leaves me exhausted.

The picture is impressive from a technical perspective, with some dynamite film editing and sound work, but the acting, from Voight, Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay, leaves an awful lot to be desired. At age 47, did Voight already think it was time to go as relentlessly over-the-top as Laurence Olivier went in his 70s?

Voight aside, there's a whole to like here, though I'm not quite on board with Hurt as the winner.

It's funny, so often, my qualm with Hurt as an actor is he seems to, perhaps purposely so on occasion, sleepwalk through his films. That kinda-sorta works in the likes of Broadcast News and The Accidental Tourist, as he's portraying characters who are basically comatose vis a vis more colorful co-stars. On a mere handful of occasions has Hurt really floored me - in Body Heat, One True Thing and on the TV series Damages.

Hurt's work in Kiss of the Spider Woman is really unlike anything he's done over his three-plus decades in film. It's a bold, vibrant, very much theatrical performance that takes a whole lot of risk. I'm not sure, however, Hurt really disappears into the role of Molina - he's fascinating to watch but his acting is at times a tad too affected and to boot, the performance lacks the intensity that co-star Julia (who I think deserved to win this year) brings to the table. It's the best of Hurt's three Oscar-nominated turns but I'm not quite as in love with it as voters were. That said, at least the film didn't go home empty-handed.

Another Best Picture contender tossed a consolation prize was Prizzi's Honor, one of the great comedies of the 1980s. That sole victory, of course, came not for its leading man but rather in Best Supporting Actress, where Anjelica Huston triumphed for her scene-stealing turn as Maerose Prizzi, a woman overwhelmed with unrequited love for Nicholson's Charley. (For what it's worth, much I enjoy Huston, I say The Color Purple's Margaret Avery should have triumphed in that category, with Prizzi's William Hickey prevailing in Supporting Actor.)

Nicholson's Charley is a hilarious and entirely unique creation, a lovable dunce who, despite his career as a killer, is awfully hard to resist. His chemistry with Turner, while not quite Dunaway/MacLaine-level, is fabulous and while the supporting players have even juicier meat to chew on (Hickey and John Randolph are especially marvelous), Nicholson no doubt had a blast in this role.

Even better is Ford, in one of the more challenging and riveting roles of his career, if not the best.

Witness is a prime vehicle for Ford, not only because it's a damn great movie, but it also stretches his acting muscles to an extent that is frankly pretty rare across his filmography. So often in his pictures, the focus is dead-set on orchestrating an exciting chase or action-packed set piece. Here, at last, the camera hones in on the man himself, and an absorbing, vulnerable and curious man at that. His romance with the McGillis character, portrayed in a refreshingly awkward fashion, is fascinating.

When on earth is that Ford honorary Oscar coming?

Much I love both Ford and Nicholson, I have a soft spot for Garner that I just cannot resist.

Murphy's Romance marked the seventh of eight projects from the team of director Martin Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Among their efforts were unimpeachable classics like The Long, Hot Summer, Hud and Norma Rae. Their 1985 film, while not quite as ambitious as that trio, is an enchanting charmer. Most significantly, after a career spent largely on the small screen, the picture at last gave Garner one hell of a leading man vehicle on the silver screen. (Garner was no stranger to cinema but the roles and films, more often than not, left a bit to be desired.)

Garner's performance, while endearing and fetching as can be, is also completely unassuming. This isn't an obvious piece of Oscar-bait, chock-full of drama or scenery-chewing. He's just so damn delightful, brightening up the screen like a ray of sunshine, and his chemistry with Field is aces too. Garner is also an actor who can say so much with a mere look - the resentment he feels toward the Kerwin character is plenty palpable and his longing for Field sure does tug at the heartstrings. 

Thank heavens this wonderful actor garnered an Oscar nomination during his remarkable career.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  19. John Gielgud, Arthur
  20. Harrison Ford, Witness
  21. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  22. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  23. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  24. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  25. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  26. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  27. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  28. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  29. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  30. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  31. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  32. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  33. Robert Redford, The Sting
  34. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  35. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  36. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  37. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  38. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  39. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  40. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth