(Welcome to Did They Get It Right?, a series where we take a look at an Oscars category from yesteryear and examine whether the Academy's winner stands the test of time.)
Few times in the history of the Academy Awards is there a category where you can't quibble with the slate of nominees. There's always at least one nominee that makes you groan or scratch your head. The times where you could be perfectly happy with any winner are few and far between. The Best Picture nominees at the 1976 ceremony probably best exemplifies this: "Barry Lyndon," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Jaws," "Nashville," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which took home the award. That is an absolute murderer's row of nominees, and when Audrey Hepburn opened that envelope, I would have understood any of them walking away with it.
For me, the performance categories often have the hardest time achieving the five-for-five slate. Because so much of awards season relies on politicking, working a room, and putting one's career into perspective, the merits of a performance are often outweighed by these outside factors. People get nominated because they charmed enough voters, or it's believed to be "their time."
This was not the case at the 1994 Oscars, where I believe the Academy batted 1.000 with their selections for Best Actor. Tom Hanks took home his first Oscar for his work in "Philadelphia," which seems like a no-brainer, right? Here's who he was up against: Daniel Day-Lewis for "In the Name of the Father," Laurence Fishburne for "What's Love Got to Do with It," Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day," and Liam Neeson in "Schindler's List." In another year, any of these men would be a worthy winner. I couldn't imagine being a voter, choosing between those five names.
Why Tom Hanks Won
After many decades of Hollywood dominance, it's strange that Tom Hanks wasn't always America's dad. In the 1980s, he rose to prominence as one of our preeminent comedic actors, going from the TV series "Bosom Buddies" to big hit comedies like "Splash" and "Big," which earned Hanks his first Oscar nomination. He had some trouble truly capitalizing on the success and momentum of that nomination. With "The 'Burbs," "Turner and Hooch," and "Joe vs. the Volcano," he wasn't exactly getting people excited, and then he starred in the notorious box office flop "The Bonfire of the Vanities." When he came back in a supporting role in "A League of Their Own," that was Hanks somewhat licking his wounds and successfully making people think he never left.
Then there's 1993 and the seismic one-two punch of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Philadelphia." Upon its release, "Sleepless in Seattle" was the third-highest grossing romantic comedy of all time and also Hanks' highest grossing movie yet, showing he was more of a movie star than people had even realized. He returned that December with the AIDS-centered legal drama "Philadelphia." On the surface, the picture seems like placid Oscar bait, but that couldn't be further from reality. The late Jonathan Demme was one of the great humanist filmmakers, and "Philadelphia" is far more personal, thoughtful, and stylistically bold than you'd imagine. It also put Hanks in an entirely new light, as he hadn't played a dramatic role with this much complexity before. He wasn't just a fun movie star. He was one of our best actors. And at a time where people didn't even want to mention AIDS, his performance helped the movie earn $200 million worldwide. Tom Hanks deserved a trophy at the end of a year like that.
The Case For Daniel Day-Lewis
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Oscar in 1990 for his performance in Jim Sheridan's "My Left Foot." In some ways, that's a very traditional Best Actor win. The film is a biopic of the Irish artist Christy Brown, who was only able to utilize his left foot to paint, as he had cerebral palsy. For a stretch there, the Oscars were big fans of characters that had some sort of mental or physical disability. In 1989, Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor for "Rain Man," and Tom Hanks would win a few years later for "Forrest Gump." There's a quantifiable, obvious bit of acting that needs to be done for these roles, and the Academy likes acting you can see. Where "My Left Foot" differs is that Christy Brown is no angel. For a lot of the picture, he's aggressive, self-centered, and not someone you'd want to spend a lot of time with. Day-Lewis gives a big, bold performance, and he's utterly captivating to watch.
Day-Lewis and Sheridan teamed up again in 1993 for "In the Name of the Father," about four men falsely convicted for two bombings in Ireland in the 1970s who served 15 years in prison. Playing Gerry Conlon, Day-Lewis strips away any affectation and fully commits to raw human truth, giving what remains one of his finest performances (which says a lot). With hindsight, this would have been a better win than "My Left Foot," but that's not how the Oscars work. They rarely give someone two awards so close together, so he didn't have a great shot to win. But there wasn't a question of a nomination, and after this movie, Daniel Day-Lewis became someone you pencil in for awards when he has a movie coming out.
The Case For Laurence Fishburne
Rudely, Laurence Fishburne only has one Oscar nomination. Him not getting Best Supporting Actor nominations for either "Boyz n the Hood" or "The Matrix" are part of a long history of Black actors not getting proper respect from the Academy, and in the case of "The Matrix," it also fits into their distaste for genre fare as well. His sole Oscar nomination came in this ceremony for playing Ike Turner, the abusive romantic and musical parter of Angela Bassett's Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do with It."
The movie is very much Tina Turner's story, and Fishburne turned down the role of Ike five times because he felt that the writing for that character wasn't nearly as strong as it should be. Thankfully, he eventually relented to work with Angela Bassett, and it's his portrayal of Ike Turner that makes what very well could be your standard musician biopic into something greater. While tumultuous relationships are somewhat commonplace in these kinds of movies, rarely are both sides afforded the same level of depth and complexity. Ike could just be a simplistic, one-note abuser, but he isn't. Fishburne navigates the tricky waters of a man with undeniable musical talent as he struggles with addiction, and acts as a true menace to Tina Turner.
As Angela Bassett didn't win Best Actress for her work — losing to Holly Hunter for "The Piano" — it would have been a little odd that the guy who plays Ike Turner ends up being the only winner for a movie about Tina Turner. The optics of that just aren't great. His nomination also wasn't a given, having not earned one at the Golden Globes. Anyway, Laurence Fishburne should have more than one Oscar nomination. At least the one he has is justly deserved.
The Case For Anthony Hopkins
Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins was just a couple of years removed from winning an Oscar for Best Actor. While some may quibble with the optics of Day-Lewis winning for "My Left Foot," no one is doing that with Hopkins winning for "The Silence of the Lambs," a performance that remains imprinted on the brains of everyone who sees it. It's a delicious take on a character who is as alluring as he is terrifying. A few years later, he turned in a performance that could not be further from Hannibal Lecter with the Merchant Ivory production of "The Remains of the Day."
For me, this is the best work of Anthony Hopkins' career. He plays Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall. Stevens takes his job incredibly seriously and is about as emotionally repressed as a person could be. But his world is turned upside down when a new housekeeper named Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) arrives, and the two have a connection that he has no idea how to act on in any way. "The Remains of the Day" is a film about heartache, longing, class, and action versus inaction, and in a total swerve from "The Silence of the Lambs," the less Hopkins does on screen here, the more you can't take your eyes off of him. If you think this is some stodgy period piece, you couldn't be more wrong.
Because he was such a recent winner, they weren't going to give him another one so soon. After all, they would have plenty of opportunities to award him in the future. Amazingly, it wasn't until "The Father" nearly 30 years later that he won again, shocking folks who assumed the late Chadwick Boseman was the frontrunner.
The Case For Liam Neeson
The only person who had a better 1993 than Tom Hanks was Steven Spielberg, where he somehow released "Jurassic Park," the highest grossing film of the year, and "Schindler's List," the Best Picture and Best Director winner. The film was about as universally acclaimed a film can be, and it winning the top Oscars was basically a foregone conclusion. In my opinion, rightfully so. I understand the complaints about spectacle in regards to its subject matter, but I believe Spielberg's Holocaust drama to be one of the medium's great achievements.
Even though the film itself was an obvious winner, its lead actor, Liam Neeson, didn't garner that frontrunner status. If anything, Ralph Fiennes had a clearer path to winning Best Supporting Actor for "Schindler's List" (though that ultimately didn't happen either). I think Neeson's performance looks stronger in hindsight than it did then. Back in 1993, he was a solid, striking actor who wasn't exactly a big name. He would be playing third and fourth fiddle to the big name stars, and if he was the lead, it was a weird genre picture like "Darkman."
"Schindler's List" made him a bonafide leading man, and I think there wasn't as much of a rally behind Neeson because the Academy assumed there'd be plenty of opportunities in the future to award him. Unfortunately, this remains Neeson's only Oscar nomination, and considering his last 15 years of action movies, that doesn't look to change anytime soon. Because of this late career period, going back to see what he does in "Schindler's List" is astounding, tapping into a complexity of emotion he's rarely afforded the opportunity to do nowadays. Knowing that "Schindler's List" would actually be a rare chance to award him, I think Neeson would've fared better.
Who Was Left Out
What makes the slate of five Best Actor nominees even more impressive is that they were not the obvious five that could have been there either. 1993 had a number of contenders on the outside looking in that would have been perfectly at home in that slate of nominees. The struggle would be choosing a nominee to take out in order to put one of these guys in.
The critical favorite of the year was David Thewlis for his performance in Mike Leigh's "Naked." He won the Best Actor prizes from that year's Cannes Film Festival, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and National Society of Film Critics Awards. While I rank "Naked" a little lower than most among Leigh's filmography, I cannot deny the sheer force of Thewlis' work as the talkative, despicable, charismatic Johnny at the center of Leigh's pitch black comedy. Mike Leigh had yet to break through with the Academy, and the in-your-face, often grotesque nature of this character isn't much to their usual liking, but I am sure there were still plenty of people within the acting branch who couldn't deny the work.
On a more populist front, you had Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive." He received a Best Actor nomination from the Golden Globes, and his co-star Tommy Lee Jones ultimately took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I imagine he was probably pretty close to scoring his second nomination for the film. For something more lighthearted, they might have gone for past winner Kevin Kline in "Dave" or, if they were being particularly frisky, Robin Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire," who won the Golden Globe for Best Actor — Musical or Comedy. In 1993, the Academy was spoiled for choice in Best Actor.
If I Picked The Winner
Throwing out every single shred of context, circumstance, and narrative that goes into an awards race, my vote that year would have gone to Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day." On a purely performance level, I find this to be the most affecting work of the year, creating a character that perfectly encapsulates a kind of loneliness that I connect with deeply. This isn't just my favorite performance of this category, but one of my favorite screen performances ever.
That being said, I wouldn't want to take away one of Tom Hanks' Academy Awards. That would be insane, especially for a performance of his that I love. Had this been the next year when he wins for "Forrest Gump," then maybe I'd feel better about taking it away, as that film has aged … interestingly. His performance in "Philadelphia" has aged beautifully, and this is one of those rare cases where the work itself perfectly aligned with the narrative of it being his time to shine. Taking everything into account, Tom Hanks was the only person who was going to win that evening. It didn't matter that his four fellow nominees were also delivering either career best or near career best work. Hanks was too, and it just so happened everything else was on his side as well. Now that we are nearly 30 years on from this Oscars ceremony, all we have to do now is look back at these five names and applaud the Academy for actually nailing a category … which they should cherish, because that doesn't happen too often.
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