Perhaps no surprise in retrospect, the Academy named as its Best Actor F. Murray Abraham, one of the two lead actors of the film that eventually won Best Picture:
It is interesting how we got there. The leads of Amadeus, first of all, are the non-stars of this lineup - maybe you can argue Sam Waterston was always more of a character/TV/theatre actor, but at this point, he was already a Golden Globe, BAFTA Award, and Emmy nominee. And even then, of the two bigger stars, Albert Finney was representing Under the Volcano, a film that got little Oscar love elsewhere, while Jeff Bridges was his Starman's sole nominee in any category.
All five were nominated at the Golden Globes, and many had critics' prizes, but none of them had the honor of being named Best Actor by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. That honor was claimed by none other than Steve Martin for All of Me: the physical comedy combined with his genuine tenderness and chemistry with Lily Tomlin all contributed, I'm sure.
F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
only nomination; Golden Globe winner for Best Actor - Drama, LAFCA Awards winner for Best Actor; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actor
His Salieri is obsequious, clever, every word he says weighed in his mind beforehand; I love that he has this stage-y rhythm of speech in most of his conversations, it's how he's managed to climb the ranks, judging each word. And it's what makes those moments of actual surprise so effective: the shock of meeting Mozart, the anger at God, the complete incoherence when caught taking dictation. Love the contrast with old Salieri, whose speech comes much more casually, more honestly: "I liked myself." And through the rage and jealousy, Abraham makes sure you know that he genuinely reveres his rival's talent.
Jeff Bridges as Starman
Bridges plays an alien taking the form of a dead man (whom he also, naturally, plays in home movies, giving the kind of warm, carefree Bridges performance we know and love). Unbelievable, I think, the technical skill he displays here: the weird jittery movements of the head, the bizarre movements of his mouth as he forms words, his study of people's faces and movements and subsequent imitation of them. It is a weirdo performance, but very open, not off-putting, and as many culture shock-type gags as there are, he never plays for laughs. And it's a performance that gels so well with Karen Allen, she can give a great one to match.
Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin
Under the Volcano
fourth of five nominations; LAFCA Awards winner for Best Actor; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actor
Albert Finney, what have you been through in your life that you so compellingly, so convincingly, time and time again, embody such self-destructive people? Here he's a diplomat who sees his world crumbling around him and gets drunk enough to assist. He struts right into danger so confidently, it can't just be that he's drunk and out of control - this is suicide.
Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
only nomination; Golde Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama
I think it is very difficult to convey offhanded confidence: he is spoiled, he is rude, he is crude, but he is honest, he is passionate, he is willing to fight for what he believes in - and he's good. Mozart's tossed-off little "jibes" ("A funny little tune but it yielded some good things") are, in Hulce's hands, not intentional smackdowns but one artist speaking honestly to another, perhaps even complimentary in his mind. There is no animus, just infantility - this man has been playing the game since he was a toddler, why should he be expected to change now? Is Mozart too naive to be believed? Perhaps, but in Hulce's hands, he comes off more as someone who expects the same honesty he gives. You never doubt his sincerity.
Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg
The Killing Fields
only nomination; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actor, Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama
Honestly, swap his and Ngor's categories, he's the observer, the narrator of this drama. He's a solid presence, effective in his emotional scenes - for example, that scene after winning the Pulitzer, as he comes up against another journalist and simultaneously defends and doubts himself - but more importantly, you believe the partnership between him and Haing S. Ngor's Dith Pran.
As you can see, the Amadeus boys are out in front. Do I co-sign Oscar's pick, or go with the other? It's tough! My vote goes to:
Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Picture: Amadeus, The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, and A Soldier's Story.