Another week of 1998 Oscaring begins! We've covered James Coburn's late-career Oscar triumph, Judi Dench's brief screen time resulting in the win, and an unusual music split. Today, we look back at Best Actor, won for the first time by non-English-language performance:
Some people - mostly the cinephiles and Oscar folks - look back in retrospect and just cannot believe Life is Beautiful was such a triumph: not just seven Academy Award nominations, but three wins! This does not happen with non-US/UK films. In the 25 years since Benigni's win, only two "foreign language" performances have been nominated for Best Actor, Javier Bardem in Biutiful and Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory. Neither were from Best Picture nominees, neither won (two other bilingual performances have been nominated, too: Demián Bichir in A Better Life and Steven Yeun in Best Picture nominee Minari; again, neither won, and both are US productions about the immigrant experience). That Benigni could break through on such a level ... it's a testament to tenacity of US distributor Miramax, run at the time by Harvey Weinstein, but those of us who were around 25 years ago remember how genuinely popular it was. My own fourth-grade teacher talked about it, my aunts recommended it, Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars...it was a hit! Trust me, no one had heat going into Oscar night like he did.
But was his the best performance? Let's talk...
Roberto Benigni as Guido
Life is Beautiful
first and only nomination; BAFTA Award winner for Best Actor, SAG Award winner for Best Actor
How well you think Life is Beautiful works is at least 50% how you feel about this performance. As the writer-director, Benigni has given himself a task he can accomplish: a charming enough clown intent on ignoring uncomfortable things. I understand how he can be obnoxious, it is certainly text that other people find him frustrating. If the idea that life would be better if we ignored bad things appeals to you, I understand loving this performance, a valentine to self-delusion. I think he's fine, mostly because...well, as I said, it accomplishes what he sets out to do, and whether or not that's annoying, I don't think anyone's ever doubted the believability.
Tom Hanks as Captain Miller
Saving Private Ryan
past two-time winner, fourth of six nominations; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actor, Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama, SAG Awards nominee for Best Actor
What I like about Hanks' quiet captain is that he's not some brutal hard-ass - his mystique among his men is more about his ability to screen anything from them - but rather just...a guy. Just a guy who's seen too much already and is doing his best to get through and do right by the men in his charge. And he feels he's failing, but he knows that if he lets on and allows that to sap away any hope, that will be the true failure. America's Dad, Hanks is authentic in this role, caring from a distance, merciful when he shouldn't be, just holding on enough to make it possible for everyone else to. "Earn this" is unshowy, but powerful. A great "quiet" performance.
Ian McKellen as James Whale
Gods and Monsters
first of two nominations; LAFCA Awards winner for Best Actor, National Board of Review's Best Actor of 1998; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actor, SAG Awards nominee for Best Actor
As James Whale, director of classics like Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Show Boat, McKellen is the heart of the film. The mix of bitterness and exhaustion when he is forced to either reminisce about the old days or socialize with the stars of those memories...the mischievous twinkle when he sees how he can turn such situations on their head, sometimes cruelly, sometimes erotically...the genuine flushes of genius, the artist inspired not as a ruse but because he can see the beauty he can create, or should be able to create, was once capable of creating. How does McKellen manage to convey all this? The eyes, the corners of the mouth, his hands. I'm still not sure I love the movie, but it's an undeniable performance.
Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse
second of three nominations; NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actor; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor - Drama, LAFCA Awards runner-up for Best Actor, SAG Awards nominee for Best Actor
He seems exhausted when we first meet him, gradually coming apart until we realize his best days happened well before the movie - if they ever did. This is a man who's spent too long with his anger, too long in this town, too long around himself. His tender moments with Sissy Spacek are so easy-going, you'd think they were already married, or at least engaged. His barely-contained anger in every scene with his father looks painful; even when his words and voice say he's just tired and trying to get through it, you can almost see the temple throbbing in his forehead. Nolte puts so much hurt, so much desire for something else, so much hopelessness in this man.
Edward Norton as Derek
second of three nominations
Norton has a tough needle to thread. There's the aw-shucks teen who's malleable, the neo-Nazi who's not just devoted but the spokesperson for young white supremacy, and the post-prison former racist worried for his brother's future (and soul). He has to make them all believably the same person, with just barely enough of a transition between them to justify the journey. Norton does a great job with what he has to work with, truly frightening in his neo-Nazi days, genuinely trying in his post-prison day - it's not just the shame he shows you, either, it's how easy it could be for him to slip back into it. A hard role. He nails it.
Benigni won, but as he's my lowest-rated nominee, you can bet that doesn't repeat here. My winner:
Tomorrow, the nominee for Best Original Song: Armageddon's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," Babe: Pig in the City's "That'll Do," The Horse Whisperer's "A Soft Place to Fall," The Prince of Egypt's "When You Believe," and Quest for Camelot's "The Prayer."