Academy Rules: Lead Actor 1994


Nobody’s ever in agreement with the Oscars. Naming the best movies and performances of the year is a thankless thing to do. Someone’s favorite is always going to be overlooked and being named the “best” amongst a certain group will always result in scrutiny. “Academy Rules” is a monthly series in which I’ll take a look at a particular category in the Awards’ past. Let’s see if the Academy’s judgment calls hold up. With the release of Captain Phillips in theaters, I decided to kick off the series with the second time Tom Hanks won an Oscar. Here are the nominees for Lead Actor of 1994…

Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
1994 was the year of Forrest Gump. American audiences were enchanted by the story of a dumb goodhearted simpleton making it through life. The movie was the biggest hit of the year, so Tom Hanks became only the second actor ever to win Lead Actor two years in a row (the first was Spencer Tracy back in the late thirties). I’m not a big fan of either of Hanks’s Oscar-winning performances, but if I had to choose, I’d take his work in Philadelphia over Forrest Gump any time.
I rarely can answer when someone asks me what my favorite movie genre is, but my least favorite, without a doubt, is “dramas about the mentally-challenged.” I think movies are terrible at portraying these people. Because of how we see these people in real life, they tend to be way too sentimental and lack any kind of nuance to the point of feeling insincere (If you are curious, the best portrayal of a mentally disabled person I’ve seen is Jewel in the television series Deadwood).
Now, Forrest is only ever referred to as “dumb” or “stupid”, but the movie definitely fits the genre. I am not a fan of Forrest Gump, I find it on the one hand overly cutesy (with his doofus unknowingly walks through American history premise) and too typically sentimental in its more dramatic moments. But if there is anything that stops Forrest Gump from being an outright bad movie, it is probably the acting. Hanks is quite a charismatic actor and even if he can’t help the fact that he is trapped in such an irritating role, at least he can bring some of his chops to elevate the moments where it counts. I’m talking, of course, about that moment towards the end of the film in which Forrest meets his son. As much as I dislike the movie, Forrest asking “is he dumb?” is quite the moment.


Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George)
Hawthorne’s performance, similarly to Hanks’s, is better than the movie it is in. Unlike Forrest Gump, though, The Madness of King George is a pretty decent movie. It’s sort of a precursor to The King’s Speech, in which George III is subjected to archaic psychiatric treatment when his detractors point out to his deteriorating sanity as a sign that he should be removed from the throne.
There are many moments in the movie that are scripted either as zany comedy or classic british costume drama, and the greatness of Hawthorne’s performance relies in the matter-of-fact approach he gives the King’s insanity. King George is without a doubt becoming mad, but he does so in a recognizable human way. Hawthorne plays the moments in which the King is delirious and those in which he is lucid almost identically as far as intention goes. What the King is saying might be crazy, but he still sounds and feels like the King. When the King has a moment of sanity in the middle of his craziest moments, it takes us a few seconds to realize he is making sense. When Queen Charlotte asks the King if he is becoming mad, he hopelessly answers: “I don’t know”. As entertaining and comedic (in a typical british way) as Hawthorne is in the role, his is also an appropriately touching performance in the way it so effectively conveys the tragedy of slowly but surely giving up to insanity.   


Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool)
‘Sully’ Sullivan is a type of character that we have seen before. It’s that old guy who never grew up and always avoided responsibility. Nobody’s Fool also has the premise of a movie that we’ve seen before: the estranged father living in a small town, drinking, gambling and doing construction work for a despicable Bruce Willis finds himself in a trip to grow up when his son and grandson come to town. As played by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool, though, it’s a different story.
There are many familiar moments in Nobody’s Fool, but it all feels somehow realistic and understated in large part thanks to Newman’s performance. It’s kind of a cliché to say this, but he does so much with so little. There are no moments of Sully losing it, screaming, or emoting in the ways that would play in a typical Oscar clip. This didn’t have to be a completely internalized performance, but Newman plays it that way. He trusts in his charisma to make the audience connect with Sully and in his talent as an actor to convey the character’s feelings without even raising an eyebrow. In find it just satisfying to watch one of the greatest movie stars we’ve had so seamlessly at work.


John Travolta (Pulp Fiction)
I feel like John Travolta is a very underrated actor. He isn’t always great, but give him a good role and this guy can deliver. It’s very well known how his role as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction pretty much revived his career and brought him back to stardom. But since he used this momentum to mostly do thrillers of average quality, there has always been little talk of how good of an actor he can actually be. Saturday Night Fever, for example, is not taken seriously these days, though off more for its corny disco dancing than its powerful drama, but Travolta channels James Dean in a brilliant performance that rightfully earned him his first Oscar nomination.
His work as Vincent Vega is similarly fantastic. There is certainly a metafilmic level to the performance in that Travolta the washed-out actor plays Vincent the washed-out gangster. Like the actor, this character is a guy who has gone through better days. His criminal activities once made him the coolest guy in the room. Now the sight of him doing cocaine in the bathroom is rather sad. Travolta wisely plays up the qualities of a guy who has gone through a lot of shit. You can feel Vincent’s years of beating up guys and killing enemies. The biggest praise I can give the performance is that he feels like someone who is acting cool, but only by default.
It feels somewhat arbitrary that Travolta was the one guy out of the cast of Pulp Fiction to be nominated for Lead Actor (Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman were nominated in the supporting categories). In such an ensemble-based movie, it’s hard to say one character is the lead, but I guess Vincent is as close as it gets. After all, he is the one character that appears in all three stories (and is at the center of two of them).  

morgan-freeman-shawshankMorgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption)
I’m afraid I’m not a huge fan of what seems to be the internet’s favorite movie. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Shawshank Redemption is a fine movie, I just don’t find what has made so many people love this movie so much. I think it is too sentimental and too keen on letting its audience know exactly how they should be feeling at every moment. But even if I don’t find the movie to be exceptional, I do really like the two lead performances by Tim Robbins and the nominated Freeman.
Even if he is an irishman in the original novella, ‘Red’ is very much the quintessential Morgan Freeman role; a street-smart convict, who knows perfectly how to make prison life work for him, but also benevolent and sympathetic despite his murderous past. It also features another Freeman staple: the voice-over narration. I don’t have much to say about the performance except that this is Morgan Freeman doing his typical Morgan Freeman thing at his best, which means he is quite good in the movie. It’s not often that this reliable actor gets to stretch in unusual roles, but if he was to win an Oscar for doing what he knows how to do (and does so well), it would have been nice for it to be for this performance and not for his uninspired turn in Million Dollar Baby. 

Overlooked Performances?
Amongst the people who were actually popular that year, Tim Robbins’s omission seems rather odd considering how much voters liked The Shawshank Redemption and how they nominated Morgan Freeman. Whether or not he was snubbed due to his -at the time- controversial political agenda, if you’d ask me to pick one of the Shawshank guys to be nominated, I would have said Freeman, so I’m not outraged by the Academy’s decision. Another huge deal in ’94 was Hugh Grant, who suddenly became a star thanks to his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s easy to forget, considering a career consisting mostly of middling romantic comedies, how charming and entertaining an actor Grant can be at his best. And he is definitely at his best in Four Weddings.
I you ask me what the single best performance not to be nominated was, well, I’d have to cheat and go with two actors. First, Johnny Depp, who so delightfully embodies the enthusiasm of Ed Wood, giving what is arguably the best performance of his career. Considering his more recent collaborations with Tim Burton, it’s hard to believe they could be such a wonderful match and that Depp could give such a humane performance. The other actor is Terrence Stamp who is incredibly funny and incredibly poignant as world-weary transexual Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. 

Did the Academy make the right choice?
Like I said before, it’s not so much that Hanks is bad, but that he has such terribly cheesy material to work with. He might have given his best, but there’s no question his is the worst performance of the five. And the only one, actually, that I would say isn’t good. I would like to say it’s a hard decision, because this line-up is so strong, but the truth is there’s no contest in my mind, I have to go with Paul Newman. Freeman and Hawthorne are very raw, and Travolta iconic; but I just can’t resist a performance as economic as Newman’s. His ‘Sully’ plays with an actor’s charisma and talent giving a masterclass in movie-star-acting.
If you forced me to rank the performances, I’d do it like this: 1. Newman 2. Hawthorne 3. Travolta 4. Freeman 5. Hanks.

2 Replies to “Academy Rules: Lead Actor 1994”

    1. I’m glad you like it.

      Wow, some of these movies are so popular I’m surprised you haven’t seen them. At the same time, it’s kind of refreshing to find someone on the internet who hasn’t seen either ‘Pulp Fiction’ nor ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.

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