I’ve often mentioned that Best Actress attracted me because so much of it was off the beaten track—as strong roles for women have always been in the minority since the Academy was founded, a lot of the nominees have been marginal in the narrative of film history. Not so with Best Actor, given the wealth of male-centric roles out there. It was hardly a coincidence that, of the first twenty films I saw after completing the marathon, ranging from blockbusters to indies, documentaries to classic Hollywood, all but one—Before Midnight, with its equal billing of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke—favored the men. As a result, I’ve often expected this category to kind of take care of itself. Even removing the heavy Best Picture overlap (which I’ll discuss below) from consideration in both categories, just pursuing Best Actress helped to polish off a couple dozen Actor nominees in the process: James Mason in A Star Is Born, Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It, etc. However, it wasn’t until I took a full tally that I realized how much the category truly is its own beast.
To my surprise, I’ve seen of 298 of 421 Best Actor nominees, meaning that I’ve still got 123 performances to go in this vaunted category, including thirteen winners (with one in every full decade!) That leaves this as the category with the most work left for me to do, even if I’ve seen a greater percentage of these than I have in Original Screenplay (where I hover under than two-thirds done). Among the missing are landmark wins (Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Paul Newman for The Color of Money) as well as deeply polarizing portrayals (Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Denzel Washington in both Malcolm X and Training Day). Some actors are relatively unknown quantities for me (Dan Dailey, Anthony Franciosa), while others I primarily know as Bond villains (Giancarlo Giannini, Javier Bardem—just kidding, but seriously I scarcely know the first thing about him in Before Night Falls). I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the nominees of the 1980s: good or bad, films with concepts and source materials as diverse as Starman, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Under the Volcano, and The Stunt Man intrigue me.
Best Actor is a fabled category, with many of the iconic performances in American film finding a place in the spotlight: from Brando and Peck to De Niro and Hopkins, innumerable iconic performances and characters have won, while Welles, O’Toole, and company have rounded out the nominations. In so many cases, the Best Actor race has played out as a shadow of Best Picture: the categories do occasionally stray off in separate directions (including complete separations in 1927/28 and 2006), but as goes Best Picture, often so go the Best Actor wins (27 of 86) and nominations (54 of 86). Even seemingly female-oriented Best Pictures like Mrs. Miniver and Annie Hall, which won for their leading ladies, managed otherwise-unlikely nominations for Walter Pidgeon and Woody Allen. This category also has a strong tendency to reward a career, either in an actor’s twilight (John Wayne, Richard Farnsworth), or following a decade or more of well-liked work off the beaten path (Edward Norton, Lee Marvin). Altogether, far fewer individuals earn multiple nominations in this category than in Best Actress, and those that do generally earned far fewer than the six-to-twelve nominations garnered by the likes of Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn, let alone the phenomenon-unto-herself that is Meryl Streep. Indeed, the lifetime nominations ceiling stood at five until 1960, when Spencer Tracy went on a run that pushed it up to its present cap of 9.
Even though, as I’ve said, this category has an appreciable number of unique entries, it still remains more heavily intertwined with the Picture, Screenplay, et al than the other acting categories. Consequently, I expect the mountainous number in this category to whittle itself down as I prowl through the surrounding categories, and I’d rather let this category shrink down to a manageable size before tackling it head-on.
NOTE: As far as lost films like The Patriot are concerned, if I’ve seen all of the surviving footage, then I check it off my list. In other words, if there’s nothing more I can do, then there’s no reason for it to be on what’s essentially a “to do” list (and the same goes for films like Cleopatra or The Wizard of Oz with famous missing scenes). If more or all of The Patriot does turn up, then it’ll be unchecked, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. Also, from what little remains of Lewis Stone’s performance, I know enough to say that I prefer Emil Jannings and that Warner Baxter is my favorite of the nominees to date.