The Academy Awards are nothing if not an organization whose awards are given out in a completely political way, rarely awarding prizes to what would legitimately be considered the best work in a given year. They do get it right a lot of the time, but they also tend to give out awards based on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether or not the recipient has won an Oscar before. While a lot of the best craftsmen in the industry have gone unrecognized altogether (just check out last week's column about the best working actors who've never been nominated), it also happens from time to time that an actor wins an Oscar for the wrong performance. Oftentimes their competition in a previously nominated year was too strong for them to win, or sometimes they've just gone without one for so long that they win by default.
While this phenomenon is not exclusive to actors (see Martin Scorsese or Errol Morris for non-actor examples), it happens most often to actors as they have multiple categories to compete in each year. Here are my top five actors who have won an Oscar, but they won it for the wrong film.
5. Russell Crowe, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Gladiator (2000).
It's hard to believe this now as he's become something of a punchline, but early in his career, Russell Crowe was held in very high esteem, and with good reason. He brought an intensity and focus to many of his early roles that made him a dynamic screen presence and an actor worth watching. His performance in Gladiator was perfectly fine, he was very good in the film, but certainly not what I would dare to deem award worthy, yet he won the Oscar for Best Actor, swept up in the film's tide of victories that evening, leaving many to wonder why. The most obvious reason lay in the fact that just one year prior, he turned in the best performance of his career as big tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's The Insider, yet he lost the Best Actor trophy to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. It felt like the Academy was making up for ignoring his outstanding performance the year before by recognizing him belatedly for Gladiator, but it remains one of the more head scratching victories in the Best Actor category.
4. Denzel Washington, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Training Day (2001).
As is the case with Crowe's belated victory in 2000, Denzel Washington's Best Actor win the following year for Training Day is more or less a "sorry we didn't give you the award for The Hurricane last year" victory. His well deserved win for Supporting Actor for Glory excepted, Washington was always seen as a great actor who deserved an Oscar for Best Actor, but the Academy always seemed torn for which film to reward him. Having lost in 1992 for Malcolm X, he seemed due right around the turn of the century, and Oscar voters chose to reward his role as a crooked cop in the otherwise forgettable Training Day. It was a baffling victory, particularly considering that if they had just rewarded him for The Hurricane, they could have fixed both his loss and Crowe's at the same time by rewarding Crowe for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. The Academy is nothing if not short sighted, so all of this should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched the awards for as long as I have.
3. Kate Winslet, Best Actress in a Leading Role for The Reader (2008).
Much like Washington, Winslet was an actress who constantly turned in exceptional performances in film after film throughout her career, so when it got to be the tail end of the last decade and voters realized they had yet to reward her, they just sort of threw her this one. Her performance in The Reader is just fine, typically strong work from an outstanding actress, but it's far from her finest work. I would have been happy had she won for any of her previously nominated roles from Sense & Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or especially Little Children. Hell, she should have even won for her other, better 2008 performance in Revolutionary Road, but yet again the Academy was looking to atone for past mistakes by just giving her an Oscar in hopes that it would make up for all the times they ignored her. Nice gesture, but they got this one patently wrong. Look for this pattern to repeat itself when Amy Adams goes home empty handed for the sixth time this year as well.
2. Al Pacino, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Scent of a Woman (1992).
If there's one Oscar I'd be willing to bet most voters wish they could take back, it'd be this one. Al Pacino was one of the quintessential actors' actors of the 70s. He was passed over for recognition for the first two Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, so when it came to 1992 and they saw him acting up a storm, yelling and hoo-hahing his way across the screen in Scent of a Woman, they just decided to give him an Oscar to apologize for not recognizing him sooner. Bad move. Pacino has now made this sort of over the top, ridiculous screaming his stock in trade for the last twenty years. He was nominated for Supporting Actor that same year for his (comparatively) much more subtle and nuanced work in Glengarry Glen Ross, so had they just rewarded him for that and given Denzel Best Actor for Malcolm X, we maybe could have avoided a whole lot of aggravation from Pacino in the ensuing decades. Will the Academy ever learn?
1. Paul Newman, Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Color of Money (1986).
I'll go ahead and say this, Paul Newman has never been bad in anything, so it's hard for me to argue that he didn't deserve an Oscar for his work in Martin Scorsese's belated sequel to The Hustler, but this felt more like atonement than any other Oscar that's ever been given. Newman had gone home empty handed seven times before this, so there was no way they were sending him home without an Oscar again, but it's hard to argue that anyone thinks this is his best work. His reprisal of the character Fast Eddie Felson was a bit of a stunt and an awards grab, and it certainly paid off, but they should have given it to him the first time he played the role. Or for Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice, or especially for his sublime, career best performance in The Verdict. It feels like if the Academy would just start actually rewarding the best performance in a given year, we could avoid all of this, but they'll likely never learn.