Welcome to year three of my thought project on the Academy Awards! Sometimes I think the Oscars are just a shameless fashion show broadcast yearly for Hollywood to pat itself on the back. Maybe they don't merit much thought in the first place. And yet, sometimes the Oscar goes to achievements that give depth to the golden guy’s dazzle. The Oscar goes deep.
So in January 2015 I asked: which Oscar-winning performances would I re-award or, say, re-Oscar because they simply can't be beat? I came up with these six. In January 2016 I considered Best Picture winners and came up with these five. As 2017 nominations are announced, I'm back to performances and am bringing together all my re-Oscar picks to date through this list in the catalog. The envelope please...
1. Beatrice Straight | Network (1976) | DVD
Oscar: 1977 Best Supporting Actress
Reason to Re-Oscar: Of the 121 minutes in Sidney Lumet's prophetic satire about a TV network using news as entertainment for ratings, Beatrice Straight commands the screen for a little over 5. She's the wife of one of Network's leading men (William Holden), a TV news exec who falls in love with a female coworker. After a rendezvous with his mistress, the husband returns home and calmly confesses to his wife of 25 years. What follows is the shortest Oscar-winning performance in history, the acting equivalent of a tweet. But brevity is a boon in Straight's potent hands. As she unleashes on her husband, swerving from righteous rage to wailing pain to aching resignation, we marvel at the actress' achievement in voicing the mad-as-hell truth of jilted wives everywhere.
2. Hilary Swank | Million Dollar Baby (2004) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2005 Best Actress
Reason to Re-Oscar: Clint Eastwood's uncommon sports flick stars Hilary Swank as an aging, rural waitress determined to be a professional boxer. It's a dream ridiculous to everyone but Swank, who combines a prize fighter's surefooted athleticism with the authenticity of a good and generous soul. From the start she wins in the ring and even shares part of the fortune with her selfish mother. When she finally gets knocked out, she's knocked out hard. At that point Swank shows how a champion's physical prowess can crushingly fade away, leaving nothing but a longing that is so simple, so pure, so true.
3. Heath Ledger | The Dark Knight (2008) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2009 Best Supporting Actor
Reason to Re-Oscar: In the Batman universe on screen, portrayals of the Joker tend to tip their hands to the audience. They don't exactly keep their cards close to the vest because their game is obvious. Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s TV series is a campy clown, Jack Nicholson’s in the 1989 movie a wicked gangster, and Jared Leto’s in 2016's Suicide Squad a thuggish lunatic. Meanwhile, Heath Ledger’s portrayal is a world apart. As the nemesis in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Dark Knight, Ledger plays his Joker in a way that keeps you guessing at his moves and motivations. Every violent outburst, cutting observation and bloodthirsty confrontation suggests a black hole behind crude makeup seeking to drain the world of light. Is this Joker the real Dark Knight? Yes and no, reads Ledger’s profound achievement.
4. Daniel Day-Lewis | Lincoln (2012) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2013 Best Actor
Reason to Re-Oscar: Honest Abe walked the Earth before Thomas Edison invented motion pictures. Without an audiovisual document of POTUS 16, we're left to our ongoing, distinctly American quest to measure the myth and parse out the man who was Abraham Lincoln. Take any one of Mathew Brady's famous Lincoln photos. Hold one in your mind's eye. Now make Lincoln move. Make him get up and get on with the brutal business of ending both slavery and the Civil War. And you could cut, convincingly, from the president in history to the president in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, all thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis and his stirring, soulful, meticulously Honest performance.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio | The Revenant (2015) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2016 Best Actor
Reason to Re-Oscar: In The Revenant director Alejandro Iñárritu plucks a gilded Hollywood star from the highest echelon of celebrity and casts him into the jaws and claws of a grizzly on the ground. Leonardo DiCaprio plays historical frontiersman Hugh Glass, who in 1823 was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his hunting party. DiCaprio's mesmerizing performance matches his character's ferocious will to survive and avenge. His Glass is unbreakable, even as he drags his battered body across an arctic wilderness to get the man who wronged him and killed his son. At times this performance is hard to watch, but it gives much-needed substance to the golden guy we, as a culture obsessed with stylish movies and celebrities, raise high.