I'm starting a new series here at Serious Film: All Time Oscar Ballots
I'm filling out ballots for each and every Oscar category without limiting myself by release date or by any other Oscar rules for that matter. If I want to choose nothing but Brando performances for Best Actor, I will do just that.
And speaking of Brando - No skipping obvious choices in favor of obscure ones in order to seem cool. My picks are my picks.
I admit up front that narrowing down the whole of film history to a mere five slots is an insane task, one which guarantees that inexcusable absences will far outnumber the selections. It should be interesting to see what rises to the top when I force myself to make these impossible choices.
So without further stalling let's start with Best Actor in a Leading Role. My ballot in alphabetical order...
Cary Grant - His Girl Friday (1940)
When choosing performances for this ballot the obvious impulse is to choose men who made the most epic transformations or displayed the greatest depth of emotion. Yet this choice is about none of those things. It is all about the joy of performing.
Cary Grant was an experienced acrobat and it shows in the athletic zeal with which he plays Walter Burns, fast-talking, morally dubious newspaper editor. Every line reading, every gesture has some entertaining spin to makes it sing. He and co-star Rosalind Russell reach something above chemistry as they trade barbs at blinding speed, doing for dialogue what Astaire and Rogers did for dancing. It's old style movie star acting, so Grant is never exactly real, but he's never false either. It's Reality Plus. Reality the way it should be.
Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood (2007)
It is often said that roles win Oscars, not actors. Just as musicians need a symphony, actors cannot reach greatness if the raw material isn't there. Daniel Plainview is that kind of role. A lot of actors could have surely delivered strong performances in it. Maybe another actor could have even won the Oscar for it. But it is impossible to imagine any actor making Daniel Plainview into the monument that Daniel Day- Lewis makes him.
His Plainview takes traits like greed, ambition, and rage and embodies them on a scale so grand it's as if he limped in from Kubrick's 2001. Yet despite this epic quality, Day-Lewis keeps this character grounded as a specific, endlessly fascinating individual. It's a performance that will likely stand as a landmark of screen acting like Brando in Streetcar or DeNiro in Raging Bull before it.
Peter O'Toole - Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Film acting attempts to simulate real life up there on the screen but most of the time actors are lucky if they scratch the surface. Peter O'Toole's work in Lawrence of Arabia, on the other hand, leaves the average film performance so far in the dust it feels unfair to even attempt the comparison. His T.E. Lawrence is maybe the closest approximation I've seen on the screen of a real human being in all its complexity and dimension.
Yet despite a performance that is both sweeping in scope and finely textured in detail the character remains an enigma. Our desire to know what drives this peculiar man draws us in closer, searching O'Tooles smallest gestures for clues. In the end, as in life, complete understanding slips through our fingers, and O'Toole's Lawrence haunts our memories all the more powerfully because of it.
Al Pacino - Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
It's all in that early moment when Pacino's Sonny struggles to dislodge his shotgun from a gift box. Pacino spasms to life as if he was shot through with electric current. He is so intense, so alive in that moment it takes your breath away. The whole performance is pitched at that level. Pacino has been dogged in his later career by charges of overacting, but here he goes big with such conviction that you buy it completely.
There is a scene late in the film where Pacino's Sonny is twelve hours into a police standoff and on the verge of complete breakdown. He places two calls, one after another - to his wife and to the man he married on the side, the man for whose sex change the robbery was supposed to pay. Sidney Lumet called the scene "some of the best film acting I've ever seen". I don't disagree.
Takashi Shimura - Ikiru (1952)
When I asked myself what performance I could not, under any circumstances, leave off this list, it was Takashi Shimura as the insignificant bureaucrat with the cancer death sentence who took a spot and refused to budge.
In Ikiru, Shimura's body appears small and bent, his eyes most often cast down to the floor. His voice is a dull rasp that barely moves his lips as it escapes his mouth. That just two years later Shimura delivered a robust, muscular performance as the leader of the Seven Samurai proves what a master screen actor he was.
Yet skilled craftsmanship is not what landed Shimura this spot. He is here because I cannot think of a performance that moves me more than this one. It rises over the course of the film from the bottom depths of despair to transcendent peace in the film's awe-inspiring closing scenes. Maybe Shimura's biggest achievement is that he grants the viewer a window into what such a peace might feel like.
1 Win - Day Lewis. Although in fairness to the Academy, O'Toole and Pacino lost to two legendary performances, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, respectively.
Next Ballot: Best Cinematography