Best Actor, 1999

Russell Crowe
The Insider


Crowe, despite having less screen time than costar Al Pacino, made the most indelible impression in a movie full of stellar actors. Preceding work in L.A. Confidential did not receive deserved Academy attention, while his leading role in this summer's Gladiator confirms that Hollywood wants to break him out as a major star. Won the L.A. Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, and National Board of Review awards, and may attract voters who do not want to give Spacey and Washington their second Oscars. Extra points for transforming himself into a real-life character decades older and dozens of pounds heavier than himself.

Neither Crowe nor The Insider have held on to early awards momentum through the last few months, when both the Globes and SAG voters passed him over for more established stars. Crowe's Raging Bulls-style physical transformation may go unappreciated by voters who do not realize how much younger he really is. Role is smaller than costar Al Pacino's, and the absence of Pacino and Christopher Plummer from this race indicates feeble support from the huge voting bloc of actors. Will no doubt be back for more contests.
Richard Farnsworth
The Straight Story

Winner of the New York Film Critics award plays easily the most likable character of this bunch and appears in the gentlest movie. Older voters—and there are lots of those in the Academy—may want to reward 78-year-old Farnsworth for being the oldest nominee this category has ever seen. Career arc from stunt man in the 1950s through a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1978's Comes a Horseman to a Best Actor win in 1999 would be just the kind of fairy tale Hollywood would love to compose.
The Straight Story made barely a blip at the box-office, and early buzz about nominations in the Picture, Director, Screenplay, and other categories went nowhere. Farnsworth was left off the SAG nominations list, and even his New York win offers less encouragement in light of recent history, when similarly understated character work from Paul Newman, Peter Fonda, and Nick Nolte has wowed the critics but lost out to showier roles come Oscar time. Academy gave an Oscar to Art Carney for 1974's Harry and Tonto over bigger-name actors in higher-profile movies and has never lived down that choice.
Sean Penn
Sweet and Lowdown

Penn, first nominated for 1995's Dead Man Walking, has overcome bad-boy reputation to become one of the industry's most respected actors; Best Actress nominees Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore have both named him as the actor with whom they would most like to work. Surprise nominations for both Penn and co-star Samantha Morton hints at undetected breadth of support within the Academy. Votes for this performance could make up for the ridiculous omission of his staggering Hurlyburly performance last year.
Meryl and Julianne notwithstanding, plenty of people in the industry still think of Penn as a hothead. Indeed, he might be exactly the kind of actor not to accept an Oscar, and he has even talked of leaving acting altogether. Sweet and Lowdown is a far, far cry from Woody Allen's best work, and even Penn's performance does not equal the levels of his most accomplished performances. Against serious, buzz-heavy contenders like American Beauty, The Insider, and The Hurricane, this picture looks even slighter than it is . . . which is really saying something.
Kevin Spacey
American Beauty

Hugely respected, well-liked actor turning in deftly comic-tragic performance in the year's big Oscar juggernaut. Handicap of already having one Oscar for The Usual Suspects is outweighed by sentiment that Spacey's ensuing work in films like L.A. Confidential and plays like the blockbuster revival of The Iceman Cometh has been deprived of deserved accolades. Won the Screen Actors Guild award, which has successfully forecast the Best Actor Oscar winner in all five years of its existence.
Spacey's performance has been criticized by a small minority as too self-consciously ironic and self-reflexive, and none of the major critics groups cited his work in their year-end awards. Loss to Denzel Washington at Golden Globes slowed his momentum, and even now, both Washington and Crowe present serious competition. Voters who reward American Beauty elsewhere may want to spread the wealth among this category's very deserving contenders.
Denzel Washington
The Hurricane

Washington's performance has impressed even those viewers and critics who complain about the film's historical inaccuracies. Impressive playing of boxer Rubin Carter at different ages and levels of fitness rivals the chameleonic achievements of Russell Crowe. Won a surprise Golden Globe from essentially the same field of competitors. If Washington won, he would be the first black actor to win two Oscars, following his 1989 Best Supporting Actor victory for Glory; also, given that his previous win was twice as long ago as Spacey's in 1995, he may be perceived as being more due of a second victory.
In addition to the gripings about factual inaccuracies, Washington's chances are further damaged by whisperings that Rubin Carter is a less appealing and innocent character than the film or the performance presents. Momentum seriously derailed by SAG loss to Spacey, though even the Golden Globe win failed to make The Hurricane the kind of crossover hit or cultural phenom that the studio clearly anticipated.

WHO WILL WIN: As exciting as the other three acting races, though Spacey takes on more of a winning glow all the time; everyone in Hollywood likes him, almost everyone likes his movie, and more people saw American Beauty in its commercial run than saw the other four films combined.

WHO SHOULD WIN: The five actors included in this year's derby are probably the highest-caliber bunch we have seen this decade, though of the specific performances for which they are nominated, Crowe's comprised the biggest departure from type and the most exciting revelation of previously hidden capabilities. The electric way Crowe occupies space on screen saved The Insider from turning Jeffrey Wigand into a standard-order media victim and instead made him the most compelling figure in a movie wall-to-wall with fascinating moral compromisers.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Almost any of the actors who appeared in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy would have been credible contenders in the Oscar races, but none more so than Jim Broadbent, whose desperate, arrogant, but strangely heroic W.S. Gilbert managed both to preside over and to fold seamlessly into the year's richest and most under-recognized ensemble.

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