It’s hardly news that the Academy often gets it wrong come Oscar night.
In the directors category alone, the list of overlooked helmers includes no less than Stanley Kubrick and — yes, still — Martin Scorsese. The legacy of overlooked and nearly ignored actors is equally legion: The Academy failed to fete Henry Fonda for a performance until 1982 — a few months before his death — for “On Golden Pond.”
This year’s crop of strong male performances casts a light on Oscar’s past failing, with at least a half-dozen lead and supporting actors currently in the running after having been passed over for arguably even greater past work. That list begins but does not end with Richard Griffiths (“The History Boys”), Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Departed,” “Blood Diamond”), Derek Luke (“Catch a Fire”) and Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”).
As Hector, the beloved, quirky teacher of a group of gifted lads in “The History Boys,” Griffiths and his portly eccentricities should stir memories in the cult of fans of Bruce Robinson’s classic of acting, wasting time and pot known as “Withnail & I.”
Not only did the film introduce the inimitable Richard E. Grant (as Withnail) to an unsuspecting public, but it brought Griffiths (already a vet of London stage and supporting roles in such Oscar winners as “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi”) to the foreground as Withnail’s Uncle Monty, one of the funniest, most transgressive characters in British cinema history. It’s somewhat understandable that the staid Academy would fail to warm to Griffiths’ darkly absurdist characterization, but to do so was to ignore one of the highlights in the fallow period known as ’80s film comedy.
Perhaps what makes Whitaker’s operatic turn as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin most impressive is how it provides contrast to the actor’s way with quiet characters.
None is more remarkable than his “Ghost Dog” for writer-director Jim Jarmusch, in which Whitaker used his massive physical presence — combined with his cherubic facial features — to unsettle an audience, and to make viewers accept an African-American man in contemporary America able to live by the code and practice of the samurai warrior.
Ignoring Whitaker for (at the very least) an Oscar nomination in a performance that so utterly dominated a superb film — arguably even more so than “Last King of Scotland” — was apparently the punishment doled out to an actor who had the temerity to work with Jarmusch, a director whose relationship with Hollywood continues to be one of mutual contempt.
For Wahlberg, there was life before Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and life after, so career-altering, galvanizing and all-encompassing was his performance as rising-and-falling porn star Dirk Diggler.
This, plus Wahlberg’s personal story (from small-time crook to faux hip-hopster Marky Mark to genuine actor) would seem to have been enough to create enough heat to earn him a nomination in 1998.
It wasn’t to be, for perhaps some of the same reasons as Whitaker’s “Ghost Dog”: Beyond the oddity of “Pulp Fiction,” the Academy wasn’t yet ready in the 1990s to give American indie cinema its due. And it surely wasn’t ready — and likely remains so — to be perceived as acknowledging a movie about porn, even if that movie is a fable about porn as the dark side of the American dream, with Wahlberg’s innocent-looking Dirk the hero.
Oddly, DiCaprio has been ignored for the opposite reasons of Wahlberg and Whitaker — too much mainstream success. Guess who was passed over in the “Titanic” Oscar-a-thon of 11 statues and 13 noms? DiCaprio and his pretty-boy good looks.
Nominated only twice (for his startling breakthrough in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and for “The Aviator”), DiCaprio was somehow ignored for his subtly etched work in “Marvin’s Room” and his piss-and-vinegar characterization in “Gangs of New York.” Once again, in the astonishing “The Departed” — a movie teeming with delicious actors at the peak of their form — DiCaprio demonstrates why he’s Scorsese’s first actor of choice in his generation.
Luke’s “Antwone Fisher” embodied the actor’s innate sense of how to play a hero onscreen, which was why he had been considered a near-certainty in 2003 for an Oscar nom. Given how the pic struck many viewers as pure Oscar fodder, with its classically liberal celebration of a young man of color triumphing over ridiculously difficult odds and with a military setting to boot, Luke’s failure to get a nom remains a genuine Academy Awards mystery. It’s precisely for this reason that Luke’s prospects with another kind of hero in “Catch a Fire” are seen as bright.
Because of the franchise’s blockbuster status, and with memories fading of Depp’s first gender-bending, Oscar-nominated spin at Jack Sparrow in the original 2003 “Pirates,” Oscar watchers and voters may habitually leave Depp out of consideration for this round.
But this is nothing new for America’s most risk-taking actor. From “Ed Wood” and “Dead Man” to “Benny & Joon,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Secret Window” and his unjustly dissed “The Libertine,” Depp is second to none among his peers in the range, risk and sheer audacity of his performances. Notably, it’s with a far more sedate and comforting role, as James Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” that Depp finds favor with the Academy.