The Legacy of the 1993 Best Supporting Actor Race

As any who read my last post have probably realized, I’m a devout Oscar obsessive. And, as typical of us list-happy cinephiles, I like working on random personal projects to both expand my knowledge of Academy Awards history and deepen my appreciation for filmic trends throughout history. This year, my research has taken me to try and watch all the nominated Oscar performances from the 1990s. That has led me to a discovery that I was not quite expecting: Best Supporting Actor used to be interesting.

Now, don’t get me wrong, seeing J.K. Simmons win for Whiplash a few years ago was lovely, I’m always down for a good Christoph Waltz/Quentin Tarantino mashup character, and hopefully we get Mahershala Ali on Sunday’s ceremony (I mean seriously, who doesn’t want this guy to win?). But recently, this category has become the “let’s honor old white men” showcase. That’s all well and good sometimes, but the consistency of this happening is starting to get a little depressing.

Best Supporting Actor should be a much more fun category. My favorite film characters are almost universally the villains, and that’s what this category is made for. The 1990s were the golden age of this for me; we would never honor Al Pacino for his amazingly goofy work in Dick Tracy (nominee, 1990) today, nor would we recognize Tim Roth in Rob Roy (nominee, 1995). Granted, both of these performances were lauded in their times, but their respective narratives would not be as strong in the 2010s.

Alas, the ’90s brought us probably the best year ever in this category: 1993’s Best Supporting Actor race is filled with memorable performances that run the gamut between a father trying to protect his rebellious yet falsely accused son; a crazed psychopath obsessed with killing the President of the United States; a cop trying to track down an innocent man; a mentally handicapped kid just trying live as normal a life as possible; and, a Nazi so evil that he can’t even stand the idea of being kind. So, in the grand tradition of the much more fun Best Supporting Actress Smackdown (with a new season coming up at The Film Experience this March), let’s take a look at these five startling deserving nominees for Best Supporting Actor in 1993.

And the nominees are…

Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Before the never-ending (and for the most part, completely unjustified) anger to get him an Oscar, perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio’s most deserving nomination was his first, as a mentally handicapped kid in rural Iowa trying to live his best life with a family plagued by inner guilt and other troubles. DiCaprio gives 110% in an acting job that today would garner just a tad bit of controversy (why are we turning a mentally incapacitating disease into a performance?). But the recognition here is far more deserved than for his—let’s call them “generous”—Oscar nominations throughout the 2000s. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, we’re reminded of the talent DiCaprio used to have, and I miss movies like this—family stories that are not afraid to go to dark places before bringing us to a happy conclusion.

Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List

I dare you to find one person on this beautiful planet of ours that would not want this performance to win. This is a fine crowd of actors for sure, but in terms of sheer legend, Ralph Fiennes’ maliciously cruel Nazi commandant Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List takes the crown of most memorable supporting turn from 1993 (and even the whole of the ’90s). Fiennes is an actor who has only recently begun to get the credit he deserves of being one of the finest thespians working today, and this early showcase of his work is a haunting look at a brutally evil man who only briefly toys with forgiveness before deciding it’s not to his liking.

Finding a clip for this one was tough. (Does one go for the merciless shooting spree on the balcony? Or does one pick the simplest and cruelest clip of all: his final scene where even just before death, Goeth says “Heil Hitler”—a sign that all the atrocities he committed mean nothing to him?) However, this one probably best reflects the performance in very few words.

Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive

I like Tommy Lee Jones’ schtick as much as the next guy, but was this really the performance to give him an Oscar for? The Fugitive is a fun movie that really holds up against today’s chase thrillers, but amidst the other performances nominated this year, his is easily the one we can leave behind. Nevertheless, I’m all about honoring work from typically expressionless actors who show a wider range of emotions than we’re used to seeing. He laughs, he cries, and he is clearly having a ton of fun in this movie; you know what, okay, I can see why they gave the Oscar to him. It wouldn’t be my choice by a mile, but if the Academy was legitimately worried that Tommy Lee Jones was never going to get an Oscar otherwise, I guess they could do a lot worse than this.

John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire

Now this is what I want the Academy to recognize more: brainless action movies rarely get credit for having freakin’ awesome villain characters chewing every bit of scenery around them. They passed up on Alan Rickman in Die Hard and didn’t nominate Javier Bardem in Skyfall. But every once in a while, they really go all in on a performance that’s deliciously fun to watch. In 1993, they went for Malkovich as a crazed lunatic trying to assassinate the president in front of Clint Eastwood’s disgraced bodyguard.

Few do creepy as well as Malkovich, and fewer still can marry that ickiness with a voice that makes gripping phone call scenes. In the Line of Fire is a fun movie, but it’s Malkovich that really keeps you enthralled—much in the way Heath Ledger does in The Dark Knight. A good villain sometimes elevates an action movie into an awards-worthy film, and Malkovich is a stellar example of this.

Pete Postlethwaite, In the Name of the Father

The most “traditional” of the nominees from an otherwise ambitious 1993, Pete Postlethwaite is a character everyone recognizes but no one can name, and as such his sole nomination feels like a great moment in the ’90s acting races. Even in a film with no shortage of sentiment, he’s the emotional backbone; we feel for his nice guy character that really never catches a break in trying to help his rebellious son prove his innocence against a prejudiced society. Postlethwaite makes us want to go home and hug our dads immediately. He’s a character so wrapped in warmth that, amidst the harsh realities of this film, he stands as the one bright spot.

So who SHOULD have won?

Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List in a landslide.

The strength of that portrayal is even more incredible when considering how Fiennes shines above powerhouse performances like Malkovich from In the Line of Fire and Postlethwaite from In the Name of the Father.

But I’m curious, who do YOU think should have won Best Supporting Actor in 1993? And which do you think is better—this set of nominees from 2016 or the 1993 men?

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