What’s the worst Best Actor choice of all time?

Posted by · 9:40 pm · July 24th, 2008

Roberto Benigni at the Academy Awards in 1999With the Bat frenzy settling down, and the Toronto Fest looming just ahead, I thought I’d get back to, well, complaining about the Academy’s more lame-brained calls over the years!

What has been the group’s single worst choice for Best Actor in its 80 year history?  My choice: Roberto Benigni for “Life is Beautiful” in 1998.

I remember sitting stunned when his name was called out at the Screen Actors Guild awards for his incessant, mugging in the film, possibly the most over-praised endeavor of 1998. What this meant of course was that he now had the inside track to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for this ridiculous performance.

And he did just that, clowning around, jumping up on the seats of those around him, massacring the English language (which he speaks perfectly fine) with his acceptance speech, trying his best to be endearing and beloved.

How and why did this performance — and this film — become so beloved by the AMPAS?

Among the performances Benigni defeated that year were Edward Norton’s seething work in “American History X,” Tom Hanks’s superb turn in “Saving Private Ryan” and Nick Nolte’s raging performance in “Affliction.” Each performance was vastly superior to Begnini’s, and as always, some of those not nominated could have easily taken his place.  Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show” comes to mind.

Hollywood, however, fell in love with Mr. Begnini as he cruised through cocktail party after cocktail party, dinner at Barbara Streisand’s house, the entire town entranced by a brown-eyed clown.

His performance was little more than over the top shameless mugging for the camera — “acting” at its worst. For that he gets an Oscar, along with nominations for Best Director and a win for Best Foreign Language Film??

There have been terrible Oscar wins in the past, of course: “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Elizabeth Taylor for “Butterfield 8,” Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.  But has the Academy ever been so incredibly bamboozled by a film and a performer as they were in 1998?

What about you?  What do you think is the Academy’s all time worst choice for Best Actor?  Or Best Foreign Language Film for that matter?

→ 41 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

41 responses so far

  • 1 7-24-2008 at 10:07 pm

    fig said...

    1998 was a complete sham!

    The Truman Show, one of the greatest movies of the 90’s and it gets nothing! No Best Picture nod? No Best Actor nod? Nothing! Oh but thats ok because Shakespeare in Love won best picture and Roberto Benigni is apparently the best that year had to offer!

  • 2 7-24-2008 at 10:38 pm

    Chad said...

    Mugging and manipulative or not, his film is effective and so is his performance. Not the best of the year of course but my vote goes for Pacino’s win. Most shameful nominee of all time is Brandon De Wilde for Shane.

  • 3 7-24-2008 at 10:52 pm

    Joseph said...

    Fig, I wouldn’t call 3 Oscar nominations – among those Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor – nothing. That is certainly something most films wish they could be nominated for, and those are pretty BIG categories.

    As for Roberto Benigni, I’m so over all this unrelenting hatred. It was a fine performance in (for me) a wonderful film, MAYBE not deserving of the win but hardly a horrible performance in the least.

    STILL, I will agree with you. Of the 40 something Best Actor winners I’ve seen, I would pick him as my least favorite. Even if I don’t mind his win. ;)

  • 4 7-24-2008 at 11:15 pm

    par3182 said...

    why list three of the four actors benigni beat and omit the best of all – ian mckellan?

  • 5 7-24-2008 at 11:22 pm

    Ryan Adams said...

    His performance was little more than over the top shameless mugging for the camera — “acting” at its worst.

    Love that pithy quoth! (ha) Makes me think immediately of two performances from the 90’s. Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

    Not that these were as bad as the baked ham Benigni inflicted upon us, but like everything else in the Academy’s history of stacked decks, it’s important to consider the other cards dealt in the same hand.

    Looking back, which performance now seems more enduring? Hanks gumping it up, or Morgan Freeman’s quiet resilience in The Shawshank Redemption? I’d even rank Travolta’s Vincent Vega over the pablum spoon-fed to us in Forrest Gump.

    Likewise, Al Pacino’s big sack of overripe tics and whoo-yas! has always made me cringe. Compared to Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and Robert Downey Jr as Chaplin, the Pacino Oscar stands as one of the worst examples of a “make-up” Oscar ever.

    Those three performances by Benigni, Hanks and Pacino are like something you”d expect to see on the stage of a high school gymnasium.

  • 6 7-24-2008 at 11:50 pm

    Proman said...

    “Hanks gumping it up, or Morgan Freeman’s quiet resilience in The Shawshank Redemption? ”

    Don’t worry, he was redeemed in “Million Dollar Baby” (if you really want to go there).

    “Likewise, Al Pacino’s big sack of overripe tics and whoo-yas! has always made me cringe. Compared to Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and Robert Downey Jr as Chaplin, the Pacino Oscar stands as one of the worst examples of a “make-up” Oscar ever.”

    Nevermind, you went there first.

    For me, Julia Roberts for “Erin Brockovich” takes the cake as the worst “make-up” ever (though there definitely have been worse performances that have won or been nominated) . I can only guess that most of the people couldn’t handle “Requiem for a Dream” so they missed the downright frightening Ellen Burstyn performance.

    P.S. I still think that Harrison Ford gave the best performance in “The Fugitive”.

  • 7 7-25-2008 at 12:16 am

    Jeff said...

    It was interesting because, I had never seen this before about a couple of months ago, and someone told me that as a film buff I had a “responsibility” to see this movie. I couldn’t believe the saccharine schmaltz that this movie paraded around like some form of high art. Sickening, and one of the worst Best Actor choices indeed.

  • 8 7-25-2008 at 3:46 am

    Matt said...

    Jack Lemmon–Save the Tiger

  • 9 7-25-2008 at 5:12 am

    Blake Rutherford said...

    Benigni is the worst, hands down, and his antics at the ceremony were embarassing.

    I loathed all things “Forrest Gump” and was particularly frustrated that Hanks won, again, for that performance.

    I thought Robert Duvall deserved the statue for “The Apostle,” which he lost to Jack Nicholson playing . . .wait for it . . . a crazy person.

    I can’t say that I thought Russell Crowe’s win for “Gladiator” was particularly inspiring especially when you consider Javier Bardem’s performance in “Before Night Falls.” That said, he didn’t win for “A Beautiful Mind,” so maybe it evens itself out.

  • 10 7-25-2008 at 6:21 am

    Neel Mehta said...

    I’ve very fond of “Life is Beautiful” and don’t really mind Roberto Benigni’s Best Actor win, even if others (including Jim Carrey) were more individually impressive.

    Though I suppose it’s a second slap at Robert Duvall, who tried and failed a year before to join Laurence Olivier as the only people to win for a self-directed performance.

    I always question the utility of these kinds of posts, which really only serve to incite people who already have deep-seated hatreds of voting bodies that inexplicably failed to match their personal tastes. Relax and get used to it.

    Better question: what’s the best-chosen Best Actor winner of all time? Now that’s worth pondering.

  • 11 7-25-2008 at 6:44 am

    Joseph said...

    I can’t say that I really care. There are performances and there are PERFORMANCES. It’s all so subjective anyway. What makes one performance that much better than another? With a few exceptions, of course.

  • 12 7-25-2008 at 7:11 am

    Dave said...

    Benigni is one of the worst, but not the worst. For me, that’s Cliff Robertson in Charly, a film I hated and a performance that was just as bad. And although I typically love Lee Marvin in anything, can’t say I liked his performance in Cat Ballou. Finally, Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona is embarrassing by today’s standards.

  • 13 7-25-2008 at 9:08 am

    Ivan said...

    Not only depends on the performance itself and win over more talented nominees, I think the worst Choice is consider an actor like Paul Newman in superb roles like The Hustler, Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Verdict and give him the fucking gold for The Color of Money. Same case: Pacino and Russell Crowe

  • 14 7-25-2008 at 12:07 pm

    Chris said...

    Mine is probably between Pacino and Benigni. Robert Downey Jr was AMAZING in Chaplin, and all other nominees (esp McKellen) soared over Benigni.

    However, my most aggravated win is Jones over Fiennes in 93. Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List scares the crap out of me. Jones was good, but I found nothing that special about his performance.

    And I thought Roberts was good in 2000, but nowhere near Ellen Burstyn or poor Bjork was got screwed by Binoche.

  • 15 7-25-2008 at 1:42 pm

    Chad said...

    Hey everyone,

    Shameless plug here but about a year ago I made a list of the 10 Oscar decisions from the last 15 years that I thought were the right choice. Seems like a good fit for the conversations on this blog. If you’d like to check it out here’s the link

    10 Right Choices

  • 16 7-25-2008 at 2:17 pm

    CGB said...

    I always thought Denzel Washington’s peformance in “Training Day” was one of the worst to win Best Actor. Russel Crowe and Tom Wilkinson both gave better performances in “A Beautiful Mind” and “In the Bedroom” respectively. Also Guy Pearce gave one of the best performances of the year in “Memento” and he wasn’t even nominated unfortunately.

    Denzel’s peformance always came across to me as horribly overrated. Just my opinion, though.

  • 17 7-25-2008 at 3:41 pm

    Nigel said...

    I’d go with Art Carney, purely because of who he was up against – Nicholson in Chinatown, Pacino in The Godfather Part II and my personal favourite, Hoffman in Lenny (plus Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, but I haven’t seen that one so can’t comment).

    Nice performance, but gee…

  • 18 7-25-2008 at 3:44 pm

    cinema tek said...

    I just read Chad´s right choices. The Academy well done in recent history in the Original Screenplay category.

    My top ten for right choices in the last 20 years:
    1. Adapted Screenplay 1997
    “L.A. Confidential”
    2. Documentary 2003
    “Bowling For Columbine”
    3.Actor 1996
    Nicolas Cage “Leaving Las Vegas”
    4. Original Score 2006
    Gustavo Santaolalla “Brokeback Mountain”
    5. Foreign Film 2007
    “The Lives of Others”
    6. Film Editing 2000
    “The Matrix”
    7. Original Screenplay 1993
    “The Crying Game”
    8. Actress 1992
    Jodie Foster “The Silence of the Lambs”
    9. Picture 2007
    “The Departed”
    10. Supporting Actress 1994
    Anna Paquin “The Piano”

  • 19 7-25-2008 at 6:22 pm

    Darbicus said...

    Personally I’d label Art Carney as the worst one ever. Pretty much the fact that he beat Nicholson, Pacino & Hoffman all in one night (in 1974 no less) is evidence in and of itself. Benigni ranks a close second in my opinion, beating out Norton and McKellen (and by proxy of not being nominated, Carrey).

    Never been a huge fan of Pacino’s win in 92, nor of Hanks’ win in 94 (or 93 for that matter, but it’s not as egregious as Gump).

  • 20 7-25-2008 at 6:25 pm

    John Foote said...

    Some interesting comments. What I hoped to make clear is that I believe Begnini’s performance to be genunely terrible, thereby being a poor choice for the best actor award. There have been performances win that were less deserving than the other nominees, but certainly not terrible work. Art Carney gave a fine performance in “Harry and Tonto” and won when the vote was split, while Jack Lemmon won for the same reason the year previous. Though Brando should have won for ‘Last Tango in Paris” would they really give him an Oscar one year after he refused it for ‘The Godfather”? Begnini gave a dreadful performance, easily the worst ever to win an Oscar. There was lots of Tom Hanks dislike, but I ask you to imagine the film without him, and to understand how he anchored the film. Best picture…nope, but I have a hard time arguing against him for best actor. And shame on the person who attacked Brandon de Wilde in ‘Shane”…what a marvelous performance in a classic film.

  • 21 7-25-2008 at 9:51 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Cinema Tek: Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs”? Ick.

  • 22 7-25-2008 at 10:53 pm

    Marvin said...

    Russell Crowe for Gladiator stands as the worst offender of this decade to me. And then he had to win for it.

  • 23 7-26-2008 at 5:59 am

    John Foote said...

    Agree with Crowe for Gladiator, but they should have given it to him for The Insider the year previous so of course, OF COURSE, he is going to win. I struggle with Adrien Brody for The Pianist as well…over Nicholson in About Schmidt or Day-Lewis in Gangs of NY? Greatest snub of this decade? Gimatti not being up for best actor in Sideways…what a crime.

  • 24 7-26-2008 at 10:41 am

    Silencio said...

    Yep, I’m psychic. I knew you were going to pick Benigni. And, yes, I disagree.
    His performance was indeed mugging. Purposeful mugging. His character’s purpose was to mug, and shuck and jive, do whatever he could to shield his son from the truth of what was happening. I found it to be a much quieter performance underneath, which I dug. I haven’t seen it since maybe 2003, but I can still see the scene towards the end with him carrying his son on his back, tired and unable to “perform” for him. Beautiful.

    Also, Russell Crowe was fantastic in Gladiator. And while he was worthy of the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, I would have voted for Denzel.

    Now I feel like I’m contradicting nearly everyone on this thread :)

  • 25 7-26-2008 at 6:20 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    My top ten of worst performances:

    1. Cliff Roberson, “Charly”-I just hated him. The worst Oscar for male category
    2.John Wayne, “True Gift”-I’m surprised that his AWFUL actor, who played himself in all his films won his Oscar in a year with Hoffman, O’Toole, Trintignant, Voight and Burton, won one of the most undeserving Oscars in history
    3. Art Caney, “Harry and Tonto”- They had Jack Nicholson for “chinatown” and Al Pacino for “The Godfather II”
    4. Al Pacino, “Scence of a Woman”-His worse performance. The Oscar for a long history of snubbed triumps
    5.Russell Crowe, “Gladiator”-Overrated movie and performance in many aspects, but for me, Russell’s best performances are “L.A. Confidential” and “The Insider”
    6. Roberto Benigni, “Life is Beautiful”-They ignored Marcello Mastroianni (One of the most overdues actors in history of Oscars), Giancarlo giannini, Alberto Sordi, Massimo Troisi and even Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist) for him??? A clown in movie as the real life…
    7.Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”-It’s not a worse performance per se, but this is the most overrated performance in last years, even when comparate his performance with his competition (Ledger, Phoenix and Strathairn)
    8.Rex Harrison, “My Fair Lady”-YIKES!!!!
    9.Lee Marvin, “Cat Ballou”-Where’s Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger or Richard Burton
    10.Tom Hanks, “Forrest Gump”-That oscar was to Morgan Freeman.

    1.Mary Pickord, “Coquette”-I need more reasons?
    2.Halle Berry, “monster’s Ball”-The worst politic excuse in Oscars, unleast in last years… An over the top, inconsistente and pathetic performance
    3.Jessica Lange, “Blue Sky”: Lange is a good actress and I think she should won for “music Box”…but well, that year was awful in the line up
    4.Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”- Oscar=”Elle Woods with dark Hair and southern accent goes to Nashville married with the emperor Commodus”
    5.Julia Roberts, “Erin Brockovitz”-This was a case (A la Pickord) when a big star won for her influence instead for her performance. Ellen Burstyn, Laura Linney and Bjork deserve it.
    6.Sally Field, “Places to the Heart”-Awful movie and overrated Field performance. it was so bad that I can’t remember the tittle.
    7.Jane Fonda, “Coming Home”-Another Pickord case… That Oscar belongs to Jill clayburgh or in the best of the cases Ingrid Bergman (Her Best Career Performance)
    8.Elizabeth Taylor, “butterfly 8”-Her second Oscar was very deserved, but WTF? Why instead Mercouri and MacLaine?
    9.The Blond Chicks: Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen hunt were two the most insipid and overrated actresses in Holywood and she won only because they’e blond american queens. “Daddy’s little Girl” Paltrow won instead the better actresses Blanchett, Montenegro, Watson and Streep; and “Mad about YoU” Hunt instead Dench and Bonham Carter. Well, unleast the time always give the true reason
    10.Katherine Hepburn, “On the Golden Pond”: She won for playing herself in a year with Streep, KEaton, Sarandon and the not nominated Marilia Pera

  • 26 7-27-2008 at 3:03 pm

    DuboseTriangle said...

    This is what’s wrong with the Oscar’s:

    Beginning in the early 1990’s with the explosion of shows like Entertainment Tonight, high profile film critics, satellite & 24 hour cable television, stylists, famous gown and jewelry designers, it’s more about glamour, notoriety and popularity than talent.

    Today, hundreds of Internet bloggers & cable televison film critics ANOINT the winners, then, AMPAS members like little lemmings have their kids complete the ballots validating these decisions.

    Academy members should be required to attend screening in theaters. No DVD’s.

    There’s that persistent Hollywood rumor that if the subject matter of any nominated film, be it feature, live-action short or documentary is the Holocaust, it’s a shoo in to win Oscar. Hello? Life Is Beautiful?

    ALL TIME WORST Actor……..Al Pacino in Scent of A Woman.

  • 27 7-28-2008 at 1:02 am

    Matt said...

    Looking at Xavi’s list, it seems to me that there are a lot more really bad Best Actress performances than Best Actor performances. The Jessica Lange win was something I will never understand.

  • 28 7-28-2008 at 10:42 am

    Patrick said...

    Zelweigger won for her paint pealing performance in “Cold Mountain”. Somehow that strikes me as a worse infraction.
    and Jamie Foxx won for the travesty “Ray”
    Be aware. I have this sinking feeling that they are going to get it incredibly wrong again this year in a way that they haven’t done in a long time.

  • 29 8-13-2008 at 11:41 pm

    Roupen said...

    Jodie’s Performance was only great (Though overshadowed by Hopkins’s even greater performance) !

  • 30 4-26-2009 at 1:17 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I’m amazed that it took 28 comments to finally mention Renee Zellweger’s turn in Cold Mountain. That is the only Oscar-winning performance in a film that I literally can’t watch. Meanwhile Shohreh Aghdashloo got left in the cold.

    Also, am I the only person who thinks that David Thewlis gave the most deserving performance of 1994?

  • 31 7-25-2009 at 9:35 pm

    John said...

    It’s all relative. Pacino wasn’t bad in “Scent of a Woman”, so the fact that he got a makeup Oscar isn’t that egregious (I didn’t consider any of his rivals to be ‘great’). However, the freaking Honeymooner beating Nicholson/Pacino in what is arguably each one’s best performance? Supporting Actor Peter Finch beating De Niro in “Taxi Driver?” And the repeatedly aforementioned Hanks over Freeman (though Freeman did get his makeup Oscar, essentially for narration in MDB).

  • 32 1-08-2010 at 9:05 pm

    nando said...

    Umm.. what? You think Pacino didn’t deserve the Oscar for “Scent of a Woman”? Man, I really think that’s a matter of opinion. No offense, but I think you’re nuts.

  • 33 1-08-2010 at 9:15 pm

    nando said...

    Sure, Pacino deserved that Godfather Part II Oscar in my opinion, but doing the role of a blind man is not as easy as you think.

  • 34 2-05-2010 at 1:11 pm

    Siva said...

    I personally feel Pacino gave a decent performance in Scent of a Woman but that Oscar most definitely should of gone to Denzel Washington for “Malcolm X”- which for me ranks as the best peformance of the decade. Samuel L jackson snubbed by the oscars twice for his work in Pulp Ficiton & Jackie Brown. I dnt even think he got a nomination. Same for Pacino in Donnie Brasco nd the insider.

    The worst oscar award has to go to Benigni (shuld of gone to Norton) and Art Caney (should of gone to Pacino)

  • 35 4-02-2010 at 5:26 pm

    Volvagia said...

    And no one has mentioned what’s especially stinging about Pacino’s win. He was nominated in the other actor category that same year in a truly great movie that would have been an infinitely stronger symbol. The symbol?: “Here’s the Oscar you should have won the first time.”

  • 36 4-02-2010 at 5:31 pm

    Volvagia said...

    And no one has mentioned Bruce Campbell for 1992, either? As a symbol, which is what this prize is, awarding him for Army of Darkness would symbolically be awarding a 4 hour performance that culminated in 160 excellent minutes of excellent supernaturally tinged vaudeville.

  • 37 4-02-2010 at 7:55 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Bruce Campbell, awesome though he is, did not exactly give a “performance for the ages” in Army of Darkness. Or any film, for that matter.

  • 38 11-12-2010 at 8:49 am

    Audrey Genevieve Roth said...

    Biggest joke was Tommy Lee Jones win for The Fugitive over Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. Fiennes performance rates in the top 5 performances i have ever seen.

  • 39 12-05-2010 at 11:11 am

    Rem said...

    In my opinion the worst was Russel Crowe, Gladiator. Overvalued at the time, today is in its right place

  • 40 2-02-2011 at 4:19 pm

    keifer schultz said...

    This is easy for me. I found these performances really lame. Can’t believe these guys won. I’ve also indicated who should have won.


    Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” (Morgan Freeman should have won in “The Shawshank Redemption”)

    John Wayne in “True Grit” (Richard Burton should have won in “Anne of the Thousand Days”)

    Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” (Peter O’toole shouldhave won in “Becket”)

    Sidney Poitier in “Lillies of the Field” (Paul Newman should have won in “Hud”)

    Cliff Robertson in “Charly” (Peter O’toole should have won in “The Lion in Winter”)