And the winner is…Roberto Benigni? Before the 1998 Academy Awards became infamous for Shakespeare in Love‘s upset Best Picture win over Saving Private Ryan, it had already solidified its place in Oscar history for the double shock of Benigni taking Best Actor for his performance in Life is Beautiful. First, Benigni — an Italian writer/actor/director who’d made his career in his native country as, well, a daffy cinema clown — beat out far more seasoned actors with his performance as a Jewish-Italian father during WWII so desperate to shield hisyoung son from the Holocaust that he pretends it’s all a massive game. And secondly, as you can see in the photo, Benigni celebrated his victory by standing on his seat and generally acting like, well, a daffy Italian clown. It remains to this day a moment that causes many cinema buffs and Oscar fans to cringe with embarrassment.
In fact, of all the categories in Entertainment Weekly’s ongoing Recall the Gold survey asking Hollywood to revote on the major Oscars from 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago, this could be the one most likely to go to one of the other nominees, namely Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Nick Nolte (Affliction), or Edward Norton (American History X). Hanks, of course, had won back-to-back Oscars in 1993 and 1994 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump respectively, and while his performance in Saving Private Ryan as the grounded, heartbreaking Capt. Miller was arguably the best of his career to that point, the Academy wasn’t about to hand yet another Oscar to him so soon. Nolte earned the best reviews of his career for his portrayal of an alcoholic, small-town cop psychologically crippled by the abuse of his black-hearted father, played by fellow nominee James Coburn. But the film is so bleak that perhaps voters could only bring themselves to vote for one of the deeply troubled men, and the Oscar went to Hollywood vet Coburn for Best Supporting Actor. Norton landed his second nomination for a performance as a neo-Nazi racist prone to rants so articulate, so seemingly reasoned, that they were that much more dismaying — probably too dismaying for the Academy to honor with an Oscar, given that Norton’s nomination was something of a surprise itself.
McKellan, meanwhile, was the favorite to win for his deeply affecting portrait of openly gay Frankenstein director James Whale. He’d won a slew of critics’ awards (including Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Broadcast Association), and although still relatively new to Hollywood — he was less than a year from beginning production on The Lord of the Rings — McKellan was already well respected as probably the finest Shakespearean actor alive. But at that time, Life is Beautiful was a sentimental powerhouse hitting the peak of its popularity (it also easily won Best Foreign Language Film), and Benigni became the first man ever to win Best Actor for a non-English-speaking role.
So, PopWatchers, do you think Benigni still deserves his Oscar? Or would you give it to someone else? Vote in our poll below; if you need a reminder of each performance, check out clips from each film after the jump (although some of the language is definitely NSFW). While you’re at it, if you haven’t already, vote in all the other polls from our ongoing walk down Oscar’s memory lane. On Thursday, Dec. 11, we’ll take a look at the 2003 Best Director race, and you can check out coverage of this year’s awards contenders in Dave Karger’s Oscar Watch blog.
Roberto Bengini, Life is Beautiful
Nick Nolte, Affliction (Trailer)
Edward Norton, American History X (Warning: NSFW)
Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters
Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan (Warning: NSFW)