By Amy Ryan
Updated July 30, 2020 at 06:25 PM EDT
Credit: Everett Collection

The 1988 Best Actor race wasn’t much of a race; Dustin Hoffman sped away from the rest of the pack faster than you can say, “I’m an excellent driver.” Really, no one had a chance against his Rain Man performance, a triumph of technique in a big hit movie that was also a lock for Best Picture that year. His only serious contender was his former roommate, Gene Hackman, as the rule-breaking FBI agent in the weighty Mississippi Burning. Hackman was the only other contender whose movie was a Best Picture nominee, though the other three actors all gave career-milestone performances. Tom Hanks earned the first of his many Oscar nods for convincingly playing a boy trapped in a man’s body in Big. Edward James Olmos, in the performance that became his signature role, was also thoroughly believable as real-life math teacher Jaime Escalante in the inspirational drama Stand and Deliver. And Max Von Sydow was majestic in his turn as an immigrant father who struggles to build a better life for himself and his son in Pelle the Conqueror, a portrayal so strong it overcame the Academy’s usual reluctance to nominate foreign-language performances.

But did Hoffman deserve the prize? His performance certainly changed the way Americans thought about autism, and his portrayal was uncanny in its uncompromising otherworldliness, managing to seem honest and even funny without ever trying to be likable or sympathetic. On the other hand, the performance has also been much parodied over the years and has led to the cynical calculation (confirmed just a year later, for example, by Daniel Day-Lewis’ win for My Left Foot) that all you need to do to win an Oscar is play someone with a disability. Then there’s Hanks’ performance (besides Hoffman’s, probably the best remembered of the five), which has lost none of its charm or freshness in 20 years; it did, however, launch Hanks into the Serious Thespian part of his career, and he seems not to have delivered an unselfconscious, fully comic performance in the two decades since.

Looking back from today’s perspective, which of these performances doyou think is the best? Vote in our poll, and list your comments below.(For a refresher, watch the clips embedded after the jump, which may contain some NSFW language — and, in the case of the Mississippi Burning clip, revoltingly bigoted language as well.) Remember, we’ll be running the Recall the Gold surveys every Tuesdayand Thursday until January, so you may go back at any time and vote inthe other polls (click hereto see them all), reexamining the Oscar races of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25years ago. On Tuesday, Nov. 11, we’ll look at the 1983 Best Directorcompetition. Watch also for commentary and context throughout,including on Dave Karger’s new Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Everett Collection”)

Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning

Tom Hanks in Big

Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver

Max Von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror