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10 closest Oscar races in the past 20 years

November 22, 2009 |  4:36 pm

One of the shrewdest Oscarologists on the planet is Tariq Khan of Fox News, who often generously shares his views of current and past derbies with Gold Derby readers. Here he takes a nostalgic look  at the past two decades, offering his take on the most competitive derbies. Words below are Tariq's. Thanks, m'friend!

We’ve often discussed those Oscar races that seem just too close to call . . . where it’s clear (or at least seems clear) that the eventual winner will nab the Oscar with only a few more votes than his or her nearest competitor.

While we can never really know for sure (unless we get one of those top jobs at the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers,) we do have some idea of what may have been the closest races in Oscar history. Allow me to present what I believe were the 10 closest acting races over the course of the past 20 years.

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1) Jim Broadbent in “Iris” over Ian McKellen in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for best supporting actor of 2001: It seemed like McKellen had it in the bag. He was the only acting nominee of the 13 nods for “Rings,” he had payback votes from those academy members who felt that he should have won best actor of 1998 for “Gods and Monsters,” and he had claimed the SAG Award just a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony. Yet somehow he was edged out by Broadbent in the indie film “Iris.” There’s no doubt that Broadbent’s showy turn in “Moulin Rouge!” and sympathetic role in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – both released in 2001 – helped to secure his upset victory. McKellen is probably still smarting from the loss, though he should take comfort knowing that the race was a squeaker.

2) Juliette Binoche in “The English Patient” over Lauren Bacall in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” for best supporting actress of 1996: I knew that Golden Globe and SAG winner (not to mention sentimental favorite) Bacall was vulnerable. She had a small part in a comedy that  was overlooked by the academy in every other major category. Plus she didn’t have a reputation for being the nicest person in show business. I nonetheless predicted her to win, believing that the opposition votes would go into too many directions (namely Barbara Hershey in “The Portrait of a Lady” and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in “Secrets and Lies”) for an upset to occur. Silly me. The academy love for “Patient” spilled over into the supporting actress race, carrying Binoche to a shocking victory. I still that think that Bacall registered lots of votes, and that Binoche just barely sneaked past her.

3) Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” over Ed Harris in “Pollock” for best actor of 2000: After buzz for Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” died down, the contest quickly turned toward Crowe and Harris. Crowe had just lost for “The Insider” and had the advantage of being in a best picture nominee (and eventual winner) – while Harris was a beloved veteran playing a real-life person who suffered endlessly on screen. I eventually settled on Harris, thinking that Hollywood would prefer to see him win – and thought I had nailed it when his co-star Marcia Gay Harden took the supporting actress prize. Sure, I was left eating crow on Oscar night – but I’m certain that Harris lost only by a hair.

4) Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny” over Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” for best supporting actress of 1992: The only question bigger than “how many votes did Tomei win by?” may actually be “who came in second?” – my guess being the sensational Davis as a neurotic New Yorker in Woody Allen’s fascinating comedy-drama. Davis had a strong performance in a semi-leading role, the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and credentials that included a best actress nomination for the prestigious “A Passage to India” eight years earlier. Critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel both named Davis as their choice for the award, pointing to the rare and refreshing intelligence of her character in the film. With the British vote being split amongst fellow nominees Joan Plowright in “Enchanted April,” Vanessa Redgrave in “Howard’s End” and Miranda Richardson in “Damage,” it seemed that the Australian Davis would surely prevail. In the end, the whole Woody Allen-Mia Farrow-Soon-Yi Previn scandal probably tainted the film – and Davis’ Oscar chances. But Tomei couldn’t have won by too much.

5) Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” over Renee Zellweger in “Chicago” for best actress of 2002: While everyone seemed to think that Kidman was ahead in the derby because she was physically unrecognizable and had just come off a stinging loss for “Moulin Rouge,” I sensed that there were real drawbacks to her candidacy for best actress. She had minimal screen time for a lead Oscar (less than co-stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore). She had only one strong dramatic scene (and a relatively short one at that). And she had Zellweger and the “Chicago” steamroller heading straight toward her. Zellweger even edged out Kidman at the SAG Awards, suggesting a similar fate at the Oscars. When Denzel Washington finally opened the envelope he pronounced Kidman the winner “by a nose” – and he couldn’t have been more correct. 

6) Kim Basinger in “L.A. Confidential” over Gloria Stuart in “Titanic” for best supporting actress of 1997: Most Oscar pundits projected a win for Stuart for her spellbinding performance in “Titanic,” even though the film wasn’t really about acting. The chance to see the charming octogenarian take to the stage was seemingly irresistible. Here’s where the “Titanic” juggernaut actually worked AGAINST the film. Since academy members seemed to be voting for it almost everywhere on the ballot, the supporting actress race was one of the few places where they could throw a bone to the highly touted “Confidential.” Basinger and Stuart actually tied at the SAG Awards – I dare say that the same thing almost happened at the Oscars. (How nice that would have been.) 

7) Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” over Denzel Washington in “The Hurricane” for best actor of 1999: Washington was the early favorite for his meaty role in “Hurricane,” and the previous supporting actor winner for “Glory” seemed due for a lead statuette. Then controversy hurt his film, leaving him with its sole nomination. As momentum for “Beauty” continued to grow, so did support for Spacey – who emerged victorious on SAG night. The two thesps appeared to be deadlocked, with pundits equally divided over the race’s outcome. The controversial Wall Street Journal poll – which correctly forecast every other race – showed Washington ahead with just the slightest lead. While the Journal was ultimately wrong on the outcome here, it was surely right on just how tight this race was. 

8) Kathy Bates in “Misery” over Anjelica Huston in “The Grifters” for best actress of 1990: In an exciting four-way race that included Joanne Woodward in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” and breakout star of the year Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” it was surely misery for voters to select one name. While no one seemed certain, Huston was considered the safest bet. She was Hollywood royalty playing a tough-as-nails con woman, and “The Grifters” was nominated in other key categoriesto like director and screenplay. On Oscar night Bates was the unexpected winner, probably because of a split vote between Huston and Woodward. Forget about Jimmy Caan’s ankles. The scariest part of “Misery” is how close Bates came to not winning the Oscar. 

9) Geoffrey Rush in “Shine” over Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” for best actor of 1996: For most of the awards season it seemed like a Rush victory was a done deal. He had swept the critics awards and the Golden Globe and SAG trophies. He played a real-life person with a disability. And “Shine” was a best picture nominee thought to have an outside shot of defeating “The English Patient.” Suddenly “Sling Blade” entered the picture, and America (and the academy) fell in love with Thornton. As the nominees names were read off one by one by presenter Susan Sarandon, Thornton drew the biggest applause by far. Too bad the applause didn’t translate into votes. Rush was the winner – but in a photo finish.

10) Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton” over Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” for best supporting actress of 2007. Like Tomei’s win for the supporting actress Oscar of 1992, it is unclear here as to just who finished second. While there was much talk of Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There” and even Ruby Dee in “American Gangster,” I can’t help but think that Ryan was Swinton’s chief rival. She had a good-size role with plenty of dramatic, in-your-face scenes, and was hailed by both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics as well as the National Board of Review. At the time I wrote that Ryan’s unsympathetic character and unknown status worked against her, as did the shutout of “Gone” in all other categories. Yes, I predicted Swinton would win – by the narrowest of margins.

Photos: Miramax, New Line

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