One of the most glaring Oscar mistakes occurred in 1998 in the supporting actor category. Ed Harris, the favorite to win, had won the Golden Globe, yet had failed to garner a SAG or British Academy Award nomination. His biggest competition that year was the legendary actor James Coburn, who was nominated for his first Oscar for playing a repulsive alcoholic in Affliction. Like Harris, he wasn’t guaranteed the award either, considering his only pre-Oscar nomination was that of the SAG. Harris was expected to win, especially considering the popularity of The Truman Show in 1998. However the Oscars pulled an incredible upset, choosing to award Coburn, whom they felt was overdue on being recognized by the Academy.
The Truman Show stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, who lives the picture-perfect life in a seaside community. He has the cliched beauty queen wife (laura Linney), the jocular best friend, and the respect and love of all those around him. This all begins to crumble when he begins to suspect that this perfect world he has known his entire life may not necessarily be as real as he once thought it was. Unbeknownst to Truman, his life literally is a reality television show, controlled by the perceptive Christof (Harris). Suspecting his world to be a fake, Truman begins to tests this theory by attempting to “leave” the community he has always known, hoping to venture to a new environment and a world he has never explored. This occurs while Christof does everything in his power to keep Truman exactly where he is supposed to remain, as the star of his own television show.
Ed Harris is remarkable in his performance in that he successfully achieves the impression that Christof is not a villain. While his intentions may be greedy in a capitalistic demeanor, his intentions toward Truman itself is that of fatherly love. Harris essentially plays the role of a father who isn’t ready to let his son go into the real world. Therefore, Harris also allows Christof to be reactionary towards Truman, as a father would react against a rebellious son. By establishing this sort of relationship between the two characters, Harris effectively succeeds in creating sympathy and empathy for Christof. While he may be preventing Truman from leaving the world he has established, it is more because he doesn’t want to see his son be hurt or devastated in the real world. Harris’ choice to approach the character in this way, opposed to blatantly vilifying him, is one of the most expert acting choices in the history of nominated performances. Therefore, 1998 will remain as the one year the Academy Awards made a tremendous mistake in choosing to award a veteran actor instead of giving the award to its rightful winner.
Lost to: James Coburn for Affliction (1998)