Recall the Gold: The 2003 Best Actor Oscar race

Mysticriverpenn_lToday in Recall the Gold, we’re recalling the Best Actor Oscar competition of 2003. There were a number of strong performances that year. Johnny Depp had the biggest hit among the contenders, with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl‘s inventive, astonishing, hilarious Capt. Jack Sparrow, the first-ever nominated performance from a movie inspired by a theme park ride. Ben Kingsley delivered a haunting performance as the proud Iranian colonel in House of Sand and Fog. Jude Law, who may have played more Southerners by now than Englishmen, gave a mostly silent but affecting performance as fugitive Civil War soldier Inman in Cold Mountain. Bill Murray earned what is, incredibly, his only Oscar nomination to date as a lonely movie star stranded in Japan in Lost in Translation. And Sean Penn erupted as a grief-stricken father who takes the law into his own hands in Mystic River.

The role, which marked Penn’s fourth nomination (after Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, and I Am Sam), finally earned Penn a statuette. But did he win because his performance was the best, or was the Academy finally giving Penn, often called the best actor of his generation, his due after three unsuccessful Oscar bids? I think Penn’s is indeed a wrenching performance that’s one of his finest, but I wouldn’t have complained if Kingsley’s equally anguished turn or Murray’s subtle work had been honored. Depp’s may have been the year’s most purely creative performance, though it’s lost some of its luster after the two lame Pirates sequels. Law did a good job as a difficult, recessive character who slowly disappears under layers of grime and blood, but the movie belongs more to Nicole Kidman and RenĂ©e Zellweger.

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, whichmay contain some NSFW language.) 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 Thursday, October 16, we’ll look at the 1983 Best Actresscompetition. Watch also for commentary and context throughout,including on Dave Karger’s new Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Merie W. Wallace”)

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog


House of Sand and Fog – Respect For Your Heart

Jude Law in Cold Mountain

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Sean Penn in Mystic River

Comments (80 total) Add your comment
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  • Heather

    I agree that Depp’s performance lost some allure after two poor sequels. Generally all strong performances this year though personally I still vote for Penn in Mystic River.

  • Stef

    I was always so annoyed with Sean Penn’s distracting performance. “Is that my dawwwtaaaahhh in theeeah??” I thought Bill Murray was robbed.

  • Henry

    I admit that I’m torn here. Somehow, I knew this race would come up but as I read it just now, I still wonder if Penn deserved it or it should be given to Murray. For me, it came down to those two, with Kingsley in third and Depp and Law with distant chances. Kingsley already has his Oscar so that left Penn and Murray. After watching Lost in Translation (claiming bias since I love, love, love Lost in Translation) last week, I’m leaning Murray. It was a comedic performance to be sure, but it was much more subtle than a lot of Murray’s work, which has been mostly sublime. His Bob Harris has this world weariness that Murray completely pulls off, but never really announces itself when it’s onscreen. But again, do I pick between Murray’s incomprehensible whisper to Scarlett at the end or Penn’s Jimmy collapsing in anguish to the ground when he finds out it’s his daughter who’s been murdered. Mystic River was a heck of a movie, too, and showcased Penn at his best, but one could argue Murray also had his due (he basically gave up with the Academy after losing this award).

  • Rahul

    No recall is warranted. Yes it’s true that the Academy does not always reward actors for their career best performance, and there is some “they’re due” factor in Sean Penn’s win, but his performance was the best of that year. His performance was the driving force of the picture.

  • Martin

    I think Sean Penn would still win today. And it’s not a bad performance. I prefer Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” myself. At the time, I was torn between Depp and Penn, but like it’s been noted, Depp’s performance isn’t the same when viewed alongside the two boring sequels. One of the worst Best Actor wins ever has to be Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”. Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Anthony Quinn were all passed over for a decent but not great performance, one that was overshadowed by a snubbed Audrey Hepburn. Sigh.

  • kim in kentucky

    I agree that Sean Penn was great in Mystic River, I would have like to seen Ben Kingsley win for House of Sand and Fog. EVERYONE in the movie was so great and the movie itself is sooo powerful.

  • Eric

    the issue at hand, however, is not that depp’s performance lost it’s “luster” over the years due to the sequels .. when this oscar race was running there WERE no other sequels to deal with, therefore we have to take that into account while rethinking this situation.
    so. this is me, pretending like there are no pirate sequels in the true spirit of 2003 as it were.
    i would have definitely given it to depp. i would call depp the greatest actor of his generation before i would ever consider giving penn that title. what johnny depp does to his characters is amazing: he makes these eccentric characters come to life and leap off the screen. pirates would have been NOTHING without depp’s character – he IS captain jack sparrow. his performance is so unbelievably thorough. easily the best performance of the year. followed by bill murray of course.. lost in translation is gold.

  • gary

    While I really don’t like Bill Murray,
    he deserved the Oscar. Mr. Depp should
    have had one by now, but not for Pirates. Penn’s acting always shows how hard he is working. He never
    “exists” naturally as fine actors do, i.e. Paul Newman, who should have won
    five times over. Kingsly already had an Oscar he didn’t deserve. His Jesus
    like performance in Gandhi was a bore
    and Gandhi should never have won for
    Best Picture. Mr.Law should not have
    been nominated; a very over-rated actor. Mr.Murray, you bet. However,
    the actual “best” performance is one
    frequently not nominated.

  • Hunter

    Bill Murray should have been nominated (and won) for his best role: Groundhog Day
    Johnny Depp took comedic acting (in the most entertaining blockbuster in years) to new heights and should have won!

  • Martha

    All the performances were strong in that category, but I’m partial to Bill Murray – such a strong, subtle performance. However, Oscar doesn’t usually go for subtle or low-key, and Sean Penn’s role was perfect Oscar meat.

  • jesse

    bill murray wined to much when he lost the oscar, and sean penn had a bad attitude when j depp beat him at the sags, it’s ok if your dissapointed but i hate when the egos take over and people are disrespectful, for those reasons i would give it to ben kingsley or j depp, judd laws performance just seemed by the book

  • Sam

    This should have been Bill Murray’s, hands down. The movie is one of the best of the decade so far.

  • Rob Grizzly

    I still like Sean Penn in Mystic River. No problems with that. Bill Murray, though I love him, was a bore in Translation and Depp’s Sparrow nomination was a nice honor, but didn’t deserve to win.

  • Fatima

    I’m shocked Johnny Depp isn’t winning. I in NO WAY want him to be winning, but considering the reputation his online fangirls and his tendency to taint any poll with his name in it, it’s nice to see the best two winning. I’ll stick with Sean Penn, but I also loved Bill Murray. I actually liked all 5 of these performances.

  • Daniel

    Of course, Bill Murray. I’m still bitter about this, but not crazy. I just love Murray. I was born on Groundhog Day, so it’s my favorite movie, and Lost in Translation is on my top ten list. Both of them are beautiful roles made greater by this actor. Johnny Depp was fun and made a weird premise work, but it doesn’t beat Bill. Penn is a really good actor that I admire, but awards should focus on performance, not past. I know Oscars are very political. He’ll probably get nommed for Milk, which will be cool, but it also makes me wish he had let Murray take home the Oscar he deserved and waited for another role.

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