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The Lawscars: Your Legal Guide To Oscar-Winning Portrayals Of Lawyers

By / 03.04.14

Flush out your head gear, new guys!

As even deaf-mutes in Lapland know, Awards Season does not officially end until I have recognized lawyers and all things legal in Oscar history. Traditionally, I do this in the days following the Academy Awards ceremony, while the public still yearns for coverage of this quiet, underground event. Others have begun to emulate my circulation of a selfie to commemorate the festivities, although mine invariably include two lesbians, because that’s the whole point. And I make sure that Liza Minnelli is clearly visible.

To the Self-Congratulatmobile!

1. Best Lead Performance by an Actor Who Actually Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer. In doing lengthy, deep (read: brief, cursory) research for this column, I discovered some fascinating knowledges. For one thing, there was a nominee in 1931 named Richard Dix–trying not to seem Jewish isn’t the only permissible reason to change your name, chief. But more pertinently, not that many people have won Academy Awards for playing attorneys trying cases in courtroom dramas, especially when you consider how many times actors have done this. Long, strident monologues and tons of closeups? Getting guys to take these roles is not a tough sell, but they don’t actually win much. Still, there are a lot of different permutations as to how men (more on women to follow) have won for playing lawyers, so check out these subcategories:

a. Best Lead Performance by an Actor Who Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer–Courtroom Drama Division. Not everybody who has won for playing a lawyer has done so in a courtroom drama. And not everybody who has won for playing a lawyer in a courtroom drama has played the lawyer trying the case. So check out these sub-subcategories:

i) Best Lead Performance by an Actor Who Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer–Courtroom Drama Division–Tried the Case. Two dudes in this category: Maximilian Schell, playing the prosecutor in Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, and Gregory Peck, the defense attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. This niche clearly had a heyday that lasted from 1961-1962. Nobody before or since.

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"We need you to act old-timey, Greg. Do the thumbs-in-the-waistband thing."


Best of the Best. Peck was playing my doppelnamer Atticus Finch, so I have to give him the edge. Also, I doubt many of you have seen JaN–it’s OK, but it covers the trial of lesser-known defendants, not Goering, Speer, Jodl, or other members of a group I will delicately call A-List Nazis. Also, it’s way long. Peck loses points for getting the award over Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, which is my jam, but still.

ii) Best Lead Performance by an Actor Who Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer–Courtroom Drama Division–Did Not Try the Case.  Should be abundantly clear, but these are actors who won for playing lawyers who were themselves plaintiffs or defendants in courtroom dramas. Three guys have won for this, outnumbering the winners who starred as actual trial lawyers by a ratio of (/uses abacus to crunch numbers) 3:2. Your sub-subnominees are: Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons, Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

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Tom Hanks.


Best of the Best. I’m going to confound the oddsmakers and pick Scofield. He plays Sir Thomas More in a costume drama about Henry VIII, and I kind of dig that shit. More importantly, I went to a screening of this a few years ago and it was introduced by a jorts-ensconced Kevin Smith. I’m 99% sure that actually happened, although it’s possible I was huffing freon that day. Either way, a good memory. Reversal is marred by an overabundance of Ron Silver as other lawyer/professor Alan Dershowitz, so Irons suffers as a result. Also, he played Klaus von Bulow, and while von Bulow had, in fact, practiced law, it has nothing to do with the movie.

Hanks is a really good actor but he won Oscars for two of my least favorite of his performances. However, f*ck him, because I’ve seen him asked what job he would least like to have (on Inside the Actor’s Colon or some such asskissery) and he said lawyer. I would have respected that answer if he had added, “especially a lawyer who was a gay with the AIDS,” but he did not. Hate lawyers all you want (f*ck you, but go ahead), but tell me you’d rather work in a toll booth or on a farm. Please.

b. Best Lead Performance by an Actor Who Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer–Did Not See Him Practicing Law, Or At Least Not Much Division. In this subcategory, I count two competitors: Ben Kingsley in Gandhi and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Please let me know if I overlooked anyone during my extensive (read: not extensive) research.

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Ben Kingsley.


Best of the Best. Kingsley. Gandhi is an underrated movie these days; Lincoln is not. Lincoln is rated. Also, Kingsley had to play G-Unit over the course of decades, not just a few months, and he’s really f*cking good, and we actually see him getting shot. Both of these movies also shine in the category of oh, you hate lawyers, I guess that means you hate Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, ya prick ya.

And now, a little something for the ladies. A very little something.

2. Best Lead Performance by an Actress Who Won an Oscar for Playing a Lawyer. Using an engineering calculator newly calibrated by the National Bureau of Standards, I was able to tabulate the number of women who have won best actress for playing a lawyer to be a fat f*cking zero. Not cool, Hollywood. Not cool.

Best of the Best. Nobody. But of all the women who didn’t qualify, I’d go with Meryl Streep. She’s just that good.

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Meryl Streep, unforgettable in the non-role of Femme.


3. Women Who Almost Fit in Category 2 But Don’t. Your two entries here are Julia Roberts, who played a sorta kinda paralegal in Erin Brockovich, and Tilda Swintonwho won Best Supporting Actress for playing an actual lawyer in Michael Clayton. I can’t say this does anything to offset the absence of Lead Actress winners because, as has been noted by renowned scholars, winning Best Supporting Actress amounts to career euthanasia.

Best of the Best. Neither? Swinton weirds me out, but I actively dislike Roberts, plus that movie and performance were waaaaay overrated, so Swinton “wins.”

4. Best Courtroom Drama That Won Best Picture. Your choices are two: Kramer vs. Kramer and A Man For All Seasons.

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When you search Getty Images for "revenge," they do not disappoint.


BotB. Going Kramer squared. Dustin Hoffman and Streep both won their first Oscars for this, and Streep overcame the Best Supporting Actress curse by winning the Lead award three years later. She’s just that good. Like Gandhi, this is an older movie you wouldn’t think would be good but is. Downside: technically, it should be “Kramer v. Kramer,” because they don’t use “vs.” in the names of lawsuits. If only somebody involved in this movie had known an attorney they could have run the title by.

Here endeth Awards Season. See you in five months when we start handicapping next year’s nominees.

5. Settling Scores.

Once again, my milkshake brings all the pusbuckets to the yard. The yard, in this case, being Facebook, because the weak fear a direct confrontation in the comments section, my milkshake being last week’s column, and the pusbuckets being my sister-fingeringest critics. Throwing shade on Facebook. Guh. It’s like taking a dump in the kiddie pool.

Anyway, the trio of miscreants, who use what I can only assume are pseudonyms–Dave Tuck, Devon Newhall and Claudia Becerra–live in Texas, Florida and Texas, respectively (“respect” being a term of art). Wake me when I get a complaint from a real state. And if you’re going to whine, avoid constructions like “That article gave me a headache” and “I couldn’t finish reading this”–they might lead one to the conclusion that your difficulties are caused not by anything I wrote, but by reading itself. Y’all are the reason I include so many pictures. Tuck (seriously, put some more effort into your next fake name) asks, “Could that f*cking article be written any worse?” He must have meant to write either a) “Could that f*cking article be any worse?” (“written” is implied, and his wording is awkward) or, more likely, b) “Dave Tuck is a semi-literate ape rapist.”

So much shrill entitlement–you people sound like you just rinsed sand out of your urethras with Tabasco sauce. Go play in traffic.

Twitterrorism: @Buttockus


TAGSBUTTOCKUS FINCHFILMDRUNK LAW REVIEWGANDHIGREGORY PECKOSCARSOSCARS 2014

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