Jack Nicholson: As Good As It Gets (Oscar winner)
Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting
Robert Duvall: The Apostle
PETER FONDA: Ulee's Gold (ReOscar winner)
Dustin Hoffman: Wag the Dog
Nicholson had lost an Oscar a few times when he deserved one: in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and especially Chinatown, a great performance that lost to Art Carney's turn as a lonely older guy with health problems in Harry and Tonto. This time, he won for a less than outstanding turn as a lonely older guy with health problems here, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chalk up Nicholson's third Oscar as an early Life Achievement Award.
Damon got a nomination for playing the working-class math genius in Good Will Hunting; but the real competition should have been between Duvall (as a misguided preacher in a film he also wrote and directed) and Hoffman (fabulous in David Mamet's Iraq-prophesy satire Wag the Dog). Handicaps: Duvall didn't have the charismatic chops for a real evangelical spellbinder, and Hoffman's stint as a desperate Hollywood producer should have been in the supporting category. One actor who might have won, and might have deserved to, wasn't even nominated: Leonardo DiCaprio, the kid who kept Titanic from sinking.
That leaves Fonda, riding his first Oscar nomination since 28 years prior when he, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern were Screenplay finalists for Easy Rider. As the beekeeper Ulysses Jackson, Fonda gave a sensitive but not soft performance, touching his character's soul without dredging for it. I think it didn't have the demonstrativeness Oscar prefers, but it was a beaut. He should have joined father Henry and sister Jane as the third Fonda with an acting Oscar.