The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1974
I know myself so well. I seem to schedule these things on purpose so things come up at just the right time. I generally set out an entire month’s worth of categories in advance, just so I don’t have to sit and pick from the lot. Everything gets nice and balanced that way, and when the day comes up, it’s, “Oh, hey, I’m talking about this category today.” And, somehow, I manage to always have things scheduled for the right mood. For instance, if I’m on a really productive streak, it seems like all the categories I really want to talk about come up, so that way I end up writing a lot and really recommending the films I want to recommend. Or if I’ve been out binge drinking the night before, it seems like the category for that day is always a quick one. Things always seem to work out that way. Today I get to vent my frustrations on what I consider to be one of the worst single choices (in the acting categories) in the Academy’s history. Worst. Of all time.
My criteria for judging how bad a category is consists of several factors. First, who won, and how does that performance rate on its own? Second, who, specifically did they beat? As in, what was the main competition for it. Example: How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane. That is, for all intensive purposes, the main competition. Next, how strong was the rest of the category? Is it a simple case of voting one over another, or did they pass on multiple good and/or better choices in favor of the bad one? And the last two — these are to a much lesser extent, but still factor in — how badly did this mess up history (ie, did this require that a makeup Oscar be given to someone at some point in the future, which would then possibly deprive someone else of an Oscar in that case and perpetuate the makeup Oscar cycle) and did someone not get an Oscar because of this? That means, was this someone’s only/best chance to win an Oscar, and did they not ever end up getting one, possibly due to this bad decision. Think people like Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole, who never won Oscars. A bad decision is made worse if because of it, someone like Peter O’Toole was deprived of an Oscar. These last two categories definitely get intertwined at a certain point, but, largely, can remain separate. Now, if a decision fits firmly in the sweet spott of the Venn Diagram, then it deserves to be counted among the worst decisions of all time. This, my friends, is in that sweet spot.
Now, recapping the rest of the year. Rightfully so, The Godfather Part II sweeps most of the awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Coppola, and Best Supporting Actor for De Niro, which I talked about very recently. Best Actress went to Ellen Burstyn, in what was mainly a makeup Oscar (but for the most part, forgivable), and Best Supporting Actress went to Ingrid Bergman, which I’ve also talked about before.
Now, everyone, let me introduce the category to you like this. Because, really, there isn’t all that much to say about a lot of these. Half the category consists of film’s most people have seen already (or would never admit to not having seen). We’re gonna do it by the little criteria list I made up there.
First, the winner of this category was Art Carney, for Harry and Tonto. I will pause for you to go down to Art’s section down below to read the synopsis of the film. (That’s how this is gonna work. Down below is simply the synopsis and how good they were. All the extra stuff I talk about will be up here.)
Now, hearing what I think of the performance, let’s move on to who he beat. Who his main competition was. That was Al Pacino, for The Godfather Part II. Al Pacino should have won this Oscar in a landslide. Well, maybe not a landslide, but by a nice strong margin. Can anyone deny the strength of the Michael Corleone performance? Even a little bit? Can anyone who’s seen the films say Art Carney rightfully should have won this Oscar over Pacino? Okay.
Now, to add to the offense, let’s show you who else was in this category. First, we have Jack Nicholson. For Chinatown. I won’t fault anyone who says Nicholson deserved an Oscar for his performance. You’re right, he’s great in the film. But, I say Pacino deserved it more. Plus any argument about Nicholson being more worthy becomes a moot point when you know that he won the very next year after this for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So, that’s one. Or rather, two. Two left. The next is Dustin Hoffman. Here’s a man who lost out on an Oscar for The Graduate (to Rod Steiger and his makeup Oscar) and Midnight Cowboy (to John Wayne and his career Oscar). Clearly he was deserving of one already by this point. Not to mention that between Oscar nominations he was also in Little Big Man, Straw Dogs and Papillon. But, you know, whatever. Strength of resume clearly isn’t important in these cases. Now, he’s in Lenny, which, once again, synopsis is down there. As is Nicholson’s, which, you should already know about Chinatown. But, Lenny, the performance is incredible. He deserved an Oscar for this. But, he didn’t get one and somewhat rightfully so. But, based on this category alone, completely deserving (over Carney, anyway). And finally, we have Albert Finney, who plays Hercule Poirot about as accurately as anyone could ever play the man. And Art Carney, simply by being old, beat all four of these men.
But we’re not done yet. The final two. Did this fuck up history? Well, let’s see. Al Pacino doesn’t win an Oscar and will not have another opportunity to win one until 1992. the reason he has to wait until 1992 is because of the other men in this category. Jack Nicholson wins the next year for Cuckoo’s Nest, beating Al for Dog Day Afternoon. In 1979, Al is nominated for …And Justice For All, a film he probably shouldn’t win for. But even if they wanted to give it to him, they gave it to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer, since at that point he had all these performances as well as All the President’s Men and Marathon Man under his belt. Plus the strength of that performance — yeah. So, Al doesn’t get an Oscar until 1992. And in doing so, he beats out Robert Downey Jr. and his sublime turn in Chaplin, as well as Denzel Washington and his transformative performance in Malcolm X. Oh, and Clint Eastwood was up that year for Unforgiven, a man who probably has also earned an acting Oscar over his career. That’s just the fallout for Pacino. Oh, but we’re not done yet.
Now, Nicholson losing necessitates him winning in 1975, which he probably would have done anyway. We’ve already established that he beat Pacino there. He also beat Walher Matthau, which, he had an Oscar and really wasn’t any threat to win. So, there’s really not that much of a fallout on Nicholson’s part past, he didn’t win for Chinatown, which I guess is okay, as long as we’re willing to forgive who he lost to, which, you already know my stance on that. But, also, is Dustin Hoffman. Him not winning here necessitates that he win for Kramer vs. Kramer a performance that he probably would have won for anyway, but, had he won here, might not have needed to win that one as badly. Which, as I’ve said, would have left room for Al Pacino. But it’s not just Al. Also nominated that year was Jack Lemmon for The China Syndrome. Okay, he’s got one already from ’73. He wasn’t going to win. But, there’s two more. And here’s where it gets fucked up. First, is Roy Scheider for All That Jazz. All That Jazz is one of my top ten, probably top five, favorite movies of all time. And to me, Roy Scheider should at least have had a shot at winning that Oscar. And he didn’t. And that’s really not okay by me. But even if you don’t agree on Roy, here’s another one for you to chew on, let it marinate —
Peter Sellers was also nominated in that category for Being There.
That is, Peter Sellers, once nominated for Dr. Strangelove — a film he did not win Best Actor for because, well, Rex Harrison was Henry Higgins and Hollywood just couldn’t resist — is nominated for his most dramatic and most accomplished (next to Strangelove) performance of his career. A brilliant performance as Chance the Gardener. Now, had Hoffman won here, maybe Sellers has a chance to get that Oscar, with the memory of Strangelove carrying over the naysayers. So because of this, Art Carney has an Oscar and Peter Sellers doesn’t. I think it’s fair to say, no matter how you look at it, this decision fucked up history.
Oh, but we’re still not done. There’s one more. And that’s, did this prevent anyone from never getting an Oscar who probably should have gotten one? Well, the collateral damage we’ve already discussed was Peter Sellers, Roy Scheider, Robert Downey Jr., and Clint Eastwood. Everyone on that list alone is more deserving than Art Carney of an Oscar. But, we stil have the final nominee, which is Albert Finney. Albert Finney is a very famous actor. He has never won an Oscar. I’m not saying he should have necessarily (though I think he should have, though more like for Supporting), but, in this category, Albert Finney having an Oscar is much more okay than Art Carney having one.
So Art Carney has won an Oscar, and because of it, beat these four actors, and has directly prevented Peter Sellers, Roy Scheider, Albert Finney, Robert Downey Jr., and Clint Eastwood from possibly winning Oscars. Now before I even go down into each performance, I ask you, is that okay? Or does this truly deserve to go under one of the worst five Best Actor decision of all time, sight unseen? (Though, trust me, once you see them, it only gets worse.)
BEST ACTOR – 1974
And the nominees were…
Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
Carney — The film is about an old man who, one day, is forced out of his New York apartment building, where he has lived for at least 40 years, because the place is old and rotting. He now lives alone with his cat (his wife having died several years prior), whom he treats as a regular person. The cat gets walked on a leash, is fed gourmet food — like, prime butcher meat. Stuff you would buy for your family — and is talked to by the man since there’s no one else. So, he’s evicted and then goes to live with his son and his family. Very quickly he sees this isn’t working out, as the two just don’t fit well together. So, he decides to travel across the country. He doesn’t really tell anyone about this, he just goes. And he’s on a bus, traveling with the cat, and causes hell for everyone else (because, you know, he’s 70 and doesn’t get what the 1970s are like). He makes the bus driver stop so the cat can go pee, even though he wasn’t supposed to have the cat on the bus in the first place. Eventually, though, he gets thrown off, or rather, gets off the bus because the cat runs away for a minute and the bus is off schedule. And then he starts hitchhiking with people. He gets in a car with a 20-something, and then at some point his grandson shows up, and he’s going to a commune in Utah or something. And eventually, he makes it to California with his cat. At some point he gets arrested, and there’s this hilarious scene in a jail cell, where, out of nowhere, Chief Dan George shows up. The scene is mostly funny because Chief Dan George is one of the funniest men ever put on film. And then he gets to California and is out at the beach with his cat and talks to a lady around his age. That’s really about it.
Now, Carney’s performance here is not all that special. I hate to say it, because I love Art Carney. The Honeymooners remains one of the funniest shows ever put to television. The man was not all that deserving of an Oscar. He was largely a TV personality. Giving him an Oscar is about the equivalent of giving Kelsey Grammer an Oscar. He’s made a few movies here and there, but, all he’s done is TV. Are you gonna put Deion Sanders in the baseball hall of fame? No. He should be in the football hall of fame and should be lauded for his baseball accomplishments. That’s what should have been done with Carney. I’m not against the man receiving the nomination, but there is no way the man should have gotten the win, at all. Seriously, all he does in this movie is talk to a cat. That’s it.
Finney — Okay, now this film is based on the Agatha Christie story. Novel. Whatever. It’s a Hercule Poirot story. It’s about a bunch of people who get on a train, including the detective, and after the first night, someone ends up dead. And the detective has to figure it out. And the rest of the film consists of him methodically interviewing every passenger on the train, one by one, and then coming to his conclusions.
The passengers on this train include (actors, not roles): Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Michael York, and Richard Widmark (he’s the victim). And Poirot interviews everyone, putting together clues and such, and then, at the end, gets everyone in the same car and tells them whodunit.
Now, I’m gonna spoil the film for you, because, honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you why, before I do it. First off, the interest of this film is in the performances and in seeing these actors in the same film with one another. That’s really the joy in it. Because if you’re trying to figure out who did it, one, the film is such that they give it away in the first three minutes, and two, it’s a waste to guess. So, the next paragraph will be spoilers. Skip it if you want to.
The film begins with a series of headlines about an incident that occurred many years prior. It was a famous case, the kidnapping of Charles Lindburgh’s baby. They use that as the setup for the mystery. So, clearly, this all has something to do with that, because why the fuck else would they show it to you and then ignore it for the rest of the film? A novel could work it in a little easier, make it more germane to the plot. Now, later on, when Poirot does his investigations, he reveals that the dude who was killed was the dude who kidnapped the baby. And he also reveals, in the big monologue at the end, which is also like a fourteen minute scene (really well done, too), that everyone on the train is inexplicably related in some way to the kidnapping. One was the nanny of the child, one was this, one was that. And basically Poirot is like, “Everyone stabbed him.” Each person went into the cabin, as this was all carefully worked out and planned so no one would suspect a thing, and stabbed the man once. That’s why trying to figure it out is useless. You’re either gonna figure it out immediately or you have no chance of guessing whatsoever. But what also happens, which is the most interesting part of how this film ends, is that Poirot tells everyone what happened, that they all did it, and then when the conductor is like, “Now what?”, he’s like, “That’s it.” And they’re like, “Well shouldn’t we inform the police?”, and he’s like, “I was only hired to figure out who did it. The police isn’t my business. However, how do you handle this? A bad man was murdered. Everyone who did it was kind of in the right. Do you want to sit here and explain this whole convoluted mess to the police, or do you just want to not say anything and let it end right here?” That’s the part I found most interesting, because they all had to decide as one what to do.
Anyway, Finney’s performance. It’s fucking great. I’ve never read a Hercule Poirot novel, but I do know the archetype of the character, and I have seen Murder by Death, which has a gross overexaggeration of the character (and is also one of the funniest spoofs I’ve ever seen. Seriously go see it if you want to see spoofs of Poirot, Miss Marple, Nick and Nora Charles (Mike note: YES!), Charlie Chan, Sam Spade (Peter Falk does a perfect Bogart parody), and if you want to see Truman Capote act. I’m telling you, there’s no reason not to see this movie. It’s hysterical. It’s also watch instantly on Netflix. So all you need is 90 minutes to spare. You know you want to). So, I do know what Poirot is supposed to be about.
That said, I bet that Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot is about the closest approximation of the character that anyone could ever get. Don’t believe me? When Agatha Christie was shown this movie — after a lifetime of being dissatisfied with adaptations of her stories — the only negative remark she had was that she was unimpressed with Albert Finney’s moustache. Other than that, she said it was her favorite adaptation of one of her works. So, there. Finney is so good that I stopped paying attention to the plot and just started watching him act. Because I knew the story was so convoluted it would be stupid to try to figure it out. So I just watched him do his thing. And he was so fucking good, I had no idea what he was saying.
That’s how good Finney is. You can barely understand what he says half the time. Here’s a clip of him talking with Lauren Bacall. Check the performance.
I feel like Finney’s performance is so good it actually hurts the fim. For me this is a four star film packed around a five star performance. I mean, many people love this film. I like this film, a lot, but, for me it would have been unbearable without Finney being so great. So, my ultimate point here is, Finney is great, he deserved to be here, he was a better choice than Carney, but he was not a better choice than the other three actors. However, he is the only one here who never did win an Oscar, and that is a shame, and I blame that on Art Carney.
Hoffman — Lenny is a biopic on Lenny Bruce, directed by Bob Fosse. Whoever came up with this pairing is a genius. Bruce is perhaps the most unconventional standup comedian of all time. He is the lightning bolt that completely severed all ties from the way comedians used to do things, to the way they did things from then on. He was the Easy Rider of standup comedy. He made comedy personal. He talked about his life, his childhood. Sometimes he wasn’t even funny, he would just tell stories. And he cursed. A lot. Which, at the time, ran up against just about every censorship law that was in effect, because, well, apparently people were incapable of hearing the word fuck in public. So he kept fighting for the first amendment, while also being hopelessly high all the time. There’s your context.
Now, the film is a biopic of the dude’s life. But, it’s presented in the Bob Fosse way, which is essentially, it’s all jumbled up and shown as one continuous piece. Elements of his home life cut fluidly into standup bits and back and forth again. It’s quite brilliant how he does it. And you see how Bruce used his standup to vent about his life. And we see him in trouble with the law, not caring about it, because he realizes how stupid the whole censorship thing is and how ridiculous and hypocritical the government is being. And we also see him with his wife, a former stripper, who is actually amazing in the film. Valerie Perrine, is the actress’s name.
Anyway, Hoffman is fucking terrific in the film. Really very terrific. There’s one scene right near the end of the film — I think it may even be the climax of the film — where Hoffman does a 14-minute standup routine in one take. It’s a single longshot. Picture it this way. He’s on a stage, and the camera is situated in the audience, on the right-hand side of seats. And we see him from the seats, for fourteen straight minutes. And Hoffman just does the entire routine in one take. It’s spellbinding.
Now, this is the kind of performance that both deserves an Oscar, and it is also the kind of performance that rarely wins Oscars. Hoffman is really good, but the film, the performance and the man are in an area that the Academy just isn’t into. Parts of it are, but, I don’t think the Academy would embrace something like this. You can just tell. They’ll nominate it but they’ll never vote for it. I, on the other hand, am perfectly willing to vote for it. Though, I kinda can’t. For various reasons. We’ll get to that later.
Nicholson — Okay, Chinatown. I’m going to assume you’ve all seen it, because, don’t let me know you haven’t.
Nicholson is a detective who is small time, mostly photographing cheating spouses and stuff like that. And one day, a woman comes to him claiming to be the wife of the chief engineer of the LA Water and Power company. She says her husband is fooling around with another woman and wants him to look into it. So he does, takes some photos, gets it in the paper. Unbeknownst to him, he manages to get himself into some shit. I really don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t seen it, so I won’t. Basically, he gets involved in a whole corruption sceme, and starts finding out that what he tapped into is a lot bigger than he or even the city even knows, and really manages to get tangled up in it, the way every noir protagonist manages to. The film is seriously a classic of cinema and if you don’t know about this, what kind of fucking rock have you been living under, because that shit is fucking durable.
Nicholson, as you can imagine, is great in the movie. What makes him so great is that he has no pretensions about the character and plays him exactly the way he is — which is an asshole. J.J. Gittes is not a nice man. He’s not even remotely likable. The reason we like him is because he’s Jack Nicholson and he’s our protagonist. Otherwise, we really wouldn’t like this man. He’s abrasive, and he’s completely inconsiderate of others most of the time. And Nicholson doesn’t sacrifice an inch of this character in order to make himself more likable, the way most actors, or rather, stars (not naming names — Will Smith) would do. Nicholson really is great here. I personally don’t think it’s worth voting for, but I have history on my side here and know that he made Cuckoo’s Nest right after this. And that performance clearly should have won him the award. So, in this case, I go with the other person who should have won here, who is —
Pacino — It’s The Godfather Part II. You’ve seen it, or you will see it. I refuse to accept any alternatives.
Quick synopsis. Michael’s out in Vegas, continuing the family business, and someone tries to kill him. So he goes away to Cuba, laying low, and is brokering a deal with Hyman Roth that will make them both “bigger than U.S. Steel.” Roth is the dude that’s trying to kill him, and he’s basically dealing with eliminating Roth before the deal is made while also dealing with who gave up the information that led to the attempt, which was Fredo. And with all this, they tell the story of Brando’s character as a young man, with De Niro, and how he came into the country and worked his way up into the man we saw in the first film.
Okay, now, Pacino is fucking incredible in the movie. Don’t continue reading if you haven’t seen the film (and don’t know what happens, because, seriously, I know it’s only like 1% of the population, but don’t ruin it by reading this. See the fucking film already). Pacino does a good job continuing from where the last film left off, which is, he went from being nice, unassuming Michael, who would rather join the army than be a senator like his father dreams, to killing the man who tried to kill his father (along with a police chief), to going to Italy and being married and seeing her die in an attempt on his life, to coming back home and becoming the true heir to the family business (and having about a dozen people killed while attending a baptism). It’s a hell of an arc. Now, we see the rest of that arc. We see him on top of the world, with only about half his soul left. His marriage is pretty dead, although there’s still a tiny bit of hope left, but that hope lies with the family going legitimate, which, as we all know, isn’t going to happen. Uneasy lies the head, sort of thing. And we get to see him descend until the point where he kills any semblance of a soul he has left, naturally, ending with the murder of Fredo. It’s a fantastic performance. And seriously, he should have won this Oscar, hands fucking down.
My Thoughts: I like how I did this one. It was a nice change of pace. I think it’s clear what my thoughts are on this one. But for those only checking this area, I’ll sum it up. Art Carney was one of the worst five decisions of all time in the Best Actor category, he was the worst possible choice of these five. The real winner here should have been Al Pacino. Hoffman and Nicholson would win their Oscars, and Albert Finney, while he would have been a better choice than Art Carney, shouldn’t have won here. The only two worth voting for are Hoffman or Pacino (for history’s sake). Pacino gave the best performance, so he’s my vote.
My Vote: Pacino
Should Have Won: Pacino. Then Hoffman. But against Carney, everyone else should have won. But Pacino was the most deserving.
Is the result acceptable?: One of the worst five decisions of all time. The rest of the article takes care of specifying just how unacceptable this really is.
Performances I suggest you watch: The Godfather Part II is a film everyone MUST see. That says it all. So is Chinatown. You must see that film too. And you probably have, if you’ve been reading this blog. Or you know you better see it real soon because I won’t talk to you if you haven’t. Don’t fake it, just see it. Also, Lenny is a fantastic film, but might be difficult for people who aren’t ready for it. Bob Fosse’s style on top of Lenny Bruce’s style could make for a hard film to watch if you’re not inclined to like either. I still recommend the movie, though. But I’ll tell you up front it’s not as accessible as All That Jazz or Cabaret. Still great, though. And Murder on the Orient Express is a fun one for all the reasons stated above, namely, the cast, and Finney’s performance. And, Harry and Tonto, I recommend if you really want to see why this decision was so bad. Or if you want to see Chief Dan George. Otherwise, you don’t need to see it.