The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1976

1976. This has been coming up a lot lately. Which is good, since, the year is so good all around, everyone pretty much knows about it. I mean, Rocky, Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver? It didn’t matter what won Best Picture there. Though, for my money, Rocky was the best choice. John G. Avildsen wins Best Director for it, which, okay, maybe not the best choice of the bunch, but, understandable.

As for the rest of the categories — Faye Dunaway wins Best Actress for Network. She was way overdue by this point, so that’s understandable. Beatrice Straight wins Best Supporting Actress for it as well (which I talked about here). Jason Robards wins Best Supporting Actress for All the President’s Men (which I talked about here). Which brings us to this category.

A lot’s been said about this category over the years. A lot of people cry foul that Robert De Niro didn’t win here for Taxi Driver. My first run-through, seeing these nominees, I couldn’t see how William Holden didn’t win for Network. But, looking at what happened around this category, I don’t see how this isn’t considered a good decision.


And the nominees were…

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver

Peter Finch, Network

Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties

William Holden, Network

Sylvester Stallone, Rocky

De Niro — Taxi Driver. I really hope I don’t have to go through this one. You should know it by now. De Niro, cabbie, loses his mind over the course of the movie. Tries to have normal relationship, doesn’t work out, becomes unhinged, tries to “save” a child prostitute, kills some people. Great film. You know the deal.

De Niro, naturally, is great. This is his most iconic role, probably. I mean, Raging Bull is also up there, but I bet more people know the “You talkin’ to me?” more than they do — what would be Raging Bull‘s line? “Did you fuck my wife?” You get what I’m saying. It’s an iconic role. De Niro is great in it. But, personally, I wouldn’t vote for him here. I know that’s tough to say, but, he’s like my third choice. Of course, this is after the fact. Were this 1976, I’d probably be voting De Niro all the way. But, he had one in ’74, and I’m a sucker for Rocky. I’d actually vote Stallone (now) over De Niro. I’m not voting for either of them, but, still, this is a performance good enough to win, and, despite my seemingly endless attempts not to vote for De Niro, most people would, and with good reason. And I don’t disagree.

Finch — I love double nominations. This is the first of two Network nominees in this category. As always, I’m going to summarize the film film first, then just continue with the performances. Makes my life just that much easier. Even easier now, is that, this film, I can summarize it separately in two nominations. I like that.

Network is, as they summarize, “the story of Howard Beale.” Peter Finch is Howard Beale. It’s more the story of the downfall of television, into what we know it today as. Which makes the movie all the more great, that it’s not only a great film, but also an accurate prediction as to what would happen to television. All the credit for that goes to Paddy Chayefsky. If you’re a fan of film and screenwriting, you know that name.

Beale is the news anchor for a local network. He finds out he’s been fired one day after over twenty-five years on the job because ratings have been down. (The irony is that they care about what ratings are for the news.) This causes him to have a mental breakdown. He announces, live on the air the following day, that he will kill himself, on the air, exactly one week following that exact broadcast. This gets ratings. They go way up. Having lost hold of his sanity, he starts going on mad rants in the middle of news stories and saying whatever the hell comes into his head. People start to tune in. The network, not caring whether he’s actually insane or not, sees ratings. They let him stay on, let him say whatever he wants. They encourage him when they should be helping him seek a health professional. He goes on, makes rants, and even gets his own show out of it. Everything goes great, until he turns his rants back on the network itself, when he hears that they’re about to be purchased by a huge conglomerate that’s even bigger than the one that already owns the station. They send him to the head of the studio (an Oscar-nominated Ned Beatty), who uses his lack of sanity against him to get him to start preaching what they want him to preach. It doesn’t work. The public loses interest almost as quickly as they gained it. Kind of like now — the biggest craze in the world is forgotten about a mere weeks later. So, on the air, they have Howard Beale killed. And the film summarizes it as “the story of Howard Beale, a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings. That’s the film.

Finch is really good in the role. He gets to go nuts and scream and rant all over the film. It’s a very iconic performance. Though, personally, I liked William Holden’s performance in the film better than Finch’s (since Finch really feels like a supporting character in this film). Still, there’s no denying Finch is great, and his “mad as hell” speech is one for the ages. And, actually, him winning is actually okay, which I didn’t think when I went into this category, but I’ll explain why later.

Giannini — Here’s the film I’m gonna have to talk the most about. This is the first nomination for this film. I have to admit, I knew nothing about it except — this is the film that kept Martin Scorsese from getting nominated for Best Director. Or, actually, that was probably Face to Face, but since Bergman was nominated before, I assumed it was this one. After seeing both films, I think it was the other way around.

Anyway, this is an interesting Italian film. It starts as a weird screwball-type comedy. It’s about Giancarlo Giannini (who most people will remember as Mathis from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. He was also in Man on Fire and got disemboweled in Hannibal), as a small time hood in Italy. He has seven sisters. Hence the title. At first, the film is just weird. It took me a while to get into it. He eventually goes to jail for killing a pimp who brought one of his sisters into prostitution. Then when he’s in prison, he gets himself committed to the psych ward, so he doesn’t have to deal with harsh prison life. Then, he volunteers for the army in order to get out, and ends up in a concentration camp after deserting. And here’s where the film gets interesting. It really blurs the line between comedy and horror, in a way. He’s in the camp, and stuff is bad. He decides the only way to survive is to sexually seduce the female guard — who looks like the warden of a lesbian prison. She’s big, manly, and looks like she’s into sex about as much as black people are into Frasier. And what follows is a really disgusting scene where he tries to seduce the woman. Problem is, after sleeping with her, he gets put in charge of his barracks as a guard, and is forced to kill his own friend. And at that point you really get a sense of just how bad things have gotten for this dude. And eventually he goes home after the war, to find that all his sisters, his fiancee and his mother are all still alive — and they survived by becoming prostitutes. Like I said, it really blurs a line between comedy and tragedy.

It’s an interesting film. What I do know is that Giancarlo Giannini was really fucking good in the role. Naturally, as a foreign performance, he’s never gonna get the vote and is almost always the #5, but here, it’s not because he’s not good. Honestly, in a weaker year, he might even be a #3 for me. But this category is stacked with great performances and performances I love, so, he’s my #5. But he is great and definitely deserved the nomination. And even Lina Wertmuller deserved her Best Director nomination. Neither were gonna win, but, they did deserve to be here. And that makes me happy. It makes categories stronger.

Holden — And the other Network nomination. This one is the real lead role in the film. Because, Finch gets to pop up at moments and shout and be the spark plug of the film — William Holden is the backbone that makes this movie work as well as it does. See, while Finch is ranting and raving, Holden is the executive that runs the division Finch works in. He’s been friends with Finch for years, and is sad to see they’re letting him go. He argues for him to stay, but realizes it’s a new era, and that they’re starting to retire all the old warhorses. He sees Faye Dunaway, the new and ruthless executive, and dislikes her, because all she knows is what she grew up with. And she transfers into his division because she’s all about advancing her career however she can, and sees Beale as a ratings extravaganza. And she starts exploiting Beale’s insanity, and Holden isn’t happy with it. He start pushing for them to end it, while she pushes to give him his own show. And Holden hates her professionally, but she starts sleeping with him. And she fires him. And he ends up in love with her, so much so that he leaves his wife for her, which, if you read my Supporting Actress article for this year, you know about that scene. And then he eventually leaves Dunaway, because he sees that her crazy devotion to her job will cause her to burn out, and he eventually goes back to his wife. That’s his storyline.

Holden, I thought, was fucking great in the role. I’d seen the film after having seen Rocky and Taxi Driver several times, and after it was over, I said, “If anyone was gonna win Best Actor this year, it should have been Holden.” And, I stand by that statement, inasmuch as, I think Holden did give the best performance in this category. It’s not my favorite performance, because, well, I’m partial to Rocky and Taxi Driver. But still — I think Holden gave the best performance here.

Stallone — It’s fucking Rocky. How do you not know this?

Small-time boxer, getting the shit beat out of him for peanuts, trying to form a relationship with the meek pet store clerk, gets a once in a lifetime shot to face the world champ in a sparring match — a publicity stunt — and the film is about him training to just “go the distance” with the champ.

But, you knew this, because everyone’s seen Rocky. And if you haven’t, don’t sit here listening to me, go out and watch the fucking movie. It’s brilliant, through and through. Sure, some people will say it shouldn’t have won Best Picture, and they’re entitled to that opinion. I say — I love it and I’m happy it won. None of the films nominated that had a shot needed the boost from winning, so what does it matter? Either way — Stallone, having written and starred in the film, is great. This is his best role. Say what you will about the man, this is a good performance. He’s a good actor. He knows what he can do and does it well. Did he deserve to win here? Probably not? Will I vote for him? Probably not? Did he need the win? No. So it doesn’t matter. He was great though.

My Thoughts: I’m always gonna vote with my heart. That’s never gonna change, no matter how much more fair it is to have someone else win. Now, a lot of people think that means I’m gonna vote Sylvester Stallone. And I’d like to. I really would. But I get that he didn’t really deserve to win this so much. To me, the best performance here was William Holden, and he’s the one I’m voting for, because — I know that Finch won, and I know everyone says De Niro should have won. So most people expect you to pick one or the other. And I really can’t choose between those two because I thought Finch was more of a strong supporting part than a lead part, and I thought, while De Niro was great, he didn’t necessarily need to win. Plus, I honestly thought William Holden gave the best performance. Legit. So rather than enter the politics of it all, I’m just gonna take who I thought gave the best performance. Sometimes hindsight works in your favor.

My Vote: Holden

Should Have Won: Holden, De Niro, even Finch

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. The reason being — De Niro had an Oscar already and would get another for Raging Bull. He didn’t need this. Holden had an Oscar already as well. Peter Finch was a respected actor, and gave a pretty iconic performance as the batshit news anchor. Out of the two here who didn’t have Oscars, my heart still goes with Stallone, but — I get it. So, since Finch never had one, it’s totally fine. Not gonna put it on a list of the “best” decisions, but it is a perfectly okay result.

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Rocky, you’re dead to me. Stop watching movies, because you’re not watching the right ones. If you haven’t seen Taxi Driver, you’re probably dead to the world, because, if you truly like movies, you’ve seen this. I’m pretty sure everyone sees this by age 14. So watch it. You have to. And Network, also essential, but probably not in that immediate first group of films. Like — Taxi Driver is one of those films that’s a pre-requisite to get into the class. Network sort of is, but, it might not necessarily be one you know you have to watch. It is, however, on the first day of reading on the syllabus. This is lesson one. So, you need to see this film. And Seven Beauties is a very interesting film. Not for everyone. Not for a lot of people, actually. It took me a good 45 minutes to get into it. It’s — weird. Good though, but, not for everyone. Definitely not for everyone. Watch it if you like films that really blur the line between comedy and tragedy. It’s great to watch as a pure exercise in genre. Plus the direction is interesting. I do recommend it, but just know — it’s not for everyone.


5) Giannini

4) Finch

3) Holden

2) De Niro

1) Stallone

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