The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1970

There are few categories in Academy history as cut and dry as this one. I, for one, like that, because you don’t have to spend time explaining it. George C. Scott’s Patton is one of the most iconic performances ever put to screen. Of course it won. As for the rest of the year, Patton also won Best Picture, which makes sense, even though I’d have gone another way (Love Story is one of my favorite films of all time), and Best Director for Franklin J. Schaffner, which, actually is a fantastic decision.

Then, Best Actress this year is THE WORST BEST ACTRESS DECISION OF ALL TIME. The amount of a snub this is, is honestly the biggest snub in Academy history. This is the one everyone points to as THE worst. Glenda Jackson wins Best Actress for Women in Love, beating Ali MacGraw who gave the performance of a lifetime in Love Story. Sickening. Then Best Supporting Actor was John Mills for Ryan’s Daughter, which I also consider one of the worst single decisions of all time, because he beat both John Marley for Love Story, who was incredible, and he also beat Chief Dan George for Little Big Man. Unacceptable. Then Best Supporting Actress was Helen Hayes for Airport (which I talked about here), which was a fantastic decision. So, in all, a tough year for me. But at least this category is quick and easy. That’s great.


And the nominees were…

Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father

James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope

Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces

Ryan O’Neal, Love Story

George C. Scott, Patton

Douglas — I Never Sang for My Father, I guess, is one of those baby boomer movies. That’s really the only way to really explain why this exists.

It’s about Gene Hackman, a professor, who comes to visit his parents. He wants to get away from his parents, but also has regrets because he never really was an ideal son, or something like that. And he’s there, visiting them, trying to tell his father that he’s marrying a woman and moving out to California with her. But his father is just so — set in his own ways, he’s worried about what it’ll do to him. His father says it’s his mother who will have the problem, but we know it’s really him. And then the mother dies, and Hackman delays his move because he really feels bad about leaving his father, and then his father is slipping into old age, and — nothing really happens. I’ll be honest with you. This will play well to people with father issues. Maybe in like thirty years, this movie will mean more to me, but now — meh.

Melvyn Douglas is just kind of there. I didn’t particularly care for the performance. He was solid for the film, but, him being nominated for it — no. #5. Didn’t particularly care for this as a nominated performance.

Jones — Oh man, James Earl Jones gives a hell of a performance here. I expected a decent performance, maybe, but, wow, I did not expect what I saw here. It makes sense though, that he got nominated. Put it this way — you see how difficult it is for a black actor or actress to get nominated for a leading role. It’s only happened 26 times, to only 21 different people, male and female. James Earl Jones was only the third. Ever. Before this, the only two black actors to be nominated for leading roles were Sidney Poitier twice (winning one), and Dorothy Dandridge. James Earl Jone was only the third black actor nominated for a leading role.

Don’t think this is anything fantastic. There weren’t that many black actors nominated in the Supporting categories either. Before this (1970), only five black actors were nominated for supporting roles. And only one of them was a man. So that means a total of eight performances by black actors were nominated for acting awards in 43 years of the Academy Awards. And of those eight performances, one is a magical negro, one is a slave (named Mammy, no less), one is a maid (and clear subordinate) to a white woman, one is a granny character (who also works for white people), and one is a thief (albeit comical, which might make it worse). Then one is a strong character, but there are only black actors in the film. The only strong characters there were until this point were Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones and Beah Richards in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which isn’t so much as strong as it is not weak. Everyone else is, in essence, a stereotypical character (some more so than others). And by strong, I mean, a character who isn’t subordinate to whites, in character and demeanor.

So, knowing this, that it’s impossible, given the prejudices of the Academy, to get nominated as a black actor playing a strong, independent character, I should have expected this performance to be slightly more than just okay. But I’m not kidding when I tell you — if George C. Scott didn’t give the performance of a lifetime, James Earl Jones would have (and should have) won this award.

The film is about a black boxer who becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, much to the chagrin of the white folks. He’s brash, speaks his mind, and is openly dating a white woman. And the boxing world wants nothing more than to strip him of his title. But they can’t. They can only send someone up to try and beat him. Which, they can’t do. No matter what challenger they bring up — the “great white hope” to come and beat the black champ — Jones beats them. And they try to strip him of his title, but can’t. So they arrest him for miscegenation, and still, he manages to escape and continue defending his title. And of course, his tendency to openly say, “Fuck the white folks” eventually gets him in trouble and sets him up for disaster. But, it’s a fascinating ride. The performance Jones gives is fucking incredible. The film itself is amazing too. Really, really great movie.

Seriously, Jones is that good. He would win this award if it weren’t for George C. Scott. He is my favorite performance, but Scott’s Patton is just too good. Though, a part of me does want to vote for Jones, just because Scott has always openly declined every nomination he ever got, and clearly wanted no part of the Academy Awards. He refused it. So giving it to Jones might feel like a better choice. I don’t know. But still — he’s fucking amazing here.

Nicholson — Five Easy Pieces is Jack Nicholson’s real first acting triumph. Sure, he was memorable in Easy Rider, but this was his first real lead role. It’s a fascinating film too. I don’t love it, but I respect the shit out of it.

It’s about Nicholson, a piano prodigy, from a family of musical prodigies, who decides he wants nothing to do with that life, and basically goes around the country, denying his talent. He takes a series of odd jobs, and feels no connection to them. He quits them very easily at the slightest provocation — one day, while driving to work, he spots a piano on the back of a truck, and climbs atop the truck bed and starts playing, even as the truck drives along the highway in the opposite direction of where his friend is driving to work. And he’s dating this low class woman. Well, not low class. But, once you see where he came from, you can tell, it’s a choice that he’s with this woman. And the film is mostly about him, until about midway through, when he gets a call from his family, that his father is dying. So he travels home with his girlfriend, and there’s that great scene along the way with him at the diner, ordering toast, which isn’t on the menu, so he tells the waitress to get him a chicken sandwich, holding everything but the bread. And she goes, “You want me to hold the chicken?” and he goes, “I want you to hold it between your knees.” Great moment.

And then he goes home, has this whole thing with his family, and it reveals shit about him and how different he is, has this conversation with his father, he sleeps with his brother’s fiance, and then, the end of the movie is basically him rejecting his family, but also rejecting his girlfriend, literally leaving her and his car at a gas station and hopping a ride on a truck.

It’s a landmark film. Probably very evocative of the feelings of the younger generation at this time, and very well-regarded as a film. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It was kind of slow and boring for me, with no resolution. Not that I need a resolution. And I’m not talking about the ending not having a resolution, either. I mean, there was nothing to resolve. It was literally like dropping me in this story, watching it, nothing happened, nothing to change, and then taking me out of it 100 minutes later. I just wasn’t involved in anything that happened. But the film is pretty major. Most people would tell you that you need to see it.

Nicholson is good here, but it’s not really a performance that should have won him the Oscar.It’s a breakthrough, that’s all. Oscar nominations, especially for actors who get lots of them, typically go: first one: breakthrough, good but no vote, then, second one (depending on the category): good, possibly worth a vote, but usually one of those, raw, powerful performances that’s a favorite of a certain group who would vote for it, but not everyone (that’s The Last Detail for Nicholson), and then, depending on number of nominations, it’s them building toward that one winning performance. Nicholson’s was on his third (lead) nomination, Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s just a general thing I’ve discovered. Very informal, probably not true. But, what I’m saying is, Nicholson was never winning for this, nor should he have. This is a solid nomination performance, and is one that’s used as a stepping stone to an eventual win (or in this case, wins).

O’Neal — Love Story is one of my favorite films of all time. And that’s legit after only one viewing. This is a movie that I knew vaguely — it was sort of on the outer circles of my film orbit — I knew about the famous line from the film, and knew vaguely that it was about a dude who falls in love with a girl who eventually dies. Which, is no spoiler, they tell you in the opening line of the film. But I knew about it, but it never really crossed my mind to watch it. At least, not before this Oscar Quest. Then the Quest came, and I went through all the films. And, somewhere over the summer, I got to this film, because it had a lot of nominations (at least five), and was expiring the next day on Netflix Instant. So I put it on — it was like 2 am, too — and within 5 minutes, I was with this movie.

It was like, “Wait, am I hearing what I’m hearing?” Because the film begins with the two of them meeting in a coffee shop, and having this flirty little banter back and forth, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, is this dialogue actually good?” Because it was. It was quick, it was witty, they delivered it well, it sounded naturalistic, it was dialogue that I myself, theoretically could have come up with. Which surprised me. Because this film — at least before the leukemia part — is right within my wheelhouse. The first twenty minutes of this movie sound exactly like something I’d write. And here I am, almost 22, and not having even thought about watching this before. It blew my mind.

Because, five minutes into this movie, I’m listening to this banter that’s just, boom boom boom boom, back and forth, back and forth, each one is playing off what the other says, and it’s the most charming thing in the world. And not only that, the female character is the one with the better dialogue. And that’s a big thing with me. I do that a lot, but most movies don’t. So, here’s Ali MacGraw, and literally within five minutes, I’m in love with this woman. The character. And that’s rare for me. For me to be totally on board, five minutes into a movie is so rare, based purely on the volume of films I watch. Even The Thin Man took ten minutes for me to fall in love with (and that’s purely because we don’t get introduced to Nick until 10 minutes in). So five minutes in, I loved this movie. And then it only grew from there. This film is fucking perfect.

The film is about these two people, Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, both students — he’s a law student at Harvard and she’s a music major at Radcliffe, and they meet, flirt, and we see them get together. It goes from a simple date of her going to his hockey game, and then they start hanging out, study together, and gradually just become this couple. And then he falls in love with her and wants to marry her, but his father — he comes from a very rich family (she does not) — doesn’t want him marrying so soon. Their relationship was already strained, but his father not letting him get married (and not approving of it) causes him to tell his father he wants nothing to do with him or his money, and not talking to him.

And they get married, move in together, and he goes to law school (working his way through), and they live in this tiny apartment together. But they’re happy. And then they decide they want to have a baby, and then, after failing to conceive, they go for some tests, and find out that she’s terminally ill. And then the rest of the film becomes about that. She’s dying — and so fucking noble too. This is one of the best dying characters I’ve ever seen — and she helps him (and her father, wonderfully played by John Marley) get over the fact that she’s dying, and helps him repair his relationship with his father — and there’s this heartbreaking moment where she’s in the hospital bed dying, and he climbs in bed with her and they just lay there together.

The whole film is fucking brilliant. I cried fucking hard at this movie. I cry a lot during movies, but really fucking hard here. This is a perfect movie. And Ali MacGraw not winning Best Actress for this is the worst decision in Oscar history, bar none. In any category. It’s the worst. Not kidding. Worst. Ever.

Now, Ryan O’Neal in this movie was really good, but, the movie is more about Ali MacGraw. He does get to show a great range, especially after she gets sick, and he is fantastic in the role, but — George C. Scott and James Earl Jones were nominated this year. O’Neal’s performance is the kind of thing that’s really subjective to the category it’s in. Were it in 1971, he’d contend for a win. 1977, he might win. Here — he’s no better than a #3. Scott is an automatic winner, and I’d vote James Earl Jones over O’Neal, and that’s with my obscene love for this movie.

Scott — Yeah, this is just a default winner. It’s not even close how much George C. Scott wins this category. His Patton is one of the best performances ever put to scren.

Patton is a biopic of — guess who? And it’s basically a film that shows you who this man is. It starts with one of the most famous speeches in film history:

And then after that, we show Patton taking over a bunch of troops in Africa during World War II, and leading them to a bunch of victories and taking over North Africa. And we see who he is — war is his life. He believes his destiny is to lead the troops to victory. He thinks he’s reincarnated from a general from a long time ago. And he’s very much about being a soldier, which works both ways. He’s a good leader, but he occasionally does things that are frowned upon. He’s very outspoken. And we really get a nice portrait of who this man is — and Scott is just brilliant in the role.

The film is long, I’ll admit that. And I don’t love it. I honestly don’t think I’ll watch this film again until about five to ten years from now. But it is a well-made film, and it is a classic film. It’s one of those — like The Last Emperor — you understand why it won Best Picture even though it’s not the easiest of films to watch. Though Scott is fucking perfect here, and totally deserved this Oscar.

My Thoughts: This isn’t even a competition. George C. Scott wins this by a mile. I’m not kidding when I say this is one of the best performances ever put to film. He is just amazing in the film. James Earl Jones is a distant second, but, if anyone else but George C. Scott in this performance was up this year, I’d definitely be voting for James Earl Jones. But, despite that, it’s not even close. It’s George C. Scott by a mile.

My Vote: Scott

Should Have Won: Scott

Is the result acceptable?: This is seriously one of the best decisions of all time. There are few better performances in the Best Actor category than George C. Scott’s.

Performances I suggest you see: If you want to study acting, Patton is the way to go. The film is very long, and very boring at times, but the performance is seriously one of the best ever put to film. The film itself is very good and very well-made as well. It’s just — be prepared for it. It’s almost three hours. It feels like almost four. I have to wait a long time in between watches, because it’s just so hard to get through. It’s like The Longest Day. Great film, just — hard to watch. Still, incredible performance and a must see for any fan of performance, and almost a must-see for filmgoers. Not all, but the truly dedicated. It’s a Best Picture winner. That counts for something in the essential category, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Love Story is a film I say is essential. This, to me, is one of the top five or ten greatest romances of all time. It took me 21 years to watch this film, and it won me over very quickly. The script is really something to behold. It’s so fucking well-written. Some people find it sappy (like Harvard, they hold showings and demean it like people do The Room or Rocky Horror, just shouting at the screen). But I say fuck that. This film is perfect. I say everyone must see it, or else we’ve got nothing to say to one another in regards to movies. Everyone’s got their list of ones you need to see. This one’s on mine.

The Great White Hope is a fantastic film, anchored by a great performance by James Earl Jones. He’s really good. I highly recommend it to everyone. It’s really good. Really, really good. Very underrated film. For every genre, there’s always a great “black” version of that type of film. It sucks that it has to be that way, but that’s how it is. For some reason the “black” movies are always kept in different breaths than the regular “Hollywood” versions. (Of course we all know that “Hollywood” is synonymous with “white”.) This is the great black boxing movie. Fuck Ali, this is the one. It’s really wonderful. This is leaps and bounds better than Ali.

And Five Easy Pieces, this is a film I liked but didn’t love. I do respect it as a great film, and there are parts of it I really, really like. I just don’t love it enough as a film as others do. Still, it’s a great film and a classic film. And I respect it as such and recommend that people see it. Because it is one of those films that will really speak to certain people. It’s one of those Catcher in the Rye-type movies, that speaks to a particular section of the audience. And I think people should see it if they hadn’t. You never know if it’s gonna click for you.


5) Douglas

4) Nicholson

3) O’Neal

2) Jones

1) Scott

One response

  1. Pingback: The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1969-1970) – Site Title

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