The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1978
I love 1978. Such great films, topped with my favorite film of the year, The Deer Hunter, winning Best Picture. That, to me, is a great year.
The film also won Best Director for Michael Cimino (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken (talked about here). I love both of these decisions. Then, Best Actress was Jane Fonda for Coming Home. I don’t like this decision at all, because she had an Oscar already. And I know she’s Jane Fonda and all, but, Jill Clayburgh gave a much better performance in An Unmarried Woman and should have won there. And Best Supporting Actress was Maggie Smith in California Suite, which, as I said here, wasn’t my favorite performance (that would be Meryl Streep), but I understand why she won and actually really like the decision.
And now, this category — this is a category where, I don’t think the best performance won, but, historically, this has proven to be a very good decision. So it’s one of those where, while I still won’t vote for the winner, I’m totally cool (and even happy) with the fact that he won.
BEST ACTOR – 1978
And the nominees were…
Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home
Beatty — Heaven Can Wait, as I’ve said many times, is a film I love. And, judging from how both early iterations of this story (this and Here Comes Mr. Jordan) were nominated about nine times on this Oscar Quest, you probably know this by now.
Let’s do this quickly. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth are all the same film. They all tell the same story. So you probably know this story very well by now. A boxer/football player/comedian gets in an accident and dies. Only he wasn’t supposed to die. The angel sent to take all the souls of those who died didn’t want him to suffer and pulled him out early, not realizing he was supposed to survive. But, by the time it gets sorted out, his body’s been cremated. So, they have to get him a loaner body. They put him in the body of a millionaire whose wife and lover poisoned him in his bathtub. So he becomes this dude (freaking the fuck out of the wife), and tries to get back to his former position as his former self. He also meets a woman and falls in love with her. But, he doesn’t realize the body was only meant to be a loaner, and is killed by the wife (again). And he’s upset, not because he was almost back to doing what he wanted to do (here, he took the millionaire’s body and trained to be a quarterback again for the Super Bowl), but because the woman he fell in love with was starting to fall in love with him. But, coincidentally, the guy who was put in his position because he died (his backup, here) dies, and he gets to come back as him, and it’s even hinted that he and the girl will end up together again too. It’s a great story.
This version is the one I think is the best, followed by Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Down to Earth is probably the version most people have seen. So, you know, that’s how it works. Anyway, Beatty does a fine job in the role here, but it’s not something I can vote for Best Actor for. It’s one of those, “I love the performance a lot, but come on now.” You can’t vote for this. Does anyone think he should have won here? Anyone?
Busey — How the fuck did Gary Busey get nominated for Best Actor? And I mean that in the most general sense of, “Seriously, he’s Gary Busey,” and in the specific sense of, “How did Gary Busey get nominated for this role?”
The movie’s just not very good at all. And all Busey does through the whole thing is smile. It’s also one of the films that best exemplifies that hysterical thing musical biopics do, which is have the actor play the musician at absurdly young ages. This is actually the film they used as the joke in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story at the beginning, when they have John C. Reilly be like, “I’m sixteen year old Dewey Cox,” and Kristen Wiig is like, “I’m Dewey’s fourteen year old girlfriend!” Because, Gary Busey is playing Buddy Holly. Buddy Holly died at age 22, and most of the movie takes place while he’s between the ages of 16 and 18. Gary Busey was 34 when he made this movie. It’s really fucking funny. He’s so clearly 34 and actually has a line where he’s like, “I’m Buddy Holly, and I’m 17 years old,” or something like that. It’s really just laughable how bad the whole thing is. I really don’t know how he got nominated.
Anyway, the film is a biopic of Buddy Holly…
Oh, wait, that’s it. That’s all it is. We show him starting a band, meeting his wife, getting famous, and dying. That’s it. It was actually a pretty boring movie, probably because I couldn’t get into it because I was constantly amazed that a 34 year old was playing a dude who died at 22.
Guess if I’m going to vote for him. Go ahead. I bet you can do it.
De Niro — The Deer Hunter is my favorite Vietnam film. It’s tied with Apocalypse Now. I think this is a masterpiece of cinema. And yet — somehow — a lot of people think this was a shitty choice for Best Picture. I guess I’ll never understand some people.
The film is about a group of friends in small town in Pennsylvania. One of those steeling towns. They work at the steel plant, and they pretty much go to work, go to the bar, hang out, and go home. And it starts the day before one of them (John Savage) is going to get married, and a week before three of them (De Niro, Walken and Savage) ship out overseas. And we see them hanging out at the bar, and we spend a good hour just hanging out with them, seeing them get ready for the wedding, and having this huge ass party at the wedding. And along the way, we get to know them, and know their problems and such. Like, Christopher Walken is dating Meryl Streep (and becomes engaged to her during the reception), but it’s also heavily implied that he slept with John Savage’s bride (it’s also later implied when their son is born with blonde hair, which only Walken has). And De Niro is the loaner of the group. He likes to go deer hunting, and hates taking all the guys with him, because they treat it like a drinking trip. They go, act like assholes, and don’t take it seriously. A lot of us have had friends like this in some regard.
Anyway, we see them, get to know them, and then boom, immediately shift to Vietnam. No buffer whatsoever. And De Niro and Walken randomly bump into one another, and are soon captured by Vietcong. They’re taken to a hut on the river (where Savage is also being held), and are forced to play Russian Roulette against one another, in one of the most thrilling scenes in the history of cinema. And then they eventually escape, but there are ramifications to having lived through such an event. Savage is paralyzed from the waist down, Walken has crazy PTSD, and De Niro is scarred, but ultimately able to deal with it. And Savage is sent to a military hospital, Walken stays in Vietnam, and De Niro goes hom. And Walken eventually gets into Russian Roulette, which leads to the final showdown. But, before that, De Niro goes home, and we see the after effects of him being in the war. And then he starts a relationship with Meryl, and see how he’s been affected, and then he eventually comes back to find Walken, and — well you know what happens.
It’s a brilliant film. De Niro, to me, gave the best performance in this category. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m voting for him. But, since I know he won already for The Godfather Part II and will win in 1980 for Raging Bull, I’m totally cool with him not winning. But I’m still voting for him.
Olivier — The Boys from Brazil is about a bunch of Nazis who escape after the war and go to Brazil. Led by Josef Mengele, they start a plot to clone Adolf Hitler. They take Hitler’s sperm and put it into the embryos of specifically chosen women. What they do is, they make sure that all the boys have black hair and blue eyes, and were raised by cold, abusive fathers with warm and doting mothers. Basically — Hitler. And the boys are raised to be just like Hitler. And they’re discovered by, of all people, Steve Guttenberg, who is eventually killed for spying on them, but before he’s killed, he tells Ezra Lieberman, famous Nazi hunter, played by Laurence Olivier, about it. And he goes there to investigate, and eventually finds out about the plot and goes to try and stop it. And eventually it leads to a showdown with a boy and his attack dogs.
The film is good. I liked it. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but I was very entertained. As for Olivier’s performance, it’s spirited. But I can’t vote for it. Dude got his Oscar, and anything past that is just a veteran nomination. The only other Oscar he should have won post-Hamlet was maybe for Marathon Man, but even there, the category was too strong for him to win. So this — this is just, “Good job.” I can’t vote for him. This is either De Niro or Voight. And then third choice would be Beatty. No one’s voting for Oliver here.
Voight — Coming Home is a film I liked a lot, just, not as much as The Deer Hunter. This film is like a “fictional” Born on the Fourth of July. I say that because — Born on the Fourth of July is trying to be pseudo-biographical and say something about how Vietnam veterans were treated. This is more of a — it’s trying to tell a story. It’s meant to be a drama. It has its message, but, it’s definitely more of a “movie” than Born on the Fourth of July is.
It’s about Jon Voight, a solider who was paralyzed in Vietnam. The first thirty minutes are him in the VA hospital, learning to deal with not being able to walk again. Then he’s transferred home, and he meets Jane Fonda, a nurse, whose husband is still in Vietnam. And he and her start sleeping together. And most of the middle of the film is their relationship building (along with a subplot about another nurse and her brother), until her husband (Bruce Dern) comes home. So they end the relationship, until she realizes Bruce Dern is no longer the man she married. He’s cold, distant, and barely speaks to her anymore. Kind of like if Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty was PTSD instead of gay. So she goes back to Voight, and Dern finds out about it, and goes to kill them, but can’t, and breaks down, and eventually kills himself, because he can’t live with what he’s seen. And Fonda and Voight end up together, and he goes and talks to kids and tells them how war is bad.
It’s a good film. It’s really engaging. The only thing I have against it is residual spitefulness from hearing people say it was better (and should have won Best Picture over) Deer Hunter. It’s residual because I had it before I reached the age of reason and stopped giving a fuck about what other people think.
As for Voight’s performance — I liked it. But, watching the film, I can’t see what was so good that it necessitated winning Best Actor. That’s just me. But, this is the kind of thing where, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that De Niro would win Best Actor after this for a performance that’s better than the one he gave this year, and with Jon Voight being an awesome actor, I’m totally cool with him winning. But I’m not voting for him. I just didn’t think the performance was good enough to win.
My Thoughts: To me, this seems like a no-brainer. De Niro is clearly the best performance here by a mile. Add to that fact that he didn’t win for Taxi Driver, and I don’t see how he doesn’t win here. Now, history has told us that him not winning here is okay, because two years after this, he busts out with Raging Bull, which is clearly the performance where he really should have won the Oscar. So, for that reason, them going with Jon Voight is okay. Jon Voight is a great actor, and it’s cool that he won the Oscar. I’d rank him third on my list, just because I love Heaven Can Wait, but clearly he should have won more than Warren Beatty did. So, I’d put him second for a vote, which is great. He could have won. But I still vote De Niro. I really did think that performance was best.
My Vote: De Niro
Should Have Won: Matter of opinion, but I say De Niro. Others will also say Voight, and that’s fine too.
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. I won’t say it’s an amazing decision, but it’s a good one. Both Jon Voight and De Niro have Best Actor Oscars, and that’s all right. I still would have voted De Niro here, but, Voight winning is okay.
Performances I suggest you see: The Deer Hunter. You need to see this film. You really do. Just see it. I bet you’ll be blown away by it.
Heaven Can Wait is a story you need to see. You must see one iteration of this story. I recommend you see them in this order: Heaven Can Wait, then Here Comes Mr. Jordan, then Down to Earth. If you’ve seen #3 first, you should probably see #1. In fact, see them all. The story is great, and it’s fun seeing different actors do all the roles. But this is definitely the best version, and this is the one you should see. It’s amazing.
Coming Home is a great film. Not essential, but a great film. So if you’re looking for really good films to watch — this is one of them.
The Boys from Brazil is also a good film. I don’t love it (but I’m not the biggest WWII fan), and this isn’t for everyone, but it is good. I did like it, and I liked seeing Gregory Peck play Josef Mengele. That was fun. Check it out. You’ll probably enjoy it. It’s been referenced a shitload in popular culture over the years. If anything, you’ll be able to know what people are referencing.
1) De Niro