The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1975

1975 is a really strong year. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins Best Picture over Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon and Nashville. All (though I’m not the biggest fan of Nashville) would have been acceptable decisions for most people. Cuckoo’s Nest also wins Best Director for Milos Forman and Best Actress for Louise Fletcher (talked about here). I love the Best Actress decision, and, while I accept the Best Director decision, I don’t particularly like it, since Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick and (an un-nominated) Steven Spielberg gave better efforts than Forman did. Forman’s effort was pretty theatrical. Plus Kubrick and Lumet were already overdue by this point.

Best Supporting Actor this year was George Burns for The Sunshine Boys (talked about here), which I like as a decision. Nice way to reward a veteran who gave a great performance. And Best Supporting Actress was Lee Grant for Shampoo, which I also like, since — the category sucked. She was gonna win one at some point, and this was the logical category for her to do it.

Which brings us to this category. A very strong one, performance-wise. And the decision had to happen, however one may feel about it (but I can’t imagine anyone would actually be against it), since Nicholson was way overdue by this point and gave one of the defining performances of his career.


And the nominees were…

Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys

Jack Nicholson, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon

Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

James Whitmore, Give ’em Hell, Harry!

Matthau — The Sunshine Boys is such a hysterical film.

Walter Matthau and George Burns were a famous vaudeville comedy team. Now, in the 70s, a TV network is airing a special on vaudeville and wants the two (who haven’t worked together for 20 years) to reunite and perform their famous “doctor” sketch. And the film is about Matthau’s nephew trying to get him to do it, and him not wanting to. He hates Burns, but we don’t really know why. And the film is basically Matthau bickering — not even him and Burns bickering. Matthau is the instigator of all of it. It’s really just hysterical. A great, great film.

Matthau is terrific here. Honestly, any other years but ’72-’76 and he’s contend for a win. If he gave this performance in 1977, he’d have won, hands down. But he gave it here, where he couldn’t have won. Which sucks. But, he did deliver a fantastic performance in a hysterical film. Seriously, if you haven’t seen this, get on it, you’re missing out on some great comedy.

Nicholson — You really should have seen One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by now.

Jack Nicholson is Randle Patrick McMurphy, in jail and in a mental hospital to avoid hard labor. There, he clashes with Nurse Ratched (a great Louise Fletcher), the authoritarian head nurse. Both Nicholson and Fletcher are perfect in this film. It’s a no-brainer that they’d win Oscars. The only thing that would keep Nicholson from winning this is if he’d won one before this. And even then, he might still have won. He’s that good.

Pacino — Dog Day Afternoon is another film you should have seen. On a hot summer afternoon, Al Pacino and John Cazale walk into a Brooklyn bank and hold it up. And the film is about the robbery and ensuing hostage situation. It’s terrific.

Pacino is tremendous here, as Sonny. He gives such a great performance. It’s not quite as good as his Michael Corleone performance, but what could be? This is a category he wins if not for Nicholson. It’s no contest. But, since it’s Nicholson, and Nicholson’s iconic performance outweighs Pacino’s in this instance, Nicholson gets the win. (I’m sure the Best Picture thing had something to do with it, too.) But Pacino’s amazing here.

Schell — The Man in the Glass Booth is actually a terrific film. I thought it was really gonna suck. It’s about a man living in Manhattan who is arrested in the ’70s under charges of being a Nazi in hiding. It’s based on a play written by Robert Shaw. Yes, that Robert Shaw. I figured it would be pretty boring. Because I hate Holocaust films. But, this was actually a good film. And all of it has to do with the exceptional performance of Maximilian Schell.

Schell is a Jew living in Manhattan. He lives in his penthouse and enjoy embarrassing his assistant. He tells horribly anti-Semitic jokes, and seems about as Jewish as a person could be. Then out of nowhere he’s arrested and put on trial for being a Nazi. But the interesting thing about it is how he embraces it. He doesn’t pretend that he’s not a Nazi, he tells them he is. He goes so far as to admit all these terrible crimes. Yet, as the trial goes on, we start to realize — this dude might not actually be a Nazi, and might be making it up so he’s convicted. That’s what makes it so fascinating. When he gets arrested, you think the twist is whether or not he’ll actually be a Nazi at the end of the film. But really, once he admits it and starts parading around as a Nazi, the film becomes about whether or not he actually is a Nazi like he claims he is. So the people putting him on trial for being a Nazi end up almost having to convict him of making this all up. It’s really fascinating. Also, the title has to do with the fact that he is put in a glass booth to prevent people from taking shots at him in the courtroom.

Schell gives a fantastic performance here. I bet you that if you watch this movie (and you totally should), midway through, without taking into account anyone else in the category, you’d go, “I could totally have seen him winning an Oscar for this.” Thing is, though, he wasn’t winning an Oscar for this. Nicholson and Pacino and even Matthau take precedent. Plus, he won in 1961 undeservingly (Paul Newman really should have won that year.) So I’m not voting for him. He’s a #5 here. But not due to lack of strength in his performance. He’s terrific.

Whitmore — Give ‘Em Hell, Harry is a filmed version of a one man stage show about Harry Truman, starring Whitmore as Truman. Also, if you don’t recognize Whitmore, he’s the guy who played Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption. He was also Oscar nominated in Battleground.

The film is literally just a one-man stage show. You can find it on Youtube:

If you have 100 minutes, check it out. Whitmore is awesome.

The thing is though, you can’t vote for this. You win a Tony for this, not an Oscar. I love that he got nominated, but he shouldn’t have won the Oscar. This is literally a stage performance. An awesome one, but still, a stage performance.

My Thoughts: This is actually a very good category overall. In most years, four out of these five could seriously be considered for a vote. The only one I’d never really ever consider is Schell, partially because I don’t see the performance as good enough for a win and partially because he won one of these already in a very unacceptable fashion (Paul Newman really should have won that year). The other four — amazing.

But, in this tough category, the two that come off the top first are Whitmore and Matthau. Whitmore because, there wasn’t really a film there. It was a taped performance of the stage show. He was incredible in it, don’t get me wrong, it’s just — I can’t vote for it. And Matthau — it’s a comic performance for one, and two — the other two were just better.

So that leaves us with either Pacino or Nicholson. Pacino should have won twice by now, arguably, for both Godfathers. I say the first one — take it or leave it. I’d have voted for Caan, but he clearly was the vote if there was one. The second one, he absolutely should have won Best Actor for it and him losing to Art Carney was the single worst Best Actor decision of all time (read it again here). So he was already due by this point and delivered one of his greatest performances with Dog Day Afternoon. And in between, he also made Serpico.

And Nicholson — great in Five Easy Pieces, great in The Last Detail, great in Chinatown. He was a second choice in ’73, but Jack Lemmon needed to win that year. He was a third choice in ’74 behind Pacino and Hoffman, but, honestly, against Carney, I’d have taken him any day of the week. What I’m saying is — at this point — Nicholson was actually more overdue than Pacino was, and he delivered what might be his most iconic performance, here with Cuckoo’s Nest. So, honestly, that’s what this comes down to for me. This was just Nicholson’s time. The fact that this would prevent Pacino from getting an Oscar for almost twenty years after this has less to do with this category than it does the Academy fucking up the year before this and Pacino not really doing much more film work between 1975 and 1990. (Absence makes the Academy scared shitless). Still, I say Nicholson is the vote. This could very easily have been accomplished by me simply saying, “It’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest!”, but, I wanted you to see where I’m coming from, because Pacino is a very close #2 for me here.

My Vote: Nicholson

Should Have Won: Nicholson, Pacino

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. For all the reasons stated up there in My Thoughts. Great decision.

Performances I suggest you see: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon. If you haven’t seen either of those, you’re dead to me. Seriously, do you even like movies, if you need me to tell you that you need to see them? Don’t be a schmuck. See these ASAP.

The Sunshine Boys is a hysterical film, and one that I, personally am going to tell you is an essential film. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t find this film hilarious. I guarantee you’ll enjoy this one. See it. Trust me. I know funny. And this is funny.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry is a staggering performance by James Whitmore. It is basically a stage show on screen, but he is very strong in it. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

The Man in the Glass Booth is also a really good film. What makes it work is the performance by Maximilian Schell. It’s really strong. I didn’t love the film, but the performance was so good it made me like it a lot. Seriously, check this one out — and stick with it. You won’t be disappointed.


5) Schell

4) Whitmore

3) Matthau

2) Pacino

1) Nicholson

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