The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1979

Oh, this is tough. This may be my favorite Best Actor category of all time. They’re all really good in this category. They all either gave awards-worthy performances or were terribly overdue. And also gave awards-worthy performances. Just — wow. Before we get into it, let’s recap.

I’m not a fan of the the overall 1979 at all. Kramer vs. Kramer wins Best Picture over Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, Norma Rae and Breaking Away. Those last two, I can abide. The first two, I cannot. Same goes for Best Director. Robert Benton (for Kramer) beats Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Fosse (talked about here). That’s the worst offense of all. The direction didn’t carry that film, writing did. That’s what makes me unable to abide the Best Picture decision. The weak, “Here you go,” of giving it Best Director too. Meryl Streep also won Best Supporting Actress for the film, which, as I said here, is a perfect decision. When Meryl wins a category, she really wins a category.

Sally Field as Best Actress for Norma Rae, which, as I said here, is a great decision. And Best Supporting Actor was the biggest offense of them all. The worst decision in the history of the that category. Melvyn Douglas wins for Being There, beating Robert Duvall for Apocalypse Now. Even Dustin Hoffman, upon accepting his award for Best Actor, after saying he refused to believe he beat “Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Peter Sellers,” said, “I refuse to believe Robert Duvall lost.” That’s how bad it was.

Which brings us into this category — it’s a great one.


And the nominees are…

Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer

Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome

Al Pacino, …And Justice for All

Roy Scheider, All That Jazz

Peter Sellers, Being There

Hoffman — Kramer vs. Kramer is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about divorce. It begins with Meryl Streep telling her son that she’s leaving. She’s fed up with her husband, Dustin Hoffman, who is a workaholic, and doesn’t pay enough attention to her or their son. So he comes home, sees her leaving, and is now left to raise the kid by himself. And we see him dealing with this over the rest of the film. At first, he tries to take care of the kid and deal with work, but then his performance at work slips and he has to find another job. But then he becomes a better father. And just as he starts to get a handle on it all, Meryl returns and wants to see her son. Hoffman refuses. She takes him to court for a custody hearing. They decide in favor of her because they assume the mother is naturally the better parent. Hoffman refuses to take it to trial because he doesn’t want to put his son through the ordeal. It’s a really great film. A really, really great film. It’s only flaw, as I always say, is that it shouldn’t have won Best Picture.

Hoffman, however, is terrific here as Ted Kramer. Really terrific. It’s a performance that, stand-alone, would probably still win this category. Of course, Peter Sellers and Roy Scheider (especially given my love of All That Jazz) get major consideration, but once you take into account Hoffman’s other nominated performances that didn’t win (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny), he’s a no-brainer decision here. You can’t, in good conscience, vote for anyone else, despite how deserving they were.

Lemmon — The China Syndrome is a fantastic film. It feels utterly realistic, even though it has a certain level of implausibility in it. Maybe that’s a 2011 perspective. But, as I watched the film, I felt something. And for a film of this sort — I normally don’t. This is one of those films that clearly has a very liberal point of view (it has Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas in it and is about a potential nuclear situation caused by a bottom-line oriented company who doesn’t care about employee safety). Normally when a film is very slanted (if anything is positioned to any extreme), I want to go against it. Not because I don’t believe what they believe, but just because I have a natural instinct to go against things.

So this film is about a power plant. While Jane Fonda, a reporter, and Michael Douglas, her cameraman, go to do a routine story on the nuclear power plant, a minor glitch happens that causes everything to shake uncontrollably and the plant to go into emergency shutdown. They say it’s just a precautionary thing and that there’s nothing to worry about. However, Jack Lemmon, a supervisor, discovers that the coolant level in the plant is really low, and that the core is starting to heat up. That shutdown was not routine and actually came close to “China syndrome” which is the plant releasing its nuclear energy into the earth and contaminating all the water in the surrounding areas. Huge, huge ramifications. Like, Chernobyl huge. And the managers say its fine, but Lemmon, investigating it further, sees that blueprints for the plant were falsified and that there were cuts made when building it that make the plant potentially unstable. He brings this up to his bosses, who say they’ll look into it, and then ignore it.

And he, unable to sit on it, goes back to Fonda and Douglas, who caught the whole thing on tape, unknowingly. He tells them about this, hoping the news story will bring about changes, but, one day, in the plant, he sees that they brought it up to full power again (which will inevitably lead to another shutdown and a nuclear situation), and he grabs a gun from a security guard, forces everyone out and demands that a news crew come in to talk to him. And he barricades himself in the room, and then Fonda and Douglas are brought in. But the plant owners, knowing what will happen if he gets to talk on the air, cause a shutdown deliberately, which causes him to drop his guard long enough for a SWAT team to come in and shoot him. And the shutdown causes major damage to the plant, as he said. And the end of the film is Fonda interviewing people as to what happened, and the plant managers try to do that whole, “He was very disturbed, had a lot of problems, his wife left him…” bullshit, and then the film ends right in the middle of one of the interviews and cuts to color bars, as if either the network didn’t want you to see what was happening or because there was some sort of meltdown (though I’m thinking it was more likely the former).

The film is supposed to make you angry that stuff like this can happen because people are only concerned with production and not human life. And I have to tell you, it works. I really did get angry at the end of this film. It’s probably because it managed to build up a lot of tension in realistic ways, and it grabbed me and held me for the entirety of the film. It’s a really, really strong film.

Jack Lemmon is really good here. He’s the perfect character to play the everyman you believe in and want to succeed (who you know is right) who is just pushed down by the system and ultimately killed because he told the truth. Lemmon is really, really good. However, it’s not a performance that wins an Academy Award. Whether he’d won one already or not. The fact that he did win one before this doesn’t help his chances. In most years, he’d be a #1 or #2 but I’d vote for somebody else. Here, actually, he’s a #4. But that’s because the category is so strong. He was never going to win here. I think everyone understood that. All four other actors are actors who gave great performances and didn’t have Oscars. He had no shot.

Pacino — …And Justice for All is almost like a “behind the courtroom” kind of film. It’s about what lawyers do when they aren’t on flashy “movie” cases. You know how most movie cases go. Big, high profile thing they obsess over and need to find evidence, and all that. This isn’t like that at all. Al Pacino is a regular lawyer with lots of clients. Most of them are poor, deadbeats — average people. Small-time stuff. And he’s dealing with all of these tiny things that wouldn’t even make it into a big trial film. And the film is him basically being an ambulance chaser while also dealing with a very high profile case, which is — a prominent judge (played by John Forsythe, Charlie himself) is accused of raping and beating a woman, and he picks Pacino (who despises him) to defend him, figuring that having someone who despises him defend him will help people believe his innocence. Pacino refuses. But Forsythe basically blackmails him into it, knowing some illegal activities Pacino committed years prior.

So Pacino agrees to defend Forsythe, but that’s not really what the film is about. It’s about all the other things Pacino has going on. His grandfather is senile and in a home, his partner (Jeffrey Tambor) is unstable, he has a personal case he took on pro bono because it’s a human rights issue and a dude is unfairly in prison. All of these things.

What’s great about the film is that it avoids the big trial. Right at the end, when you think the trial’s gonna get started, Pacino hears Forsythe make a comment about the woman accusing him, and, that, along with Pacino’s belief (based on what he’s seen) that Forsythe did it, Pacino, during his opening statement, tells the judge that his client is guilty and should be thrown in jail. And mayhem ensues and the whole court is cleared, and that’s how the film ends.

It’s a pretty good film. Not great, but good. Pacino, on the other hand, is just okay. It’s not really an outstanding performance by him, especially considering what else he’d turned in over the course of the decade. And, given how strong this category is, Pacino is no higher than a #4 for a vote (only because Lemmon won already). He really should have won for Godfather Part II, not here. This wasn’t what he should have won for. Even Scent of a Woman was a better choice than this. He’s just outclassed here, performance-wise.

Scheider — All That Jazz, as I always say, is one of my five favorite films of all time. I love, love, love, love this film. I think it’s nothing less than a stroke of genius and that everything about it is brilliant and perfect.

The film is about Bob Fosse. Directed, and written, by Bob Fosse. The man made a film about himself. And the film is a terribly objective look at his life. How he works himself too hard and is basically killing himself because of it.

The film begins with Roy Scheider (as Joe Gideon, the Fosse stand-in), starting his daily routine: Vivaldi’s Concerto in G major, Alla rustica, eye drops, alka seltzer, a cigarette (in the shower), and Dexedrine. We see this routine several times. Then he goes on about his day — casting a new musical (picking his dancers based on which ones he wants to sleep with), editing a film he made (very obviously based on Fosse’s own film Lenny), dealing with his ex-wife, 10-year old daughter, and his current girlfriend, to whom he is very unfaithful. He is clearly working himself to death, and doesn’t care.

Meanwhile, all this is intercut with scenes of Fosse flirting with Jessica Lange, who is playing the Angel of Death. The dude is flirting with death, literally. It’s almost like a verbal version of the chess match in The Seventh Seal, except here, it’s all totally up to Scheider whether he’s going to die. Each time he flirts with Lange and gets closer to her, we see him having more heart problems back in the real world.

Scheider ends up having a minor heart attack one day, and is told to get in bed for three weeks and rest. He ignores this advice and keeps on working. Eventually, he has to go in for surgery. This is where the film gets really interesting. Because, first, the open heart surgery is intercut with a scene of the backers of his musical talking about how much money they will get in the case that Scheider dies rather than lives. It’s a beautiful visual critique of show business (emphasis on business). And then, while he’s under the anesthesia, we see a musical number set in the hospital room, that he directs, as he talks to his own prone body in the hospital bed. It’s so wonderfully meta.

And then he’s in the hospital, and continues to ignore doctor’s orders. He smokes, drinks, parties, has women in all the time — and is basically just asking for death. And the film ends with a huge musical number that’s a twist on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” except it’s called “Bye Bye Life.” And the final image of the film is the body bag being zipped up. It’s a brilliant film. For my money the best musical ever made. And what’s even more intriguing about the whole thing is that the dude made it about himself. And he was right! He knew exactly what was going to happen if he kept doing what he did, and yet he did it anyway. And sure enough, 8 years after this film came out, Fosse died of a heart attack.

Roy Scheider is fucking incredible in this film. Hands down, my favorite performance. Now, despite this, I’m not voting for him. This is only because I recognize how much Dustin Hoffman needed to win this. And also because Peter Sellers probably should have won as a backup. Though, if Hoffman wasn’t here or had won before, Scheider would definitely be my vote. But, given the fact that Hoffman was really the vote here, and the fact that I gave Scheider my vote in the Supporting Actor 1971 category — I’m cool with him not winning here.

The film is still a Top Five film of mine. So I don’t need it to have any more validation.

Sellers — Being There is such an intriguing film. It was a passion project of Peter Sellers’. He really wanted to make this film because he felt the character of Chance had no “self,” which is how he felt about his own self. He never thought there was a real Peter Sellers, but only the characters he played.

The film is about Chauncey Gardiner (Chance), who is a simple-minded man who has lived in the same house his whole life, tending to the garden, with no contact to any part of the world except for television. The only thing he knows is TV. He simply repeats what he’s heard on television. When the master of the house dies, and the place is sold, Chance is forced out on his own. Not knowing where to go, he just wanders around town (D.C.), and people think he’s wealthy, since he’s wearing the clothes of the man who died.

One night, while watching a TV in a shop window, he’s hit by a car. The car is owned by Melvyn Douglas, a wealthy businessman who is also dying. His wife (Shirley MacLaine) brings him home so they can tend to his injuries. And what happens is, the rest of what happens is a series of miscommunications. Chance has no idea what’s going on, and is just saying what he’s heard on television, and everyone believes him to be someone else. Douglas, when seeing Chance, thinks he’s an educated, wealthy man. When Chance tells him about being kicked out of the house, Douglas interprets it as something that it isn’t. He thinks he has this wonderful insight into the economy and into business. And everything Chance says is interpreted as being some insightful comment about society.

And Douglas happens to be a key advisor to the President (the always wonderful Jack Warden), and he introduces him to Chance. And as Chance talks about gardens, the President means he’s talking about the economy, and pretty soon, Chance becomes a huge political consultant, appearing on television and the most sought-after man in town. People assume he’s all these things, based on rumors and hearsay, and yet, only Douglas’s doctor knows that Chance isn’t any of these things. Yet, seeing that Chance has allowed Douglas to achieve peace at his impending death, the doctor doesn’t say anything, because he sees that Chance has no ulterior motives, and is just a simple, innocent being.

And then Douglas dies, and at the funeral, all the men whisper with the President about who will succeed him in the next term, and everyone agrees that Chance should. Meanwhile, Chance wanders around, totally oblivious, and there’s that brilliant final shot of him walking on water, which is just a wonderful image — the dude is so innocent and so in awe of everything that he can literally walk on water. Because no one told him it wasn’t possible. So brilliant.

Peter Sellers, in almost any other year, would have won this Oscar, hands down. 1976, 1977, 1978. But not here. And it’s a shame. He’s definitely my second choice here. But, Hoffman is too strong. It has to be Hoffman.

My Thoughts: This, as I said, may be the toughest Best Actor category of all time. And yet it’s not. It’s easy.

First off are Pacino and Lemmon. Lemmon won already and Pacino’s performance just doesn’t compare to the rest of them (or to his earlier work, which he should have won for). And then, honestly, as much as I love Roy Scheider and All That Jazz, he has to take a back seat to Hoffman and Sellers. He just does.

Now, as for Sellers and Hoffman — Hoffman is just more overdue. The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, All the President’s Men — and he gave the best performance in the category. So he’s an easy winner. He really is. I know Peter Sellers and all, but — it’s Hoffman.

My Vote: Hoffman

Should Have Won: Hoffman, Scheider, Sellers

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Absolutely. He really did give the best performance in the category.

Performances I suggest you see: Kramer vs. Kramer, All That Jazz and Being There are essential films. Probably for everyone, but definitely for me. If you haven’t seen these films, you are dead to me.

The China Syndrome is an amazing, amazing film. You really should see this film. It takes a lot for me to actually feel tension in a film now. I liken it to when people do comedy shows every day, and after years and years, they just don’t laugh at anything, even if they find it hilarious. They’re so desensitized to the whole thing. That’s me with thrillers and action movies. I don’t get blown away by action scenes or the attempt to build tension. Not often. Here — I felt that shit. This was a really tense movie. I really, really liked this one. This film actually made me angry too. Few films trying to get me to feel angry at the government or whoever actually get me to feel that way. This one did. That, to me, is the mark of a really good film.

…And Justice for All is a good film. I didn’t love it. But I did like it. I liked how it was sort of the backstage musical version of the lawyer film. It’s almost all the shit that happens outside the courtroom. There’s literally no courtroom scenes in the movie. The big trial at the end doesn’t happen! But it’s a bit too 70s for me. I don’t love the film. But I do like it. It’s pretty good. I recommend it. Check it out.


5) Pacino

4) Lemmon

3) Sellers

2) Hoffman

1) Scheider


One response

  1. Keith Kotay

    When I first saw “All That Jazz” in the 80’s I had no interest in musicals–at all. I saw it on a cable movie channel, which meant I got to see it a few times that month. I soon realized how great this movie is for all the reasons you state. And it *is* amazing that it is autobiographical, and done so honestly. Some say it is self-indulgent but I don’t see that at all…

    Since I’ve grown wiser in the last 30 years I have come to appreciate musicals from the 30’s to the 50’s, especially the ones that feature dancing. Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Powell, etc. were amazing artists who created amazing art. There is something about great dancing that affirms existence. “Top Hat”, “Swing Time”, “Honolulu”, “Easter Parade”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, and “The Band Wagon” are some of my favorites–but “All That Jazz” is right there with them. In a more contemporary way, not as “cute” as the old Hollywood musicals where the plot was so thin you could see through it (not that I mind that much when the dancing is so fantastic). To me, “All That Jazz” is an amazing coda on the Hollywood musical–one last modern musical to put an exclamation point on an art form from a bygone era…

    September 1, 2015 at 11:57 pm

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