The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1969-1970)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Richard Burton, Anne of the Thousand Days
Dustin Hoffman, Midnight Cowboy
Peter O’Toole, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy
John Wayne, True Grit
Anne of the Thousand Days is another costume drama. I bet this seemed awfully stuffy in the year of Midnight Cowboy.
It’s about Henry VIII annuling his marriage to his wife to be with Anne Boleyn, and her brief time as queen when she was unable to bear her husband a son and heir.
Burton plays Henry with apolmb, but it’s not much different than his role as Becket five years earlier. It’s very theatrical and showy, and representative of a bygone era of acting. On a pure performance, he’s solid, but in order to take him, I would have to take the performance out of context and focus on who he is as an actor over anything else. Somewhat tall order, but honestly, this might be a category where that could be the case.
Midnight Cowboy is one of the classics. A weird one too, since it’s very different than what would have normally won. And it’s really the only film in the category that’s not a “traditional” kind of Hollywood movie. The kind that was dying away and looks awfully dated now.
Jon Voight is a Texas cowboy who comes to New York to become a gigolo. He meets up with Dustin Hoffman, a small time con artist, and the two make their way in their little rat-infested corner of the city. It’s a lovely film about marginal people with big dreams.
Voight as Joe Buck is very well-drawn. He takes a “Texas hick” character and turns him into a man of complexity. It’s a very selfless kind of performance, and one that, especially next to Hoffman’s more showy role, would often go unnoticed.
Hoffman plays Ratso Rizzo, and delivers one of the more iconic performances in cinema history. Looking at the two performances now, you’d assume this would be the one most people would take, given how much more showy and memorable it is to Voight’s performance, but there’s actuall y a very strong case to be made for Voight as well. This could end in a vote split, but both performances are definitely worth taking.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is just a completely bloated, turgid mess that represents the stale product of a dying version of Hollywood.
The original is a great film. But they turned it into a musical that just doesn’t really work.
It’s about Mr. Chipping, a teacher at a school, who goes from timid man to beloved mascot over thirty to forty years.
O’Toole sings and dances, but this is by far the weakest of his eight nominations. He doesn’t even do anything particularly interesting with the role. This is one I would definitely argue did not need to be nominated and is an outright fifth for me.
True Grit is a classic western (even though I think it was remade into a better film forty years later by the Coen brothers) and serves as the time “John Wayne won his Oscar.”
The result was basically a veteran win, forged by years of him being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and them ignoring him completely for solid work.
The film is about a young girl whose father is gunned down, so she sets out to find and kill the man, aided by federal marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.
Wayne plays Cogburn, and he’s feisty and he’s his usual self, but there’s really not much of a performance here to justify a Best Actor win on its own. He’s actually a bit distracting, if I’m gonna be perfectly honest. It doesn’t feel like a natural fit. I don’t begrudge the win, because I don’t out and out love any of the nominees enough to take them automatically, but I certainly don’t think this performance is up to snuff for what should win.
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The Reconsideration: I don’t know what to do here. The only performance I don’t take is O’Toole. After that, I can make cases for and against everyone.
To make it easier, I have to split the Midnight Cowboy nominees. They’re very close, but I would, at this moment in time, take Hoffman over Voight, so I have to eliminate Voight.
The problem now lies with the other two remaining nominees. Burton’s performance is fine, but I’d only really want to take him because he’s Richard Burton and lost in both ’65 and ’66 for two very strong roles and is in a weaker category where he could win. The win wouldn’t have held up, but he would have had an Oscar. Is that worth it?
And then you have John Wayne, one of the great actors of all time who delivered great performances for years that went unnoticed. Now he’s getting his Oscar for a role that’s fun, but not wholly substantial. Do I take that purely because he’s John Wayne? I’d be okay with that, but it feels wrong, especially when I’m supposed to be looking at what I think the best performance is.
So, while I am very okay with the Wayne win, I have to back into a Dustin Hoffman vote. I’m not going to think about the logistics there, how many times I end up taking certain people, since each category must only be looked at in the context of the category and what came before it. But, here, he gave what I feel is the best and most memorable performance among the nominees, so I have to go with that. I don’t love having to do it, but that’s where we’re at.
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- Dustin Hoffman, Midnight Cowboy
- Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy
- Richard Burton, Anne of the Thousand Days
- John Wayne, True Grit
- Peter O’Toole, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Midnight Cowboy
- Anne of the Thousand Days
- True Grit
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
My Vote: Dustin Hoffman, Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Cowboy is an all-time classic, a Best Picture winner, and is essential for all film buffs. It may even be one of the 100 most essential American movies of all time. So you should probably see it.
True Grit is only essential as an Oscar winner and otherwise is just a fun western with John Wayne. I prefer the Coen brothers version. If you’re gonna see this one, you’re gonna see it because John Wayne won for it and/or because you love John Wayne. That’s really all it is. It’s a high recommend as a western, but as a film it’s just pretty good. Solid recommend.
Anne of the Thousand Days is a film that I like a lot, even though it’s clearly a film that doesn’t fit with its year. It’s old and stodgy in an era when films were getting fresh and vibrant. But as a costume drama, I like it a lot. Solid to high recommend, especially if you like these kinds of films. Not essential otherwise, though. If you hate these kinds of movies, you don’t need to go and see this one. There are other, more essential ones.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is not a film I recommend. The music’s not good, it’s too long, it’s pretty boring, and you might as well just watch the original. It’s like they weren’t even trying here. O’Toole is here, but outside of him (and he’s not even that great) there’s not a whole lot to recommend.
The Last Word: Wayne is a fine decision. On performance, not at all. Bottom ten or fifteen all time. On his stature as an actor, he works. Hoffman and Voight split votes and would win later. The latter doesn’t matter so much here, but you do take some solace in that. Plus, vote splitting is vote splitting. O’Toole never won, but this would have been an awful win. Burton could have won and seemed about as dated and “veteran” as the Wayne win, but between the two, I think the Wayne one fits because of his towering stature as an actor. On performance, sure, the Midnight Cowboy ones would have been better, but as far as Wayne goes, this is a good year to give him one, even though the performance really isn’t all that great. So I’m fine with it, even though there are issues here.
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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
I Never Sang for My Father. I never sang for my mother either, but that’s the sequel.
Gene Hackman is a professor who wants to marry a woman and move across the country. But when his mother dies, he is forced to care for his aging father, with whom he has a difficult relationship.
Melvyn Douglas plays the father. He’s not really the lead of the film over Hackman, but sure. This is a veteran nomination and nothing more, and he’s an easy fifth in the category. Some could argue him fourth, but I wouldn’t. Flat fifth, nothing much of value for me past veteran status.
The Great White Hope is a biopic of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion at the turn of the century, who was so loud and boisterous, white people did everything they could to ruin him.
James Earl Jones plays Johnson, and within ten minutes of this movie, my exact thoughts were, “Holy shit. How did I not know about this performance before?” It’s better to go into this not realizing what you’re up for. Because man, is James Earl Jones fucking incredible here. Honestly, if it’s not up against George C. Scott he’s my vote every day including Sunday. And it’s quite possible that if I’m in 1970, and I know Scott is winning, I throw a vote Jones’s way in order to support what is my favorite performance. Because goddamn, is Jones great here.
Five Easy Pieces is the American “angry young man” film of the 70s.
Jack Nicholson is a music prodigy who left his rich, east coast family to go live in the south, working on oil rigs, hanging out with lower class folk and drinking every night rather than nurturing his talent. One day he gets word that his father had a stroke and makes the journey back home along with his uncouth girlfriend. It’s an all-time classic.
Nicholson delivers a powerhouse performance here, and there are some who would take him here. And with good reason. I think he’s definitely worth considering. I think he might have been the choice without George C. Scott in this category. This is the starmaking performance for him, the one that launched him into the stratosphere. I wouldn’t vote for him over James Earl Jones, because while I think Nicholson is great, he didn’t have the “wow” factor that Jones did, but I can certainly him being the vote for a lot of people.
Love Story is a very important film for 1970 and one I love very much, even though some people think it’s ridiculous now.
Ryan O’Neal is a rich Harvard boy and Ali MacGraw is a poor Radcliffe girl. They meet, start daring and fall in love. And the film is about their relationship.
O’Neal is fine here. He’s perfectly adequate and does a good job maintaining some sort of interest in his character, even though the character is literally the definition of white bread. He’s bland and WASPy and just everything you don’t care about. But he’s engaging. He’d normally be a fifth most years, but I really don’t care for the Douglas performance, so he makes fourth, even though I’d never argue with anyone putting Douglas over him. Would never vote for this, and he pretty much came along with the success of the film, which I’m okay with.
Patton is a biopic of General George S. Patton.
George C. Scott plays Patton.
All I need to do is show you this image and you know immediately what movie this is.
This perfomrance is iconic and is one of the most slam dunk performances to ever win the Oscar. You might prefer another performance to him, but there’s no denying the strength of it and the fact that he deserved to win this.
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The Reconsideration: This category is front loaded and back empty. That is to say, three really strong nominees and two very not strong nominees to round it out.
Nicholson, Jones and Scott are all winners of this category in a different year. Nicholson rates third for me, simply because I’d take Jones over him. But neither hold a candle to the Scott performance. That one is too good to ignore. He’s the best performance in the category, even if James Earl Jones is my favorite. So I gotta take Scott. Though I will stress — three number one performances in this one. All worth taking.
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- George C. Scott, Patton
- James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
- Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
- Ryan O’Neal, Love Story
- Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang For My Father
- Love Story
- Five Easy Pieces
- The Great White Hope
- I Never Sang for My Father
My Vote: George C. Scott, Patton
Patton is a Best Picture winner and a classic film. Should be considered essential by all film buffs. I don’t know if I call it one of the most essential of the Best Picture winners, but by sheer virtue of winning it should be considered essential. It’s also a very good film I’d recommend highly on its own anyway.
Love Story is a classic that means a lot in terms of the history of cinema and helped save a studio from bankruptcy. It was the biggest earning film of 1970 and was iconic in the romance genre for years. It should be considered essential for film buffs. Not all will love it, but it must be seen if you love movies.
Five Easy Piees is an all-time classic and full stop essential film. Must be seen by all film buffs. This represents the 70s at its core, which is generally regarded as the greatest era of filmmaking ever. So yeah, you need to see this.
The Great White Hope is not an essential film, but goddamn, that James Earl Jones performance. It’s a really solid film that I recommend highly, but it’s really the performance you need to see. This performance is absolutely astounding. If you’re gonna take anything from this recommendation, that’s it. The performance is one of the more impressive I’ve seen. Especially considering I knew nothing about it before I saw it.
I Never Sang for My Father is not a film I love or even recommend. I was pretty bored by it and didn’t go back to watch it. It feels like a 70s Lifetime movie that hasn’t been remembered at all. So there’s not much I can recommend here and it’s certainly not essential, so I leave this to you to decide if you want to see it.
The Last Word: Good decision. George C. Scott wins for his signature performance and one of the most iconic performances of all time. Jones would have been good most other years, but not against Scott, and Nicholson would have been okay purely for performance, but I think Scott was a better overall choice. This is a solid decision.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)