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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1971-1972)

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.

1971

Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday

Gene Hackman, The French Connection

Walther Matthau, Kotch

George C. Scott, The Hospital

Topol, Fiddler on the Roof

Analysis:

Sunday Bloody Sunday is one of those films on the Quest that I just did not like. And even though time has gone by, I still don’t really care for the film all that much, and that will, admittedly, color my views of this performance.

The film is about a love triangle between Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, and another man. That’s pretty much it. They both start sleeping with the man and it’s about what happens when the man decides he’s not really interested in either of them anymore.

Finch is fine here. I’m sure people love this performance and how he conveys emotion. But it’s hard for me to like a good performance in a film I did not like. So while I can appreciate what he does here, he’s no more than fifth for me in the category. You vote what you like, and I am pretty indifferent toward this performance.

The French Connection is one of the great thrillers of all time and is still holds up as a nearly perfect film.

Gene Hackman plays “Popeye” Doyle, a NY cop trying to bust a heroin shipper who is planning to import a lot of drugs into the city. That’s it, really. Everyone remembers the car chase and the foot chase and “picking your feet in Poughkepsie.” It’s pretty iconic all the way around.

Is this a performance that, on its own, would normally be such a slam dunk vote for Best Actor? No. But in this category, there’s really not a whole lot else you can take, and he definitely feels like the most vibrant and vote-worthy of the nominees. Plus it’s Gene Hackman, and we love him. I see how he won this easily. He’s pretty much the vote before I even consider his performance. It comes down to, “Well, I wouldn’t take the rest, and I like him and his film and the performance is pretty good, so sure.” Sometiimes it’s just that easy.

Kotch is a movie directed by Jack Lemmon and starring Walter Matthau. Which will catch some of you by surprise, because you wonder how you hadn’t heard of it before. And it’s because the movie is totally forgotten now and isn’t really that good that people would make sure other people saw it. Still, that is of interest, that pairing.

Walter Matthau plays a retired man who lives at his son’s house. And he drives them nuts. He’s the kind of old guy that just keeps talking and talking and doesn’t realize the other person is only being polite and wants to get the hell out of there. Finally, they tell him he’s gotta leave the house and go into a home. But he doesn’t want that. So he goes out on a road trip. That’s pretty much the film. Art Carney would win for something similar in three years.

Matthau is fine here. He’s always very solid and he turns in a good performance, but ultimately this is not a performance that I’d want to take. At best he gets third on poignancy. But really, this feels like a number five all around. I like it better than the Finch performance, but even I’ll admit that Finch probably does a better job than Matthau does. And I wouldn’t take him over Hackman, so he’s pretty much just floundering around in a weak category without much chance of going anywhere.

The Hospital is a really dark comedy that is very much of its era. While Network has transcended time, this one hasn’t.

This is a very weird little film. George C. Scott is a suicidal doctor whose life has fallen apart, and now so is his hospital. The hospital is trying to expand, and in doing so is kicking people out of project housing nearby. So protestors are there throughout the film. Meanwhile, someone is going around the hospital, killing doctors. Like I said, it’s a very weird movie.

Scott does a good job with it. It’s a slightly more dramatic version of the Strangelove role, where he’s clearly doing comedy, but adds a degree of seriousness to it. It’s nowhere near the Patton performance, and this feels like a holdover nomination from that, which tends to happen with Best Actor winners. So I get it, but he wouldn’t rate more than fourth most years and may only get third here just because the performance amuses me. But I wouldn’t want to take this.

Fiddler on the Roof is the big Jewish musical. Everyone should know this one. “If I Were a Rich Man” and all that.

Topol plays Tevye, the milkman, and the film is his story. It’s definitely a fun, lively performance and he’s great in it. But this is just a stage-to-screen adaptation and he’s bringing a beloved stage role to the screen in a solid fashion. A nomination was all but assured, but he stood no chance at winning this. Most years, he wouldn’t rate higher than third, and even then it would be a pretty weak year/he’d only do it on charm. He happens to get as high as second for me in this one just because the rest of the category feels so flaccid. I wouldn’t take him over Hackman and am not gonna pretend like I would. It’s just an okay performance. Definitely not something I’d vote for.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I really don’t like this category. Matthau is good in a relatively lightweight and even sentimental role meant for someone older than him. I really don’t like Finch’s film, so I can’t even consider taking that performance. Scott was not as good as he was the year before this, even though he delivers a decent enough performance for me to be okay with the nomination (but even then… not something I need to see here). And Topol is awesome, but that’s a performance that should be a #4 any other year.

Which brings me by default to Gene Hackman, who delivers an iconic, awesome performance, and by sheer virtue of having zero competition, becomes my vote. I don’t need to think much more about it, because the category declared him the winner without much ado at all. So there we are.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Gene Hackman, The French Connection
  2. Topol, Fiddler on the Roof
  3. George C. Scott, The Hospital
  4. Walter Matthau, Kotch
  5. Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday

Rankings (films):

  1. The French Connection
  2. Fiddler on the Roof
  3. The Hospital
  4. Kotch
  5. Sunday Bloody Sunday

My Vote: Gene Hackman, The French Connection

Recommendations:

The French Connection is an essential film. Best Picture winner, awesome 70s film, awesome film that everyone loves, and it includes the best edited car chase ever put to film. Some of the most thrilling action ever shown on screen that holds up even better than most action films today. Must see for all film buffs.

Fiddler on the Roof is an essential musical, but as a musical film it’s just pretty good. Solid recommend, really only worth seeing if you’re super into musicals, super into the Oscars or just really like musicals about Jewish milkmen. If you hate musicals, then there’s really no reason for you to find this essential.

The Hospital is a very fun 70s black comedy, but not something that holds up overly well. I give it a solid recommend, but you’re okay if you don’t see it. Though it is Paddy Chayefsky, and most people tend to like the things he wrote. So there is that.

Kotch is an amusing film. Directed by Lemmon, starring Matthau. So there’s that. If you don’t care about that, then you are more than fine never seeing this movie. It’s okay at best. Moderate recommend for some people who think it’ll be interesting.

Sunday Bloody Sunday is a film I vehemently did not like the first time and have moved toward relative indifference and a general feeling of dislike toward. So I can’t recommend it and I leave it to others to tell you it’s worth seeing.

The Last Word: Great winner. Hackman deserved one of these and got it relatively early on. Every other choice they could have made would have been bad. Not one of the best performances in the category all time, but in the context of his year, he was a great choice and the best choice. And that’s all that matters.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1972

Marlon Brando, The Godfather

Michael Caine, Sleuth

Laurence Olivier, Sleuth

Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class

Paul Winfield, Sounder

Analysis:

The Godfather.

It’s Don Vito Corleone.

The end.

Sleuth is one of the great thrillers of all time. It’s basically a play on screen, but it totally works, since all of the drama is in the characters’ words.

Laurence Olivier is a famous mystery writer, and Michael Caine is a hairdresser sleeping with Olivier’s wife. Caine comes by to tell him she’s leaving to be with him. Thus begins a twisted game of cat and mouse between the two, which I will not spoil here. But, as I say to most people I recommend the movie to, you will love it.

Both actors are really terrific here. Olivier occasionally gets into his overacting that he has a tendency toward, and Caine — without getting into specifics, has to do a lot of different heavy lifting throughout the film, including a particular part near the middle that’s impressive, even if it’s not all that surprising forty years later. Both were completely worthy of the nomination, and I guess if I had to pick one of the two for a vote, it would be Caine. But let’s face it, neither of these stand a chance against Marlon Brando. Plus, there’s O’Toole to deal with as well….

The Ruling Class is one of the top five films on this entire Quest that I knew nothing about and came out going, “I loved that movie so much I need to show this to everyone right now.”

It is such a strange movie that when I tell you what it’s about, you will either go, “I need to see this movie right now,” or you’re gonna go, “That is too weird for me.” And both are fine. But you still need to know about it.

An English Earl accidentally hangs himself, leading to the next in line to inherit the title. That’s Peter O’Toole. He’s a man who believes he is Jesus. He walks around, being super nice to all the servants and singing and dancing and praying with them and occasionally putting himself up on a cross. The rest of the family is horrified and can’t believe this crazy person is the head of the house and scheme to get him out of there. And, in true comic fashion, they fail at every turn.

Eventually they succeed in putting him through an intense form of psychotherapy with a dude who puts him through electroshock and constantly tells him, “You are not Jesus, you are Jack.” Finally, it sinks in. So for the rest of the film, O’Toole stops believing himself to be Jesus and becomes Jack… the Ripper. And the movie takes such a decidedly dark turn and becomes increasingly more dramatic and fucked up along the way. And it’s wonderful.

The first half of the movie is complete comedy and the second half is decidedly not a comedy. And O’Toole handles both perfectly. I’d vote for him any other year except this one. I loved this performance. I hate that I can’t take him over Brando. This is one of the most underrated performances on this entire Quest. The movie is not for everyone, but I loved this one something fierce, and it’s a damn shame I can’t take it.

Sounder is a movie that feels like it was a huge hit in 1972 and yet has been almost totally forgotten since then.

It’s a story of black sharecroppers. The father is convicted of some minor crime and sent to a prison camp. And the man’s son now has to be the man of the house. They scratch by as best them can. And that’s pretty much the movie. It’s very well done even though it looks pretty dated now.

Paul Winfield plays the father. He’s fine in the role. I remember thinking he felt a bit like a supporting character in the film. Not that it matters. But he’s definitely fifth for me in this one. He was never gonna beat Brando, and I liked the other three performances more than his. I could argue about his actual placement, but the fact is he’s never gonna beat Brando, so it doesn’t really matter.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: The only argument to be made here is that Brando is Supporting and Pacino is lead.

Fair enough.

But you’re still voting for Brando.

Category fraud is one thing. The best performance is another.

In another year, I take O’Toole. But it’s not another year. And no one beats Brando in this category. There’s iconic, and then there’s this performance. He wins.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Marlon Brando, The Godfather
  2. Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class
  3. Michael Caine, Sleuth
  4. Laurence Olivier, Sleuth
  5. Paul Winfield, Sounder

Rankings (films):

  1. The Godfather
  2. Sleuth
  3. The Ruling Class
  4. Sounder

My Vote: Marlon Brando, The Godfather

Recommendations:

The Godfather. Seriously?

Sleuth is a film I would call essential. Is it, objectively? No. But it’s an awesome thriller with two amazing lead performances. I know generally what movies most people like. If you like all those movies, you will like this movie. It’s hard for me to think people won’t enjoy the shit out of this, so I would, if I were a film buff, consider this essential.

The Ruling Class is a film I’m not even gonna call essential. Because you know what? If you don’t want to see this movie, then you can miss out. I only want people truly interested in this to see it, because man, is it worth it. I recommend this film very, very, very highly. But you have to want to see it. So go ahead and read my pitch up there and decide for yourself if you think it’s something you want to check out.

Sounder is a good film. Solid film. I only give it a solid recommend even though it’s worth a high recommend from others. I just think it’s good and worth a watch at some point, but not something anyone ever needs to rush to see. Definitely not essential, but good.

The Last Word: Are you kidding? This is one of the best decisions ever made. Even though he’s not the lead in his own film, I’d still rate this a top three decision all time given everything we now know and believe to be true about this film and about this role. Can anyone really argue that this wasn’t a perfect choice?

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Actually, while it seems as if nominations for defending champs in the acting categories occur all the time, Scott was the first Best Actor winner since Bing Crosby to be nominated again the following year.

    November 11, 2016 at 5:05 pm

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