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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1973-1974)

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.

1973

Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris

Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger

Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail

Al Pacino, Serpico

Robert Redford, The Sting

Analysis:

Last Tango in Paris is a classic film. One that includes sodomy. I mean, if I had a nickel…

Mralon Brando and Romy Schneider meet in Paris, and decide to start a no-strings attached relationship of anonymous sex.

Brando is good here. It’s definitely a braver performance than The Godfather, but much less iconic in a lot of ways. I don’t necessarily love the work, even though he’s really good in it. I’d call him a solid third in the category.

Save the Tiger is the one film in this category that has not endured whatsoever.

Jack Lemmon is a struggling clothes salesman who decides to torch his warehouse for the insurance money. And most of the film is about his inability to connect with the changed world around him.

It’s a very Oscar bait kind of role, but Lemmon does a great job with it. On its own, this is a solid contender, and it’s the fact that he was so overdue that put him over the top with this one. I admit I haven’t seen it again in a few years, but I did realy like the performance the last time I saw it. He’ll rate highly for me purely because he’s Jack Lemmon and deserves an Oscar. Plus, there’s — well, we’ll get to that later. But he stands a good chance here.

The Last Detail is one of those really awesome 70s films that only gets made like this in the 70s.

Randy Quaid is a sailor on his way to marine prison. Jack Nicholson and another sailor are tasked with taking him there by a certain time. So they decide, let’s let the kid live a little before he gets locked up. So they take him around to bars and places and show him a good time before they take him in. And it’s this wonderful character study of these men.

Nicholson’s character is Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky, and it’s really the first time he went “Full Nicholson.” This is the iconic sort of Jack performance we’ve come to know. He’s a real piece of work in this film and makes an immediate and lasting impression. The character isn’t as broadly iconic as Serpico is, but it’s on that same level when you ask film buffs (and even aspiring actors who grew up watching these performances). On a pure entertainment level, he’s easily one of the top two in the category, and I’d wager that a lot of people would pick him here on that alone. I’m not sure if this is a performance I need to take, but I sure would like to. So we’ll see where it ends up.

Serpico is one of the classic 70s films. Everyone knows the name and the character, even if they haven’t seen the movie.

Al Pacino plays a good cop who refuses to take payoffs like the rest of the officers in his precinct. This makes them dislike and distrust him. It’s pretty great.

Pacino’s Serpico is one of the iconic performances of all time. He’s very good in the role and makes an impression. I’m not as over the moon about the performance as some are. It’s a standard Pacino performance, with great quiet moments filled by moments of intense shouting. You can definitely consider him here, but I think he feels like a third choice at best for me. I don’t think I’d want to take him over Lemmon or Nicholson.

The Sting is one of the greatest films ever made. I am suspicious of people who do not love this movie.

Robert Redford is a small time con man whose partner is killed by a ruthless gangster. He enlists Paul Newman to pull off the “big con” on the gangster as revenge. And it’s GREAT.

This movie is perfect. You don’t need more of a synopsis than that, because you should have seen it already.

Redford honestly doesn’t have a whole lot of acting to do here. Even he was pretty derisive of the nomination, saying “All I did was run.” It’s a two-hander with him and Newman, and I don’t think anyone really feels either was truly in need of a nomination. You know how many times a Best Picture winner wasn’t nominated for an acting award? 11 times. In 88 years. I think this was an example of a Best Picture winner needing an acting nomination. Redford was a huge star, never nominated, and (co)anchoring a Best Picture favorite. It makes sense. But on a pure performance level, he’s fifth in the category.

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The Reconsideration: This category looks great on paper, especially if you look at just the actors’ names and the titles of their films. But when I started looking at it critically, it fell away pretty fast.

Redford shouldn’t have won and isn’t going to be remotely considered for the vote. And Brando won the year before this, so I’m not feeling any urgency to take him, which eliminates him for me, as I don’t love the performance enough to take it over the other three, even though I could be persuaded to say he does a better overall job than Pacino.

And then, of the more “explosive” performances, I take Nicholson over Pacino, even though Serpico is one of those really famous characters in cinema history.

But then there’s Jack Lemmon. I think this is the performance that has held up the least, which makes me wonder why he’s doing so well for me, but, all things considered, while it’s not my favorite performance in the category, it may be the best. I probably should have seen it again to confirm, but I feel safe sticking with Lemmon one more go around and then reevaluating everything next time.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  2. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  3. Al Pacino, Serpico
  4. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  5. Robert Redford, The Sting

Rankings (films):

  1. The Sting
  2. Serpico
  3. The Last Detail
  4. Save the Tiger
  5. Last Tango in Paris

My Vote: Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger

Recommendations:

The Sting is one of the 100 most essential American movies ever made. And a Best Picture winner. As I said up there, I am wary of people who don’t love this movie.

Serpico is an essential film, which you should know by the title.

The Last Detail is also an essential film.

And so is Last Tango in Paris.

This is the 70s. A lot of them are gonna be essential.

Save the Tiger is only essential for Oscar buffs and Jack Lemmon fans. Otherwise it’s just a solid movie worth seeing.

The Last Word: On a film and aging level, it probably doesn’t look like it holds up. But on Jack Lemmon having an Oscar and winning for a really solid piece of work, it does. Sure, all the other films are iconic and all the actors in them are iconic, but it worked out through logistics. No one needs to see Pacino win for this, since he had four straight years of all win-worthy performances. Brando just got a second one and didn’t need this one, nor would he have held up for it. Nicholson would get one for a more appropriate role, though he’d have been okay as a winner. And Redford definitely shouldn’t have won for this performance and would have been a really weak winner. That’s the kind of winner that only works in the 40s (like Bing Crosby). So, Lemmon holds up in a lot of ways, even though the performance is completely forgotten. I think it’s a fair choice, even though I could agree that there were ones just as good if not better to be had.

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1974

Art Carney, Harry and Tonto

Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express

Dustin Hoffman, Lenny

Jack Nicholson, Chinatown

Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

Analysis:

Harry and Tonto is a film that I used to say contained perhaps the single worst Best Actor win of all time. Five years, you’d think my views on it have softened.

They haven’t.

I consider this the worst choice they’ve made. Worse than Roberto Benigni.

Art Carney is a widower who is kicked out of his apartment building. He stays with his son for a while and then decides he’d rather travel across the country with his cat. And that’s the film. It’s about dealing with old age and all that. It’s very similar to The Straight Story, in a way.

Carney is fine here, and I totally get the nomination. And maybe, just maybe, in a weaker year, he might contend for the vote.

But in this year I can’t see making him higher than a fourth choice. And honestly, given the competition and how I like the rest of the nominees in this particular category, he’s a fifth choice for me. I think there were legitimately three better choices here in terms of a win and cannot fathom how this was a choice other than a long-respected actor giving a sentimental performance.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories, and the quintessential Hercule Poirot film.

A murder is committed on a cross-country train and Poirot must interview all the passengers and find out whodunit.

Albert Finney plays Poirot, and, while I imagine he’s not the perfect Poirot as he’s described in the novel, he sure as shit is fun. It’s a really solid performance that must have been a #5 in 1974. He’s probably a #5 for me now. I like it better than the Carney performance, but Carney is probably better overall. I don’t begrudge the nomination, but I certainly won’t be taking him. I mean — look at these next three nominees. What chance does he have against them?

Lenny is Bob Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce. Which is just music to my ears.

Dustin Hoffman plays Lenny Bruce, and it’s a really committed performance. He’s fantastic. In most years, he’d be a top two and strongly contend for the vote. And I wish I could say that here. But…

Chinatown.

What is there to say about this?

Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes. One of the most iconic performances of all time.

Which brings me to…

The Godfather Part II. Yup.

Al Pacino is Michael Corleone.

Yup.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m not even gonna pretend like I’m voting anywhere other than Pacino in this category. Nicholson would be the vote just about any other year, and unfortunately that relegates Dustin Hoffman to third, which is a shame. But Pacino is so fucking good in this movie (as he was in the first film) that I can’t fathom how he lost this outside of them not wanting to vote for a sequel? Or was it just the sentimentality of the veteran over the actor they were sure would get more chances to win later on? I don’t know. Either way, I take Pacino, pretty much everyone with a brain and eyes would take Pacino and Carney remains one of the more puzzling and outright bad-looking choices in Oscar history.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  2. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  3. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  4. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  5. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express

Rankings (films):

  1. The Godfather Part II
  2. Chinatown
  3. Lenny
  4. Murder on the Orient Express
  5. Harry and Tonto

My Vote: Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

Recommendations:

The Godfather Part II and Chinatown are two of the 25 or 50 most essential films ever made, and you should not need me to tell you that.

Lenny is an essential film on a lot of levels. Serious film buffs should not skip a Bob Fosse film, especially this one, which is about one of the most famous comedians of all time. It’s absolutely incredible and is one of the great films of the 70s.

Murder on the Orient Express is an awesome film. Sidney Lumet on his great run in the 70s. Stacked cast. High recommend. Not sure why a film buff would want to skip it, given the cast.

Harry and Tonto is essential for Oscar buffs, extreme Honeymooners fans and not really anyone else. It’s just a solid film otherwise that’s very dated but still watchable and pretty good. Definitely nowhere near the level of everything else in this category.

The Last Word: I think I’ve about said it. This looks like the single worst decision they’ve made in Oscar history. The performance is nice, but there’s no lasting substance to it. Meanwhile you have legitimately two of the single most iconic and memorable characters and performances of all time, and Dustin Hoffman doing incredible work as an iconiclast comedian who was a very large figure in the country at that time. I don’t see how they made such a lightweight choice there. To put it in simpler Oscar terms: this is the Driving Miss Daisy of Best Actor winners.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. I still think 1973 was one of the best Best Actor lineups ever.

    November 13, 2016 at 12:28 pm

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