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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1975-1976)

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.

1975

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!

Analysis:

The Sunshine Boys is one of the great comedies of all time. Such a hilarious film.

Walter Matthau and George Burns were two famous vaudevillians in the vein of Abbott and Costello. They were famous for a “doctor sketch,” much like Who’s on First. They broke up in the 30s and have not performed together since. Now, in 1975, Matthau’s nephew works for TV and tries to help his uncle get a gig — they’re putting on a tribute to vaudeville and are having a lot of famous acts perform for it. So they want him, and Burns, to go on and do their sketch. The only problem is, Matthau hates Burns because he thinks he broke up the act and wants nothing to do with him. It’s really funny.

Matthau is much more the lead of the film than Burns is, though one could also make the case that Burns is also a lead. But that’s not relevant for us at this moment. What matters is Matthau’s performance, which is amazing. He’s absolutely hilarious and this is a masterwork comic performance. And, while I’m not one to necessarily downgrade a comic performance over a dramatic one, I just can’t find myself loving this performance when putting it next to the following two performances in the category. I love Matthau and think he did a fantastic job, but not over these next two nominees.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an all-time classic and one of the three films to win the “Big Five.” (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.)

Jack Nicholson plays Randle P. McMurphy, convicted of some crime (pretty sure it’s statutory rape) and, rather than spend his time in jail, he agrees to go to a psychiatric hospital, because he figures that’s way easier time. Only when he gets to the ward, he encounters a nurse who rules it with an iron fist, emotionally controlling her patients. And Nicholson, a natural rebel, starts to rile everyone up with his anti-authority streak and unpredictable behavior.

This is a full Nicholson performance. Everything you’d expect out of him, and that includes fantastic acting. I love this performance. And I think he’s wonderful in the role. The one response to this that I have, which really only comes now and couldn’t have come five years ago — I think the film is strangely a bit too lightweight. Lightweight probably isn’t the proper word. But it feels a bit safe in a way. It doesn’t feel as daring as it felt to me when I first saw it. I still love the film and the performance, but it doesn’t feel as daring as his previous work, even though it definitely feels like the kind of performance that would win for him, after three previous lead nominations (all worthy of wins). He’s definitely top two for me, but I don’t know if I take him. Especially opposite…

Dog Day Afternoon. Which is just a fucking 70s masterpiece. Attica, man. Attica.

Al Pacino plays a man who walks into a bank on a hot August afternoon and sticks it up. And the film is about the robbery and subsequent hostage situation, with Pacino and John Cazale inside with hostages and the police outside trying to get everyone out alive.

It’s a wonderfully complex role, especially when you start to find out Pacino’s motivations for robbing the bank, and he does fantastic work with it. It’s typical Pacino work, but it’s incredibly well done. And last time, I acknowledged that Nicholson probably did best in the category, but Pacino was my favorite. At least I think I did. Now, I’m not sure that Pacino isn’t the best performance in the category. I really love his work here, and I think I feel comfortable enough in that feeling to straight up take him over Nicholson without any qualifiers.

The Man in the Glass Booth is a movie written by Robert Shaw, of all people. Which is kinda weird.

Maximilian Schell is a Jewish man living in New York who is very suddenly arrested and accused of being a Nazi war criminal. And the rest of the film is him on trial (in a glass booth, to prevent anyone from shooting at him), with no one knowing whether or not he’s guilty. It’s actually a good film with some great acting out of Schell.

Schell surprised me with how good he was here. I had, at the time, not liked his work in Judgment at Nuremberg (a feeling that has since changed), but was very impressed by this performance. I thought it was a filler nominee going in, but ended up thinking he was a solid #3 even. He’s still probably third on performance in the category, even though I love the Matthau performance more for sentimental reasons. I wouldn’t take him over Nicholson or Pacino, but man, is he really good in this and leaves quite an impression.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! is a one-man show shot on Broadway. Literally a stage performance released on theaters.

James Whitmore plays Harry S. Truman. And the entire film is about the Truman presidency. I get why they nominated it, but it’s a weird nomination. Because it’s literally a stage play. They didn’t even try to make it a film. They just recorded him in front of an audience and somehow he got nominated. One of the most bizarre nominations ever.

Easy fifth in the category for me. I don’t like voting for Shakespeare nominations beacuse they seem too theatrical. This is literally theater. So he’s fifth for me. Can’t really take this one quite seriously. Maybe you can, but I just can’t.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This one is actually pretty easy. It’s a two-hander.

Whitmore gets tossed off for me because it’s a stage performance. Matthau can’t contend with the top two even though I love the performance. And Schell is really solid, but I wouldn’t take him over the other two.

It’s between Nicholson and Pacino and both are worth taking. Neither had an Oscar at this point and both were very overdue from three nominations apiece each. I personally prefer the Pacino performance and think he did the better job, so I take him. But I’m very happy with both of them.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  2. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  3. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth
  4. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  5. James Whitmore, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!

Rankings (films):

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  2. Dog Day Afternoon
  3. The Sunshine Boys
  4. The Man in the Glass Booth
  5. Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!

My Vote: Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon

Recommendations:

Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are two of the most essential films ever made. Must see for all film buffs.

The Sunshine Boys is one I’d call essential. Essential for Oscar buffs and comedy fans. It’s one of the great comedies of all time and I can’t imagine a film buff not wanting to see this.

The Man in the Glass Booth is a really solid film with a great performance by Maximilian Schell. Definitely worth a watch, but not essential at all.

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry is a stage play. It’s like Secret Honor, the Altman film about Nixon with Philip Baker Hall. A one-man show about a president. But this is actually like watching someone bootlegging a stageplay and could be hard to watch for some. I give it a very light recommend and it’s not remotely essenital, but it is a curious oddity that some people might really like.

The Last Word: Yes. They made a great decision, and had they gone with Pacino, they also would have made a great decision. Doubtful they’d have screwed this up, and it turned out great and has held up great. No complaints at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1976

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver

Peter Finch, Network

Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties

William Holden, Network

Sylvester Stallone, Rocky

Analysis:

Taxi Driver.

You’re a film buff. You’ve seen this movie. You see this movie before you get into the Oscars. That’s just how it works.

Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle. And you know a film and performance are iconic when you can name the character off the top of your head.

Everyone knows this performance. And De Niro is incredible here. But you know what? I wouldn’t take him. I don’t think he neede to win here, and the fact that he was even nominated is a wonderful inclusion on the Academy’s part.

Network is a film that I also should have just used a gif for, because it’s so famous, no film buff should ever need me to say anything, but this is part of my apology tour on this go round of the Quest, and I find myself obligated to talk about it at length.

The film is about the demise of the state of television and news from something noble into ratings-driven entertainment. Peter Finch is a news anchor who is told he’s going to be fired because of low ratings. In the middle of a nervous breakdown, he announces he’s going to kill himself live on the air. This causes his ratings go up, so the network leaves him on the air. Only now he’s firmly lost his shit and is going on rants and raves about anything and everything, including the business practices of his bosses.

William Holden, meanwhile, plays the president of the news division who has been Finch’s friend for years and wants him to go out with dignity. Yet he allows himself to be manipulated by Faye Dunaway, who starts an affair with him and turns the news into a reality show.

Both actors are fantastic. This might be the best performance of William Holden’s career, and Finch is absolutely incredible and delivers some iconic moments, specifically the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” speech. This is where the apology comes in.

Last time, I didn’t get why they voted for Finch. I thought Rocky and Bickle were more iconic and thought Holden delivered a far better performance. Plus, who needs a posthumous Oscar? Vote for someone else.

But, having seen the performance again and being able to appreciate it more, I completely understand and support the Finch win. The best performance is the best performance, and I think Finch gives the best performance in the category. I definitely underestimated the work last time and diminshed it as simply just shouting.

Seven Beauties is a very bizarre film.

Giancarlo Giannini is a small time hood who is overly protective of his seven sisters. HE finds out one of his sisters has become a prostitute, so he goes and kills her pimp… and then dismembers him. Naturally he goes to prison. But because of the dismembering, they throw him in the psych ward. Which he gets out of by joining the army instead. By the way, this section of the film is a comedy. But then he gets captured and thrown into a concentration camp, which is where things take a turn.

Giannini is pretty solid here. It’s kind of a surprising nomination, since nobody remembers the film and if he weren’t nominated, no one would have thought twice about it. But he’s fine. When you watch the film, you can see a great performance there. But I just wouldn’t take him. Look at the other four nominees. He wouldn’t hold up nearly as well as they would have, and I just don’t like the performance as much as theirs, so he becomes a fifth choice.

Rocky.

It’s one of the most famous movies ever made and I wanted to make sure to put a gif of that scene up there, because that scene is the crux of Stallone’s nomination. Sure, Rocky is his signature role, and doesn’t require a whole lot of acting, but it took a lot of charm to create such empathy for the character, and I think what makes it work so well is a scene like this, where he says his only motivation is to “go the distance.” It’s not about winning, it’s about proving to himself that he can do it, that he can stand toe to toe with the best and walk out feeling like a winner.

It’s a beautiful performance by Stallone, and I hate when people try to diminish what he accomplishes. That said, I admit that even I wouldn’t vote for him. But voting for him to win an award is different from diminishing an incredible performance as poor work or unexemplary work. He didn’t need to win this category, but he should be recognized as having given a truly great performance.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Finch deserved this. You could make a case for Holden over him and for De Niro over all (and I guess even Stallone, if you wanted to), but I think Finch delivers the goods and was totally worthy of this one. My vote switches to him.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Peter Finch, Network
  2. William Holden, Network
  3. Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
  4. Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
  5. Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties

Rankings (films):

  1. Rocky
  2. Taxi Driver
  3. Network
  4. Seven Beauties

My Vote: Peter Finch, Network

Recommendations:

Network, Taxi Driver and Rocky are three of the 100 most essential films ever made. Must see, all of them, and you probably should have (and have) seen all three of them before you got here. If not, I think you know that needs to be remedied almost immediately.

Seven Beauties is a good film and worth a watch, but not essential at all. It’s a solid mix of drama and comedy and is really well made. Moderate recommend for most, and can easily be skipped. Though there will be some who really like this. Use your judgment as to which camp you’re in.

The Last Word: This is a good win. The character is iconic. Sure, De Niro would seem to be a good choice, but I’m not sure this performance needed to win. Holden might have looked okay. Stallone would have been a weak winner as compared to the competition. Finch looks to be the best choice, or as good as the alternatives. So I’m cool with this.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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