The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1977-1978)
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.
Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Richard Burton, Equus
Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
Marcello Mastroianni, A Special Day
John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever
Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s most famous, most popular, and most iconic film.
It’s an anatomy of a relationship, between Allen himself (basically) and Diane Keaton. That’s really the only way to explain it.
Allen plays the same version of himself he plays in all of his movies. Because this was the peak of his powers and the film that was the most beloved, this is the one they nominated him for. I get it. I can’t say this is anything other than a solid comic performance, and put him out and out fifth in the category. I think we can all agree that this is not a category Woody Allen should have won.
Equus is a pretty famous play turned into a really monotonous and forgettable film. Directed by Sidney Lumet, too.
It’s about a psychiatrist treating a boy who blinded a bunch of horses with a spike, and trying to figure out why he could do such a thing.
Burton plays the psychiatrist. He’s fine. This is nowhere near the heights he reached in the 60s, but it’s an appropriately veteran nomination. He was highly regarded in the play and got the requisite Oscar nomination. But it feels pretty hollow. This is not something I particularly care for at all. I’d love to see Burton win an Oscar, but not for this.
The Goodbye Girl is a Neil Simon comedy. The Neil Simon comedies do not hold up particularly well, but the first go around, I loved a lot of them. This one still, I feel, holds up as a solid romantic comedy.
Marsha Mason is a former dancer who has been living with a director for the past few years. One day she finds out he up and left and sold the lease on the apartment they both lived in from under her. Turns out he sold the lease to Richard Dreyfuss, a struggling actor trying to make it on Broadway. Mason appeals to Dreyfuss to let her and her daughter stay at the apartment, and the two work out an uneasy living situation. And of course they find love in the process.
Dreyfuss is fun here, but this is hardly an Academy Award worthy performance. He won because he had delivered solid performances for a few years (though now, doesn’t he come off as kind of a prick in a lot of them? I guess that’s the role here, but going back to this and other films of this era, I was surprised at how much of an asshole his character seemed), and had a hell of a year this year, with both this and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I think we all would have loved to see him on here for that performance, as it’s quite, quite good. But he wasn’t so we have to deal with this one instead. Though we can also take into account the other performance, since if you were voting in 1977, you were aware of the double performances.
A Special Day is a film that I really didn’t care for five years ago, which necessitated me seeing it again for the purposes of this category.
The film takes place on the day when Hitler came to visit Mussolini. Sophia Loren is a housewife whose husband leaves her home so he can take the kids to the parade. So she sits at home, bored, and eventually strikes up a conversation with Marcello Mastroianni, the only other man left in the building. He’s both anti-fascist and homosexual, both of which are not particularly good things to be at this time.
Mastroianni is quite good here. Most years he’d be a #4 o a #5, but this year he makes it as high as third for me. I don’t love the performance, but I respect it a lot more than I did five years ago. Still, I wouldn’t take him. I’d take Travolta and Dreyfuss over him, even though I’m aware of the limitations of those performances. I just don’t like this one enough to vote for it.
Saturday Night Fever is an iconic film with an iconic lead performance. And Bee Gees music.
John Travolta plays the disco dance kind of Brooklyn. And… yeah.
I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times, but I don’t really know what the hell the story of it is or what the point of it all was. And I don’t care. Because it’s awesome.
Travolta gives a career-making performance, but it’s not a performance that should have won an Oscar. I certainly like him a lot, and the iconic nature of the character bumps him up a bit, but definitely not something I would take any other year. Put him most years, he’d be a #4. I might consider him a #2 here, it’s that weak a category.
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The Reconsideration: This is one of the weakest Best Actor categories of all time. I can’t, in good conscience, take either Allen or Burton. Allen had done this same character and would do this same character for years. This one is more nuanced than the others, but still. No. And Burton is not delivering anywhere near the caliber of work he’d delivered in previous nominations. So to take him would be a vote for the actor and nothing else, since I didn’t much care for the performance at all. And I already said how I don’t like the Mastroianni performance enough to vote for it, which leaves me with only two choices, neither of which seem overly appealing.
Travolta delivers a charismatic, starmaking performance. But there doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot there beneath the surface. Meanwhile Dreyfuss is openly annoying for the first section of the film and settles into a nice performance. Still not something I would take.
I guess the tiebreaker for me is the Close Encounters performance. In another year, I’d not take Dreyfuss because he was nominated for the wrong role, but heree, there is no other performance I like enough to take. So I’ll take Dreyfuss because I have to, not because I particularly want to.
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- Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
- John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever
- Marcello Mastroianni, A Special Day
- Richard Burton, Equus
- Woody Allen, Annie Hall
- Annie Hall
- Saturday Night Fever
- The Goodbye Girl
- A Special Day
My Vote: Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
Saturday Night Fever is an essential movie. But you knew that already.
Annie Hall is an essential movie. But you knew that already.
The Goodbye Girl is only essenital for Oscar buffs, and a high recommend for all else. It’s a classic romantic comedy. Very entertaining. Dated, like all Neil Simon, but worth seeing. I’d call it a high recommend and something you don’t necessarily need to see, but should see. Just see it. It’s easy and you don’t have to worry about it.
A Special Day is pretty good. Moderate recommend, but if you’re not into foreign film you can skip it. To a lot of people, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni is a pairing not to pass up. To those who don’t care, you’re all right without this.
Equus is not a particularly great film, but it’s of interest to some people. Burton, Firth, Lumet. Light to moderate recommend, but most people can skip this. Maybe you see it just to get the references to it, but other than that, you’re fine without it.
The Last Word: Dreyfuss holds up as an okay choice. One of the weaker winning performances of all time, but he holds up as an actor. And in a weak year, I can’t say anyone else really should have won over him. The Travolta performance has endured, but I don’t think it needed to win, necessarily. And anyone else winning wouldn’t have held up outside of their name. The performances wouldn’t have been particularly strong next to other winners. So Dreyfuss looks okay, and at least people can say there was another, not nominated performance he theoretically could have also won for.
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Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
Jon Voight, Coming Home
Heaven Can Wait is a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And at this point — I don’t want to presume that people have been reading all the way through, but for me this is the sixth or seventh time I’ve talked about this story, so it feels like everyone ought to know what it is. Or just as film buffs, you should know what it is. But we’ll do it once more.
Warren Beatty is a quarterback who dies in an accident a few weeks before the Super Bowl. He gets to Heaven and says it wasn’t his time yet and there’s been a mistake. Turns out, he was right. He wasn’t supposed to die. So they have to get him a body, and stat. So they put him in the body of a millionaire whose wife and assistant just murdered. He wakes up as this dude and is told to hang tight until they can find him a proper body that will last the amount of time he was supposed to have on earth. But he’s set on playing in the Super Bowl, so he uses the millionaire’s body to buy the team and insert himself as quarterback. Meanwhile, a woman who was appealing to the millionaire for money to save a hospital or something of that sort starts to fall in love with him. It’s — if you’ve seen Down to Earth with Chris Rock or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, you know the story. It’s a classic.
Warren Beatty is awesome here and I think this was the best work he did in his career up to this point. It’s more of a comic performance, but I actually think this is his best work. That said, he pales in comparison to at least two of the nominees and is probably no better than a fourth choice here. Wouldn’t take him, nor would most people, though he does do a fantastic job in the part.
The Buddy Holly Story is a biopic of Buddy Holly. Starring Gary Busey.
My one knock against the performance was that Busey was ten years older in the part than Holly was when he died, which seemed pretty ridiculous. But I’ve heard varying sources over the past five years telling me how good he was, so I made it my goal to go back and rewatch the performance.
Busey is very strong as Holly in the performance scenes. He doesn’t sing (as far as I know), but that doesn’t matter. He feels like he’s embodying his subject. I don’t particularly love the film, but he’s definitely more solid than I gave him credit for last time. I still wouldn’t take him any higher than third or fourth here. I just don’t love the performance enough to take it over the two war performances. I’ll leave this one to other people who appreciate it more.
The Deer Hunter is a classic. A real classic. It’s one of those films that shouldn’t hold up as well as it does, since it’s almost a borderline not good movie, but it never crosses that line and just feels amazing every time I see it.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage are best friends in a Pennsylvania steel town. They celebrate the imprending marriage of Savage before going off to fight in Vietnam. And they see some horrible shit there — everyone remembers the russian roulette sequence. And then they all return home (or don’t) changed from the war.
De Niro is amazing here. It’s more straightforward than his Travis Bickle, and he would have been a deserving winner in this category. I don’t think his character arc is as strong as his co-stars, and that’s ultimately what prevented him from winning. He’s the most even-keeled of the group and he returns pretty even-keeled. A lot of the performance is in subtlty and nuance, and De Niro is really, really good here. But if there is an alternate choice (and there is), that’s what I’d lean toward over him. Though he will be a solid #2 for me.
The Boys from Brazil is a pretty awesome story.
The Nazis fled Germany after the war and all relocated to Brazil where they devised experiments to clone Adolf Hitler. And this was all found out by a Nazi hunter, played by Laurence Olivier.
Olivier is borderline supporting in this movie, but it’s an appropriate role for this category and feels like a veteran nomination more than anything. He came back to prominence with Marathon Man and this was another one of those nominations for him. I get it. He’s fine, but rates no more than fourth, if not outright fifth in the category. Nomination is the reward.
Coming Home is the other Vietnam film of 1978. Much more about the aftereffects of combat than combat.
Jon Voight comes home without any legs, and while at the VA hospital, he sees how horrible the conditions are, and grows to — actually it’s very Born on the Fourth of July. Only here, he fucks Jane Fonda, so there’s that.
Voight’s really good here, and while I considered him a toss-up with De Niro five years ago, he’s a solid #1 choice and the best performance in the category this time. He’s the winner here, and he wholly deserved this award.
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The Reconsideration: Voight’s the choice. I used to say De Niro was also as good a choice, but he’s not. It’s Voight all the way, De Niro a solid second, and then everyone else behind him however you wanna slice it. I still don’t fully get the Busey love out there, but it doesn’t matter, since Voight is the winner regardless.
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- Jon Voight, Coming Home
- Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter
- Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait
- Laurence Olivier, The Boys from Brazil
- Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story
- The Deer Hunter
- Heaven Can Wait
- Coming Home
- The Boys from Brazil
- The Buddy Holly Story
My Vote: Jon Voight, Coming Home
The Deer Hunter is full stop essential, and you already know that.
Coming Home is an essential movie. Eventually, as you find films to watch, you’ll see this one cross list so many places you’ll have no other option than to see it. So I’m getting all that out of the way now and telling you to see it. Plus this and Deer Hunter won major Oscars, so that also makes them essential.
Heaven Can Wait is essential. It just is. You need to see one version of the story, and I’d go so far as to say you need to see two versions. Either way, most film buffs should see this movie because they’re gonna love it.
The Boys from Brazil is really only essential for the references. This will make you a better film buff. On its own, it’s just a solid movie with a solid recommend. But if you want to get random jokes like Krieger on Archer, then it’s worth seeing this movie.
The Buddy Holly Story I give a moderate recommend to, but I don’t particularly love it. Some really do, so I’d look to their recommendations more than mine. But also — when are music biopics truly awful? I mean sure, some are, but for the most part, especially when they get nominated, they’re usually worth watching. Out of five La Bambas, I give this two and a half.
The Last Word: Voight holds up and is a solid winner. No one would have held up as well as he has. He was the choice, and it’s pretty cut and dry.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)