Nicholson at the Oscars: 1985 ("Prizzi's Honor")

In 1973, one year prior to starring opposite her legendary father in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Jack Nicholson began dating actress and model Anjelica Huston. Their tumultuous, on-and-off love affair would go on to span 17 years, a period in which the stars soared on the Hollywood A-list, the two netting a combined three Oscars.

It was not until 1985, however, that both Hustons - Anjelica and dad John - would collaborate with Nicholson, hot as ever after his 1983 Oscar victory for Terms of Endearment, on the same project.

Prizzi's Honor, a mob comedy that cast Nicholson as a professional hit man who falls head over heels for a hit woman (Kathleen Turner), was not, despite despite its hefty star wattage, expected to be a commercial smash or awards player. 20th Century Fox opened the film that summer with a modest release, playing less than half the theaters of blockbusters Rambo: First Blood II and The Goonies. The picture was presumed to be a little too dark and idiosyncratic to resonate with a wide audience.

To Fox's surprise, however, the film garnered critical raves, with the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert championing the picture as among the funniest of the decade. Come Oscar season, Fox would go all-in on Prizzi's Honor as their awards contender, and to great success. The film woke up on Oscar nominations morning to eight nods, including a trio for Nicholson and both Hustons. Ultimately, only one of the three would emerge triumphant on the big night...

The 1985 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Harrison Ford, Witness

Ford portrays John Book, a Philadelphia detective assigned to investigate the murder of a fellow officer, witnessed by a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas). In danger upon discovering the crime was part of a department conspiracy, Book flees the city for the Amish community and while in hiding begins an uneasy romance with the boy's widowed mother (Kelly McGillis). This performance marked Ford's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

James Garner, Murphy's Romance

Garner portrays Murphy Jones, a small town pharmacist who befriends new-in-town Emma (Sally Field), a divorced single mom yearning for a fresh start. Murphy finds himself falling for Emma, a development sorely tested by the resurfacing of ex-husband Bobby (Brian Kerwin) in her life. This performance marked Garner's first and final Oscar nomination.

William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Hurt portrays Luis Molina, a gay window dresser serving time, alongside anti-government journalist Valentin (the brilliant Raul Julia), in a Latin American prison cell for sexual relations with a minor. To pass the time, Molina tells Valentin romantic stories from his favorite movies and, over time, the cell mates form an unlikely friendship. This performance, which won him honors from the Cannes Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review, plus a BAFTA Award, marked Hurt's first Oscar nomination and win.

Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor

Nicholson portrays Charley Partanna, loyal hit man for the Prizzis, one of the nation's most powerful crime families. While attending a mob wedding, Charley meets and falls for fellow assassin Irene (Kathleen Turner). Their romance is joyous one, that is until Irene betrays the Prizzis, leaving Charley with an impossible decision to make. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's eighth Oscar nomination.

Jon Voight, Runaway Train

Voight portrays Oscar "Manny" Manheim, one half of a criminal duo (the other being Oscar nominee Eric Roberts) who have just escaped from a maximum security prison in Alaska. The two hop aboard a speeding train and appear to be in the clear. Then, disaster strikes as the train engineer suffers a heart attack, sending the locomotive out of control. Hardly calming the situation is Manny, descending into madness as prospects grow bleaker. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Voight's third Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Albert Brooks, Lost in America; Jeff Daniels, The Purple Rose of Cairo; Griffin Dunne, After Hours; Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future; Raul Julia, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Won: William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Should've won: James Garner, Murphy's Romance

1985, the year the beautiful but sleepy Out of Africa staged its inexplicable Oscar sweep over The Color Purple, was not among the richest of years for leading men. Even so, the Academy managed to cobble together a respectable fivesome for Best Lead Actor, including two arguably career-best performances and one of Nicholson's funniest turns.

The one nominee I don't get at all here is Voight, an actor I seem to adore (in Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and Coming Home) as often as I detest (here and most of his recent work).

Not unlike Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, this is a shamelessly hammy performance that no doubt will entertain some (as it obviously did many members of the Academy) but to me is mostly nails on chalkboard. Voight's accent is downright bizarre and while I guess I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which he tackles the role, the performance just leaves me exhausted.

The picture is impressive from a technical perspective, with some dynamite film editing and sound work, but the acting, from Voight, Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay, leaves an awful lot to be desired. At age 47, did Voight already think it was time to go as relentlessly over-the-top as Laurence Olivier went in his 70s?

Voight aside, there's a whole to like here, though I'm not quite on board with Hurt as the winner.

It's funny, so often, my qualm with Hurt as an actor is he seems to, perhaps purposely so on occasion, sleepwalk through his films. That kinda-sorta works in the likes of Broadcast News and The Accidental Tourist, as he's portraying characters who are basically comatose vis a vis more colorful co-stars. On a mere handful of occasions has Hurt really floored me - in Body Heat, One True Thing and on the TV series Damages.

Hurt's work in Kiss of the Spider Woman is really unlike anything he's done over his three-plus decades in film. It's a bold, vibrant, very much theatrical performance that takes a whole lot of risk. I'm not sure, however, Hurt really disappears into the role of Molina - he's fascinating to watch but his acting is at times a tad too affected and to boot, the performance lacks the intensity that co-star Julia (who I think deserved to win this year) brings to the table. It's the best of Hurt's three Oscar-nominated turns but I'm not quite as in love with it as voters were. That said, at least the film didn't go home empty-handed.

Another Best Picture contender tossed a consolation prize was Prizzi's Honor, one of the great comedies of the 1980s. That sole victory, of course, came not for its leading man but rather in Best Supporting Actress, where Anjelica Huston triumphed for her scene-stealing turn as Maerose Prizzi, a woman overwhelmed with unrequited love for Nicholson's Charley. (For what it's worth, much I enjoy Huston, I say The Color Purple's Margaret Avery should have triumphed in that category, with Prizzi's William Hickey prevailing in Supporting Actor.)

Nicholson's Charley is a hilarious and entirely unique creation, a lovable dunce who, despite his career as a killer, is awfully hard to resist. His chemistry with Turner, while not quite Dunaway/MacLaine-level, is fabulous and while the supporting players have even juicier meat to chew on (Hickey and John Randolph are especially marvelous), Nicholson no doubt had a blast in this role.

Even better is Ford, in one of the more challenging and riveting roles of his career, if not the best.

Witness is a prime vehicle for Ford, not only because it's a damn great movie, but it also stretches his acting muscles to an extent that is frankly pretty rare across his filmography. So often in his pictures, the focus is dead-set on orchestrating an exciting chase or action-packed set piece. Here, at last, the camera hones in on the man himself, and an absorbing, vulnerable and curious man at that. His romance with the McGillis character, portrayed in a refreshingly awkward fashion, is fascinating.

When on earth is that Ford honorary Oscar coming?

Much I love both Ford and Nicholson, I have a soft spot for Garner that I just cannot resist.

Murphy's Romance marked the seventh of eight projects from the team of director Martin Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Among their efforts were unimpeachable classics like The Long, Hot Summer, Hud and Norma Rae. Their 1985 film, while not quite as ambitious as that trio, is an enchanting charmer. Most significantly, after a career spent largely on the small screen, the picture at last gave Garner one hell of a leading man vehicle on the silver screen. (Garner was no stranger to cinema but the roles and films, more often than not, left a bit to be desired.)

Garner's performance, while endearing and fetching as can be, is also completely unassuming. This isn't an obvious piece of Oscar-bait, chock-full of drama or scenery-chewing. He's just so damn delightful, brightening up the screen like a ray of sunshine, and his chemistry with Field is aces too. Garner is also an actor who can say so much with a mere look - the resentment he feels toward the Kerwin character is plenty palpable and his longing for Field sure does tug at the heartstrings. 

Thank heavens this wonderful actor garnered an Oscar nomination during his remarkable career.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  19. John Gielgud, Arthur
  20. Harrison Ford, Witness
  21. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  22. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  23. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  24. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  25. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  26. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  27. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  28. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  29. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  30. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  31. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  32. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  33. Robert Redford, The Sting
  34. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  35. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  36. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  37. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  38. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  39. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  40. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1983 ("Terms of Endearment")

In 1963, while a little-known Jack Nicholson was taking on supporting turns opposite horror legend Boris Karloff in a pair of Roger Corman-directed B-movies (The Raven and The Terror), English filmmaker Tony Richardson barnstormed Hollywood with Tom Jones. The film, based on the beloved Henry Fielding novel, was the toast of that year's Oscars, scoring four victories, including Best Picture, on its nine nominations.

Richardson, unfortunately, would never direct another picture as commercially successful as Tom Jones. Most of his subsequent efforts, while often critically acclaimed, failed to generate much interest at the box office.

Among Richardson's final films was 1982's The Border, a Nicholson vehicle that cast the star (opposite Harvey Keitel and Valerie Perrine) as a corrupt border enforcement agent. While now often looked upon as one of the more underrated Nicholson films and performances, the picture garnered a lukewarm critical reception at the time and was in and out of theaters within a month.

Nicholson would fare a whole lot better the following year.

In the 1970s, writer James L. Brooks emerged one of the most powerful and successful forces on the small screen as the creator of mega hits Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Taxi. Brooks' first foray onto the silver screen, as screenwriter of 1979's Oscar-nominated Starting Over, was also a home run.

Given Brooks' track record, expectations were sky-high for his feature film directorial debut, a screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel Terms of Endearment. Brooks wrote the juicy role of retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove with Burt Reynolds in mind but, on account of a commitment Reynolds made to headline the comedy Stroker Ace, the actor turned down the offer.

Reynolds would no doubt go on to regret that decision, as his replacement, a certain Oscar-winner, would go on to score his second golden trophy...

The 1983 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be

Durning portrays Colonel Erhardt, a bumbling Nazi who leads his troops in an invasion of Warsaw, Poland. Upon arrival, the Nazis are greeted by a troupe of disguised amateur actors (among them, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) who use their not-so-exemplary stagecraft in an attempt to fool the intruders and make an escape. This performance marked Durning's second and final Oscar nomination.

John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment

Lithgow portrays Sam Burns, a mild-mannered small town banker who has a brief romantic fling with Emma (Oscar nominee Debra Winger), a woman whose marriage has soured on account of her husband's own cheating. This performance marked Lithgow's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment

Nicholson portrays Garrett Breedlove, a womanizing former astronaut who for years has lived next door to the brash but lovable Aurora (Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine) without much interaction. Down the road, the two at last get to know each other and become romantically involved. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's seventh Oscar nomination and second win.

Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff

Shepard portrays Chuck Yeager, the legendary and fearless test pilot who in 1947 becomes the first man in the world to break the sound barrier. Yeager's victory inspires the U.S. astronauts later involved in the Space Race against Russia. This performance marked Shepard's first and final Oscar nomination.

Rip Torn, Cross Creek

Torn portrays Marsh Turner, a farmer in rural Cross Creek, Florida who, alongside daughter Ellie (the wonderful Dana Hill), welcomes aspiring New York author Marjorie (Mary Steenburgen) into town. Events involving Marsh and Ellie's cherished deer Flag inspire Marjorie to pen what will become her most famous work - The Yearling. This performance marked Torn's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Steven Bauer, Scarface; Scatman Crothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie; Jeff Daniels, Terms of Endearment; Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff; Ed Harris, The Right Stuff; Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy; John Lithgow, Twilight Zone: The Movie; Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story; Kurt Russell, Silkwood

Won and should've won: Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment

Since embarking on 20 Years of Streep and now Nicholson at the Oscars, I have gone back and revisited a total of (including this year) 27 acting categories for this blog. While I've come across the occasional ho-hum line-up over these projects, I'm not sure I've seen a more perplexing fivesome than this one. While I do think the Academy got the winner right, given the lackluster competition, there are two nominees here who are legit head-scratchers and none of the contenders, not even Nicholson, are really that spectacular.

This category is a mess in so many ways.

The winner here for sure should've been Russell, just as fantastic as Streep and Cher in Silkwood. Bauer and McGavin are also more compelling than all of the Oscar nominees; Lithgow was up for the wrong performance; the Academy recognized inferior supporting turns from The Right Stuff and Terms of Endearment (nods should've gone to Harris and Daniels instead); and how sweet would it have been for Lewis to garner a competitive Oscar nod during his career for by far the best performance he ever gave.

Alas, the Academy instead decided to honor Durning, one of the all-time great character actors, in a rare one-note performance, and Lithgow, another acting giant, not doing a whole lot over less than 10 minutes of screen time in the Best Picture winner.

Durning, in addition to being a World War II hero who participated in the D-Day landings, was one hell of an actor, stealing scenes with ease from some of the all-time greats. How he wasn't Oscar-nominated for Dog Day Afternoon, among other films, is beyond me.

In 1982, a year in which he also graced the screen with a warm, charming turn in the greatest comedy of all-time (Tootsie), Durning garnered his first Oscar nomination for a brief but buoyant performance in the movie musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It's such a small turn, in terms of screen time, but his fabulous rendition of "Sidestep" alone justified the recognition.

To Be or Not to Be, Alan Johnson's supremely inferior remake of the 1942 Ernest Lubitsch comedy classic, also finds Durning with limited screen time but there's no "Sidestep"-level scene or moment to be found. With his co-stars either hamming it up (Brooks) or playing it depressingly straight (Christopher Lloyd and Jose Ferrer), Durning seems uneasy about which way to go and ultimately, for the most part, winds up phoning it in. It's not an outright bad performance but there's nothing awards-caliber about his work in the slightest. The nomination is a testament to the affection Durning's peers felt toward the actor, regardless of the quality of the role.

Lithgow has even less screen time than Durning but at least breathes some life into his brief turn. His work in Terms of Endearment is quite charming while it lasts and, though Lithgow seems to come and go in the blink of an eye, his minor arc is an essential one to the Winger half of the picture.

Two problems, though - one, Lithgow is leaps and bounds more riveting in Twilight Zone: The Movie, not that the Academy was ever going to bestow recognition upon that film. Two, how on earth did Daniels not garner any traction at all that awards season? Sure, his character is kind of detestable but it's such an impressive breakthrough turn, I would argue just as terrific as Nicholson's performance. This marked the first of many occasions in which Daniels would be egregiously overlooked on Oscar nominations morning.

Speaking of recognizing the wrong performer from a film, there's Shepard, the late, great actor and playwright who's just not quite as strong as co-star Harris in The Right Stuff.

The Shepard nomination reminds me somewhat of Glenn Close's nod for The Natural the year after - Shepard, like Close, doesn't really have much meat to chew on in his picture but he looks incredible, exquisitely photographed by Caleb Deschanel, with matinee idol charisma. He has an almost mythical screen presence in the film but, beyond some tender moments opposite Barbara Hershey (who portrays his wife), it's not an especially amazing performance.

The two nominees here deserving of recognition are Torn and Nicholson, two New Hollywood actors whose paths somehow never crossed, sans during pre-production on Easy Rider, when Nicholson replaced Torn, who was initially cast in the role of George Hanson. (Torn withdrew from production amid tension with director Dennis Hopper.)

Cross Creek is only intermittently compelling. Steenburgen, who's typically able to brighten up even the dullest of proceedings, is curiously lifeless in the lead role and director Martin Ritt paces the film at snail speed. What does work, thankfully, are some of the supporting performances, including Torn, Alfre Woodard and especially Dana Hill.

Torn's Turner - rigid on the outside, a softy on the inside - is not unlike film characters we've seen countless times before. Still, he and Hill are a pleasure to watch and toward the film's end, events transpire with Turner that are downright devastating. His performance finally gets some blood flowing through the film's veins, though it's too late to salvage the picture as a whole.

Still, commendable as Torn's work is, the Academy got this one right.

Nicholson's performance in Terms is not on the same level as his leading turns from the early '70s. It is, however, still awfully irresistible, one of the many exceptional parts of Brooks' picture. His presence and comic energy are absolutely vital to what is otherwise an often gut-wrenching film. He's enchanting from the moment he first hits the screen and his chemistry with MacLaine is dynamite.

As was the case in Easy Rider, Nicholson's supporting turn is the equivalent of a tornado ripping through town - you can't possibly keep your eyes off of him, even if it's a little lesser a role than his best.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  18. John Gielgud, Arthur
  19. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  20. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  21. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  22. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  23. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  24. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  25. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  26. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  27. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  28. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  29. Robert Redford, The Sting
  30. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  31. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  32. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  33. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  34. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  35. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1981 ("Reds")

From 1969 to 1975, Jack Nicholson garnered five Oscar nods, only missing out on recognition in 1971 and 1972. Remarkably, over the six years following his victory for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nicholson would not once surface on Oscar nominations morning.

To say Nicholson's filmography on the heels of Cuckoo's Nest was a mixed bag would be an understatement. The latter half of the 1970s found the actor largely missing in action from the silver screen. The few pictures Nicholson did grace were ambitious failures.

In 1976, Nicholson took on two projects with legendary directors - Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks and Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon.

The Penn picture was plagued by a troubled production, with protests by the American Human Association over alleged horse mistreatment on the set and fellow leading man Marlon Brando driving all participants bananas. The western, despite its star wattage, was a resounding box office flop and, not long after the film's release, Nicholson ended up suing the film's producers over unpaid wages. The Missouri Breaks is decidedly not a celebrated film among fans of Nicholson's nor Brando's.

The Last Tycoon, Kazan's final feature film, also failed to resonate among audiences or critics. This project, however, found Nicholson in merely a supporting role, taking a backseat to headliner Robert De Niro.

Nicholson spent much of 1977 preparing for his second directorial effort, of all things another western. Goin' South, ultimately released in the fall of 1978, sported one hell of a cast, including John Belushi, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen and Danny DeVito, plus Nicholson himself in the lead, but proved polarizing among critics and too offbeat for a mainstream audience. It came and went from theaters in no time.

At last, in 1980, Nicholson found a project worthy of his talents.

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, while now widely regarded as one of the all-time great horror films, was actually greeted to a lukewarm critical response upon release in the summer of 1980. The film opened to merely decent box office receipts but maintained strong legs over the season, eventually reaping twice its budget domestically. It was not until the expansion of cable and rise of video stores that The Shining really took off and built the legacy it sports today.

In the spring of 1981, Nicholson followed up The Shining with another dark turn, this time in old pal Bob Rafelson's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film's steamy romance between Nicholson and leading lady Jessica Lange generated ample chatter in the lead-up to its release but, largely on account of poor reviews, the picture merely broke even at the box office.

Nicholson's other 1981 release hardly had 'surefire hit' written all over it.

Warren Beatty had spent nearly 20 years trying to get a motion picture about Russian Revolution journalist John Reed off the ground. By 1979, Beatty at last had enough pull in the industry to send Reds into production and, in November of 1981, more than two years since the start of filming and at this point sporting a mammoth $32 million budget, post-production was finally complete.

At a time when ambitious, big-budget failures were leaving the likes of Martin Scorsese (New York, New York), Steven Spielberg (1941), William Friedkin (Sorcerer), Peter Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love) and Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate) wounded, Beatty's Reds was quite the gamble.

That December, Reds hit theaters to rave reviews and respectable box office receipts, a relief for Beatty, his co-stars (Nicholson and Diane Keaton) and Paramount Pictures. Oscar nomination #6 was at last on its way...

The 1981 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

James Coco, Only When I Laugh

Coco portrays Jimmy Perrino, struggling stage actor and best friend of Georgia (Oscar nominee Marsha Mason), a recovering alcoholic who has returned home after a stint in rehab. Jimmy is determined to keep life low-drama for Georgia as she avoids the bottle but his own personal troubles, including his firing from a play mere days before opening, makes this a tough task. This performance marked Coco's first and final Oscar nomination.

John Gielgud, Arthur

Gielgud portrays Hobson, longtime butler of New York City playboy Arthur (Oscar nominee Dudley Moore). The sharp-witted Hobson, who has been more a father figure to Arthur than Arthur's own dad, plays matchmaker when Arthur shares his feelings for Linda (Liza Minnelli), a working class waitress who the family would hardly approve of. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Gielgud's second and final Oscar nomination and first win.

Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire

Holm portrays Sam Mussabini, the renowned running coach who leads Cambridge University student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) to glory at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Mussabini's involvement draws the ire of the snobbish (and anti-Semitic) Cambridge faculty, who criticize Abrahams for employing a professional trainer. This performance, which won him a BAFTA Award, marked Holm's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Reds

Nicholson portrays Eugene O'Neill, the sad and cynical playwright who in 1916 befriends Louise Bryant (Oscar nominee Diane Keaton), an aspiring journalist who recently fled her life as a bored, married socialite. While colleague John Reed (Warren Beatty, who won an Oscar for directing the film) is away covering the Democratic Convention, O'Neill and Bryant become romantically involved. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review and a BAFTA Award, marked Nicholson's sixth Oscar nomination.

Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime

Rollins portrays Coalhouse Walker, Jr., an African-American pianist who, after finding fame and fortune in a Harlem jazz band, travels upstate to be with his son and lover (Debbie Allen). Determined to marry the mother of his child, Coalhouse's quest is interrupted by racist local whites, inflamed that a black man could have such wealth and confidence. Coalhouse's vehicle is vandalized, drawing the pianist into a confrontation with law enforcement. This performance marked Rollins' first and final Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Len Cariou, The Four Seasons; Richard Crenna, Body Heat; Griffin Dunne, An American Werewolf in London; Denholm Elliott, Raiders of the Lost Ark; Edward Herrmann, Reds; John Lithgow, Blow Out; Richard Mulligan, S.O.B.; Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City; Donald Pleasance, Escape from New York; Robert Preston, S.O.B.; Christopher Walken, Pennies from Heaven

Won: John Gielgud, Arthur

Should've won: James Coco, Only When I Laugh

Damn, there were a ton of marvelous supporting male performances in 1981. The Academy's selections are respectable for sure but just, if not more stellar would be a line-up of Dunne, Elliott, Lithgow, Preston and Walken. Not that the likes of An American Werewolf in London or Blow Out were ever winning major Oscar nominations, of course.

This category is a tough, tough call - for me, there's not that much of a dip in quality from my favorite to least favorite of the fivesome. In fact, over the years, I know I've flip-flopped among two or three contenders as to who I would've voted for.

All along, however, I believe it's been Rollins at the back of the pack. Frankly, this is less a knock on Rollins, a very good actor (who was also terrific in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story, later in the decade), and more about my qualms with his picture.

Ragtime should've been one hell of a movie. The 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel is deliriously great, Milos Forman had just done Cuckoo's Nest and Hair and the ensemble, on paper at least, is downright salivating. Ultimately, however, the proceedings are too stylized and move like molasses - its two and a half hours feel more like three and a half. Elizabeth McGovern, who was so warm and wonderful in Ordinary People the year prior, is woefully miscast in the pivotal role of Evelyn Nesbit and James Cagney, in his first screen turn in two decades (and his final film role), looks bored and is underused as the New York police commissioner. Imagine if Robert Altman tackled this thing!

Aside from the production design and costumes, where the bulk of energies went on the film, Rollins is one of the better parts of Ragtime and, in a picture packed with nondescript characters, for sure gives the most memorable performance. There's a liveliness to his screen presence that brightens up much of the film early on and his rage later in the picture is plenty palpable. He also, for what it's worth, has the most screen time of the five nominees.

That said, is Rollins strong enough to make the exhausting endeavor that is Ragtime worthwhile? I'm not so sure. It's a fine feature film debut but it's also a performance that sadly gets a little lost in the picture's chaos.

A whole lot more satisfying a picture is Chariots of Fire, a film I actually very much support in Best Picture. The Vangelis score is deservedly legendary, David Watkins' cinematography is sublime and director Hugh Hudson, who inexplicably never made another great film after this, paces the proceedings just beautifully.

Holm, always a delight to watch (he should've won an Oscar for 1997's The Sweet Hereafter), isn't a huge presence in Chariots but, when he does grace the screen, he steals scenes with effortless precision. His portrayal of Mussabini is a pugnacious one - think Burgess Meredith in Rocky, albeit a little less overbearing - but Holm also has some immensely heartfelt moments toward the film's end, as Mussabini is just as overwhelmed as his student by the glory of victory. It's a strong supporting turn in a film too often cast aside in the echelon of Best Picture winners.

I've long viewed Reds as more a triumph in filmmaking and authenticity than the most powerful of acting showcases. My favorite part of the film, by far, is Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous cinematography and the costumes and set direction are aces too. With that said, while I'm most struck by Beatty's meticulous attention to detail in nailing the look and feel of the period, the performances are plenty commendable and I'm very much taken with the Nicholson scenes.

This is for sure one of the more subdued Nicholson turns. He convincingly captures O'Neill's brilliance and and unhappiness, without much of that usual Nicholson persona bubbling to the surface. You can feel O'Neill's inner turmoil, both the joy and pain he feels in romancing a woman who's taken. Like Rollins, Nicholson's performance ultimately gets a little swept away in such a lengthy, epic picture but it's still a very notable turn and frankly, among the last occasions in which the actor really disappeared into a role.

Here's where I find myself see-sawing between who should've prevailed. It's a bit of a head vs. heart conundrum.

My head says Gielgud's long overdue victory was richly deserved. Despite everything fabulous about Arthur (which is a lot), this thespian on many an occasion threatens to walk away with the entire picture. Not only is this an outrageously funny performance (also, of course, credit Steve Gordon's top-notch screenplay) but toward the film's end, Gielgud does a complete 180 and completely breaks your heart. It's a brilliant turn from a juggernaut of the stage and screen.

My heart, however, is with Coco, irresistibly sweet, sad and funny in Only When I Laugh, the best and most underappreciated Neil Simon movie. The film is the closest Simon ever came to matching the quality of Woody Allen. It's an insightful, plenty entertaining 'neurotic New Yorkers' dramedy with a quartet of fabulous performances from Coco, Mason, Joan Hackett and Kristy McNichol.

Coco's Jimmy is a jubilant presence in the film, so delightfully effervescent he all but pops off the screen. We could all only hope for a best friend as awesome and supportive as Jimmy.

Somehow, Coco's performance sports the notoriety of being one of two performances (the other is Amy Irving in Yentl) nominated for both Oscars and Razzie Awards. I find it downright unfathomable that Coco could be considered a 'Worst Supporting Actor' for his wonderful work here and frankly, have always had a rotten feeling it had something to do with his portrayal of an openly gay character. These were, after all, the same Razzies that "awarded" the incredible likes of Dressed to Kill and Cruising around this time.

Anyway, it's a very close call between Gielgud and Coco - and the other three are quite fine too - but my passion is just a tad more with the latter.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. John Gielgud, Arthur
  18. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  19. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  20. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  21. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  22. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  23. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  24. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  25. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  26. Robert Redford, The Sting
  27. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  28. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  29. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  30. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1975 ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest")

In 1975, with four Oscar nominations and losses under his belt, Jack Nicholson inexplicably found himself on the same track as the likes of Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole as one of the all-time Oscar losers. No doubt hungry to at last emerge victorious, the actor lined up four ambitious projects for the year.

First up was a cameo, portraying "The Specialist," in Ken Russell's film adaptation of The Who rock opera Tommy. While leading lady Ann-Margret and the film's soundtrack stole all thunder, the picture proved a critical and box office success, with Nicholson garnering fine notices for his small role.

Also the the subject of great critical acclaim, albeit much less commercially successful, was Nicholson's second screen appearance in 1975, a leading turn in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger. On paper, the picture had the look of an Oscar contender, with Nicholson portraying a U.S. journalist who gets caught up in the civil war he's been sent to cover in northern Africa. The film competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and was well-received there but proved inaccessible to a wider audience in the states.

Winning over hardly anybody was Nicholson's third picture, the 1920s-set screwball comedy The Fortune. Despite the presence of Mike Nichols (in his second collaboration with Nicholson, post-Carnal Knowledge) and co-stars Warren Beatty and Stockard Channing, the film failed to click and, worst of all, was entirely devoid of laughs. The picture was such an overwhelming flop, Nichols would bolt from Hollywood and not return to direct another motion picture until Silkwood in 1983.

Last, and most certainly not least, was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

For nearly a decade, Kirk Douglas, who originated the role of Randle McMurphy on Broadway and owned the film rights to the story, had valiantly tried, with no success, to get a Cuckoo's Nest motion picture off the ground. Eventually, he passed along the rights to son Michael, who was able to secure financing for a film but, at this point, Kirk was too old to take on the role himself.

The suggestion of Nicholson for McMurphy came from none other than Hal Ashby, who'd directed the actor to his third Oscar nomination for The Last Detail and scored another success in 1975 with Shampoo. The rest, of course, is history.

The 1975 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys

Matthau portrays Willy Clark, one half of the legendary vaudeville comedy duo Lewis and Clark (Lewis being portrayed by George Burns, in an Oscar-winning turn). Lewis and Clark performed together for more than four decades, ultimately calling it quits on not-so-great terms. A decade following their split, Willy's talent agent nephew (Richard Benjamin) secures a reunion for the two on a TV special on the history of comedy. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe (tied with Burns), marked Matthau's third and final Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nicholson portrays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a free-spirited criminal who, upon getting in trouble again, pleads insanity to avoid prison and is instead sent to a mental institution for evaluation. There, he befriends the hospital's motley crew of patients, winning them over with a Live Free or Die spirit sorely lacking in the facility. Not so keen on McMurphy's behavior is the chilly Nurse Ratched (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher), wary of the new resident shaking up the stability she's established on her ward. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, marked Nicholson's fifth Oscar nomination and first win.

Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon

Pacino portrays Sonny Wortzik, a man so desperate to secure funds for his lover (Oscar nominee Chris Sarandon)'s sex change operation, he decides to lead a bank robbery. The siege quickly goes awry for Sonny and accomplice Sal (John Cazale), as it turns out there is nearly no money to steal in the first place. As law enforcement closes in and a media circus emerges, Sonny must bargain with Police Captain Moretti (Charles Durning) to move the standoff toward a conclusion. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a BAFTA Award, marked Pacino's fourth Oscar nomination.

Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Schell portrays Arthur Goldman, a Manhattan businessman and Nazi death camp survivor who is kidnapped by Israeli underground agents. Transported to Israel, Goldman is put on trial, accused of being a Nazi war criminal himself. This performance marked Schell's second Oscar nomination.

James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!

Whitmore portrays Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the United States. During World War I, Truman serves as an artillery officer in France and, not long after returning home, he runs for public office, battling the ever-prominent Ku Klux Klan in his home state in Missouri. In the White House, Truman is a fierce defender of the Bill of Rights and outspoken opponent of Joseph McCarthy. Beneath the surface, however, is a very vulnerable man, one who seeks counsel from the ghost of his old boss, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This performance marked Whitmore's second and final Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Woody Allen, Love and Death; Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Gene Hackman, Night Moves; Robert Mitchum, Farewell, My Lovely; Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor; Roy Scheider, Jaws; Donald Sutherland, The Day of the Locust

Won and should've won: Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The 1975 Oscars were remarkable on so many counts.

For one, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest marked the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to stage a clean sweep of the big five categories (Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress and Screenplay). To boot, Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) set a new record for youngest-ever Lead Actress nominee and George Burns emerged the oldest acting winner to date. This was also the year in which ABC wrestled rights away from NBC to broadcast the Oscars - rights held by the network to this day.

Also extraordinary is how this one category, Lead Actor, manages to include both my all-time favorite winner of the category and one of my all-time least favorite Lead Actor nominees.

That sore thumb is none other than Schell, an actor I'm typically wowed by (his turn in Judgment of Nuremberg is richly deserving of the Oscar he won) but who's embarrassingly bad in Arthur Hiller's The Man in the Glass Booth.

I have not read the novel or play (written by, of all people, actor Robert Shaw) on which the picture is based but I can see how, with the right actor and director, it could work as a sort of shocking stage production. As directed by Hiller, however, the film is just as witness and overwrought as the likes of The Boys from Brazil and The Formula, two other dreadful Nazi films from this era.

Schell delivers all of his lines as if he's shouting at the last row of the balcony and Hiller, hardly one of cinema's finest auteurs, just seems to encourage the scenery chewing. The film has the look and feel of a '70s TV movie, one that never should have warranted even a VHS release. What a shame Schell was recognized at the expense of other, supremely superior contenders.

Beyond Schell, there's a whole lot to like among this line-up.

Matthau is an actor I have wholeheartedly adored since childhood. I'll never forget waking up over the summer of 2000 (I was 10 years old) to turn on the tube and learn, to my great dismay, that Matthau had just passed away. I'd loved him in the Grumpy Old Men films, The Odd Couple, The Bad News Bears, even Dennis the Menace, among others.

It was not until several years after his death that I got around to The Sunshine Boys. It really isn't among my favorite Matthau vehicles, nor Neil Simon comedies. He and Burns are a pleasure to watch but the writing isn't as sharp as in the best Simon works, much of the slapstick just doesn't gel on film and the proceedings, directed by Herbert Ross, so often feel stagebound. That said, the two stars juice what they can out of the material and are clearly having a ball (and Matthau's acting chops are particularly on display when the film takes a more dramatic turn toward the end).

The next performance, while a masterful one, is kind of tough to assess in the context of a contest among acting on the big screen.

Give 'em Hell, Harry was a play, headlined by Whitmore and written by playwright Samuel Gallu, which opened at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1975, before embarking on a nationwide tour. The film is simply a video recording of his Whitmore's stop in Seattle, taped by director Steve Binder, who'd scored a smashing success the decade prior in filming Elvis Presley's 1968 NBC comeback special.

Instead of broadcasting the recording on television, which probably would have been a more appropriate fit, Binder sent the film into theaters, where it played in a scattering of theatres across the country.

Whitmore's performance, while brilliant and dead-on convincing (just as great as Gary Sinise's turn in the 1995 HBO film), is tailored much more so to the stage than screen. There are monologues that must have been so much more powerful to witness in-person, feet away from Whitmore, than they ultimately play on film. The actor, who should have won an Oscar for 1949's Battleground, also isn't well-served by poor lighting and a grainy look that appears to grace all copies of the film.

Still, Whitmore's effort is a remarkable one - he even won a Grammy for his Truman!

In almost any other year, Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon would for me surely be in contention for the win. He is in heartbreaking form here, vividly capturing the desperation of a man committing a crime out of love. I actually see the picture as more an ensemble showcase than the best Pacino vehicle - it baffles how Cazale and Durning weren't nominated alongside Sarandon for their stellar work here, not that there's a lackluster nominee among the Academy's fivesome.

A marvelous performance in one of the seminal films of the '70s but even so, nothing comes close to touching Nicholson here.

Just thinking about Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest makes me smile, before sending a lump down my throat. Few performances in any medium have ever been so full of effervescent life. It's the jubilation and humor in Nicholson's performance that makes the events of the picture so tragic. He has one wonderful scene after another with this ensemble - you could've filled out Best Supporting Actor with just performers from this - and I'm especially moved by his moments with Will Sampson (who portrays the Chief) and Brad Dourif (Oscar-nominated for his devastating turn as Billy).

Then, of course, there's his sparring with Fletcher, just as unforgettable as her Nurse Ratched works to suck the life out of her new patient and bring an end to the elation McMurphy's instilled in the ward. Neither actor ever overplays it but their resentment toward each other can sure be felt throughout the proceedings, until finally bursting to the surface in the film's shattering conclusion.

While I hesitate to label Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest as my all-time favorite performance period, he is most certainly way, way up there among all Oscar nominees.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  2. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  3. George C. Scott, Patton
  4. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  5. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  6. Al Pacino, Serpico
  7. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  8. Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
  9. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  10. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  11. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  12. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  13. James Whitmore, Give 'em Hell, Harry!
  14. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  15. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  16. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  17. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  18. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  19. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  20. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  21. Robert Redford, The Sting
  22. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  23. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  24. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  25. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth

Nicholson at the Oscars: 1974 ("Chinatown")

Prior to 1974, the paths of Jack Nicholson and screenwriter Robert Towne had crossed on two occasions. First, less notably, there was Drive, He Said, Nicholson's divisive, barely seen directorial debut, on which Towne both served as an uncredited script doctor and performed in a supporting role. More auspicious was the writer's screenplay for The Last Detail, which scored Towne his first of four career Oscar nominations.

Along the way, Towne had also made uncredited contributions to the screenplays of the legendary likes of Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, plus penned episodes for acclaimed television series including The Man from UNCLE and The Outer Limits

So, when Nicholson and Towne, hot as ever in the industry, embarked on their third collaboration, it was a pretty big deal. Add fellow New Hollywood icons Roman Polanski and Faye Dunaway into the mix and you had one of 1974's most anticipated motion pictures.

While production on Chinatown was not without its tension, namely between Polanski and his actors, the film would prove one of Nicholson's most critically heralded films and land him his fourth career Oscar nomination.

The 1974 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Art Carney, Harry and Tonto

Carney portrays Harry Coombes, a retired New York City teacher who, upon being evicted from his apartment, decides to travel across the country to visit his children, plus an old love. Along for the extraordinary ride is his beloved cat Tonto. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Carney's first and final Oscar nomination and win.

Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express

Finney portrays Hercule Poirot, a brilliant, if insufferably eccentric detective whose relaxing ride home aboard the Orient Express is interrupted by the murder of a passenger. An avalanche preventing police from investigating, Poirot takes on the case himself and must navigate through an array of colorful characters to determine just who committed the crime. This performance marked Finney's second Oscar nomination.

Dustin Hoffman, Lenny

Hoffman portrays Lenny Bruce, the notorious comedian whose unfiltered material turns him into a cult hero of the 1960s. Authorities' attacks on Bruce for breaking obscenity laws only fuels the comedian's act but also drives him down a path of drug-laced self-destruction. This performance marked Hoffman's third Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Chinatown

Nicholson portrays J.J. "Jake" Gittes, a Los Angeles private eye hired by "Evelyn Mulwray" (Diane Ladd) to investigate her husband's adulterous activities. Gittes' work is turned upside down when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Oscar-nominee Faye Dunaway) and, when Mr. Mulwray turns up dead, the detective finds himself stumbling upon a vast conspiracy involving murder, incest and, of all things, corruption pertaining to the L.A. water supply. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, marked Nicholson's fourth Oscar nomination.

Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

Pacino portrays Michael Corleone who, in the 1950s, is running the family business out of Lake Tahoe and eager to expand into Hollywood, Las Vegas and pre-revolution Havana. Business is running smoothly until an assassination attempt on Michael's life sends him into a paranoia that is only worsened by the back-stabbing of business partner Hyman Roth (Oscar-nominee Lee Strasberg) and his crumbling marriage to wife Kay (Diane Keaton). Adding even more stress is a lingering federal indictment and the worrisome recent behavior of brother Fredo (John Cazale). This performance, which won him a BAFTA Award, marked Pacino's third Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: James Caan, The Gambler; Peter Falk, A Woman Under the Influence; Elliott Gould, California Split; Gene Hackman, The Conversation; James Earl Jones, Claudine; Jack Lemmon, The Front Page; Walter Matthau, The Front Page; Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein

Won: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto

Should've won: Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

Ah, 1974, that gangbusters year at the Oscars when the colossal likes of Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and the triumphant The Godfather Part II (and, uh, The Towering Inferno) faced off for awards glory. Drop the Irwin Allen flick, add A Woman Under the Influence and you'd pretty much have the greatest Best Picture line-up of all-time.

Likewise, there's Best Lead Actor. Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino are devastatingly great, turning in three of their finest career performances. Knock out the supremely inferior Carney and Finney, toss Falk and Hackman into the mix, and you'd be looking at a fivesome to rival the sterling nominees of 1951, 1962 and 1967 in this category.

Carney, who's often cited as one of the lamer Best Lead Actor honorees, is not, I don't think, quite the weakest of this bunch. That's Finney, one of my all-time favorite actors, mercilessly hamming it up (and yet somehow not all that fun to watch) in his worst Oscar-nominated performance.

There's a lot to like in Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, from Geoffrey Unsworth's sumptuous cinematography to the stirring Richard Rodney Bennett score. Several of the starry ensemble's actors are in marvelous form too, particularly Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins. Leave it to the Academy to recognize two performances in the picture that I'm not so fond of - Finney's and Ingrid Bergman's, the latter of which inexplicably defeated the likes of Valentina Cortese (who Bergman herself said should've prevailed) and Diane Ladd (my personal favorite) for the Best Supporting Actress prize.

Finney is, perhaps purposely so, downright unbearable here at times. Some, no doubt (including many members of the Academy, obviously), get a real kick out of seeing this brilliant actor gobble up scenery and try to upstage one silver screen legend after another. The performance just leaves me exhausted, though, and wishing Lumet had reigned in his star a bit, as opposed to giving him the license to run rampant.

Better, albeit still not a satisfying winner, is Carney.

Harry and Tonto isn't without its pleasures. While it doesn't sport one of Paul Mazursky's sharper screenplays, it's still a picture with a lot of heart and it's also great to see the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Larry Hagman pop up along the way. The film and lead performance are just entirely out of their league vis a vis the remaining three nominees. Carney is in fine form but lacks the gravitas of Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino and he's not even the best of the "senior citizen on a road trip" Oscar winners (the superior honorees being Jane Darwell and Geraldine Page).

It's not hard to rationalize how Carney prevailed - he was a beloved veteran of the small screen, with five Emmys under his belt, at last scoring a leading role on the silver screen at age 55. His opponents, Finney aside, were a trio of New Hollywood up-and-comers, still not wholeheartedly embraced by some in the industry's old guard. Had Lemmon and/or Matthau managed to get in, perhaps the result may have proven different.

Beyond Finney and Carney, it's a tough call - not for the winner, which for me is a runaway victory here, but for runner-up. Hoffman and Nicholson are both pitch-perfect but I still wouldn't label them the most compelling parts of their respective films.

Hoffman, for instance, is dead-on convincing as Lenny Bruce - it's a stellar performance, leaps and bounds superior to say, his Oscar-winning turn in Rain Man. But the real stars of Lenny, I would argue, are Valerie Perrine, astonishing as Bruce's bombshell wife (she probably would've won the Oscar in Supporting, not Lead where she ended up), and Bruce Surtees' stunning cinematography (and yes, Bruce is Robert's son).

Lenny would not work without Hoffman's performance but it's Perrine and Surtees who take the proceedings to the sky-high level on which the film operates.

Likewise, Nicholson's Gittes is among the most iconic and memorable roles of his career. He grabs our attention from start to finish and instills so much life into what could've been a stock character. Chinatown is dependent on his success but at the same time, it's Dunaway, John Huston (how the hell was he not Oscar-nominated?!) and the Jerry Goldsmith score that really give me the chills.

I would have no problem awarding Hoffman or Nicholson under different circumstances but in 1974, they have the misfortune of facing what I believe to be one of the greatest performances to ever grace Best Lead Actor (or any category) at the Oscars.

There is so much to be in complete awe of in The Godfather Part II, from Francis Ford Coppola's acing of its tricky nonlinear narrative, to the sublime look and feel of the proceedings (another year, another egregious Gordon Willis Oscar snub) and of course the acting is all-around mesmerizing (how odd, though, that Talia Shire's fine but brief turn was recognized over Diane Keaton, in one of her greatest dramatic efforts).

The heart and soul of the picture, however, is Pacino, in the richest, most riveting performance of a career full of them. His Michael, at this point in the Corleone saga, is an intimidating sight with just as powerful a presence as Don Vito in the first entry. While his exterior may be a menacing one, Pacino beautifully captures Michael's vulnerabilities, doubts and inner turmoil, as he battles anxiety and faces the most impossible of decisions, both at home and in business.

When Michael and Kay duel over the ramifications of a decision she has made, it marks some of the most magnificent acting of Pacino and Keaton's careers. But Pacino has so many other haunting, unforgettable scenes too, even ones in which he's just sitting there, taking it all in. You can feel the rage and torment eating away at Michael from the inside.

I'm not one for hyperbole but I truly believe Pacino in The Godfather Part II to be among the 10 or so greatest performances ever recognized at the Oscars.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
  2. George C. Scott, Patton
  3. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  4. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  5. Al Pacino, Serpico
  6. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  7. Jack Nicholson, Chinatown
  8. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  9. Dustin Hoffman, Lenny
  10. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  11. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  12. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  13. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  14. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  15. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  16. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  17. Robert Redford, The Sting
  18. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  19. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  20. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days