Nicholson at the Oscars: 1969 ("Easy Rider")

Between 1958 and 1968, young actor Jack Nicholson appeared in 14 feature films, plus landed guest appearances on television programs like The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Dr. Kildare and The Andy Griffith Show. To say Nicholson was not a household name, however, would be an understatement.

Four of Nicholson's first silver screen appearances were in Roger Corman B-movies, the likes of The Raven and The Terror, both opposite horror legend Boris Karloff. Perhaps his most memorable early turn came in Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, in which he portrayed, in one scene, a masochistic dental patient (later played by Bill Murray in the 1986 movie musical). Even with an eye-catching turn like that, however, Nicholson was not drawing the attention of major studios and certainly not piquing interest as a potential leading man.

At last, in 1969, Nicholson kicked down the door into the Hollywood mainstream with a key supporting role in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, a picture that would prove an unlikely box office smash and emerge one of the essential motion pictures of the New Hollywood era.

The 1969 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Rupert Crosse, The Reivers

Crosse portrays Ned, pal and distant cousin of adventuresome handyman Boon (Steve McQueen). Enamored with a new car in town, Ned and Boon steal the vehicle and, alongside impressionable adolescent Lucius (Mitch Vogel), embark on a haphazard southern road trip. This performance marked Crosse's first and final Oscar nomination.

Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Gould portrays Ted Henderson, husband of Alice (Oscar-nominee Dyan Cannon) and best friend of Bob (Robert Culp). Ted is perplexed when Bob and wife Carol (Natalie Wood) return from a group therapy retreat with longing to loosen up and experiment with sexual freedom. He and Alice merely humor their friends at first but it isn't long before suppressed sexual tension among the foursome comes to the surface. This performance marked Gould's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider

Nicholson portrays George Hanson, an alcoholic ACLU lawyer who in jail befriends Wyatt (Peter Fonda and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two bikers road tripping through the American south after selling off heaps of cocaine. George helps his new pals get out of jail and is later introduced to the wonders of marijuana. This performance, which won him Best Supporting Actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Nicholson's first Oscar nomination.

Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days

Quayle portrays Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in England, circa-1536. Wolsey pleads with King Henry VIII (Oscar-nominee Richard Burton) to abandon the King's desire to ditch wife Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas) for the youthful and enticing Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold). This performance marked Quayle's first and final Oscar nomination.

Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Young portrays Rocky, scheming emcee of a Great Depression-era marathon dance contest for a then-hefty $1,500 cash prize. As the competition drags on from days to weeks, the publicity-hungry Rocky is willing to go to sinister lengths to exploit the vulnerabilities of the remaining contestants. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Young's third and final Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Red Buttons, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; Jack Klugman, Goodbye, Columbus; John McMartin, Sweet Charity; John Vernon, Topaz

Won and should've won: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Like many ceremonies of the New Hollywood era, the 1969 Oscars are very much indicative of the wrestling between the industry's old guard - more often than not, losing money on their pictures, desperate to deliver another My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music - and those pesky progressive newcomers, determined to give American cinema a long overdue face lift.

This year proved a victory for the latter, as John Schlesinger's X-rated Midnight Cowboy defeated the more traditionally Oscar-friendly likes of Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello, Dolly! for the Best Picture prize. That Anne and Dolly were recognized in the first place, however, was a testament to the considerable influence Old Hollywood still sported among the Academy membership - neither film was a commercial success.

The old vs. new rivalry could be seen down the ballot too, including in Best Supporting Actor, with Quayle representing the old-school wing and Gould and Nicholson gracing two signature New Hollywood pictures. In a way, it made complete sense that Young - a veteran character actor who'd graced the silver screen for three decades, worked along countless performers and was recognized for a pivotal role in a bold, violent film - would triumph, drawing affection across the spectrum.

The Quayle nomination, while understandable, given the Academy's adoration of Anne of the Thousand Days (no doubt a result of Universal Pictures' aggressive campaign behind the picture), is still pretty inexplicable. Not that Quayle wasn't a brilliant actor - he most certainly was, having been a key force in the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company and making memorable appearances in films like The Wrong Man, The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. But he looks bored out of his mind here.

Quayle, Burton and the rest of the cast may look exquisite in their Oscar-winning costumes but they're at a loss when it comes to making something of the stiff dialogue that plagues this picture. Anne marked the directorial debut of Charles Jarrott, perhaps best-known among movie buffs as a regular punching bag of critic Pauline Kael's. His staging of the picture is miserably uninspired and though the proceedings in actuality run just under two and half hours in length, the endeavor feels like a lifetime.

No doubt, with a competent filmmaker and stronger script, Quayle could have made something special of this role. Alas, under these circumstances, the actor phones it in.

At least having some fun on the screen, even if it's in a negligibly satisfying picture, is Crosse, the first African-American to ever grace Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. Crosse, a protege of John Cassavetes', made his memorable big screen debut in Cassavetes' Shadows before finding greater success on a plethora of television series in the 1960s. His most prominent (and ultimately final) role on the silver screen was this one, McQueen's curious follow-up to Bullitt.

The Reivers marked director Mark Rydell's second picture, years before directing the likes of Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty), Bette Midler (The Rose), Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond), among others, to Oscar glory. The film has the feel of an idiosyncratic pet project for McQueen, the kind of picture that could only be green-lit on the heels of a big, fat hit. There are shades of Paper Moon but, in sensibility and sophistication, the proceedings most recall sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction.

Crosse seems to be having a ball as McQueen's sidekick. It's a mostly madcap comic turn that often upstages the picture's leading man (who has, frankly, limited comic timing) and he's able to show some range later in the picture when racism rears its ugly head. The film, however, is so humdrum that it's difficult to get terribly involved in any of it, unless you're a diehard McQueen or William Faulkner (who wrote the 1962 novel on which it's based) fan. Kudos to Crosse for making Oscar history (and for a fabulous run on the small screen) but it's not a performance remarkable enough to make this a must-see.

The remaining three nominees are leaps and bounds more compelling, and it sure doesn't hurt that their pictures are among the year's (if not the decade's) finest to boot.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a fabulous ensemble comedy, nearly the best film of Paul Mazursky's stellar career, just behind An Unmarried Woman (some might make a case for Enemies, A Love Story too). I think, however, it is more a triumph in screenwriting than acting. Not that the foursome isn't pitch-perfect - they're uniformly fantastic but if pressed to name a standout, I would actually side with Cannon, not Gould (and even then, Cannon would be my third or fourth choice among the Supporting Actress nominees).

I'm delighted Gould managed to pick up an Oscar nomination during his career, I just wish it were for a vehicle like The Long Goodbye or California Split instead, where the actor stood out in a more striking way. He's in fine form here but it's not a turn I could quite consider for the Oscar win.

Stealing his scenes with startling vigor, albeit with less screen time than Gould, is Nicholson, who comes roaring into Easy Rider like a tornado. Even without his presence, the picture would be one hell of a ride and still left an immense cultural impact.

When Nicholson does enter the film, however, he is able to take something already extraordinary and lift it to an even higher level. His performance here feels fresh and anomalous to this day, not just coasting on that natural Nicholson charisma, so I can only imagine how remarkable his screen presence felt to moviegoers back in the day, perhaps seeing him grace the screen for the very first time. Like, for instance, Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts and George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder, it's one of those riveting supporting turns that all but guaranteed juicy lead roles to follow.

Much as I adore Nicholson in his Oscar debut, I think the Academy got this one right.

One's impression of Young in They Shoot Horses... will, no doubt, be shaped by familiarity (or lack thereof) with his filmography. Prior to the Sydney Pollack picture, the actor was largely known for supporting turns light romcom fare, like That Touch of Mink, Desk Set and Teacher's Pet, the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination. Young graced his fair share of dramas too but, far more often than not, would still play the affable sidekick.

So, just imagine the audience response to Young, reliable for charming the pants off his fans, in the chilling role of emcee Rocky. What makes the performance all the more powerful is how Young never once overplays the proceedings, which certainly may not have been the case in the hands of a hammier actor. The role is a villainous one for sure, with shades of genuine sadism, but Young also instills humanity into Rocky, particularly opposite Susannah York's Alice.

They Shoot Horses... marks the career-best performance of one of the finest character actors of the 1950s and 1960s - a richly deserved victory for sure.

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  2. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  3. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  4. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  5. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days