Nicholson at the Oscars: 1970 ("Five Easy Pieces")

In 1967, a then-unknown Jack Nicholson filmed The Rebel Rousers, an independent outlaw biker flick, alongside fellow big screen newcomers Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd and Harry Dean Stanton. A choppy, nearly unwatchable picture, the film festered on the shelf for three years - that is, unless the release and smashing success of Easy Rider.

With Nicholson now on the A-list (and Dern having had some success to boot), The Rebel Rousers at last hit theaters in 1970, marketed with ads noting Nicholson's recent Oscar nomination. While the picture found no traction with critics or audiences, its release was a testament to the pull Nicholson now grasped in the industry - if he was involved, even the crummiest of projects could see the light of day.

That summer, while The Rebel Rousers languished in drive-ins across the nation, Nicholson also appeared in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Barbra Streisand's first picture since Hello, Dolly! the year prior. His role, as Streisand's free-spirited step brother, was slimmed down from the 1965 Broadway production, with his one filmed musical number ultimately left on the cutting room floor. While only a modest success at the time, financially and among critics, On a Clear Day... maintains a loyal following, particularly among Streisand fans. (Plus, the sight of she and Nicholson gracing the screen together is awfully irresistible, even if the proceedings aren't among their finest hours.)

Nicholson's third and final project of the year would not only dwarf the reception to his other two 1970 pictures but firmly cement the actor as robust leading man material. Working alongside filmmaker Bob Rafelson for the second time (after collaborating on the Monkees musical Head in 1968), Nicholson was about to garner the first of his eight (to date, at least) Oscar nominations in Best Lead Actor.

The 1970 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father

Douglas portrays Tom Garrison, estranged father of Gene (Oscar nominee Gene Hackman, in one of his finest performances). Gene has long been troubled by their taciturn relationship and fears his planned move to California will create all the more distance between them. Father and son are forced to communicate, however, in the wake of matriarch Margaret (Dorothy Stickney)'s death. This performance marked Douglas' second Oscar nomination.

James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope

Jones portrays Jack Jefferson, a powerhouse boxer who, in the early 1910s, goes on a hot winning streak against a series of white boxers. Before long, racist sports fans and the press launch a search for a "great white hope" that can at last take Jack down. Spawning all the more hateful rage is Jack's romance with the white Eleanor (Oscar nominee Jane Alexander). This performance marked Jones' first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces

Nicholson portrays Robert Dupea, an oil rigger who rejected his upper-class background and training as a classical pianist for a more blue-collar life. When Robert learns his father has suffered multiple strokes, he reluctantly embarks on a road trip, alongside needy girlfriend Rayette (the brilliant, Oscar-nominated Karen Black), to see his family. This performance marked Nicholson's second Oscar nomination.

Ryan O'Neal, Love Story

O'Neal portrays Oliver Barrett IV, an affluent Harvard Law student who meets and falls head-over-heels for Jenny (Oscar nominee Ali MacGraw), a middle-class scholar studying music at Radcliffe. Despite family objection, the two marry, land jobs and build for themselves what looks to be a wonderful life together. Then, tragedy strikes. This performance marked O'Neal's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

George C. Scott, Patton

Scott portrays George S. Patton, the controversial World War II general. Patton achieves immense success leading American forces in North Africa, Germany and Italy but a series of unforced errors, including the striking of a hospitalized soldier suffering post-traumatic stress, threaten to derail his sterling reputation. 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, marked Scott's third Oscar nomination and first win.

Overlooked: Albert Finney, Scrooge; Elliott Gould, MASH; Paul Newman, Sometimes a Great Notion; Donald Sutherland, MASH

Won and should've won: George C. Scott, Patton

Now this is a great line-up.

Not once over the course of 20 Years of Streep, the unheralded contenders considered, did I think the Academy completely nail a category. Here, however, I cannot object to a single nominee, even the usually stiff O'Neal - all five performances are absolutely marvelous, though one, no doubt, could also make a valid case for either or both of the MASH leading men.

The Old vs. New Hollywood rivalry remained hot for the 1970 telecast, as bloated box office blockbuster Airport (described by Pauline Kael as "bland entertainment of the old school") battled the bolder, more culturally significant likes of Five Easy Pieces and MASH for the top prize. Not unlike Gig Young the year prior in his category, it was ultimately the contender able to floor folks on both sides of the aisle - in this case, Patton - that emerged triumphant.

On the big night, with Patton steamrolling to a hefty seven victories, fellow Best Picture contenders Airport, Love Story and MASH each went home with one consolation prize a piece, while Five Easy Pieces struck out completely.

Even in 1970, Love Story was deemed aggressively schmaltzy, one of the more nauseatingly manipulative romances to grace the silver screen. Nonetheless, with two appealing stars and an immensely successful novel as its inspiration, the picture was a big, fat box office hit, the highest-grossing film of the year. It even managed to nearly sweep the Golden Globes, scoring trophies in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actress and Best Screenplay.

It's tough to rationalize such a Love Story sweep without O'Neal among the honorees, considering he is, by far, the strongest, least mawkish part of the film. While molasses practically oozes from MacGraw's pores and the Erich Segal screenplay leaves viewers gagging, O'Neal turns in a remarkably poised, sensitive performance. He's downright heartbreaking toward the picture's end, even if the film itself hasn't an ounce of nuance.

Of the five actors recognized here, O'Neal is of course the most limited - I like to think of him as the male Cybill Shepherd - but let's not overlook the handful of fine turns he's delivered over the years. Besides Love Story, he's marvelous in What's Up, Doc?; Paper Moon; The Driver; and Irreconcilable Differences. There were far more clunkers than winners for sure but even if O'Neal's career skid off the tracks by the following decade, he's unimpeachably terrific here. Heck, in a really anemic year, I can see even considering him for the Oscar win. This, of course, was no lackluster line-up, though.

I Never Sang for My Father is truly an unsung picture, merely a modest success even upon its release and almost entirely forgotten now, sans by the most ardent movie buffs. It's a shame, since its leading men - two of the finest actors to ever grace the screen - are operating right at the tops of their game. To boot, Robert Anderson's screenplay (adapted from his Broadway play, which too wasn't a hit) is something so special, an honest, evocative examination of a rancorous father and son relationship.

Douglas is brilliant here, just as riveting as in his two Oscar-winning turns (Hud and Being There). He runs a gamut of emotions through the picture, making Tom an alternately combative, charming, aloof and wistful man - it's no wonder Hackman's Gene has such a taxing time figuring the guy out.

What is kind of odd here is the category placement - both Douglas and Hackman are indisputably Lead here, yet the latter garnered a Supporting push, no doubt to give the pair the off-chance of scoring two Oscars for the film. If pressed to split them, however, I would do the reverse and place Hackman in the top category. This isn't a knock on Douglas' performance at all but Hackman has greater screen time and in Supporting, a much lesser category this year, I actually think Douglas could have prevailed.

Also headlining a stage-to-screen adaptation is Jones who, unlike Douglas, originated his role in the Broadway production (and scored a Tony Award for it).

The Great White Hope packs a fierce punch, as does Jones' powerhouse performance (and Alexander, per usual, is fabulous too). It's a thrilling effort from an actor who should have graced the silver screen in many more leading roles than he ultimately did (check out 1972's Claudine for another top-notch Jones performance). This may not be a revolutionary turn on the level of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, and the film itself certainly doesn't have the visual ambition or electricity of the Martin Scorsese picture, but it's still a pleasure watching Jones tear it up in such a substantial starring role.

Not awarding Nicholson the victory here is like not giving the win to Meryl Streep for Silkwood - in just about any other year, I undoubtedly would have given him his first Oscar for Five Easy Pieces, a film I actually think should have taken the Best Picture prize, even though I prefer Scott in Lead Actor (odd as that sounds).

Nicholson is devastatingly great here. Yeah, yeah, there's the chicken salad moment and that's terrific and iconic but there's so much more to the performance than just the diner scene. I especially love Robert's strained interactions with his family, not to mention Catherine, his brother's alluring fiancee. And when Robert at last approaches his father, it's some of the best, most unaffected acting of Nicholson's career. His chemistry with Black (who surely should've won the Oscar over Airport's Helen Hayes) is of course legendary stuff too.

Part of me, frankly, cannot believe I'm not giving Nicholson the win here but sublime as he is, I do think the Academy nailed this one. Scott in Patton is truly among the greatest performances to ever grace this or any acting category at the Oscars.

What's remarkable about Patton, among other things, is how at three hours in length, it never feels like a Gandhi-level endeavor. Franklin J. Schaffner's filmmaking isn't terribly striking but the screenplay - by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North - is a leading man's dream, packed with rich, formidable dialogue, if that actor is up to the task. And holy shit, is Scott plenty game.

This is a towering barn burner of a performance, a turn that should grace the thesaurus under 'tour de force.' Scott grabs viewers by the throat in his opening monologue and never lets go for the picture's duration. This is a film that runs 170 minutes in length and has, largely on account of the ferocious performer steering the ship, not a single lull. Moreover, Scott's performance, while overwhelming, isn't really heavy on histrionics. You can sense the vulnerabilities in this larger-than-life man that probably wouldn't have been there with an actor hellbent on just hamming it up.

Poor Jack, James and Melvyn. And Ryan even! In any other year...

The performances ranked (thus far)...

  1. George C. Scott, Patton
  2. Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces
  3. James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope
  4. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  5. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  6. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  7. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  8. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  9. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  10. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days