Nicholson at the Oscars: 1973 ("The Last Detail")

After the smashing success of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson remained close to his New Hollywood roots with a trio of pictures in 1971. Two of the films, despite the actor's rising star, were met with a disastrous reception.

Drive, He Said did not feature Nicholson in an acting role but rather marked the star's directorial debut. With a cast including Karen Black, Bruce Dern and Robert Towne, plus heaps of nudity, profanity and drug use, the film had the sensibility of a New Hollywood picture but was decidedly not an Easy Rider-level success. Premiering at that year's Cannes Film Festival, Drive, He Said proved polarizing among critics and was overwhelmingly ignored by audiences upon hitting the states.

LIkewise, there was A Safe Place, another idiosyncratic effort that failed to reap much traction. This one found Nicholson in a supporting role, opposite Orson Welles (!) and leading lady Tuesday Weld. One of the most peculiar pictures of Nicholson's career, the film was unanimously panned by critics and failed to obtain release beyond New York and L.A.

Nicholson's third 1971 effort, thankfully, was no turkey.

Carnal Knowledge for the first (but hardly final) time paired Nicholson with filmmaker Mike Nichols, supremely hot off the success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. With a screenplay by celebrated playwright and satirist Jules Feiffer and cast including Ann-Margret (who's never been better), Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel (!!), the picture had the looks of a surefire awards contender.

Released that summer to warm critical notices, Carnal Knowledge proved one of the year's highest-grossing and most discussed films. Nicholson emerged part of the Oscar conversation but it would ultimately be Ann-Margret garnering the film's sole nomination. She would lose on the big night to The Last Picture Show's Cloris Leachman.

The following year, Nicholson graced the screen in just one film.

The King of Marvin Gardens marked the actor's third collaboration with filmmaker Bob Rafelson and also reunited Nicholson with pal Bruce Dern. Also among the cast? Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-nominated the prior year for The Last Picture Show, and Scatman Crothers, Nicholson's future co-star on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shining. Though given a prime, awards season-friendly fall release date by Columbia Pictures, the gloomy film divided critics and produced scant audience interest.

Nicholson fans could, however, rejoice in 1973. The actor was about to team up with filmmaker Hal Ashby, who'd won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night and made a significant name for himself in directing 1971's Harold and Maude, and land his third Oscar nomination.

The 1973 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris

Brando portrays Paul, an American hotelier in mourning following his wife's suicide. While apartment hunting, he meets the young, beautiful Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The two become transfixed and engage in a steamy sexual relationship, the catch being Paul insists they share no personal information, not even their names. This anonymity proves difficult to maintain as the affair continues. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, marked Brando's seventh Oscar nomination.

Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger

Lemmon portrays Harry Stoner, a disgruntled clothing manufacturer, demoralized over the downfall of his business and always daydreaming about the good old days. Convinced there is no way to save his company, Harry arranges for an arsonist to burn down his factory so he can cash in on the insurance settlement. This performance marked Lemmon's fifth Oscar nomination and second win.

Jack Nichoson, The Last Detail

Nicholson portrays Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky, a naval patrol officer tasked with escorting young sailor Meadows (Oscar-nominee Randy Quaid) to a New Hampshire prison, where he's been sentence to eight years. En route, Buddusky and fellow Navy man Mulhall (Otis Young) grow fond of the sensitive Meadows and, with a few days to spare, opt to give him a good time before hitting the big house. This performance, which won him Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival, plus a BAFTA Award, marked Nicholson's third Oscar nomination.

Al Pacino, Serpico

Pacino portrays Frank Serpico, an idealistic New York City cop appalled by the widespread corruption he witnesses among law enforcement colleagues. His concerns ignored by superiors and peers viewing him with intense hostility, Serpico sees no choice but to go public on the misconduct. This performance, which won him honors from the National Board of Review, plus a Golden Globe, marked Pacino's second Oscar nomination.

Robert Redford, The Sting

Redford portrays Johnny Hooker, an aspiring con artist who, following the murder of his partner, yearns to score revenge on the man responsible, merciless crime boss Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Skeptical of his own abilities to do so, Hooker seeks the assistance of veteran grifter Gondorff (Paul Newman) in setting up an intricate scheme to bring Lonnegan down. This performance marked Redford's first Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Woody Allen, Sleeper; James Caan, Cinderella Liberty; Robert De Niro, Bang the Drum Slowly; Robert De Niro, Mean Streets; Richard Dreyfuss, American Graffiti; Gene Hackman, Scarecrow; Christopher Lee, The Wicker Man; Michael Moriarty, Bang the Drum Slowly; Ryan O'Neal, Paper Moon; Al Pacino, Scarecrow; Robert Redford, The Way We Were; Paul Scofield, A Delicate Balance; George Segal, A Touch of Class; Martin Sheen, Badlands; Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now

Won: Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger

Should've won: Al Pacino, Serpico

Woah. This is one of those mammoth years in which one could easily conjure up two or three entirely different line-ups of five and all would rank among the category's all-time finest. From the comic gold of Allen and O'Neal, to career-best turns from Scofield and Sheen and the stunning big screen breakthroughs of De Niro, Dreyfuss and Moriarty, there is so much to love here.

So, given the embarrassment of skill gracing the screen among the leading men of 1973, it's a bit disappointing to see the Academy's selections not inspire awe across the board. While there's not a bad performance to be found among the five nominees, there are a couple of honorees (including the winner) who, given the gangbusters nature of the field, probably should've been sitting on the sidelines.

The Sting is a fun caper romp and, given the incredible box office (it was the highest-grossing film of 1973) and star wattage of its leading men, it makes sense the picture would resonate come awards season. That said, it kills me it managed to largely steamroll over the superior likes of The Exorcist, Cries & Whispers and American Graiffiti, preventing those films from achieving a whole lot of Oscar glory. Unlike those first two pictures, it's a conventional crowd-pleaser, so its success is no surprise but still, this is one of those years that leaves me somewhat sighing.

My feelings on The Sting itself are largely applicable to Redford - it's an entertaining performance but come on, there were so many more riveting, compelling turns to recognize here.

Redford (again) makes for an iconic team with Newman and has boundless matinee idol charisma but it's not a terribly challenging role and he's often upstaged by the more colorful supporting players and scenery. Also, if pressed to recognize Redford this year, I would probably honor his poignant, sensitive turn in The Way We Were first. (I do, however - sorry, Ordinary People haters - wholeheartedly support his 1980 Oscar win in Best Director.)

I also, much as I typically adore this actor, would not have nominated Lemmon.

Lemmon is among my all-time favorite stars of the silver screen. I of course love him in the legendary likes of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and Days of Wine and Roses but even later, inferior efforts like the Grumpy Old Men pictures and My Fellow Americans satisfy, given my immense affection for the actor.

Save the Tiger is not, I'm afraid, among his finest films. It's not Lemmon's fault - his performance is a credible one and especially in the picture's early-going, before the proceedings sink into complete bombast, his portrayal of a man in crisis is entirely convincing. Veteran character actor Jack Gilford, who too was Oscar-nominated for his turn as Lemmon's anxious business partner, is also in strong form. Problem is, their film is an overwrought one and they can only rise so high above the shoddy material.

Director John G. Avildsen and screenwriter Steve Shagan, who later collaborated on one of the worst films of Marlon Brando's career (1980's creaky The Formula) seem to be aiming for a Norman Lear-level '70s social commentary. They lack, however, the nuance and sharpness of Lear's work on the small screen and while the acting is able to keep things afloat for a while, the picture grows more pretentious as it moves along, Lemmon's character winding up in episodes that just don't ring true.

With another, better filmmaker and writer, Save the Tiger no doubt could have worked. As it stands, it's a picture that finds Lemmon courageously swimming upstream, to negligible success.

There was a time when Brando may have garnered my vote here. Not long after seeing Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and The Dreamers in high school, I at last checked out Last Tango in Paris and found myself downright transfixed with the picture. The film looks sumptuous, is directed with a tad more electricity than the aforementioned Bertolucci efforts and yes, Brando's performance is quite a triumph, his last truly great leading turn.

That said, in light of disturbing revelations by Schneider and Bertolucci regarding the picture's notorious rape scene, I have considerably soured on Last Tango and Brando's performance.

On one hand, I consider this among the most vivid efforts of Brando's career, a dark, stirring portrayal by a legendary actor who should have tackled many more projects like Last Tango over his final decades in cinema. On the other hand, I'm appalled by the extent to which Brando look his "method acting" on this picture, and by the filmmaker's encouragement to do so. It's an exceedingly difficult performance and film to watch now, even if there's no shortage of prowess gracing the screen.

Beginning in 1973, Nicholson and Pacino dueled in Lead Actor at the Oscars, each recognized for three of their best, most iconic performances. Each time for me, it's a devastatingly close call but, if pressed, I would give Round One to Pacino.

Not that Nicholson isn't brilliant in The Last Detail, though. With the picture largely overshadowed in recent years by other Nicholson films, this, alongside Ironweed, is perhaps his most underappreciated turn on the silver screen.

The Last Detail is just as vibrant as fellow New Hollywood films Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, an exquisitely written (by Robert Towne) vehicle for not only Nicholson but his two equally marvelous co-stars. Nicholson and Quaid have remarkable shades of the former and Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the all-knowing, witty Nicholson enlightening his unworldly young co-star on the facts of life until a heartbreaking end.

The film and performance don't quite reach the sky-high heights of Cuckoo's Nest but then, nor do 99.9 percent of pictures. This is still a great one and, without Pacino, I'd likely be giving Nicholson his first prize here.

Alas, I do give Pacino the edge here.

With his victory for Scent of a Woman standing as one of the all-time worst wins in this category, it can be easy to forget that Pacino's first few Oscar nominations are in fact among the all-time best in Lead Actor. Serpico, while not the best (that's The Godfather Part II), is among the richest Pacino turns recognized by the Academy.

When Pacino and director Sidney Lumet collaborated (on this and Dog Day Afternoon), the result was fireworks. Serpico, which should have garnered a Best Picture nomination, is an engrossing and aggravating film, one of the best, most convincing cop corruption dramas to ever hit cinemas. The script - by Waldo Salt (fresh off an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (just a few years away from scoring a smash on Saturday Night Fever) - never rings false, nor does Pacino's performance.

This is hardly the 'hoo-hah'ing Pacino of the '80s and on. His Serpico is Frank Serpico. It's a pitch-perfect, powerful and completely lived-in portrayal that's so convincing, it gives the proceedings the feel of a documentary.

Speaking of impossible decisions, next up shall be none other than 1974, the year of The Godfather Part II and Chinatown. Yeesh.

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. Al Pacino, Serpico
  5. Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
  6. Melvyn Douglas, I Never Sang for My Father
  7. Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
  8. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  9. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  10. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  11. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  12. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  13. Robert Redford, The Sting
  14. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  15. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days