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