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