Nicholson at the Oscars: 1985 ("Prizzi's Honor")

In 1973, one year prior to starring opposite her legendary father in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Jack Nicholson began dating actress and model Anjelica Huston. Their tumultuous, on-and-off love affair would go on to span 17 years, a period in which the stars soared on the Hollywood A-list, the two netting a combined three Oscars.

It was not until 1985, however, that both Hustons - Anjelica and dad John - would collaborate with Nicholson, hot as ever after his 1983 Oscar victory for Terms of Endearment, on the same project.

Prizzi's Honor, a mob comedy that cast Nicholson as a professional hit man who falls head over heels for a hit woman (Kathleen Turner), was not, despite despite its hefty star wattage, expected to be a commercial smash or awards player. 20th Century Fox opened the film that summer with a modest release, playing less than half the theaters of blockbusters Rambo: First Blood II and The Goonies. The picture was presumed to be a little too dark and idiosyncratic to resonate with a wide audience.

To Fox's surprise, however, the film garnered critical raves, with the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert championing the picture as among the funniest of the decade. Come Oscar season, Fox would go all-in on Prizzi's Honor as their awards contender, and to great success. The film woke up on Oscar nominations morning to eight nods, including a trio for Nicholson and both Hustons. Ultimately, only one of the three would emerge triumphant on the big night...

The 1985 Oscar nominees in Best Lead Actor were...

Harrison Ford, Witness

Ford portrays John Book, a Philadelphia detective assigned to investigate the murder of a fellow officer, witnessed by a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas). In danger upon discovering the crime was part of a department conspiracy, Book flees the city for the Amish community and while in hiding begins an uneasy romance with the boy's widowed mother (Kelly McGillis). This performance marked Ford's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

James Garner, Murphy's Romance

Garner portrays Murphy Jones, a small town pharmacist who befriends new-in-town Emma (Sally Field), a divorced single mom yearning for a fresh start. Murphy finds himself falling for Emma, a development sorely tested by the resurfacing of ex-husband Bobby (Brian Kerwin) in her life. This performance marked Garner's first and final Oscar nomination.

William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Hurt portrays Luis Molina, a gay window dresser serving time, alongside anti-government journalist Valentin (the brilliant Raul Julia), in a Latin American prison cell for sexual relations with a minor. To pass the time, Molina tells Valentin romantic stories from his favorite movies and, over time, the cell mates form an unlikely friendship. This performance, which won him honors from the Cannes Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review, plus a BAFTA Award, marked Hurt's first Oscar nomination and win.

Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor

Nicholson portrays Charley Partanna, loyal hit man for the Prizzis, one of the nation's most powerful crime families. While attending a mob wedding, Charley meets and falls for fellow assassin Irene (Kathleen Turner). Their romance is joyous one, that is until Irene betrays the Prizzis, leaving Charley with an impossible decision to make. This performance, which won him honors from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's eighth Oscar nomination.

Jon Voight, Runaway Train

Voight portrays Oscar "Manny" Manheim, one half of a criminal duo (the other being Oscar nominee Eric Roberts) who have just escaped from a maximum security prison in Alaska. The two hop aboard a speeding train and appear to be in the clear. Then, disaster strikes as the train engineer suffers a heart attack, sending the locomotive out of control. Hardly calming the situation is Manny, descending into madness as prospects grow bleaker. This performance, which won him a Golden Globe, marked Voight's third Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Albert Brooks, Lost in America; Jeff Daniels, The Purple Rose of Cairo; Griffin Dunne, After Hours; Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future; Raul Julia, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Won: William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Should've won: James Garner, Murphy's Romance

1985, the year the beautiful but sleepy Out of Africa staged its inexplicable Oscar sweep over The Color Purple, was not among the richest of years for leading men. Even so, the Academy managed to cobble together a respectable fivesome for Best Lead Actor, including two arguably career-best performances and one of Nicholson's funniest turns.

The one nominee I don't get at all here is Voight, an actor I seem to adore (in Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and Coming Home) as often as I detest (here and most of his recent work).

Not unlike Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, this is a shamelessly hammy performance that no doubt will entertain some (as it obviously did many members of the Academy) but to me is mostly nails on chalkboard. Voight's accent is downright bizarre and while I guess I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which he tackles the role, the performance just leaves me exhausted.

The picture is impressive from a technical perspective, with some dynamite film editing and sound work, but the acting, from Voight, Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay, leaves an awful lot to be desired. At age 47, did Voight already think it was time to go as relentlessly over-the-top as Laurence Olivier went in his 70s?

Voight aside, there's a whole to like here, though I'm not quite on board with Hurt as the winner.

It's funny, so often, my qualm with Hurt as an actor is he seems to, perhaps purposely so on occasion, sleepwalk through his films. That kinda-sorta works in the likes of Broadcast News and The Accidental Tourist, as he's portraying characters who are basically comatose vis a vis more colorful co-stars. On a mere handful of occasions has Hurt really floored me - in Body Heat, One True Thing and on the TV series Damages.

Hurt's work in Kiss of the Spider Woman is really unlike anything he's done over his three-plus decades in film. It's a bold, vibrant, very much theatrical performance that takes a whole lot of risk. I'm not sure, however, Hurt really disappears into the role of Molina - he's fascinating to watch but his acting is at times a tad too affected and to boot, the performance lacks the intensity that co-star Julia (who I think deserved to win this year) brings to the table. It's the best of Hurt's three Oscar-nominated turns but I'm not quite as in love with it as voters were. That said, at least the film didn't go home empty-handed.

Another Best Picture contender tossed a consolation prize was Prizzi's Honor, one of the great comedies of the 1980s. That sole victory, of course, came not for its leading man but rather in Best Supporting Actress, where Anjelica Huston triumphed for her scene-stealing turn as Maerose Prizzi, a woman overwhelmed with unrequited love for Nicholson's Charley. (For what it's worth, much I enjoy Huston, I say The Color Purple's Margaret Avery should have triumphed in that category, with Prizzi's William Hickey prevailing in Supporting Actor.)

Nicholson's Charley is a hilarious and entirely unique creation, a lovable dunce who, despite his career as a killer, is awfully hard to resist. His chemistry with Turner, while not quite Dunaway/MacLaine-level, is fabulous and while the supporting players have even juicier meat to chew on (Hickey and John Randolph are especially marvelous), Nicholson no doubt had a blast in this role.

Even better is Ford, in one of the more challenging and riveting roles of his career, if not the best.

Witness is a prime vehicle for Ford, not only because it's a damn great movie, but it also stretches his acting muscles to an extent that is frankly pretty rare across his filmography. So often in his pictures, the focus is dead-set on orchestrating an exciting chase or action-packed set piece. Here, at last, the camera hones in on the man himself, and an absorbing, vulnerable and curious man at that. His romance with the McGillis character, portrayed in a refreshingly awkward fashion, is fascinating.

When on earth is that Ford honorary Oscar coming?

Much I love both Ford and Nicholson, I have a soft spot for Garner that I just cannot resist.

Murphy's Romance marked the seventh of eight projects from the team of director Martin Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Among their efforts were unimpeachable classics like The Long, Hot Summer, Hud and Norma Rae. Their 1985 film, while not quite as ambitious as that trio, is an enchanting charmer. Most significantly, after a career spent largely on the small screen, the picture at last gave Garner one hell of a leading man vehicle on the silver screen. (Garner was no stranger to cinema but the roles and films, more often than not, left a bit to be desired.)

Garner's performance, while endearing and fetching as can be, is also completely unassuming. This isn't an obvious piece of Oscar-bait, chock-full of drama or scenery-chewing. He's just so damn delightful, brightening up the screen like a ray of sunshine, and his chemistry with Field is aces too. Garner is also an actor who can say so much with a mere look - the resentment he feels toward the Kerwin character is plenty palpable and his longing for Field sure does tug at the heartstrings. 

Thank heavens this wonderful actor garnered an Oscar nomination during his remarkable career.

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. James Coco, Only When I Laugh
  15. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider
  16. Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
  17. James Garner, Murphy's Romance
  18. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  19. John Gielgud, Arthur
  20. Harrison Ford, Witness
  21. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  22. Jack Nicholson, Prizzi's Honor
  23. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  24. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  25. William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  26. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  27. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  28. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  29. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  30. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  31. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  32. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  33. Robert Redford, The Sting
  34. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  35. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  36. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  37. Jon Voight, Runaway Train
  38. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  39. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  40. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth