Nicholson at the Oscars: 1983 ("Terms of Endearment")

In 1963, while a little-known Jack Nicholson was taking on supporting turns opposite horror legend Boris Karloff in a pair of Roger Corman-directed B-movies (The Raven and The Terror), English filmmaker Tony Richardson barnstormed Hollywood with Tom Jones. The film, based on the beloved Henry Fielding novel, was the toast of that year's Oscars, scoring four victories, including Best Picture, on its nine nominations.

Richardson, unfortunately, would never direct another picture as commercially successful as Tom Jones. Most of his subsequent efforts, while often critically acclaimed, failed to generate much interest at the box office.

Among Richardson's final films was 1982's The Border, a Nicholson vehicle that cast the star (opposite Harvey Keitel and Valerie Perrine) as a corrupt border enforcement agent. While now often looked upon as one of the more underrated Nicholson films and performances, the picture garnered a lukewarm critical reception at the time and was in and out of theaters within a month.

Nicholson would fare a whole lot better the following year.

In the 1970s, writer James L. Brooks emerged one of the most powerful and successful forces on the small screen as the creator of mega hits Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Taxi. Brooks' first foray onto the silver screen, as screenwriter of 1979's Oscar-nominated Starting Over, was also a home run.

Given Brooks' track record, expectations were sky-high for his feature film directorial debut, a screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel Terms of Endearment. Brooks wrote the juicy role of retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove with Burt Reynolds in mind but, on account of a commitment Reynolds made to headline the comedy Stroker Ace, the actor turned down the offer.

Reynolds would no doubt go on to regret that decision, as his replacement, a certain Oscar-winner, would go on to score his second golden trophy...

The 1983 Oscar nominees in Best Supporting Actor were...

Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be

Durning portrays Colonel Erhardt, a bumbling Nazi who leads his troops in an invasion of Warsaw, Poland. Upon arrival, the Nazis are greeted by a troupe of disguised amateur actors (among them, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) who use their not-so-exemplary stagecraft in an attempt to fool the intruders and make an escape. This performance marked Durning's second and final Oscar nomination.

John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment

Lithgow portrays Sam Burns, a mild-mannered small town banker who has a brief romantic fling with Emma (Oscar nominee Debra Winger), a woman whose marriage has soured on account of her husband's own cheating. This performance marked Lithgow's second (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment

Nicholson portrays Garrett Breedlove, a womanizing former astronaut who for years has lived next door to the brash but lovable Aurora (Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine) without much interaction. Down the road, the two at last get to know each other and become romantically involved. This performance, which won him honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle, plus a Golden Globe, marked Nicholson's seventh Oscar nomination and second win.

Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff

Shepard portrays Chuck Yeager, the legendary and fearless test pilot who in 1947 becomes the first man in the world to break the sound barrier. Yeager's victory inspires the U.S. astronauts later involved in the Space Race against Russia. This performance marked Shepard's first and final Oscar nomination.

Rip Torn, Cross Creek

Torn portrays Marsh Turner, a farmer in rural Cross Creek, Florida who, alongside daughter Ellie (the wonderful Dana Hill), welcomes aspiring New York author Marjorie (Mary Steenburgen) into town. Events involving Marsh and Ellie's cherished deer Flag inspire Marjorie to pen what will become her most famous work - The Yearling. This performance marked Torn's first (and to date, final) Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Steven Bauer, Scarface; Scatman Crothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie; Jeff Daniels, Terms of Endearment; Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff; Ed Harris, The Right Stuff; Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy; John Lithgow, Twilight Zone: The Movie; Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story; Kurt Russell, Silkwood

Won and should've won: Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment

Since embarking on 20 Years of Streep and now Nicholson at the Oscars, I have gone back and revisited a total of (including this year) 27 acting categories for this blog. While I've come across the occasional ho-hum line-up over these projects, I'm not sure I've seen a more perplexing fivesome than this one. While I do think the Academy got the winner right, given the lackluster competition, there are two nominees here who are legit head-scratchers and none of the contenders, not even Nicholson, are really that spectacular.

This category is a mess in so many ways.

The winner here for sure should've been Russell, just as fantastic as Streep and Cher in Silkwood. Bauer and McGavin are also more compelling than all of the Oscar nominees; Lithgow was up for the wrong performance; the Academy recognized inferior supporting turns from The Right Stuff and Terms of Endearment (nods should've gone to Harris and Daniels instead); and how sweet would it have been for Lewis to garner a competitive Oscar nod during his career for by far the best performance he ever gave.

Alas, the Academy instead decided to honor Durning, one of the all-time great character actors, in a rare one-note performance, and Lithgow, another acting giant, not doing a whole lot over less than 10 minutes of screen time in the Best Picture winner.

Durning, in addition to being a World War II hero who participated in the D-Day landings, was one hell of an actor, stealing scenes with ease from some of the all-time greats. How he wasn't Oscar-nominated for Dog Day Afternoon, among other films, is beyond me.

In 1982, a year in which he also graced the screen with a warm, charming turn in the greatest comedy of all-time (Tootsie), Durning garnered his first Oscar nomination for a brief but buoyant performance in the movie musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It's such a small turn, in terms of screen time, but his fabulous rendition of "Sidestep" alone justified the recognition.

To Be or Not to Be, Alan Johnson's supremely inferior remake of the 1942 Ernest Lubitsch comedy classic, also finds Durning with limited screen time but there's no "Sidestep"-level scene or moment to be found. With his co-stars either hamming it up (Brooks) or playing it depressingly straight (Christopher Lloyd and Jose Ferrer), Durning seems uneasy about which way to go and ultimately, for the most part, winds up phoning it in. It's not an outright bad performance but there's nothing awards-caliber about his work in the slightest. The nomination is a testament to the affection Durning's peers felt toward the actor, regardless of the quality of the role.

Lithgow has even less screen time than Durning but at least breathes some life into his brief turn. His work in Terms of Endearment is quite charming while it lasts and, though Lithgow seems to come and go in the blink of an eye, his minor arc is an essential one to the Winger half of the picture.

Two problems, though - one, Lithgow is leaps and bounds more riveting in Twilight Zone: The Movie, not that the Academy was ever going to bestow recognition upon that film. Two, how on earth did Daniels not garner any traction at all that awards season? Sure, his character is kind of detestable but it's such an impressive breakthrough turn, I would argue just as terrific as Nicholson's performance. This marked the first of many occasions in which Daniels would be egregiously overlooked on Oscar nominations morning.

Speaking of recognizing the wrong performer from a film, there's Shepard, the late, great actor and playwright who's just not quite as strong as co-star Harris in The Right Stuff.

The Shepard nomination reminds me somewhat of Glenn Close's nod for The Natural the year after - Shepard, like Close, doesn't really have much meat to chew on in his picture but he looks incredible, exquisitely photographed by Caleb Deschanel, with matinee idol charisma. He has an almost mythical screen presence in the film but, beyond some tender moments opposite Barbara Hershey (who portrays his wife), it's not an especially amazing performance.

The two nominees here deserving of recognition are Torn and Nicholson, two New Hollywood actors whose paths somehow never crossed, sans during pre-production on Easy Rider, when Nicholson replaced Torn, who was initially cast in the role of George Hanson. (Torn withdrew from production amid tension with director Dennis Hopper.)

Cross Creek is only intermittently compelling. Steenburgen, who's typically able to brighten up even the dullest of proceedings, is curiously lifeless in the lead role and director Martin Ritt paces the film at snail speed. What does work, thankfully, are some of the supporting performances, including Torn, Alfre Woodard and especially Dana Hill.

Torn's Turner - rigid on the outside, a softy on the inside - is not unlike film characters we've seen countless times before. Still, he and Hill are a pleasure to watch and toward the film's end, events transpire with Turner that are downright devastating. His performance finally gets some blood flowing through the film's veins, though it's too late to salvage the picture as a whole.

Still, commendable as Torn's work is, the Academy got this one right.

Nicholson's performance in Terms is not on the same level as his leading turns from the early '70s. It is, however, still awfully irresistible, one of the many exceptional parts of Brooks' picture. His presence and comic energy are absolutely vital to what is otherwise an often gut-wrenching film. He's enchanting from the moment he first hits the screen and his chemistry with MacLaine is dynamite.

As was the case in Easy Rider, Nicholson's supporting turn is the equivalent of a tornado ripping through town - you can't possibly keep your eyes off of him, even if it's a little lesser a role than his best.

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. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
  18. John Gielgud, Arthur
  19. Rip Torn, Cross Creek
  20. Ryan O'Neal, Love Story
  21. Jack Nicholson, Reds
  22. Walter Matthau, The Sunshine Boys
  23. Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
  24. Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
  25. Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
  26. Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  27. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Ragtime
  28. Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
  29. Robert Redford, The Sting
  30. John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
  31. Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
  32. Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express
  33. Rupert Crosse, The Reivers
  34. Anthony Quayle, Anne of the Thousand Days
  35. Maximilian Schell, The Man in the Glass Booth