For the love of entertainment
The Best Actor category in the 1970s is full of larger than life performances that commanded your attention. Perhaps in an attempt to balance that out, the Supporting Actor category went in the opposite direction throughout this decade, tending to honor more thoughtful and quiet performances. Understated is the key word here.
Once again, it behooves me to remind you that I am sticking to the people who won an Oscar in order to do this ranking. If I tried to weigh in the actors who were snubbed, this task would get overwhelming. I will comment on who should have won in each given year, but that cannot have any impact on the actor’s overall standing.
George Burns and costar Walter Matthau are bitingly funny in The Sunshine Boys. They play former vaudeville partners who now despise each other, asked to reunite for a TV special. Already brimming with resentment and spite, this shot at the spotlight causes their cups to runneth over. At least, that’s what the plot promises. What we get instead are seasoned comedians George Burns (a former vaudevillian himself) and Walter Matthau expertly leveraging each other for a series of one-liners. The movie, adapted from a Neil Simon play, seems to be enjoying their banter so much that it forgets to explore anything meaningful. They might as well have just recorded a comedy album and called it a day. The Sunshine Boys is a comedic gem, and as such you can’t deny that Burns is at the top of his game. But he’s not acting. He’s performing a set from his old bag of tricks. Significantly, Burns’ old comedy partner, Jack Benny, had to bow out of the film when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Matthau was his replacement. Some argue that this gave Burns a sentimental vote from Academy members as an extra nudge to the podium on Oscar night.
Should have won in 1975: ’75 had a stacked roster of nominees, any of whom would have been better. Jack Warden in Shampoo. Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Burgess Meredith in Day of the Locust. I would have voted for Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon. His appearance in that film upends the whole movie and it has always stayed with me.
When I recently watched Julia on Netflix, it astonished me that Jason Robards is barely in it. When I read the description of this movie and his role, I was mentally placing Robards toward the top of the list. In Julia, playwright Lilian Hellman is sent on a dangerous mission to deliver funds to an anti-Nazi group during WWII at the behest of her childhood friend, Julia. Vanessa Redgrave and Robards won Oscars for playing the two people who had the greatest impact on Hellman: Redgrave as Julia, and Robards as her lover Dashiell Hammett. Julia inspires her humanity while Dashiell pushes her to greatness as a writer. The problem is, Julia is only peripherally about her writing. The title alone cues you to which side of the story is more important. Robards inhabits Hammett with instinctive depth and gravitas, but there’s not much here. He never gets a chance to flex his muscle, although to be fair Robards says a lot with the few moments he has. It’s a beautiful understated performance that never gets a moment to shine.
Should have won in 1977: Maximilian Schell was nominated for an even more inconsequential role in Julia, so he’s out. Mikhail Baryshnikov was all about the dancing in The Turning Point, so no. Peter Firth is the first real contender for Equus. But my money would have been on Alec Guinness in Star Wars. Laugh if you must (I’m sure the Academy did, which is why he didn’t win), but Guinness’ solid presence is what sold the movie and made it work.
Being There is a satirical story about a simple, television-loving gardener (played by Peter Sellers) who somehow becomes an advisor to the president. He gets there through the support of Melvyn Douglas’ dying businessman, who takes great comfort in the gardener’s odd observations, which he contorts into having incredible depth. Have you noticed that understated is the buzzword for the decade in this category? Melvyn Douglas fits squarely in that wheelhouse. He imbues his character with great dignity and humanity, while most would have wanted a dying millionaire to be showy in a sort of Howard Hughes way. But I have a hard time getting close to any of the characters in Being There, and this one is no exception. Perhaps it’s because the thick veneer of satire keeps you at arms length, perhaps there was a conscious decision to keep the audience an audience (watching a movie about a gardener who loves watching television). Regardless, it makes it hard to relate to anything–or anyone–in the movie.
Should have won in 1979: Robert Duvall’s performance in Apocalypse Now is the opposite of understated, but I would challenge anyone to argue against it.
To critique John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter is to feel like one of the townspeople preying on his disabled character, Michael. They treat him as a sort of village idiot–someone they disdain unless he’s providing them with an opportunity to mock him for their own entertainment. It’s mean-spirited theater. On the one hand, you could say that Director David Lean is condemning this. On the other hand, the plot itself reduces Michael to a type: the ‘other’ who advances the plot along. Michael is nothing more than a plot device, a sort of court jester who is allowed to go places others can’t–and thus see what they cannot. Armed with that information, it is up to him to bring about the tragedy in an attempt to gain love and acceptance–even if just fleetingly. So even the movie is culpable in the way the townspeople treat Michael. And while John Mills could never overcome the fact that his character is meant as nothing but a way to advance the plot, he does deserve credit for getting at Michael’s deep wells of humanity. Mills seems to be doing everything he can to avoid letting Michael become a caricature, even as the movie conspires against him.
Should have won in 1970: Mills deserved it.
The trick of The Paper Chase is that in a way the entire movie hinges on how students react to Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield. He is the physical embodiment of Harvard Law–a test of wills they must get through in order to become lawyers and achieve the success they have set their hearts on. He is proper, he is fiercely intelligent and unforgiving, and he is intimidating. Students who allow him to get under their skin won’t be long for law school, for if they cannot handle him they cannot handle Harvard Law itself. Houseman is implacable. He cannot be ruffled. He steadfastly refuses to give the movie a big character-defining moment, and it wasn’t until I started typing this out that I realized that is his character defining moment. He’s the stand-in for Harvard Law itself. You can’t compromise him by humanizing him or explaining him. I originally had Houseman in last place but I have a new respect for what he did in The Paper Chase now that typing this out forced me to think it over. Still, without an arc or emotional journey there’s no denying that Houseman’s understated metaphor of a role got outshone in this ranking.
Should have won in 1973: I feel confident saying Jack Gilford would have been a better choice for Save the Tiger. His weary moral compass to Jack Lemmon’s desperate man added depth and emotion to that movie, unlike anything Houseman achieved here.
Robards achieved the rare feat of winning two Oscars in a row in ’76 and ’77, giving him two spots on this list. His role in All the President’s Men, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, suffers from the same problem as his winning role in Julia in that he’s surprisingly not that present. As Woodward and Bernstein investigate Watergate, Bradlee hums about the periphery. However, Robards makes an impact with his short screen time better than he did in Julia–perhaps because Bradlee feels more directly consequential to the plot here. Without his support–without him believing in Woodward and Bernstein–it’s very possible the Post would not have uncovered the Watergate scandal at all. Robards plays it without a flourish, just the sheltered pride of a career newsman dedicated to seeing the truth come out. He’s masterfully understated. It’s also notable that Robards made himself available on set for the duration of the shoot because he thought it was important for Bradlee to be ‘working’ in his office in the background of the newsroom–even in scenes he wasn’t in. That’s understanding what makes his character tick and going out of his way to realize it. This is a performance that is easy to overlook when you see All the President’s Men (perhaps too easy), but it does stand out when you look closer to see what Robards did. And that makes a difference.
Should have won in 1976: It’s tempting to say Burgess Meredith in Rocky, a performance that’s the antithesis of Robards in that it’s showy and commands your attention. Both are great for very different reasons. What breaks the stalemate for me is that I think Meredith adds more to Rocky than Robards does to All the President’s Men. Without Robards, President’s would still be landmark cinema. Without Meredith, Rocky would have been missing one of its essential puzzle pieces.
I have problems with The Deer Hunter as a movie. I think the structure is intentionally jumbled for maximum emotional devastation to the point where certain storylines, including that of Nick, Christopher Walken’s character, cease to make sense as anything but a metaphor for the Vietnam War being evil. In fact, it’s Nick’s storyline that strains plausibility the most. You see, when Nick and his friend, played by Robert DeNiro, went to Vietnam they dreamed of returning home as heroes–whether they lived or died. Instead, Nick loses his mind and ends up dying in an underground Russian Roulette game. Walken does his best to make Nick’s narrative make sense (in the end, no one could). Mostly, he perfectly captures the horror of the situation and how it transforms Nick. Walken has a reputation for being a caricature of himself now, but in 1978 he hadn’t evolved into that yet. He does stunning work here.
Should have won in 1978: Bruce Dern was also heartbreaking in the other emotional Vietnam movie to come out that year, Coming Home. But this award belongs to Walken.
This is the King of the understated performances of the 70s in this category. You almost wonder if it would be able to win an Oscar nowadays. Please don’t misunderstand: that is not at all a critique of Ben Johnson’s wonderful performance but a comment on how understated performances have a hard time making any headway now. Showiness and theatricality reign supreme, so Ben Johnson’s quiet dignity and sad eyes would have a steep road to Oscar. The Last Picture Show is a melancholy movie and Johnson’s aged Sam the Lion embodies that quite perfectly. Even when he gets angry, he doesn’t light a spark. But the movie depends on Sam, even though he’s not the main character. Once he’s gone, it needs him to haunt everything that comes after–leading Sonny to note “Nothing’s really been right since Sam the Lion died.” Mission accomplished. Johnson’s wistful humanity elevates the entire movie.
Should have won in 1971: Johnson.
I always knew it would come down to these two at the top. The Godfather Part II was DeNiro’s first big movie, and he mostly speaks Italian in it with English subtitles. It would have been far too easy for him to fall into doing an impression of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, too, since he is playing a younger version of that character. Instead, DeNiro managed to add his own nuances and layers to the character while paying homage to what Brando built. Everything he does is recognizably Brando’s creation and recognizably DeNiro. That’s pretty incredible. He also does a pretty good riff on Michael Corleone’s saga, except condensed into the subplot of a single movie. He achieves so much in one performance. It was the perfect announcement to the world that DeNiro was a major talent who was going to be around for a long time.
Should have won in 1974: It was all DeNiro.
Simply put: Joel Grey is in a league of his own. There are no performances like his out there. You don’t know anything about the emcee in Cabaret, and you won’t get any more information about him by the end of the night other than the fact that he has a wicked, ribald sense of humor. He’s perhaps the ultimate enigma. And in the hands of Joel Grey it doesn’t matter. He’s captivating anyway. Whenever he shows up, you can’t take your eyes off him. With every flourish, every stare, Grey draws you in. He attracts you, then repulses you. He makes an appeal for your emotion, then carelessly brushes you off. And you always want more. Grey does more with a single look than any other actor on this list.
Should have won in 1972: Grey had incredibly stiff competition from not one, not two, but three actors from The Godfather: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and James Caan. Of those three, Pacino was the clear competition to me. Poor Eddie Albert had perpetual also-ran status for The Heartbreak Kid. Down to Pacino and Grey, I choose Grey. Pacino was great in The Godfather but Grey did something truly unique here.
For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next, Best Supporting Actress of the 70s.