For the love of entertainment
There are some truly iconic performances in the Best Actor category in the 1970s, which makes it a very difficult decade to rank. And yet, the weak points are pretty low–especially given the caliber of the performances on this list.
Once again, it behooves me to remind you that I will comment on whether or not the win was deserved, but that cannot have any impact on the ranking itself.
You can watch The Goodbye Girl, you can find it amusing, and you can enjoy Dreyfuss’ performance, but if you watch it without any context and then someone tells you he won an Oscar for that, the only appropriate reaction is “really?” He’s mostly fine as the unlikely male side of a romantic comedy, but for my money he goes in a little too hard on his character’s crankiness. It makes it hard to believe he’d get any girl in the end.
Should have won in 1977: Richard Burton never won an Oscar, and this should have been his year for Equus.
Similar to Richard Dreyfuss, it feels surprising that this is an Oscar-winning role. Granted, Carney has a deft comic hand playing an elderly man on a road trip with his beloved cat, Tonto. He’s very winning and touching without overplaying his hand. But there just isn’t much here.
Should have won in 1974: Guys, Art Carney beat Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II. Any one of them would have been more worthy, but Pacino not winning for his exceptional work as Michael Corleone is insane.
For a decade full of iconic performances, the bottom three on this list are shockingly lightweight. Of the three, Hackman comes out on top because his performance is a tougher sell and he does nail it. The French Connection is a great movie, but it’s like watching The Fugitive and then finding out Tommy Lee Jones won an Oscar for it. Great performances, but Oscar winners? Hackman really is great as the brutal Popeye Doyle, a cop willing to break the rules to break his case. That you root for him during this bruise-black police drama/thriller is a credit to Hackman, but he’s out of his league compared to other winners.
Should have won in 1971: Okay, so it was a light year for Best Actor nominees. The top contenders were Hackman and Topol for Fiddler on the Roof. I’d go with Topol.
Meryl Streep has very unpleasant memories about working with Dustin Hoffman on this movie, but we can’t take backstage shenanigans into account here so take that as more of an interesting fact. Let’s just say that Hoffman excelled as a businessman so caught up in work that he’s become a stranger to his family. When his wife suddenly ditches him with his son, he finds out what truly matters. Hoffman uses his nervous energy to balance his character without becoming cheesy. It helps that he channels the anger and frustration his character would be feeling–even if he apparently wasn’t so good at channeling his own off camera.
Should have won in 1979: There was great competition, but Hoffman deserved the win.
Network hinges on “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” landing properly. Peter Finch’s maniacally angry Howard Beale perfectly sells it. Finch is incredibly memorable, too. No one seethes like Finch did here. So why is he this low? Because the anger is really all there is to Beale. The character isn’t much more than a bunch of angry monologues played like set pieces. The ultimate irony is that Beale tries to tell his audience to wake up and think for themselves rather than trust everything the television tells them, even as he himself becomes another pop idol for them to follow. That’s heavy, good stuff–but it comes mostly from context the movie provides, not from Finch’s performance. As an aside, Finch was the only posthumous acting winner until Heath Ledger thirty years later.
Should have won in 1976: Arguably, William Holden is the lead in Network, so Finch should have been competing in the Supporting category (where he would have handily beaten Jason Robards.) That would have cleared room for Robert De Niro’s iconic turn in Taxi Driver to win.
Coming Home isn’t always subtle in its depiction of an emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam vet who falls hard for the wife of a fellow soldier still overseas, but Voight and Jane Fonda really make up for it with grand slam performances. They’re very good at knowing when to be subtle, letting expressions do the work for them. Dialing it back in a lot of moments allows them to go bigger when the movie demands it. Voight in particular deftly moves from violent anger to profound sadness. It’s a beautiful performance.
Should have won in 1978: Robert DeNiro made a strong case for The Deer Hunter, but the range Voight portrayed here made him the clear winner.
Save the Tiger has mostly been forgotten, but Lemmon gives one of the most lived-in performances ever captured on screen. From the moment his Harry Stoner wakes from a nightmare in the opening scene, Lemmon fully inhabits his character. Five minutes in you could be forgiven for forgetting that Lemmon isn’t Harry Stoner–that’s how impeccably he makes it seem like Harry is a man who has lived an entire life gathering scars and hurts. His expression effortlessly moves from weariness to anger to hope. Another actor might have made Harry like a fuse about to go off, but Lemmon makes Harry a fuse that won’t ever go off because it malfunctioned. Whatever hurt Harry has inside, he may never properly let it out–but Lemmon shows it to you without even trying.
Should have won in 1973: Lemmon all the way.
For a career full of iconic roles, when people think of Jack Nicholson they are most likely to think of him in The Shining or this. That says a lot. And he earns the recognition because he really is perfectly cast as Randall Patrick McMurphy, the tragic, rebellious patient in a mental institution who reminds his fellow inmates of their own humanity–even in the face of a system that wants to wash it away from them. So why isn’t he number one? Because Nicholson was perfectly cast because he practically is Randall Patrick McMurphy. He isn’t really acting so much as being himself. But while Nicholson can’t help being Nicholson in any of his roles, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he does it with nuance and care.
Should have won in 1975: I absolutely love Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, but Nicholson deserved it.
George C. Scott made a career out of playing semi-sadistic tough guys, but he dialed it up to eleven to play the titular war-loving General. Scott manages the mean feat of going big without becoming campy and remaining grounded enough to show Patton’s humanity in smaller scenes. It’s a balancing act few could manage. He lets us see all the complex sides of Patton with an unnatural ease.
Should have won in 1970: Technically, Scott should have been out of the running since he attempted to refuse his nomination, which probably would have given Jack Nicholson a win for Five Easy Pieces. But the Academy got it right by refusing Scott’s refusal.
There really couldn’t be any other. Marlon Brando so thoroughly transforms into Don Corleone that he’s unrecognizable. Corleone could have been a shallow character but Brando imbues him with a fierce love for his family and a certain sense of fragility. You don’t doubt that he’s dangerous, but you also see the loving man behind the violence. He’s an inhumane man who somehow hasn’t lost his humanity. It’s a staggering performance.
Should have won in 1972: Brando, Brando, Brando.