For the love of entertainment
The Best Actor list for the 70s seemed difficult because it had several iconic performances packed in, but there were some lightweight roles on the list that made it easier. The top 8 here is intense. You’ll be hearing this a lot: in another decade, any one of them could have taken the top spot. The caliber of the performances is staggering.
My requisite note first: I will comment on who I think should have won the Oscar that year, but this is a point of interest and cannot impact the ranking in any way.
Remember why Richard Dreyfuss was in the same position for The Goodbye Girl? Apply that logic here. Glenda Jackson is good in this dated, shrill romantic comedy. But Oscar worthy? No sir.
Should have won in 1973: Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.
Yes, her again. Women in Love is essentially an ensemble of four, which really makes it a movie with four supporting performances. Furthermore, the two men get the most interesting arcs and do the bulk of the great acting. Glenda pushes the plot forward, but that’s about it. And while she’s good, she’s a little too impenetrable.
Should have won in 1970: Diary of a Mad Housewife is a dated, odd movie, but Carrie Snodgress deserved to win for it.
I actually really like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where she plays a widowed housewife on a series of unexpected adventures while trying to start her life over with her son in a new town. She goes through a range of emotions and you really feel that she comes out a different woman than she started. This is just a really tough decade for actresses.
Should have won in 1974: Faye Dunaway would have been a good choice for what is arguably a supporting role in Chinatown, but I’m okay with Burstyn winning.
Klute is an uneven movie with an outstanding performance from Jane Fonda. She gives a fiercely intelligent performance that offers a preternatural understanding of her character. It’s the kind of performance that elevates the material. I saw this movie years ago and while I don’t remember much of the thriller plot, I distinctly remember Fonda.
Should have won in 1971: Fonda had it locked.
Roger Ebert once said that it’s difficult to see the brilliance in Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched since she so thoroughly disappears into the role. And since the role embodies sternness, authority, and inhumanity, we don’t see any of the traits we usually look for in a great performance. Does that make it any less worthy of praise? Ebert argues that it makes Fletcher underrated, but I struggle with it here. Fletcher is a pitch-perfect counterpoint to Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy. But Ebert is right–it’s difficult to fully appreciate what Fletcher does. Any other decade she would have been much higher than this.
Should have won in 1975: Fletcher.
Dunaway’s TV executive, Diana, is a metaphor in Network. She embodies not only the worst qualities of the first generation raised by television but the growing corporate greed behind it. At one point, William Holden describes her as “television incarnate,” meaning that she is “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy,” and that “all of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Dunaway captures all these qualities but also gives Diana a thrumming internal life and a confusion or fragility that occasionally threatens to peek out. Diana could have been a mask, but Dunaway made her more.
Should have won in 1976: You could make a case for Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, but I’d go for Dunaway.
Yes, her again. While her costar, Jon Voight, expertly weaves between anger, despair, and resilience, Fonda faces a more difficult internal journey. She starts out the idealistic wife of a soldier volunteering at the local VA hospital. There, she begins to get to know herself outside of the roles society has expected her to fill. She gets to know Voight’s wounded, angry soldier and discovers another side of the war. She begins an affair with him while somehow remaining loyal to her husband. It’s deft, nuanced work from an actress at the top of her game. If the movie undermines her by occasionally going big when less would have been more, Fonda ably comes out unscathed.
Should have won in 1978: Fonda.
The triumph of Sally Field’s performance as Norma, an uneducated factory worker who becomes a union leader, is that she gives Norma a comic, sentimental edge without ever losing sight of her underlying grit. It would have been easy for an actress to get sidetracked by the script’s more sentimental subplots, but Field gives Norma a stern moral fiber that relentlessly pushes her forward no matter the consequences. It’s an iconic, nervy performance.
Should have won in 1979: Oh, what a tough call between Sally Field and Bette Midler’s astonishing turn in The Rose. I don’t want to have to choose, but I might give the edge to Field. They’re both fantastic and very deserving.
Full disclosure: Cabaret is one of my favorite movies, so I’m not exactly unbiased. But look closer at what Liza Minnelli does in Cabaret. She’s big and brassy and bubbly, but there’s a palpable underlying sadness to Sally Bowles. It’s as powerful as she is magnetic. As Minnelli peels away the layers, you realize Sally herself is an elaborate show designed to distract both you and her from a world of deep hurts she can’t deal with. You could say that in many ways both Keaton and Minnelli played themselves, but Minnelli goes deeper. When she lashes out, you feel the sting. When she allows herself to momentarily hope “Maybe this time I’ll be lucky,” you hope along with her–even as you know it will never work out.
Should have won in 1972: Cicely Tyson was great in Sounder, but Minnelli all the way.
I originally had this performance in second place but a friend reached out to tell me I’m nuts and she actually made a really good case (thanks for the reality check, Jessica). Diane Keaton has been doing her Diane Keaton thing for forty years now, but in 1977 her performance as Annie Hall was totally original and unique–and in many ways it still is. Remember my criticism of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? That he was so great in the role because it essentially allowed him to play himself? That’s also true of Keaton here. But my friend got me to rewatch some clips that showed a lot more nuance to what Keaton does than I remembered. I guess it just goes to show how comedic performances are largely looked down on when it comes to acting. What else? Without Keaton, Annie Hall fundamentally does not work.
Should have won in 1977: Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft were terrific in The Turning Point, but Keaton was the true winner.
For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Next, we’ll take a dive into the Best Picture winners of the 1960s.