Chaim Topol: Fiddler on the Roof
Gene Hackman: The French Connection (winner)
George C. Scott: The Hospital
Walter Matthau: Kotch
Peter Finch: Sunday Bloody Sunday
This project is sometimes so damn frustrating. Best Actor 1971 is one of those times because once again, the Academy has nominated terribly with an exception or two in an incredibly rich and full year. In fact, I’m guessing there are a bunch that I’ve missed here because I haven’t seen some classics from this year. We can start with a few that I think some might mention even if I would leave them off. This group includes Max von Sydow in The Emigrants and Oliver Reed in The Devils. It would also include Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs. Miller because I seem to like that movie a lot less than just about everyone else. Others that might belong here are for roles that are likely more supporting roles than lead roles. These are Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory--title character or not, he’s only in half the film. I might put David Gulpilil in Walkabout in the same place. In the “never getting nominated” category, we can include Melvin van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Richard Roundtree in Shaft, a movie that I still contend is far smarter than people think it is. I would be willing to hear arguments for Michael Caine in Get Carter and Bud Cort in Harold and Maude. Donald Sutherland has rather staggeringly never been nominated for an Oscar, and Klute seems like a place he could have been. I also think Gary Grimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves for a truly mature performance in Summer of ‘42. There are two actors, though, whose absence on this list makes no sense to me. The first is Malcolm McDowell in a career-making performance in A Clockwork Orange. The last is Clint Eastwood, whose 1971 included the iconic Dirty Harry and his playing against type in his directorial debut in Play Misty for Me.
Weeding through the Nominees
4. I love Gene Hackman as an actor, so it pains me that his first Oscar win is getting put this low me and it’s a performance I wouldn’t nominate. The truth is this: I’ve asked people for years to explain to me why they think The French Connection is a great or important movie, and no one has given me an answer. I don’t mean that no one has given me an answer that I accept; I mean that everyone shrugs and says the equivalent of “I don’t know why it’s great.” Sadly, Hackman’s performance falls into that same category for me—I don’t know why people think it’s great.
3. Truthfully, I don’t really want to put anyone in second or third place, but since I’m forced to, I’m going to put Peter Finch here. I like Peter Finch and Sunday Bloody Sunday is a fine movie that I respect more than I like. That’s probably what prevents me from moving it any higher than this. It’s well-made and smart in a lot of ways and Finch, as always, is worth watching. But again, this is not a performance I would specifically nominate for this Oscar when there are so many other worthwhile potential nominations.
2. I’m probably more surprised than anyone else that Walter Matthau is ending up in second place for Kotch. This is not a knock against Matthau, an actor I like very much, but against the film itself. What moves him into second place is the fact that he believably and convincingly plays a good 20 years older than his age in this. Matthau was 51 playing mid-70s, and there’s not a moment where he doesn’t legitimately play as someone in his mid-70s. It’s a great performance in a movie that probably didn’t really deserve it.
1. Of the five nominations, I can’t honestly think of anyone who deserves it more than Chaim Topol for Fiddler on the Roof. This is not a movie that I love, but I cannot for the life of me think of anyone else in the role of Tevye. Fiddler on the Roof trades on its music and dancing, and Topol is front and center here. For a story that is dark in so many ways, he is a spark of joy and wonder at times, and just as dark and conflicted at others. Limited to the five nominations, he is far and away my winner, and in an open field, my only lock for a nomination. But he’s probably not my real winner.
I’d be willing to hear arguments for Tevye as an ultimate winner, and I might even be swayed by some of them. But for now, my winner is more likely Malcolm McDowell for doing something extraordinary with A Clockwork Orange. Alex is so clearly and obviously awful. He has no redeeming qualities about him, and yet by the end of the movie, there is a sense that, at least in some respects, Alex deserves our sympathies. Some of that comes from the story, sure, but most of it comes from McDowell’s gleefully malevolent performance. I could be moved in other ways, but it would take a lot to move me. He’s my choice.