Monday, July 24, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1978

The Contenders:

Laurence Olivier: The Boys from Brazil
Gary Busey: The Buddy Holly Story
Jon Voight: Coming Home
Robert De Niro: The Deer Hunter
Warren Beatty: Heaven Can Wait

What’s Missing

As is usually the case, I don’t love all of the nominations for this award and this year. More to the point, there are a few that I think were ignored that should not have been. To the Academy’s shame, I can see why most of these were ignored, and it doesn’t speak well of them. We can start with Richard Gere in Days of Heaven, which may have felt too insubstantial. Add to that John Travolta in Grease for the same reason. Tommy Lewis in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may not have been well-known enough, or it may simply be a case of mild racism. The same could be said of Henry Gayle Sanders in Killer of Sheep. The one I genuinely don’t understand not being here is Brad Davis in Midnight Express.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. My problem with Warren Beatty being nominated for Heaven Can Wait has nothing to do with Warren Beatty and only a little to do with his performance. It really comes down to the film itself and how flyaway it is. This is a film that makes a lot of leaps to get to where it wants to go, and it forces the characters into situations for plot reasons rather than character reasons. It’s not a bad performance from Beatty, but I don’t think it’s a great one in part because the character isn’t that interesting, and Beatty doesn’t do anything to make the character interesting.

4. I have a similar reaction to Laurence Olivier and The Boys from Brazil. This is such a bonkers film that it’s hard for me to believe that Olivier was nominated for a reason other than the fact that he was considered the greatest actor of his generation and had only received a single Oscar in his career. Don’t get me wrong—I kind of like the movie itself in part because of how crazy it is, and I like Olivier in it, but I’m not sure that he belongs here just because this is clearly a B-movie with an A-list cast.

3. Despite what De Niro may be doing to his legacy with his recent decent into terrible comedies, there was a time when every one of his performances was something to treasure. The Deer Hunter comes from that time, so I get his nomination. The problem is that he’s not even close to the most memorable part of the film. For me, a Best Actor statue should go to someone who is so central to the movie that it can’t be imagined any other way. That’s not the case here, and that’s why even De Niro in his prime can’t rise above third place.

My Choices

2. I’m not surprised that Jon Voight won this Oscar for Coming Home. I spent some time considering first and second place here, and while my vote ultimately doesn’t go to Voight, I’m not sure I can completely disagree with the decision. What power Coming Home has comes in large part from Voight, who had a difficult role in presenting someone who is so physically and emotionally damaged without the film sliding head-first into melodrama. It doesn’t, and Voight gets a large amount of the credit for that.

1. But given a vote, I’d go with Gary Busey and The Buddy Holly Story. It’s easy to forget how good Busey could be based on the baby-step-away-from-an-institution persona he has now, but this is a real, fully-fleshed performance. Put Brad Davis into the mix and we might have a longer and more boisterous discussion, and while Voight was a fine choice, it was Busey who completely embodied his character and made him real. He’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd agree with your rankings almost all the way through. I love Heaven Can Wait, it's amusingly charming and Beatty oozes Movie Star charisma...but that's not what Oscars are for. Boys from Brazil is a nutso movie and Olivier is fine in it but the performance didn't scream nomination worthy. I respected The Deer Hunter even though I didn't like it but Christopher Walken and John Cazale were who I remembered when the film was over.

    Busey is one of the harder performers to separate from his very, very disturbing private image but he is extremely good in The Buddy Holly Story and it's great that this singular highlight of his career was acknowledged but I'd go with the academy's choice of Voight this time. He is extraordinarily good not just in his big scenes like his last but all the way through really getting under his troubled character's skin.

    However the omission of Brad Davis is appalling and had he made the cut he would be my choice for winner in a walk. The other names you spoke of are interesting possibilities and the only other two I'd suggest are Anthony Hopkins in Magic and Christopher Reeve in Superman. I know Reeve might fall into the same category as Travolta and the film is hardly a springboard to support a Best Actor nomination but looking at his work now and what an impact he made in the film and all the others who have taken on the role to middling results it only enhances how strong his performance is.

    1. I'm not exactly sure how I missed Reeve and Superman because he absolutely deserves to be in the first paragraph. I haven't seen Magic, although I did recently buy a copy, so I guess I'll see it soon enough.

      I thought about Brad Davis as my winner pretty seriously. Had he been nominated, he'd certainly have made it to the "appropriate winner" level, because that really is a performance for the ages.

      I don't object at all to a vote for Voight. I can't say he didn't deserve to win even if my vote would have been for Busey.

  2. Count me as another supporter of Christopher Reeve. He was outstanding in Superman.