Monday, October 7, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1973

The Contenders:

Jack Nicholson: The Last Detail
Marlon Brando: The Last Tango in Paris
Jack Lemmon: Save the Tiger (winner)
Al Pacino: Serpico
Robert Redford: The Sting

What’s Missing

There are a lot of places we could go with nominations for Best Actor in 1973, and a lot of them are really different from where we are with the five nominations we have. We can start with the fact that Paul Newman could have just as easily been nominated for The Sting as was Robert Redford. In the “not that genre, please” category we can talk about Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. The Exorcist has the same issue, but it earned multiple nominations. Max von Sydow could be argued here. The same could be said of Donald Sutherland and Don’t Look Now, especially considering that Sutherland has never been nominated. Clint Eastwood didn’t get any respect until he started directing, which explains the miss on High Plains Drifter. Martin Sheen could have been nominated for Badlands. For me, I’m surprised at the miss on Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, but I’m floored by the fact that we’re not talking about Steve McQueen in Papillion.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I hated pretty much everything about The Last Tango in Paris including Brando’s performance. For years, this film was built up to me about how prurient and sexy it was—“it’s all about the butter scene,” I was told. The butter scene is disgusting and rapey and this film has nothing of value to say to anyone. Brando was a great actor, I agree, or at least he could be. But he could also be unpleasant to watch on camera. That’s this movie. It doesn’t belong on this list and he didn’t deserve this nomination.

4. I like Jack Nicholson in general and I didn’t dislike him in The Last Detail, but if I’m completely honest, I think I would have rather seen Otis Young here instead of Nicholson if only because Young played the much more accessible and understandable character. The reason I didn’t mention Otis Young above is because I honestly don’t think that either of them belong here in a year when McQueen, Gould, and Sutherland were snubbed. Nicholson is fine, but this is a performance that is here because Nicholson, not because he earned it.

3. Just as I like Jack Nicholson, I like Robert Redford, and Redford had a good 1973. Along with The Sting, he was in The Way We Were. But if we are looking at a specific performance, I like Paul Newman in The Sting more than I like Redford. In fact, I like Robert Shaw’s performance more as well. There’s nothing wrong with Redford here, but if I could only nominate one actor from this film, it would be Newman, because he’s always the focus in every scene the two share.

My Choices

2. I like Jack Lemmon, too. With Save the Tiger, Lemmon has put me in a difficult position. I like Lemmon’s performance here. The problem is that his performance and the one from Jack Gilford are really the only reason to watch this film at all. It’s a case where the lead performance is as strong as anything in the man’s career, but it’s done in the service of something so otherwise not worth watching that it’s hard to recommend it. I fully understand the win because Lemmon is so strong, but I’m going elsewhere.

1. Pacino should have won this Oscar, although I will admit that I’m looking at this with a certain amount of hindsight. Pacino’s single Oscar is for Scent of a Woman, which feels so much like a career Oscar in the guise of a competitive one that it hurts. There are a lot of performances that could have handed a statue to Pacino, and while Serpico may not be his quintessential performance, it’s a damn good one, and one that would at least look like it was an Oscar he legitimately earned for the performance in question.

Final Analysis


  1. I still haven't seen Serpico but then again, I haven't seen a lot of films by Sidney Lumet. Personally, I would've gone with Elliot Gould for The Long Goodbye as he just killed it in that film. My runner-up would've been Bruce Lee. I do enjoy Last Tango in Paris though it's a shame what Bertolucci made Brando do for the role and what happened to Maria Schneider in that film. The only other nominee that I saw in that list is Jack Nicholson for The Last Detail which I love as it establishes how important Hal Ashby was in the 1970s.

    1. I'd want Gould in the mix without question.

      Serpico is very, very good. In terms of Pacino, it's about as good as he gets. It's not quite Dog Day Afternoon good, but few things are, honestly.

  2. I’d agree that out of these five it should have been Pacino who did beautiful work in Scarecrow this year as well as Serpico and would be the only one of this lot that would make my personal ballot.

    I flat out detested both Last Tango and The Last Detail and both of those performances as well.

    I also like Jack Lemmon and he turns in a customarily fine piece of work in Save the Tiger but he’s been better and more deserving elsewhere.

    The Sting is a highly enjoyable film but it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces have to fit to make it work and I never thought any one particular performer contributed more than the others. The only possible exception to that might be Robert Shaw but he’s supporting. I don’t necessarily begrudge Redford his nomination because he is good but he’s here because of the year he was having and as an acknowledgement that after years of toil this was really the year he arrived as a full-blown top of the heap star.

    Those are some intriguing alternatives and McQueen’s absence from the lineup is nuts especially since the film was a huge success and he was at the top as well. Not that those things should have necessarily gotten him in but considering the quality of his work and some of what did it’s just wrong that he isn’t here.

    Gould was fine in Long Goodbye. I wouldn’t nominate him, but I’m not as fond of that film as many are.
    I think Martin Sheen missed because even though he’s excellent in Badlands at this point he was still seen as a TV performer a very big distinction at the time. It took Sally Field a decade to shake The Flying Nun and Gidget and be taken seriously enough be nominated and Sheen was still jumping back and forth between mediums when his film came out.

    The two biggies that I’d add are Gene Hackman in Scarecrow, he’s Pacino’s equal in the film and both were nomination worthy though I’d stick with Serpico for Al but the picture is heavy, heavy, heavy going which is probably why it was ignored.

    The other would be Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal and he’d be my winner in an open field. Fox's performance, his seeming benignity mixed with his actual ruthlessness is crucial to the success of Jackal.

    My list would run this way:

    Edward Fox-The Day of the Jackal-Winner
    Gene Hackman-Scarecrow
    Steve McQueen-Papillion
    Al Pacino-Serpico
    Martin Sheen-Badlands

    1. As seems to often be the case, I haven't seen your winner. I've also not seen Scarecrow, so I should probably add that to my list.

      I think you're selling Elliott Gould short.

  3. Okay, so I had never seen "the butter scene" until just now and W-T-F?? Why would anyone find that sexy? Rapey is right. Ugh.

    Agree that Redford, Newman and Shaw are all great in The Sting but I'd choose Shaw over the other two. Still, tough choice.

    1. I think Shaw is probably the best thing in The Sting as well, but he's absolutely supporting and not a lead actor.

      And yes, I've been told by multiple people that "the butter scene" is like...super sexy. And it's not just kind of rapey. It's rape.

  4. 73 was a very strong year and I could make the case for many actors, though few of the nominees. Steve McQueen is my clear winner and he was not even nominated, WTF!

    1. At the very least he should have been in the mix. In a lot of ways, it's his best performance, or at least his deepest performance.