20th Century Fox
ByMike Shutt/April 30, 2023 11:00 am EST
(Welcome to Did They Get It Right?, a series where we look at an Oscars category from yesteryear and examine whether the Academy's winner stands the test of time.)
As someone who frequently peruses the past years of the Academy Awards, more often than not the results just wash over me. Rarely are the winners the most exciting options, but I generally understand how and why a given person or film walked away with a trophy, even if they wouldn't have gotten my vote. People like to grouse about the results of the Oscars, but their whiffing on a massive scale actually doesn't happen as often as people claim it does.
Of course, there are those "What were they thinking?" moments, like "Crash" winning Best Picture and "That Thing You Do!" losing Best Song. Few make me scratch my head harder than Best Actor at the 1975 Oscars. It's a slate of nominees featuring some of the best performers ever, each of whom delivers some of the best work of their legendary careers.
You have Al Pacino reprising his star-making role of Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," Jack Nicholson for the phenomenal neo-noir "Chinatown," Albert Finney as Agatha Christie's quirky Belgian detective in "Murder on the Orient Express," and Dustin Hoffman as the groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse's "Lenny."
They all lost. They lost to Art Carney for Paul Mazursky's road picture "Harry and Tonto." Based on the reaction in the room, you could tell it was a surprise. I usually love when a David beats a Goliath, but even I bristle when I think about how this happened. Was this a legacy Oscar? Was the comedian going dramatic a potent narrative? Or, maybe, we're all just sleeping on this performance.
Sitcom star goes to the Oscars
20th Century Fox
In my "Did They Get It Right?" series, I've often written about the desire to give someone a legacy Oscar. There are two types of legacy Oscars, though. Most common are the ones given to actors who've been nominated many times over their careers and, for some reason or another, have yet to win. Everyone believes they are long overdue at a certain point, and no matter the performance, the actor wins.
Think of Al Pacino winning for "Scene of a Woman" or Kate Winslet winning for "The Reader." The other brand of legacy Oscar is for the people who have been in the business a long time but have never been recognized by the Academy at all, usually because the kinds of roles they take on are outside the purview of the Academy. Arguably, every actor who won at the 2023 Oscars fits into this category, especially Jamie Lee Curtis.
Art Carney was never really a film actor. In fact, he had only ever been credited in a movie once before. But he was a prolific comic performer on radio, stage, and most notably television, where he rose to great fame as Ed Norton on "The Jackie Gleason Show" and its spinoff "The Honeymooners." For as beloved as that character was, this was a time when the idea of a TV star becoming a movie star was basically unthinkable.
So, Carney getting a meaty, somewhat dramatic lead in a picture allowed people to see this person they've known for decades in an entirely new light. Presented with that narrative, the Academy knows there's an almost 100% probability there won't be a chance to award Carney again. If they were going to do it, they needed to do it immediately. And they did.
Pacino's going to have to wait
When we look back at this year, the loss most of us scratch our heads the most about is Al Pacino for "The Godfather Part II." The sequel to Francis Ford Coppola's genre-defining classic fared even better than its predecessor at the Oscars. Famously, "The Godfather" only won three awards, and the big winner was "Cabaret," which took home eight. Meanwhile, "Part II" doubled the first one's win total with six and finally earned Coppola the Best Director trophy.
Al Pacino lost Best Supporting Actor for the first film for a number of reasons: he was a brand new name, competed against two of his co-stars, and his nomination was blatant category fraud, as he should have been in the Best Actor race with Marlon Brando (who won). With "Part II," there was no quibbling.
This was his third nomination in a row, and he had unequivocally become the center of Coppola's mafia masterpiece. Because of the film's other Oscar success and an already building overdue narrative, I think it's easy for us to assume that Pacino was the outright frontrunner who was wrongfully snubbed, especially considering this could very well be the most excellent performance of Pacino's legendary career.
Even though "The Godfather Part II" did extremely well at the Oscars, that was not the case during the awards season. The only Best Picture prize it won that year came from the Academy, and the only Best Actor award Pacino won came from the BAFTAs. However, he wouldn't win that for another year because "The Godfather Part II" didn't get released in the U.K. until 1975, and the BAFTA was also recognizing "Dog Day Afternoon." It was actually another hard-edged, cynical New Hollywood period drama that was ahead of the pack.
The presumed frontrunner
In the end, "The Godfather Part II" was the big winner that Oscars night, but that film was not the one everyone expected to be racking up the prizes that evening. Because of our collective understanding of the presumed greatness of "Part II," it may come as a surprise to some of you that Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" was the awards favorite that year.
At the Golden Globes, it took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson. It won the latter three at the BAFTAs too, and Nicholson also won the Best Actor prize from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle.
All eyes were on "Chinatown" and especially on Nicholson, as this marked his fourth nomination. At the actual ceremony, Nicholson and Art Carney were the only two nominees who showed up, as everyone else seemingly didn't think they had a shot of winning. This was Nicholson's to lose, and he did. In the end, "Chinatown" only won one of its 11 nominations. Even though he's hiding behind his trademark sunglasses in the audience, the disappointment in his name not being called radiates off Nicholson.
"The Godfather Part II" was a late arrival, coming out just before Christmas 1974. Meanwhile, "Chinatown" was released back in June. It was in the unfortunate position of peaking too early and having a masterpiece sweep in at the last second. I think Nicholson and Pacino ended up either splitting votes or causing people to swerve to another choice because they couldn't pick between them in those final stages, allowing Carney to come in and grab that award. Ultimately, things worked out for Nicholson, as he won Best Actor the following year for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
The lone biopic
Like Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman was a recent member of the "When are they going to win an Oscar?" club. After his breakout, star-making performance in "The Graduate" back in 1967, it quickly became clear that this was an actor who was eventually going to get awarded. It was just a matter of the stars aligning. In 1975, those stars were more than a bit askew. Although "Lenny," Bob Fosse's biopic of trailblazing comedian Lenny Bruce, earned a respectable six nominations (including Best Picture), it always was on the outside looking in for the wins.
The Academy is no stranger to liking biopics, especially in the last 20 years, but "Lenny" doesn't really fit the mold of all those Oscar-winning true stories. This is a purposefully rough, uncompromising, and somewhat unpleasant look at the comedian and his relationship with his wife Honey, played by an Oscar-nominated Valerie Perrine. Bob Fosse has always been fascinated by the underbelly of show business, but he never glorifies that underbelly. His appreciation comes from its seediness, and "Lenny" dives into that head first. Even by New Hollywood standards, there's not much light to be found here.
Playing someone as plainly unlikable as Lenny Bruce, that always is going to make things tough when it comes to people voting for you. Lenny Bruce is one of the most celebrated comedians of all time, and his performance dodges humor in almost every way. Beyond the film's tone, Hoffman also spends much of the film opposite Valerie Perrine, and I would argue that she kind of blows him off the screen. If one of them was going to win an Oscar, I think it'd go to Perrine and not Hoffman. Hoffman is fantastic in "Lenny," but it wasn't meant to be.
A departure from realism
Anglo-EMI Film Distributors
The four Best Actor nominees mentioned firmly fit within that New Hollywood mold. Even Art Carney, for all of his old school sensibilities and how gentle the movie is, was the star of a Paul Mazursky picture, who gave us "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." The one outlier of the bunch is Albert Finney playing Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express."
What is so fun about this Agatha Christie adaptation is how it straddles the line between the modern filmmaking techniques of the early 1970s and the star-studded glamor of Hollywood's past. In the center of it all is Finney, who had criminally only received one Oscar nomination previously for "Tom Jones" 11 years earlier, giving a performance unlike any other in the category.
His Poirot deviates wildly from the adherence to the emotional reality the New Hollywood strives for. This is theatre. It is a larger-than-life comic performance that somehow maintains the gravity of the murder investigation at the center of the film. For all his affectation, Finney manages to somehow make what could be a complete cartoon into someone actually believable. Poirot is a character who has been played many times on screens big and small, and as for the cinema, no one has ever been better than Finney (though David Suchet on television surpasses him).
Like "Lenny," "Murder on the Orient Express" received six nominations, but unlike "Lenny," it did manage to win one, a legacy Oscar for Ingrid Bergman for Best Supporting Actress. However, it didn't receive a Best Picture nomination. That, along with the drastically different performance style, indicates to me that Finney was probably in fifth place. This kind of performance doesn't really win Oscars ever, so it's rather wonderful that he rightfully got nominated.
Who was left out
With the roster of Best Actor nominees already stacked, it's rather remarkable that there were still quite a few names left out of the five who not just belonged in the category, but could have very well won it as well. Most notable is Gene Hackman for "The Conversation." This is famously the year Francis Ford Coppola went up against himself in the Best Picture race, and plenty of people out there will tell you that "The Conversation" is actually the superior of the two films. While I don't necessarily agree, I cannot fathom how Hackman wasn't recognized for his utterly entrancing performance as the obsessive surveillance technician Harry Caul.
Simply based on other films nominated, other very worthy contenders that year could have been Peter Falk for John Cassavetes' masterpiece "A Woman Under the Influence" and James Earl Jones for the Harlem-set romantic dramedy "Claudine," which received Best Actress noms for Gena Rowlands and Diahann Carroll, respectively.
If they wanted to go out on a limb for some comedic performances that year, they could have opted for the leading men of two Mel Brooks films: Cleavon Little for "Blazing Saddles" or Gene Wilder for "Young Frankenstein," both of which received nominations elsewhere. You also had the likes of James Caan in "The Gambler," Walter Matthau in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," Richard Dreyfus in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," and even Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard."
This was a year where the voters were spoiled for choice, and when one's spoiled for choice, making that ultimate selection becomes much more difficult. You may want to play it safe, and Art Carney in "Harry and Tonto" was a pretty safe choice.
Who should have won
As much as I would like to have some contrarian, off-the-beaten-path selection for a winner, I can only fall into the popular consensus here. Al Pacino really should have been the one walking away with the award. The Academy had two opportunities to honor what would become one of the defining performances and characters of American cinema of the last half-century, and they avoided it both times.
The first time I completely understand, considering the category fraud and the otherworldly force of Joel Grey in "Cabaret." But in 1975? It's a much tougher pill to swallow, especially because "The Godfather Part II" did so well at the Oscars in every other category. I also believe this win could have drastically changed Oscars' history, where the Academy wouldn't have felt so obligated to give him the win for "Scent of a Woman" 18 years later. Consequently, Denzel Washington could have won that year for playing the titular civil rights activist in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."
I bear no ill will to Art Carney in the slightest or want to disparage his performance in any way. Given his career trajectory, he probably never thought he would ever win an Oscar, and you can only admire him for having this triumph over such fierce competition. But looking at the 1975 Oscars as a snapshot of the prior year in film, seeing his name in bold amongst the other nominees will never not ring oddly.
Making things look even worse, "Harry and Tonto" is unavailable digitally and has never been released on Blu-ray in the U.S. So, if you want to see how Carney's performance stacks up with the competition, you won't even get to do so in the best quality, which is not how an Oscar-winning film should be treated.