By John H. Foote
There are five nominees in each of the four acting categories where artists vie for the Academy Award. If there was ever a year when it should have been expanded to beyond five, say seven to be fair, it was in 1974.
The Godfather Part II (1974) dominated the category (and awards) that year with three nominees in the category of Best Supporting Actor. They were Robert De Niro, Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo, who joined Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno and Jeff Bridges, a surprise nominee, for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a Clint Eastwood action film directed by Michael Cimino. The inclusion of Astaire and Bridges meant there was no room for two more of the actors from The Godfather Part II – John Cazale in his finest screen work as Fredo, the doomed brother of Michael, and Robert Duvall as the ever loyal lawyer to Michael.
Should the category have five nominees from the same film? Why not?
Something I have never understood about the Academy is why not open it up if the performances of the year warrant it. In 1977 Diane Keaton gave the years two best performances by an actress, winning for Annie Hall, but she could not be nominated for Looking for Mr. Goodbar because the Academy will not allow any actor with two performances nominated. They put an end to that in the forties. Oddly, directors can, as Steven Soderbergh was for Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000, winning Best Director for the latter.
Also in 1974, another category that could have been expanded for a single year was Best Actor. The nominees were Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, and the eventual winner (a head scratcher Art Carney in Harry and Tonto. Carney should never have been there, replacing him should have been Gene Hackman in The Conversation, and added to the list should have been Richard Dreyfuss in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or/ and Martin Sheen in Badlands. All were worthy, deserving of nominations that should have come.
Back to Best Supporting Actor, the focus of this article. If deserving, as they were absolutely, they deserved to be there. Astaire did not, nor did Bridges. Further, two other actors in other films deserved nominations for their work, brilliant performances both.
Bruce Dern was extraordinary as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, blowing Robert Redford’s miscast Gatsby off the screen. In fact, so remarkable was Dern’s performance, he was all anyone watched in the film. Dern had a big presence as Tom, onscreen he always did, but here he was intense in his bluster, a bully, obscenely confident, frightening even, because he just knew his money would get him out of anything, even a murder rap.
The other actor who deserved to be nominated was Academy Award winning director and writer John Huston for his performance as the lecherous villain in Chinatown. Looking like a wrinkled old demon we learn he is far worse than the devil himself. Huston, who often took acting jobs, some that interested him, others for the money (Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973) and had in fact been nominated in this category before, for The Cardinal (1965).
In 1974 the nominees for Best Supporting Actor should have numbered seven, five from The Godfather Part II – De Niro, Duvall, Cazale, Strasberg, and V. Gazzo – Dern from The Great Gatsby, and Huston from Chinatown. Honor the best and in 1974 they were the best.
Why, if the category warrants it can the Oscars not make an exception and allow once in a while more than the five nominees? I am not suggesting going to 10 each year as they did with Best Picture in 2008, that was stupid. However, if they have a year when one or two other performances beyond the five deserve to be there, why not permit it?
In 1974, there was complete faith in Fred Astaire winning an Oscar he had no business being nominated for, as Don Ameche did in Cocoon (1985), more of a sentimental award than anything else. Watching Ameche win, I felt embarrassed for him, and would have felt the same, along with outrage, had Astaire won. The fact Astaire was even nominated was ridiculous and everyone who cares about cinema knows that fact. Had he won it would have been insane.
When the envelope was opened, the winner was announced as Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II, who was not there, off shooting another film. Francis Ford Coppola bounded to the stage and accepted on De Niro’s behalf stating, “De Niro will enrich cinema for years to come.” Some understatement! By 1981 he might have been the greatest living actor and enjoyed the status for a few years. It spoke to the fact, that the Academy voters often get it right, just as often as they get it wrong.
Got a full piece coming on this, going back to various years exploring where an expansion could have happened, within the acting categories only. Give me a week, hope this wets the appetite.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.