1974 was dominated by male-centric films, whether focusing on an ensemble of Hollywood stars saving the women and children from disaster (Earthquake, The Towering Inferno), a mafia don and the saga of his sons (The Godfather: Part II), a vengeful father (Death Wish), or a parody of the classic Hollywood cowboy (Blazing Saddles). It was also dominated by a slew of classics and cult flicks -- how many times have The Godfather: Part II, Young Frankenstein and Chinatown appeared on "best of film" lists? These are movies we have memorized before we even see them, and they needed someone with balls in charge. In the case of these five films, quite literally.
Art Carney in Harry and Tonto
Check out the other performances and you'll see actors headlining a murder mystery with a morally ambiguous ending, a warts-and-all biopic with a sad ending, a cynical noir with a pessimistic ending, and a crime epic with a exhaustingly tragic ending. Then there's this film, a light-hearted road movie centering on an octagenarian going cross-country with his cat after his New York apartment is demolished. I'll get into what I feel about the movie itself when I cover its screenplay nomination, but let me preface my take on Carney's performance with these words: I just don't like this movie. It means well, but as a whole I just don't care for it.
Not that Carney is the issue. I think he's quite capable in the role of Harry, subtly underplaying it most of the time so that his outbursts of real emotion are all the more effective. When I think about what I like about Harry and Tonto, I think about his forcing a Greyhound bus to stop because his cat needs to pee. Or his tearful exit after identifying a body at the morgue. Or, my favorite scene, his visit to a nursing home that ends in a dance with an old flame. That moment is just beautiful enough to make me like the film and performance a little more. In the end, though, I don't think the role is challenging, and I don't think Carney's performance is either.
Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie once stated that she could never write her popular detective Hercule Poirot for the stage because he was too over-the-top. In close-up the role is just as jarring as Christie expected. Heavily made-up and speaking with a gruff accent, it's hard to believe this is Albert Finney. He gets Poirot's watchfulness, ego, and amusement, in ways both subtle and not very subtle at all. The challenge, of course, is to make an interesting character out of someone who is conducting interviews for two hours, and Finney rises to the occasion. He's soothing here, accusatory there; Poirot adapts to the occasion spontaneously.
This also makes Poirot pretty inscrutable. When David Suchet went from righteous anger to soothing calm in the television version, you could chart that progress. Finney's Poirot, on the other hand, is a cartoon, yelling at inappropriate moments and muttering Shirley Temple tunes under his breath. His individual interviews are great, and he nails that final ten-minute monologue, but the performance rests on the mannerisms.
Dustin Hoffman in Lenny
Is there a more perfect marriage of actor and role? Hoffman, as we've seen, is a notorious improviser who never plays the same scene twice. Lenny Bruce, according to Albert Goldman, was a notorious improviser "whose ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated". Bring the two together and you get a performance that just sizzles.
I don't know how to express my love for this performance. Never before have I seen Hoffman this hilarious, vulnerable, adorable, maddening and charming. His nerdy exuberance when romancing Honey is infectious; his single-minded obsession with his obscenity trials is frustrating. His performance makes the disparate images of the responsible father and the drug-abuser just different parts of the same man. I really just want to show you the movie and yell, "SEE? LOOK AT THIS!" every scene. But that would be annoying, so I won't.
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
I imagine it must be difficult to play a gumshoe, since your role is either to react or offer exposition. Yet it's not hard to see why Nicholson was the frontrunner this year. Of course, Robert Towne's screenplay and Roman Polanski's direction lay enough groundwork for Nicholson to work with, but it takes a special kind of actor to make the private dick effective. I'm not talking charm, I'm talking smarm, and Nicholson has it. It's a sleazy job -- and that defense at the barbershop seems to be more for his benefit than his neighbor's -- but dammit he's good at it.
Perhaps the strongest element of his performance is his incredulity. Jake Gittes can usually weasel his way into anything, but this case, taking him from a simple case of adultery into a conspiracy within the Los Angeles County Water Department, manages to catch him off guard at every turn. He trusts the wrong people, follows the wrong leads, accuses the wrong culprit. Gittes is as human as you or I, a man whose past hurts inform his present relationships. He's vulgar, quick-witted, suspicious...really, there are few I'd rather spend two hours watching. Indeed, this was one of the few movies that I never took my eyes off of once, and Nicholson's performance is a HUGE part of the fascination.
Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II
Pacino ups his game from the original. There's no trace of the Michael Corleone who once assured Diane Keaton, "That's my family, Kay, that's not me." Michael is calculating and cold-blooded. The man calmly orders the assassination of Hyman Roth, gives his brother the kiss of death, and manipulates the witnesses of a grand jury investigation. He rages at his wife and his consigliere -- powerful moments, indeed, for they go against his usually controlled demeanor. It's fascinating to see a man so changed, yet refusing to acknowledge that his relationships have. The aforementioned argument with Kay is rightfully legendary, and that final shot of Michael sitting alone after "settling business" haunts me still, a full two months since I saw the movie.
Oscar chose Art Carney, but if I had to choose between these five, the Oscar goes to...
a magnetic performance, beautiful and ugly, triumphant and tragic