It is interesting, I think, when one looks at this year's crop of Best Actor compared to 1971's, to notice the surprising similarities among the nominees. After more than 40 years, there will always be a certain type of role, or performance, or actor, that attracts Oscar's attention.
Birdman and The Hospital
Michael Keaton (also a Hollmann Award Nominee) brings terrific subtlety to the role of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor literally staging his comeback, constantly questioning and doubting himself, surrounded by an ensemble of crazies with their own insecurities and hang-ups, in a beautifully-realized dark comedy about the theatre. George C. Scott is more bellowy and blowsy as Dr. Herbert Bock, a doctor at the end of his rope, constantly questioning and doubting himself, surrounded by an ensemble of crazies with their own insecurities and incompetencies, in a so-so dark comedy about the medical establishment. Oscar, it seems, loves sweaty, drunken monologuing.
The Imitation Game and The French Connection
Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as the real-life mathematician Alan Turing, portrayed in this film as a super genius who must prove to an increasingly hostile Establishment that his ideas and instincts are not only correct, but the only thing standing in the way of a great evil -- Herr Hitler. Gene Hackman is superb as Popeye Doyle, based on real-life cop Eddie Egan, portrayed in this film as a cocky-but-honest cop who must prove to an increasingly hostile Establishment that his instincts are not only correct, but the only thing standing in the way of a great evil -- heroin trafficked in from France. Oscar, it seems, loves the smartest guy in the room, especially when he has to defy his superiors, man!
American Sniper and Fiddler on the Roof
Bradley Cooper bulked up to play Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, unwavering in his conviction that the Iraq War, and his part in it, are necessary to preserve the United States -- at times, he's absolutely frightening in his black-and-white certainty. Topol greyed up to play middle-aged milkman Tevye, but while Chris Kyle holds firm to what he believes to be true, Tevye is starting to look with curiosity, and maybe a little excitement, at the changing world around him -- he holds on to his traditions, yes, but he's beginning to adapt. Oscar, it seems, loves a man with strong beliefs.
The Theory of Everything and Sunday Bloody Sunday
Eddie Redmayne is the great quantum physicist Stephen Hawking, conveying warmth, strained patience, uncertainty, and eventual acceptance in an unconventional love story -- forget the ALS, it's the odd triangle between Stephen, wife Jane, and friend/church choir leader Jonathan Hellyer Jones, that's the real draw. Peter Finch is Dr. Daniel Hirsh, conveying warmth, strained patience, insecurity, and willful self-delusion in an unconventional love story -- Daniel, his young lover Bob, and Bob's female lover Alex. Oscar, it seems, loves to check "It's Complicated."
Foxcatcher and Kotch
What on earth could Steve Carell's performance as John du Pont possibly have in common with Walter Matthau's performance as Kotch? Honey, I don't even know why these people got nominated. Oscar, it seems, loves grey toupees.
For a further look at the performances of 1971, please continue after the jump.
Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday
A discreet performance. Finch differentiates between the warmth of a doctor with his patients and the intimacy of a man with his lover; that latter part, too, is navigated with great care, for while David is intelligent and insightful, he's deluding himself to stay in a relationship with bounce-around Bob. And he knows! Finch let's us see him at work, without getting cerebral. There is no Finch; it is David.
Gene Hackman in The French Connection
Hackman sweats -- a lot -- sometimes from the heat, often from frustration. He's got a natural toughness, but a lovable grin that warms you up to the guy. Equally persuasive as a womanizing drunk and an obsessed lawman who trusts his gut (though, again, Hackman lets us see the doubt creep into his eyes).
Walter Matthau from Kotch
A low-key performance, and with the makeup and his hang-dog features, he's convincingly elderly. It's gentle, but there are glances he gives that hint at a certain impishness. The film doesn't quite dig deep enough for any kind of connection, and he's not helped by the shoutier supporting cast surrounding him, but Matthau's fine. Among the five best performances of the year? I don't think so.
George C. Scott in The Hospital
Not my favorite Chayefsky character, but Scott is doing enough sweating to convince you he buys it, at least. He does a better job than the script at creating a consistent character, a man who wants to do good and believes he can do good, but is also losing faith -- and, let's face it, he's an asshole. But Scott gives him enough humor, enough shock at his own actions, to make us give a damn, even just a little.
Topol in Fiddler on the Roof
There is such a genuine joy in Topol's performance, you can feel the pride and certainty in every "dibba-dibba-dum". Obviously, he wishes he had more money -- much, much more -- but overall, Tevye is a happy man, fascinated by the world, watching it change with a mix of curiosity and sickening worry. And to think that Topol is playing 20 years older!
Hackman won the Oscar, and it forever changed his career. And good for him! He's great! But I'm afraid I have to award my personal vote to:
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY
Tomorrow -- a look at the contenders for Best Original Screenplay!
From 1971: The Hospital, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Klute, Summer of '42, Sunday Bloody Sunday
From 2014: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler