Thursday, May 20, 2021

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1972: Sacheen Littlefeather and Best Actor

In a category where The Godfather had no competition from Cabaret, it was an easy win for leading actor Marlon Brando. Yet, famously, it was not he who received the trophy from Liv Ullmann (nominated for The Emigrants) and Roger Moore (currently filming Live and Let Die). Instead, Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage, and delivered remarks protesting the treatment of the Indigenous communities by the United States and Hollywood.

It was a moment that was a punchline for decades afterward, though I think history has since vindicated Brando and Littlefeather, especially since, 50 years later, Hollywood still hasn't gotten its shit together and the nation's gnat-swatting treatment of the First Nations people continues unabated. For years afterwards, however, there was a rule against acceptance speeches being delivered by a "representative;" on the other hand, the "stunt" probably inspired similar uses of the global stage in future acceptance speeches. 

Anyway, the nominees:

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone
The Godfather
past winner, sixth of eight nominations; Golden Globe winner for Best Actor in a Drama; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actor, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actor

Plays Don Vito Corleone, mafia kingpin. The most subdued Brando performance? By which I mean the most subdued that doesn't feel like he's "doing" subdued. The little mannerisms aside (the odd tic of sniffing his corsage - is that in the book, or a Brando invention?), it's one of the few times I can actually set aside the actor and completely watch the character. The makeup helps, sure, but Brando also brings this noble bearing, a practiced class that has become second nature, and, especially, this exhaustion, a slumped-shoulder weariness. He's a crime kingpin, but Brando treats him like any other aging corporate titan on his way out. Such humanity and, more surprisingly, such warmth!

Michael Caine as Milo Tindle
second of six nominations; Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor in a Drama

Plays Milo Tindle, a cockney hairdresser called to the country manor of his mistress's husband, a successful mystery novelist, for fun and games. A sexy performance from Caine, a roguish confidence that's not all defensive defense, but the sum of a life spent having to prove the bastards wrong. Even when it seems he's lost, his street smarts, his knowing how to stay one step aside, prove him to be the ultimate winner. Caine sells every implausible twist.

Peter O'Toole as Jack, 14th Earl of Gurnsey
The Ruling Class
fifth of eight nominations; National Board of Review's Best Actor of 1972

Plays Jack, who inherits the title of Earl of Gurney, though he comes out of the mental hospital believing he is Christ - and that is just the beginning of the madness. O'Toole does not go for laughs, but plays Jack as Christ with a real peace and holiness that is, gosh, awfully reassuring. He uses his whole body to radiate that energy, the "random" musical numbers a logical continuance of his motions. I don't think many other actors, even his fellow nominees here, have O'Toole's ability to sell a character so totally, and when it's a character that must begin and end on such opposite points, it's an impressive feat.

Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke
past winner, eighth of ten nominations for acting; NYFCC Award winner for Best Actor; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Actor, Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor in a Drama

Plays Andrew Wyke, a snooty mystery author looking to ensnare and outwit his wife's lower-class lover. Impish Olivier is a great Olivier. It's no mystery (ha!) why this performance was the compromise vote for the New York Critics - who can resist seeing on of the (by reputation) great dramatic actors having a ball as a somewhat fey, pretentious creep, the simmering anger of a supremacist coming to a boil. He is the Old Empire, clinging to the taken-for-granted mythology of the superiority granted him by birth. It makes his unraveling - and Olivier knows this, and plays it, sweatily, to the hilt - all the more delicious.

Paul Winfield as Nathan Lee Morgan
first and only nomination

Plays Nathan Lee Morgan, the patriarch of a poor sharecropper family sent to a prison work camp for stealing a pig to feed his family. While that voice (that voice!) is put to great use, it's the pauses that I think about, weighing his next words and actions before committing to them - or that heartbreaking, hopeful, what-comes-next smile at the climax. Winfield seems to have an easy chemistry with everyone: you believe in his marriage, believe in his friendships, believe him as a father. Is it a true lead, or a significant supporting performance? I'm on the fence, honestly.


Am I really going to give O'Toole my vote for the third time?! Listen, when you're great, you're great, and I love to vote for greatness, so it is with great confidence that I choose:


Next: the nominees for Best Actress: Liza Minnelli (Cabaret), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Maggie Smith (Travels with My Aunt), Cicely Tyson (Sounder), and Liv Ullmann (The Emigrants).

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