Monday, March 12, 2007

Oscar's Greatest Gaffe

In the wake of a very successful Academy Awards, where there were no major complaints about the winners (outside Melissa Etheridge, of course), I thought it worthwhile to note when Oscar has blown it. Those occurrences have been frequent throughout the award's history. You may have your "favorite" result that bothered the hell out of you. Was it when Dances with Wolves beat out Goodfellas? Or perhaps when Forrest Gump won over both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption? Or maybe a year ago when Crash won any awards at all! I could go on. But rather than dwell on the obvious, I’d like to take you back to the 47th Academy Awards and the biggest misstep we’ve ever seen from the Academy.

1974 was a particularly strong year for American film. The Godfather: Part II was released to great critical and box-office success. Roman Polanski and Robert Towne created the exquisite Chinatown. Sidney Lumet adroitly directed an all-star cast in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Martin Scorsese proved he was no one-hit-wonder with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Bob Fosse’s Lenny was an honest and poignant look at the life of Lenny Bruce. Gene Hackman’s most understated performance was the center of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. John Cassavettes helmed his finest work, A Woman Under the Influence. In years like this, there often are not enough awards to go around. But you would at least hope that the awards that are available go to deserving recipients. This did not occur when it came to Best Actor. Permit me first to examine the performances that did not win.

Al Pacino was for the most part an unknown actor when he won the role of Michael in The Godfather. While that performance put him on the map, the movie was more of an ensemble piece. After starring in Lumet’s Serpico in 1973, his next role was once again as Michael in The Godfather: Part II. He is the film’s driving force, and Michael becomes the clear protagonist of the saga. He plays Michael as a determined, powerful, sad man. This is truly the movie that made him “Al Pacino.”

Similarly, Jack Nicholson had been around for quite a while before starring in Five Easy Pieces in 1970. That role got him noticed as a leading actor before he turned in other fine performances in Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. Similarly to Pacino, his role as Jake Gittes in Chinatown made him a top star. Nicholson appears in every scene, as the voice of sanity in a chaotic world where ultimate truths are just beyond his reach. Gittes is tough, yet tender, out for himself but not without a conscience.

Dustin Hoffman was already an established star, having been nominated twice for earlier films. In one of the best bio-pics ever made, he embodied Lenny Bruce, the most controversial comic of all time. It is clear that Hoffman put all of his energy into this performance, able to adeptly capture Bruce’s persona at various times in his life.

Albert Finney played a character 20 years his senior as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Not only did Agatha Chirstie claim this to be the only film adaptation of her work with which she was completely satisfied, she felt that Finney’s performance came closest to her ideal of Poirot. Finney had been a leading actor for nearly 15 years, but most people did not recognize him in the role given his makeup and spot-on Belgian accent.

Which brings us to the winner. Art Carney will always be best known for his portrayal of Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. But he appeared in over 35 movies, many of which were made for TV. In 1974, he had the starring role in Harry and Tonto, and won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Having seen the above four movies, I was always baffled as to how one of those performances did not garner Oscar gold. However, I really could not judge fairly as I hadn’t seen his effort. Until now.

I rented Harry and Tonto solely to make the comparison between this performance and the other four, but I went into my viewing with an open-minded attitude, not knowing what to expect. Carney plays Harry Combes, a not-quite elderly man who takes his cat, Tonto, on leashed walks around his New York City neighborhood. His building is being demolished to put in a “fancy new parking lot” and Harry is forced to move in with his son. While there, he bunks with his grandson who has taken a vow of silence (sound familiar?). Eventually, relations become strained in the household and Harry decides to visit his other two children in Chicago and Los Angeles. Of course, traveling with Tonto creates interesting problems and the movie quickly becomes a road picture. Harry is full of witty remarks and literary references along the way, and he finds a wide array of character actors who are quirky, but good-hearted and friendly to him. After finally meeting his bankrupt son in Los Angeles, he decides it’s the right place for him and ends up staying there. Sometime after, Tonto passes away at the age of eleven. Harry spends the rest of his time hanging out on the beach. The movie ends with him picking up a stray cat that resembles Tonto, and then creepily helping a random little girl with her sand castle.

I found it to be a decent movie, and I’d probably OWR it at 61: Meandering. If you’ve already seen the other four above, I’d first watch Chinatown again and then finally give this one a gander.

But the real question is whether Art Carney deserved the Oscar. I can assuredly say, at least with thirty years of hindsight, that he did not. I really don’t know what kind of actor Carney is, as I’ve probably seen him in roughly two episodes of The Honeymooners prior to watching this film. All four of the other performances were supreme. His was merely adequate. Firstly, he spends most of the time acting opposite a cat. A cat with no dialogue. I suppose one could say that this is challenging for an actor. But Carney plays it like he graduated from the Jim Rome school of acting (for more on Jim Rome, click here). He mutters short phrases with brief pauses between them for minutes at a time. Here’s one example early in the film when he is “discussing” his neighborhood with Tonto. Note that between each sentence you should be mentally inserting a two-second beat.

“Paper Route. Yeah, we had paper routes in those days. Get up early in the morning. Help the boy make some pocketmoney. It’s a wonderful neighborhood. It’s rundown. It’s running down. It all runs down sooner or later. Where would I go to live? I still know a lot of people around here, Tonto. You know people. That’s home.” [sigh] [yawn] [nod off to sleep]

Later in the film while driving a car with Tonto relaxing on the dashboard, Carney explains the world to his cat again:

“You know, Tonto, when I was very young. I thought about driving, cross country. Never made it though. Met Annie and that was that. Kids. Family. Work. Wasn’t Annie’s fault. Oh we had good times. But you know maybe.. … maybe I thought there just wasn’t enough… time. Or enough money. On the other hand, there really was. We had good times, though. Good times. Lake Saranac. Cape Cod. Beautiful summers. Annie loved to swim. Much better swimmer than I was. Powerful strokes. People used to wonder… how that little body… could churn through the water that way. Wonderful. I’ll let you in on something, Tonto. I have a great fear of pain. I would rather go… like that… than suffer for a long time. Oh, how Annie suffered. The suffering was worse than the dying. I dreaded seeing her in the morning. She never complained. Never complained. That was my specialty. Hell. You know you never really feel… somebody’s suffering. You only feel their death. [A police car appears in the rearview mirror] Just act normal, kiddo. Just act normal.”

Does that seem like an Oscar-worthy performance to you? Because of Carney’s deadpan delivery, the film comes off like a made for TV movie of the week. Now, one could note that he is in every scene. However, the same could be said of Finney, Nicholson, and Hoffman. One could also say that he carries the picture. This would be a falsehood. Much like a lot of 1970s road films, it’s the quirky side-characters who drive everything. If anything, all the other actors around him show his ineffectiveness. (Incidentally, the last quirky character Harry encounters is some sort of California beach-lovin’ cat-lady played by Sally Marr. Sally Marr just happens to be Lenny Bruce’s mother and was heavily involved in the movie based on his life – I wonder who she was pulling fer.)

Harry goes through few non-geographic changes and is the same curmudgeon at the end of the movie that he was at the beginning, only in sunnier climes. There has been no dramatic story arc, and Norton only chooses to “emote” in one totally misplayed scene at the morgue after his friend dies. Honestly, I have to say that the cat acts circles around him.

Look, I know the Academy skews elderly, and that was probably the case in the mid-70s as well. I’m sure the story of an older man trying to figure out how his life became sad is somewhat compelling. But to vote for him against the other four options is unconscionable. I just wish we had some footage of the event to see if anyone pulled a Faith Hill. I’m sure I would have.

Hoffman and Nicholson both won Best Actor twice (and Jack only had to wait one year). Pacino finally got his in 1993. Finney has yet to win one, but has had a long and successful career. I’m sure none of them are sweatin’ it at this point. But the next time people talk about how so-and-so got robbed, think of the 47th awards and remember Art Carney with reverence. And little Tonto, too.

1 comment:

warren j cantrell said...

good article - I think we're on the same page