Peter Finch’es wide-eyed, frantic performance as newsman Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s “Network” became a touchstone for North America in 1976 because we too were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
Vietnam was over, though the vets were struggling with their various personal horrors. Nixon had resigned, leaving a mistrustful America in his wake. And up here in Canada, we were dealing with a Prime Minister who was often more playboy than politician. Lumet’s searing film, from an original screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky, was timely indeed.
Whispers of a posthumous Oscar have circulated Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” for weeks now, bringing Finch’s seizure of the Best Actor trophy back to the forefront of discussion. But was Finch’s win a recognition of the performance or was it fueled by his unfortunate dead in January of 1977?
His role was hardly a lead, but Finch insisted on being campaigned as such, rather than supporting, which is where he belonged. William Holden was arguably the true male lead of the film, and brilliant in the part. When Finch passed away, as hard as this sounds, then and only then did he become the frontrunner.
In the throes of a nervous breakdown, believing the voices he hears to be that of God, on screen less than the un-nominated Robert Duvall, Finch managed a victory I would wager squeezed out a number of more deserving portrayals.
Among them, no less than Robert De Niro for his astonishing work as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” one of the greatest performances ever put on film. And we knew that back then.
Though it’s an easy performance to dismiss now, Sylvester Stallone’s work in “Rocky” was unlike anything we had ever seen at the time and I remember comparisons to Marlon Brando!
William Holden was a more worthy contender opposite Finch in the film, and the wild card (if Finch was not) was Giancarlo Gianninni in Lina Wertmuller’s masterpiece “Seven Beauties.”
Strangely absent from the roster was the Duke’s swan song performance as a dying gunslinger in Don Siegel’s “The Shootist” and Dustin Hoffman as a pursued student in John Schlesinger’s thriller “Marathon Man”.
Now, before the guns get turned on me for this opinion of the late Mr. Finch, let me say that I think his performance is very good. I have no quibble with his work. But it’s simply not a lead role, and if qualified as such, certainly didn’t deserve to beat out Robert De Niro’s classic work.
But he did, in one of those pitiful Hollywood sentiments that give old men like George Burns Oscars for playing old men like George Burns. It drives me crazy.