Peter Finch and the posthumous Oscar

Posted by · 2:05 pm · July 26th, 2008

Peter Finch in NetworkPeter 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.

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10 responses so far

  • 1 7-26-2008 at 3:27 pm

    Joseph Number 1 said...

    They were both leads, and Finch certainly holds the film’s narrative together which is not something a supporting player usually does. He supported no one, owning the screen to himself and become the film’s true voice. Holden did the same.

  • 2 7-26-2008 at 4:35 pm

    Blake Rutherford said...

    I think we could go on for days about the Academy’s unfortunate disregard for “Taxi Driver” in many areas. And to your point, John, yes, De Niro’s performance in the film is brilliant and Oscar-worthy.

    I happen to be an enormous fan of “Network.” When released, it suggested that the fidelity of the news business would be to ratings and not to covering the news, bland or not. And I thought the entire cast was exceptional.

    As for Finch, I thought his performance was marvelous. Whether he would have won had he not died, I’ll never know. In my running list of grievances with Academy choices, this one isn’t near the top.

    Regarding Ledger, this will be a topic we continue to address as many of the films with strong supporting actor contenders, “Tropic Thunder,” “The Soloist,” “Milk,” “Body of Lies,” “The Road,” to name a few, are released.

    As I’ve stated, I think Ledger’s performance will be very tough to beat. I’m absolutely confident I would be saying the same thing if he was still alive.

  • 3 7-26-2008 at 8:44 pm

    Silencio said...

    “As I’ve stated, I think Ledger’s performance will be very tough to beat. I’m absolutely confident I would be saying the same thing if he was still alive.”


  • 4 7-26-2008 at 10:08 pm

    Aaron said...

    I recently saw Network and Taxi Driver for the first time. I absolutely loved both films. Peter Finch was extraordinary. But so was William Holden, and I agree with the writer of this article that he was hands-down the lead character in the film (other than Faye Dunaway’s). His final confrontation with Dunaway was extremely powerful, and for me, summed up the whole message of the movie. She was a child of the new television generation; he was just an accessory, and while she was unable to feel love, or anything for that matter, he still had life inside of him. Peter Finch had some powerful “ranting” scenes, but William Holden was the core of that movie.

    As for DeNiro–he’s untouchable in that role. Travis Bickle is an uncanny character–it’s not often that a character creeps under your skin like that. Sylvestor Stallone was also fantastic in Rocky, although I have to admit I am not a huge fan of the movie. I haven’t seen Giancalor Gianninni’s performance, so I cannot judge that.

    So–in my opinion, Peter Finch’s death had a GREAT impact on his Oscar victory. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great performance and he was definitely deserving of a nomination. Holden and DeNiro, however, should have been the frontrunners.

    As for Ledger, he has great momentum going into awards season and I believe he will carry the “Peter Finch” sentiment into the awards race. I thought he was absolutely extroardinary in The Dark Knight, and right now, it IS the best supporting performance of the year. We’ll have to wait til fall til we see if anything even compares. (Personally–i’m ecstatic to see Kodi Smit-McPhee’s performance in The Road. Amazing book.)

    Okay, I’m done. Finally.

  • 5 7-26-2008 at 10:54 pm

    Chad said...

    Out of the four posthumous nominees (James Dean, Spencer Tracy and Massimo Troisi being the others), only Finch as won. What’s the only other factor unique to Finch? He died in the heart of Oscar season.

  • 6 7-27-2008 at 5:34 am

    John Foote said...

    I too admire “Network” (in case that did not come through). In this day and age of reality television is it not more terrifying than ever?? They can kill a man and get away with a “helluva rating.”

  • 7 7-27-2008 at 10:32 am

    Joseph Number 1 said...

    Chad, you forgot the other posthumous nominee, Ralph Richardson in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.”

  • 8 7-27-2008 at 10:42 am

    Adrianna said...

    I think Peter Finch would have won anyway. From what I’ve read, Finch seemed to have been regarded as “an actor’s actor” and he was widely admired as being fearless as an actor. That other actors would have liked to have been more like him, if they dared and if they had so much talent.

    From 1977’s viewpoint, he’d recently been nominated for Best Actor (1972) and lost. That role was in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”. Although I haven’t seen it, he was supposed to have been brilliant, and he was admired for playing a gay character without any worry about what it might do to to his career, that it was just part of his range of playing the truth of real people.

    So maybe in 1977, a lot of people were voting for him AGAIN. And some new ones were regretful he hadn’t won in 1972 (I don’t know who won that year).

    For me, the movies I have seen Peter Finch in, I’ve just been entranced by him. I’m not surprised his contemporaries rated him as a great actor.

  • 9 7-27-2008 at 12:05 pm

    Cliff said...

    Peter Finch may have been a special case because of his death, but the case feels to me a lot like a Louise Fletcher or an Anthony Hopkins, who created characters so fixating and so indelible that they simply became the stars of their years.

    We certainly see this kind of category juggling every year (Heath and Jake were no strangers to that in 2005), and it becomes an issue once the nominee actually wins. In defense of Finch, though, I think he can be exonerated by virtue of the quality of his performance. He might have lucked out, but I thought that his performance was as remarkable as any other winner from that decade, and I would have been in his corner back then.

  • 10 7-29-2008 at 1:15 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    You forget the first poshtomous Oscar Nominee, the actress Jeanne Eagels for “The Letter” in 1930