Best Actor race — shades of ’74 and ’02

Posted by · 6:26 am · February 10th, 2009

Richard Jenkins in The VisitorThe 1974 Academy Award nominees for Best Actor were Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown,” Al Pacino in “The Godfather, Part II,” Albert Finney in “Murder on the Orient Express,” Art Carney in “Harry and Tonto” and Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny.”  There had been some mild surprise that Gene Hackman had been passed over for his work in “The Conversation” and Richard Dreyfuss in”The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” but other than those minor quibbles, it was a strong field of contenders.

Essentially it was a two-man race.  The frontrunners were clearly Nicholson and Pacino, both nominated the previous year for their work in “The Last Detail” and “Serpico,” respectively.  For his sly, slick portrayal of Los Angeles private detective JJ Gittes, Nicholson had again displayed his extraordinary range and ability to slip easily inside a character to the delight of audiences.  Pacino, meanwhle, again portrayed Michael Corleone in the sequel to “The Godfather,” moving farther down the path of power, corrupting himself totally, eventually ordering the execution of his own brother.

Of the two actors, Nicholson had the inside track, having won the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Circle award, but there was a lot of Pacino love, too.

On Oscar night, many jaws hit the ground when the winner was television veteran Art Carney for his performance in “Harry and Tonto,” a nice little film about an old man and his cat traveling across America looking for a home. Carney was terrific in the role, no argument, but it was hardly a performance for the ages. The likely scenario, some thought, was that Nicholson and Pacino split the vote.

28 years later a similar win took place when Adrien Brody won for “The Pianist” over heavily favored Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York” and Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt.”  Did anyone really think young Brody had a chance over Day-Lewis’s fire-breathing Bill the Butcher or Nicholson’s muted but phenomenal work as a recent retiree?  Both actors had shared the Critics’ Choice awards, but Brody won the National Society of Film Critics trophy, which must have been a signal he was at the very least in the running.

“I didn’t think they called my name at first,” Brody told me in an interview in 2007.  “I thought Daniel got it and then I realized they were looking at me.”

Brody’s performance as a musician struggling to stay alive during the Holocaust was powerful, but Daniel Day-Lewis was extraordinary as Bill Cutting, the butcher who ruled the streets of New York by fear in Scorsese’s flawed masterpiece.

At this writing, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke seem to be the two frontrunners in the lead actor race, with Penn given the edge having won the lion’s share of critics awards and the SAG statuette.  Rourke won the Golden Globe and BAFTA, but I doubt it will matter.  But we could very well have a year when these two men split the vote and Frank Langella in “Frost/ Nixon” wins the prize, or better yet, character actor Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” becomes an Oscar winner!

It’s not impossible.

Have your say.  Where are you placing your chips in the Best Actor race?

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22 responses so far

  • 1 2-10-2009 at 10:41 am

    marco volpe said...

    I’m placing my bets on Mickey Rourke winning; and, should a split vote between him and Penn happen, on Richard Jenkins.
    Your article is really interesting and in a very simple way points out the obvious truth about what happened in 1974 (though I loved his performance, I always wondered why Carney, over two iconic characters such as Jake Gittes and Michael Corleone; had less doubts about 2002 since by that time I was already 32 and following Oscars for a long time)..

  • 2 2-10-2009 at 11:00 am

    Chris said...

    I don’t understand the much talked about concept of vote-splitting. Can anyone explain to me how it’s possible for two actors to split votes and a third one therefore winning?

    It makes sense in the pre-nomination progress for one actor to split votes between performances, and for a DP for instance to split votes on two of his nominations. But two people from different films, in my view, can’t split votes. It’s nonsense.

  • 3 2-10-2009 at 11:33 am

    Hans said...

    5000 academy members. Say 1000 no matter what will go Penn and 1000 no matter what will go Routke. For the sake of simplicity, Pitt and Jenkins get no votes. Let’s say 1750 are going to solidly go Langella, no matter what, and since these are the hardcore supporters, there aren’t going to really be any additions to the club. The remaining 1250 are the undecided ones and split 700-550 (statistics being what it is, undecided voters will inevitably split 2 even candidates at about 50:50). Langella wins by a narrow 50 votes.

    Lame example, I know, but I’m in stats class right now and god am I sleepy.

  • 4 2-10-2009 at 11:39 am

    Chris said...

    But that’s not vote-splitting. It’s simply Langella getting the most votes. If, right from the start most people are convinced Langella was the best, then do the other two really “split votes”? I don’t think so.

  • 5 2-10-2009 at 11:41 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    If anything I think votes for Langella will be taking away from possible votes for Penn.

  • 6 2-10-2009 at 12:01 pm

    Troy said...

    You’d have to say that most the people voting for Penn and Rourke are torn between the two, and when everyone votes, they split the votes about evenly rather than lean towards one of them. This can result in someone like Jenkins winning, with much less voters thinking he should win.

  • 7 2-10-2009 at 12:09 pm

    Jamian Bailey said...

    I agree with John! I think Langella is being discounted alot. I’ve heard alot of people are voting for him too. Langella could very well win!

  • 8 2-10-2009 at 12:28 pm

    Kyle Leaman said...

    I’m guessing the vote theory goes more along the lines that Penn and Rourke both have a strong constituency and they are more or less about equal if not one slightly ahead of the other. Lets say that the other competitors are behind in their constituencies, but the closest and most loved actor in third place is currently Langella. Lets say there are 2000 voters left, after the constituencies.

    In order for the “split vote” theory to work, you have to buy the premise that those who aren’t in the camp of an actor, will merely vote for the percieved front-runner, whomever they are told was the best that year. So of those 2000 left, many of those will vote for the percieved front runner. Since both Penn and Rourke are percieved as the front-runner, they will split those voters who vote on the basis of front-runner status. Allowing a close third competitor to jump them.

    I believe thats what people are referring to. However, I don’t really see how anyone could prove a theory like that, its really all just hypotheticals really.

  • 9 2-10-2009 at 12:32 pm

    BBats said...

    I think this race is more like 2004 when Penn and Murray were the front runners. I also think Frank Langella and Jenkins will cancel each other out and nobody will vote for Pitt this year.

  • 10 2-10-2009 at 12:48 pm

    A.J said...

    The only one that would surprise me would be Pitt. It’s not wide open, but it’s not closed enough to see anything as a surprise. All the acting categories except Supporting Actor are similar, there are no locks. It’s quite exciting.

  • 11 2-10-2009 at 1:03 pm

    The Z said...

    One way the “split vote” (not that that title is ever accuarate) is this:

    There are 2 nominees viewed as the frontrunners – one of whom voters see as being the eventual winner. Since they (the voters) assume that one of them will win anyway, no matter how they cast their vote, they vote for a different nominee. if enough of those voters select the same nominee, s/he has the ability to win.

    It’s not so much as splitting the vote as it is giving support to the guy who (supposedly) doesn’t have a chance. It’s kind of like voting for Nader or Perot.

  • 12 2-10-2009 at 1:40 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    I agree with BBats–a 2003 Penn/Murray showdown seems more likely. It’ll be the same, because the best performance will have won, but it will be different because Penn will lose.

  • 13 2-10-2009 at 2:17 pm

    Tim said...

    I think Adrien Brody probably rode the sudden wave of popularity for ‘The Pianist’ to his best actor win. ‘The Pianist’ probably also just missed winning best picture that year.

  • 14 2-10-2009 at 2:39 pm

    Bill said...

    The Pianist didn’t deserve Best Actor or Director. 2002 was a weak field.

  • 15 2-10-2009 at 3:02 pm

    Andre said...

    I would pee my pants with excitement if Richard Jenkins won, as he is my favorite of the nominees… (my favorite male performance of the year was – sadly unnoticed in the US – Michael Fassbender in “Hunger”).

  • 16 2-10-2009 at 4:24 pm

    Mike said...

    Split votes happen in politics when two candidates representing similar philosophies or platforms draw from the same pool of like-minded voters, allowing a third candidate to win a plurality of votes from those of a different philosophy. This analogy doesn’t translate too well to the Oscars, but the 1974 example suggests a generational split: Nicholson and Pacino were relatively new on the scene, and may have drawn from the younger voters of the Academy, leaving the ‘old guard” and others looking back to the Golden Age of TV to vote for Carney.
    I don’t see a similar dynamic in this year’s race. I agree with Chris, this year’s Best Actor will simply “get the most votes”. My money is on Rourke.

  • 17 2-10-2009 at 8:45 pm

    Zan said...

    $ on Rourke. Langella wouldn’t be a bad alternative. I’d be happy if any of them won, except Pitt.

    As for 2002, my vote was for Nicolas Cage. I think it was the best year of Best Actor that I’ve seen in a long time.

  • 18 2-10-2009 at 8:53 pm

    Zan said...

    Oh, Kris or John, how about a Top Ten of the ten biggest Oscar surprises in honor of the week ahead?

    (Pretty please?)

  • 19 2-10-2009 at 11:54 pm

    PJ said...

    The split vote analogy would work better if the race was between Langella and Penn, since their roles are substantively similar (as historical and controversial political figures who have contemporary relevance). As it is, there’s not much common ground between the roles of Penn and Rourke, which makes it far more likely that the winner will be whoever the Academy likes best and/or judges to be the best out of the two.

  • 20 2-14-2009 at 8:47 am

    RJ said...

    Split vote is more like this, isn’t ? Penn and Rourke, each a wild child, are considered the frontrunners. Let’s say there are 5,000 voters and frontrunner support is equally split amongst 3,200 of those voters. The more conservative members of the Academy don’t want either Penn or Rourke to win so vote for the perceived third place nominee. Penn and Rourke each garner approximately 1600 votes and Langella pulls in about 1625 while Jenkins has his faithful view and Pitt his one or two. That’s how I see vote splitting working. There has to be a desire to keep the two frontrunners from winning. Assume that Penn’s votes would go to Rourke or Rourke’s to Penn if only one of these actors was nominated. But, as both are nominated, they split the vote allowing the third-place nominee to win.

  • 21 2-17-2009 at 4:01 pm

    Chad said...

    It’s either going to be Penn or Rourke. Honestly, any talk of something else happening is wishful thinking. When the field was over 300 films, the Academy still picked the five we all expected so now that it’s down to five you can bet they’ll be picking from the one or two.