Are 70s acting legends on the verge of fading away?

Posted by · 5:58 pm · March 22nd, 2009

Jane Fonda in KluteGrowing up I was a huge John Wayne fan, but I remember when the Duke started to fade, and then that shocking evening he presented the Academy Award for Best Picture to “The Deer Hunter” just a few months before his death in 1979.

Perhaps because we watch these people age in front of our eyes we feel a unique kinship with them, as though we know them, but seeing Wayne at the Oscars was shocking, a terrible reminder that the acting icons are very human, subject to everything life brings: aging and death (as we found out terribly this week).

The great actors of the 1970s, those that kick-started a second movement in American acting — Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda — are all well past 60 these days, some over 70 with Duvall edging ever closer to 80. Their best work may indeed be behind them (one never knows) and to me it represents a point of great sadness. We may never see their like again.

They brought to the screen an inherent realism, an extraordinary authenticity that only Brando had accomplished. The day is coming when we will never be able to look forward to another great performance from the likes of Nicholson or Duvall or Fonda again.

I remember the moment I first became aware of Nicholson, seeing him for the first time in “Five Easy Pieces,” in which he established himself as the actor of the decade, that intelligent rebel who simply would never conform to what society felt he should. Nicholson gave us a great array of performances through the 1970s, fearless in the face of risk, even singing in “Tommy,” Ken Russell’s lavish rock opera by The Who.

Nicholson was every bit as comfortable in small, intimate films such as “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “The Passenger” as he was in the studio pictures: “The Last Detail,” “Chinatown,” “The Missouri Breaks,” “Carnal Knowledge” and his mesmerizing, Oscar winning turn in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  As of 2009, Nicholson is the most nominated actor in movie history and has won three Academy Awards, two for Best Actor.  But for my money he should have won for “Easy Rider,” “Reds,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Ironweed,” “About Schmidt” and “The Departed,” too.

Nicholson is such a huge star people often forget how magnificent he is at his craft.  He is among the greatest to ever grace the screen, always able to balance stardom with talent.

Dustin Hoffman had actually exploded into movies in the 1960s with superb performances in “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy” and was by all accounts an oddity. Short, not terribly good looking, and with a penchant for being demanding, he became the most unlikely of major stars. Being blessed with extraordinary talent caused those in the business to forgive his quirks and embrace him as a superb actor.

“Little Big Man,” “Straw Dogs,” “Papillon,” “Marathon Man,” “All the President’s Men” and his best work in the decade, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Lenny” and the little-known “Straight Time” display his amazing range and intelligence on screen. Always at his best when portraying a character with a mean edge, his career-best work came in the 1980s with ‘”Tootsie,” one of the screen’s most accomplished portrayals. He is enjoying something of a rebirth these days with “Perfume” and “Last Chance Harvey” and it is terrific to see him in good roles again.

De Niro is the greatest question mark of the great actors. His work in the 1970s was sublime, as he brought an edgy intensity to the screen was was exhausting to watch. I remember watching him for the first time in “The Godfather, Part II” and was convinced he would win an Oscar for supporting actor.  A star was born.  He had of course been tremendous before that in “Mean Streets” and “Bang the Drum Slowly” but Coppola’s film seemed to bring out everything he did well, which was to disappear into the role.

De Niro followed that with the seething “Taxi Driver,” Bertolucci’s flawed masterpiece “1900,” Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” (in which he was the weakest thing), and Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter.”  His astounding performance as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” won him a second Oscar and remains his greatest work to date, an extraordinary performance of a man forever at war with himself.

He worked tirelessly through the 1980s, with only “True Confessions,” “The King of Comedy” and “Once Upon a Time in America” being worthy of discussion. The 1990s gave us “Goodefellas,” “Awakenings,” “Cape Fear” and “Wag the Dog” but also some dreadful forays into comedy which were more embarrasing than anything else. His work in a wonderful supporting role in “Stardust” was the first time in years I remember caring about his work. There was something incredibly light in his step (the role for sure) but also a knowledge that he could have some fun and get away with it. Hopefully he has another piece of greatness in him; that last thing with Al Pacino was certainly not it.

And when did Pacino go so far off the tracks? When did he decide that yelling and screaming his lines passed for great acting? Worse, when did his directors, who obviously fear him in some sense, decide not to tell him to bring it down a bit? Mike Newell knew how in “Donnie Brasco,” the actor’s best work since the 1970s.  Back then he cranked out one great performance after another, beginning with “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Scarecrow,” “The Godfather, Part II” (his best work), “Dog Day Afternoon,” and then the wretched “Bobby Deerfield” and over-the-top “And Justice for All.”

From there he got involved with William Friedkin’s misunderstood “Cruising” and Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” now considered a masterpiece (but not upon release). In this period he also made “Author! Author!” — one of the worst films ever made — and the excreble “Revolution” before heading back to the stage for several years. When he came back something had changed in his work.  It was though he believed he was still in the theatre and needed to bring the volume up in every role.  Watch the way he wraps his mouth around the lines and spews them out at the actor nearest him.  Is this great acting?

Of all Pacino’s  films since 1990, only “Dick Tracy,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Donnie Brasco” stand out. Dreck like “88 Minutes,” “Righteous Kill” and “S1m0ne” do little to remind us that Pacino was once one of the greatest actors working. There was a time all he needed to do was appear on screen and all eyes went to him; they still do, but for the wrong reasons as he is the busiest and noisiest actor on the screen.

Though Robert Duvall was never a major star he has always been a great actor and respected as such. The brilliant guru Sanford Meisner once said, “There are two great American actors. The first is Brando though his best work is behind him, the second is Robert Duvall.” He said that in the mid-1960s before Duvall broke through in the 1970s. And did he ever break through: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather, Part II,” “Network,” “The 7% Solution” and best of all, “Apocalpyse Now.”  He would win an Oscar years later for “Tender Mercies” and do sublime work in the TV mini-series “Lonesome Dove,” and best of all in “The Apostle,” which should have won him a second Academy Award for Best Actor. Is there another actor at his age who we can rely on for yet another great performance?

As for the ladies, we can look no fruther than 70s icon Jane Fonda.  I first fell in love (well, lust) with her in “Barbarella” but realized her brilliance after seeing “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” years later. She would earn Hollywood’s respect with that one and then win an Oscar for “Klute” in 1971 at the height of her fame as Hanoi Jane, the most vocal high-profile opponent of Vietnam.

A long hiatus from cinema brought her back in 1977 with “Julia,” “Coming Home” (a second Oscar), “The China Syndrome,” and “Comes a Horseman.”  She gave a fine supporting turn in “On Golden Pond” in 1981 and won an Emmy in “The Doll Maker,” which had it been a feature would have won her an Oscar. More so than any other of the fine actresses of the 1970s, Fonda brought an intense, fearless realism to her work. The lady knew there was ugliness in humanity and she made the decision to show that in her work, warts and all, for her art. There was no one quite like her. She recently started making movies again and has earned rave reviews on Broadway.  She might be back.

Ellen Burstyn, whom I had the immense pleasure to speak with in Toronto last fall, is an actress of extraordinary capability. Unconventional by Hollywood standards, her talent proved her greatest strength…as it should. She won an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and nominations for “The Last Picture Show” and “The Exorcist” before settling into a long and very fine career, balancing her work on film with that on stage. She gave an amazing performance in “Requiem for a Dream” that should have gotten her Oscar number two, but that’s the way things go. Her work in “Lovely Still” is mesmerizing and hopefully will earn the attention she so richly deserves.

They are now senior citizens, greying, some bald, wrinkles freely showing on their faces.  But in most cases the talent is still there. Nicholson works infrequently but when he does his work is eagerly anticipated…and he rarely disappoints. Hoffman is working more and more these days, in supporting character roles and the odd lead, and damned near always steals the film.

I struggle with the work Pacino and De Niro are doing, with the odd exception, but they have become, sadly, parodies of themselves. Duvall reached a zenith with “The Apostle” a few years back but has been active in films and television. His work in “Broken Trail” was wonderful, making it clear he still has it in him. Both Fonda and Burstyn continue to deliver when they work, and though Fonda works far less than Burstyn, for me she is the actress with the greatest potential for one more knockout.

And so many others I have not mentioned are still banging away at it, refusing to fade away yet: Gene Hackman, Bruce Dern, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Jon Voight, Jill Clayburgh, on and on.  When will their curtain calls be finished?  It’s only a matter of time.

Will the actors of this generation have the lasting impact these folks have had? Time, the enemy of all things cinema, will make that decision, but I somehow doubt it.  Like John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Bette Davis, the aforementioned actors of the 1970s were true originals and we probably won’t see their like again.

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

19 responses so far

  • 1 3-22-2009 at 6:16 pm

    Chris said...

    As I was born in 1987, I obviously wasn’t around in the 70s, however I totally understand your line of thoughts. To me, every single time, I see the name of Woody Allen, I’m reminded of his age and that he probably won’t be around for much more than 10 or 15 years.

    And this makes me sad, just as much as it makes me sad to think that Nicholson, De Niro, Keaton, or Streep are not going to be around forever. Only last week I realised Leo DiCaprio was actually 34 years old – and I thought: what the hell’s happening? Time’s just flying by and people get older, and finally pass away, without us truly noticing it.

  • 2 3-22-2009 at 6:18 pm

    Cory Rivard said...

    Just so you are aware, this is one of the finest and most enjoyable reads about our cinematic heroes that I have read in some time. Though, it has certainly left me a bit sad.
    Something makes me think that Penelope Cruz can achieve the unique element of dangerous star power of which you speak. We will have to watch.
    I am with you in believing that Robert Duvall can knock one out of the park at least one more time. How unfortunate is it though, that we are now wrapping up the first decade in a long time that Jack Nicholson has not brought home an Oscar. It truly is the end of an era.

  • 3 3-22-2009 at 7:55 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    I think there’s plenty of potential for some of the actors right now. I think Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor who keeps growing with every role (and with Martin Scorsese, he’s golden), Kate Winslet is an amazing actress, Cate Blanchett is someone everyone talks about, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor (with the right comeback role, he could knock another Moulin Rouge role right out of the park), Johnny Depp, Reese Witherspoon, Matt Damon and a generation above, we have Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, and so many great actors who will encompass a different generation. Of course, Dustin Hoffman is still maybe my all-time favortie actor, Jack Nicholson is great to watch, and so are De Niro and Pacino (confession, I really enjoyed De Niro in Analyze This, and Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman). I also just discovered some great roles from Ellen Burstyn (what did you think of Same Time, Next Year?) and by Jane Fonda (I saw a 1963 comedy called Sunday in New York, which was made all the more enjoyable by her, and I also saw Cat Ballou). As for Robert DuVall, he was also aces recently in Thank You for Smoking (small role, but he made it a memorable one).

    As for Dustin Hoffman recently, I thought Last Chance Harvey was a weak script, but he made it very memorable, I loved his supporting roles in Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, and he made Meet the Fockers watchable (along with Barbra Streisand). My favorite performance of his is actually Rain Man (for personal reasons), but I also love Kramer vs. Kramer, and Tootsie, and The Graduate, and Wag the Dog, and I recently re-watched All the President’s Men, and he was amazing.

    By the way, John, now that Sean Penn won his second Oscar for Milk, how about writing an article about “second Oscars”? Analyze actors in the performance that gave them a second statue, compare it to the first. There are plenty of actors and actresses with more than one Oscar (and by this, both lead and supporting statues count). Just a suggestion for a future article, in case you’re interested.

  • 4 3-23-2009 at 12:08 am

    Derek Clem said...

    You just brought a tear to my eye. I don’t think I like thinking about these things. Who is in the group that Tom Hanks would be a part of? would that be Hanks, Cage, Sizemore, Cruise, DDL, Denzel, Penn, Crowe, Spacey, Whitaker, Philip Seymore Hoffman, etc…? Basically Im interested in seeing more groupings. Like where would Edward Norton and Brad Pitt belong?

  • 5 3-23-2009 at 12:29 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Gene Hackman has retired. His last role was that awful Fox comedy with that TV actor Ray what’s his name.

  • 6 3-23-2009 at 1:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    We won’t see their like again? C’mon, John, we’re seeing their like right now — Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett, your beloved Kate Winslet. Great actors by any measure. Let’s not get too dramatic.

    Lovely piece, though. And though I know you’re focusing on American talent, I’d just like to say that Liv Ullmann was absolutely untouchable in the 1970’s (and pretty much ever since).

    Finally, aren’t there rumours floating about that Jane Fonda might star in the film adaptation of “August: Osage County”? That would be momentous.

  • 7 3-23-2009 at 2:01 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    By the way, I’m afraid I can’t square with your take on De Niro’s performance in “Stardust,” which I found as excruciating as anything he’s done — the hamming is so self-conscious it took me right outside the movie.

    I do, however, love his performance in “New York, New York” … but then I love EVERYTHING about that film.

  • 8 3-23-2009 at 5:28 am

    John Foote said...

    Guy — my point about De Niro isn “Stardust”, and as a trained actor I was well aware of over the top acting, was that he seemed to be enjoying himself, something he has not done, obviously for a long, long time — sure it’s goofy, but it made me smile.

    And to others, yes Sean Penn is extraordinary, anmd yes there is an article about second Oscars coming…

  • 9 3-23-2009 at 6:08 am

    Michael W. said...

    Great piece.

    I’m a big fan of Robert De Niro but have to admit that some of the stuff he has made lately is terrible to watch. But I do think that he still has it in him. I quite like him in a small film like City by the Sea and I think he should have been nominated for an Oscar for both Casino and Jackie Brown. So I hope for the right project to come along and less films like Men of Honor, Showtime, Righteous Kill etc.

  • 10 3-23-2009 at 7:47 am

    Adam G. said...

    I would like to point out that Al Pacino was in Heat and The Insider in the 90’s, and his performances in those movies, along with Glengarry Glen Ross, represent his most noteworthy work of the past two decades.

  • 11 3-23-2009 at 8:07 am

    Cindy said...

    Interesting piece, but, c’mon now, we have excellent actors out there now; DDL, Crowe, Penn, Hanks, Depp, Cate and Kate, Jodie Foster, as well as a few terrific newcomers we’ve seen ascending the last couple of years.

    BTW, as for Pacino, you’ve forgotten his best movie of the 90s, Mann’s The Insider, which is also still my all time favorite Crowe role.

    For me, there are some excellent actors out there I enjoy watching every chance I can, the depressing thing for me is not the acting talents around today, but all the crap films being made.

  • 12 3-23-2009 at 8:47 am

    sergio ferrer said...

    I would rather go see Righteous Kill than see DeNiro in Stardust…I would rather see Drowning Mona than see DeNiro in Stardust…

    And while I think the article is great, I think it’s too dramatic. Plenty of actors right now are great and if they’re not on par with 70’s actors, it’s because movies in the 00’s are different than in the 70’s.

    It was a style of acting and moviemaking that faded away, sometimes you see something similar, but those days are gone.

    Even if Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson or Ellen Burstyn make a movie again tomorrow, it won’t be a 70’s thing.

  • 13 3-23-2009 at 1:19 pm

    Marvin said...

    The Insider?

  • 14 3-23-2009 at 1:59 pm

    Harmonica said...

    Only “Dick Tracy”, “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Donnie Brasco” are worthy Pacino films of the 90’s? How can you forget “The Insider” and “Carlito’s Way”, which was the best Pacino performance of the 90’s alongside Donnie Brasco??

  • 15 3-23-2009 at 2:34 pm

    John Foote said...

    Sorry guys not a big fan of ‘Heat” (he’s overwrought) and Russell Crowe blew Pacino away in ‘The Insider”…so did Plummer for that matter — not that he was bad, just that he did not stand out as they did —

  • 16 3-24-2009 at 2:13 am

    Nauval Y. said...

    “Same Time, Next Year” is the perfect example of how we love Ellen Burstyn: her presence often slips under the radar, and she inhibits her roles superbly, without any trace of acting at all. She lives and breathes her characters so well.

    Isn’t it funny that she is older than Fonda, but Burstyn gets to be more productive?

  • 17 3-24-2009 at 11:25 am

    Zan said...

    I like the article, but I have a few points of contention.

    Jack Nicholson is perhaps the most overrated actor in the recent past. I’ll agree with his talent 30-some years ago, but now it’s just Jack being Jack. Seriously, “The Departed”? He was beyond bad. If all it takes is being maniacally devilish, then great work, Nicholson. Since 1990, I think Nicholson has only three credible performances to his name: “A Few Good Men,” “About Schmidt,” and “The Pledge”.

    The generation of actors we have now is just as good as the generation back then. DDL is better than any of them, while DeNiro in his prime is still a shade below Sean Penn. That’s not mentioning DiCaprio, Hoffman, Depp, and Bale. Not to mention, there’s oodles of potential in Ryan Gosling, James McAvoy, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster, a few of the next generation of excellent actors. Because of all the talent, I believe 2007 will be remembered forever as one of the best film years we’ve ever seen.

  • 18 3-25-2009 at 4:21 am

    John Foote said...

    For Sergio — that sort of movie has faded? Good movies? I could not disagree more friend? Are you suggesting that acting is diferent as well? I assure you it is not, as all great actors go the truth. Streep is doing some of the finest work ever, and Guy made a great point about Sean Penn (that I will write about very soon) — what is gone is the closeness we felt with these artists, as we watched something very special born and grow, because in years previous the only really great actor was Brando — the artists mentioned in the article brought a grand sense of truith to their work that we could relate too because often they were portraying characters we knew, often they were playing us — I am not so sure that happens as much anymore — there are certainly some very fine actors out there, and I will celebrate them very soon. What I was saying, thsat some people got, was that the actors I grew up with, the greats of the seventies that were so much a part of my life and shapoing the cinema we have now are fading — Sean Penn made it a point to befriend his heroes Brando and Nicholson because he knew he could learn from them and become a better actor — and of course he did – why do you think he did that? Because of the hunger to be a great actor…plain and simple. Some of them, not all, have that same hunger but ogten a pay cheque is the driving force. Duvall did “Tomorrow” for next to nothing, Jmaes Cann got peabuts for ‘Cinderella Liberty” and they had so little cash on ‘Taxi Driver” they worried about pay cheques bouncing — Pakula had no money for “Klute”…they did for the art…how often does that happen in these pay or play days??? Who are today’s genuine artuists? Coming soon.

  • 19 3-25-2009 at 4:42 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “…in years previous the only really great actor was Brando…”

    Whoa. Previous to the 1970s? I have to take issue with that.

    Jack Lemmon, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, Gregory Peck, Jeanne Moreau, Charlie Chaplin, just off the top of my head … no question that Brando was among the greatest, but the only great?