Jack Nicholson in his first go round as Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Al Pacino in his second as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Dustin Hoffman bringing the troubled and controversial comedian Lenny Bruce to life in Lenny. Albert Finney bringing Agatha Christie’s brilliant detective Hercule Poirot to life in Murder On the Orient Express. The 47th Academy Awards’ Best Actor field was full of legendary actors nominated for one of their most iconic roles. Which actor won this battle of the titans? Well, you can probably guess if you read the headline to this article.
Art Carney’s stunning victory for playing Harry in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto on the night of April 8th of 1975 is one of the most legendary upsets in the history of ceremony. And as the years go by, hindsight makes the upset even harder to understand. While both Chinatown and The Godfather, Part II appear on the AFI Top 100 list and Murder on the Orient Express and Lenny are still well regarded in some circles even today, Harry and Tonto has been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Harry and Tonto has Carney’s Harry kicked out of his condemned apartment building with his cat, Tonto. After staying with his East Coast children doesn’t work out, the pair engage on a road trip to the West Coast, meeting a number of colorful characters, finding himself and the best way to deal with old age.
You can come up with many theories as to why Carney got the nod over Finney, Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino. Could it have been one of those “Career Service Awards” the Academy likes to give out? Maybe. But Carney’s most notable work was on TV and on the Stage. Granted, he originated two of the most iconic characters in pop culture history there–Ed Norton and Felix Unger–but the Academy typically rewards film service exclusively. Perhaps it was because he won his long struggle with alcoholism during the filming of the movie? The Academy does like to reward those that overcome personal struggles. Or maybe it was because the role of the 72-year-old retiree was considered a challenge for the 54-year-old Carney to pull off?
After watching the above clip of Carney’s win and acceptance speech, I’ve come up with another theory. The early seventies were a tumultuous time in the world, as the old establishment was constantly being challenged by the youth counter culture, with the war in Vietnam being the primary bone of contention. You can see an example of this conflict in that year’s Oscar ceremony itself. Bert Schnieder, producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, read a thank you note from the Vietcong in his acceptance speech. The incensed two of the ceremonies hosts–Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, both members of the more conservative older generation. Hope was so angry that he drafted a hastily written condemnation of the speech on behalf of the Academy, which he had Sinatra deliver during the next segment.
But at the same time the old/young upheaval was taking place in the real world, a similar sea change was taking place in Hollywood. The old guard was being replaced by a new breed of filmmaker. No longer were the Hitchcocks, the Wilders, the Kazans the touch-bearers of quality cinema. Instead, they were making way for the Coppolas, the Scorseses, and the Spielbergs. Paragons of perfect virtue such as James Stewart, John Wayne, and Cary Grant were being cast aside for a more flawed heroes personified by Nicholson, Pacino and Hoffman.
If you take a look at the first video I posted above, you’ll see that Carney gets a standing ovation. The first people up and the last people to sit typically have grey or white hair. Could Carney’s victory be the a thumbing of the nose by old Hollywood to the new Hollywood that was quickly replacing it? A last act of defiance by a dying breed, rewarding one of their own over the more qualified whippersnappers in competition? Who knows. Even if we could see the ballots and figure out who voted for whom, we’ll never know their true motivation. But it’s something to think about.
Some also say that Carney’s win changed the face of the Oscars for years to come. Joe Horton at Gelf Webzine came up with something called “The Carney Consequence.” Horton theorizes that the Academy’s guilt over Carney’s win started off a line of dominos of “make-up wins” that lasts to this day. Nicholson would get his win the next year for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hoffman five years later for Kramer vs. Kramer and Pacino had to wait all the way until 1992 to get his make-up Oscar for Scent of a Woman. However, that win set of the need for a make-up Oscar for Denzel Washington, who many thought deserved Pacino’s Oscar for his work on Malcolm X. Horton theorizes that Washington’s make-up win was in 2001 for Training Day, where he beat out odds on favorite Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.
Of course, there are a few flaws in this argument. You can make a strong case that Nicholson’s Hoffman’s and Washington’s performances were the best in the years they won. And what about Finney, who has had two Best Actor nods (and one best Supporting Actor nod) since then yet with no make-up win. And does this mean that Crowe deserves a make-up win even though he had won an Oscar the year before being “snubbed?”