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?”
Regardless, Carney’s upset has had such an impact on Oscar history that it’s effects are still being felt today. That makes it one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes.
Mistake? Carney was fantastic in that. Who cares if the field was tight/?
He was good. But he was NOT better than Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express.
Oscar’s greatest mistake will always be Halle Barry.
That has to be in the top 5, for sure. She was not good in that movie.
Apparently Al & Jack cancelled each other out.
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Art Carney’s Oscar was NOT a mistake. It was fairly chosen by his peers and deservedly so!
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Carney won because he carried the movie from beginning to end. He’s not the best actor it was the best performance by an actor. He won and that’s it.
I have this argument at least once a year. Have you ever SEEN his performance? 1974 is perhaps the best year for screen acting across-the-boards in history, and Carney is right up there with everyone. He damned-near single handedly carries this movie himself, and it was written and directed by one of those “New Hollywood” whipersnappers to which you refer. Yes, Nicholson and Pacino, et.al., are equally as fantastic, as were not-nominated Hackman, Falk, Wilder, and Beatty, but quit diminishing Carney’s masterwork in this minor gemstone of a film.
“…Carney’s upset has had such an impact on Oscar history that it’s effects are still being felt today.”
It’s necessary to hire a proof-reader, for this Featured Story, to correct its mistakes.
“…Carney’s upset has had such an impact on Oscar history that its effects are still being felt today.”
1966 ‘The Sand Pebbles’
Should have gotten best actor – -supporting actor and picture.
WHO cares about Paul Scofield’s dry cement Thomas More in 2019 ?
or Walter Matthaus’s standard ham sandwich in ‘Fortune Cookie’ ?
‘Sand Pebbles’ comes about as close as you can get to a forever film.
Just watched Harry and Tonto on TCM and waited patiently through the entire movie to see anything that rated an Oscar. It never happened!
Vapid Hollywood types don’t seem to appreciate poignancy and depth. Harry and Tonto was a wonderful movie and Art Carney gave a fabulous, natural and understated performance. As a man dealing with ageism in a world that looks at Senior Citizens with dismissive disposal, Carney held a mirror up to the realism of a fate we all will experience before we die. An actor doesn’t always have to scream, yell, punch, kill and assault women to turn in a stellar performance. Art Carney’s portrayal was that of a sensitive, intelligent Senior coping with life’s uncertainty with poise and grace!
Being an older guy, I remember Art Carney’s Oscar win vividly. I think he won because the Academy was sure he would show up! Remember the early 1970’s: George C. Scott refused his Oscar in 1970. Marlon Brando refused his Oscar in 1972 for “The Godfather” by sending a surrogate to decline it for him. Also notice that at this Oscar ceremony Dustin Hoffman; Al Pacino and Albert Finney didn’t even show up. The Academy was fed up with “no shows” at the ceremony or actors publicly refusing the Oscar. So: Voila! Art Carney! Everyone knew he would show up… Read more »