Yes I was horrified when Roberto Benigni won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Life is Beautiful (1998), but the Screen Actors Guild had prepared me for the fact it might happen when they awarded him their Best Actor prize a few weeks earlier. There had been such a groundswell of love for the comedy featuring the little Italian clown that by the time Oscar night rolled around, it seemed he was the odds on favorite for the award. It did not matter that Edward Norton in American History X (1998), Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998), Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Nick Nolte in Affliction (1998) had given stronger performances, this was the year of the little Italian and he stomped the competition in one of OScar’s most bizarre Best Actor choices. I remember equal amazement when Adrien Brody took Best Actor for The Pianist (2002) over Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002) and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002).
Most surprising though? Neither of those.
No for that we go back to the year 1974, full of rich acting performances from the likes of Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Gene Hackman (The Conversation), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Martin Sheen (Badlands), Richard Dreyfuss (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein), Robert de Niro (The Godfather Part II), Bruce Dern (The Great Gatsby), Jon Voight (Conrack), and James Caan (The Gambler). It had been that sort of year. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino, and Finney made the cut for Best Actor, with De Niro going into the Supporting category, and Hackman and Dreyfuss sadly ignored. The fifth nominee for Best Actor was multiple Emmy award winner Art Carney, immortalized on the small screen as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason. Carney had given a strong performance as a seventy year old man making his way across America with his cat in Harry and Tonto (1974) directed by Paul Mazursky who had a way with actors. Carney was terrific in the film, no question twenty years younger than the character, yet capturing every aspect of being seventy, wounded and alone. He won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Comedy/ Musical) but I do not believe anyone thought he had a real shot at the Oscar.
This was to be the year of either Jack Nicholson, superb in Chinatown (1974) or Al Pacino, giving his career best performance in The Godfather Part II (1974), a work he has never surpassed. Each actor had been nominated multiple times in the previous years, Nicholson in 1970 for Five Easy Pieces and again in 1973 for The Last Detail, whereas Pacino had been up for Supporting Actor for The Godfather (1972) and in 1973 for Serpico. Each actor had laid claim to being the finest of their generation, and indeed, it might have been difficult to find two finer actors at this time in history.
Oscar night belonged to The Godfather Part II (1974) which won early awards for Best Supporting Actor for Robert de Niro, Art Direction, Musical Score, and Screenplay Adaptation. When the Best Actor category came around, it seemed Pacino might win based on the manner in which The Godfather Part II (1974) had dominated the evening. However when the name was read, what was said, “and the winner is Art Carney for Harry and Tonto” which stunned the audience and everyone watching on television. The thrilled actor , moved towards the stage and gave an excellent speech before heading backstage to face the press. It was over in seconds, yet all these years I have never recovered.
I remember watching the awards and being stunned at the turn of events, fulling expecting Pacino to win, or an outside chance that Nicholson might take it. Another scenario I played out had Hoffman winning when Pacino and Nicholson split the vote, never did Carney enter into the picture for me. I had seen Harry and Tonto (1974) and admired the performance, but did not believe then, nor now that it was Best Actor material. A shocker, an absolute shocker, especially when one considers the competition that year and even those not nominated!!