George C. Scott (Patton)
The Nominees: Melvyn Douglas (I Never Sang For My Father), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope), Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces), Ryan O'Neal (Love Story)
Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces)
My Nominees: Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), Robert Mitchum (Ryan's Daughter), George C. Scott (Patton)
"The Academy Awards ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons."
So said George C. Scott upon his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. With this statement, no one was actually sure if Scott would win the Oscar for Best Actor of 1970. After being nominated for his brilliant, ferocious performance as the blustery George S. Patton II, he declined his nomination, feeling that it was unfair for actors to compete with one another. He announced that he would be home Oscar night watching the hockey game. When Goldie Hawn announced his name, there was a roar from the crowd but Scott was nowhere to be found.
Despite his objections the academy would keep Scott's Oscar available to him for the rest of his life, just in case he changed his mind. Had he not made such a stink over his nomination, his win for Best Actor would have seemed inevitable.
The image of George C. Scott as Patton, standing in front of an enormous American Flag, dressed like an over-decorated potentate, spouting "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser" are as much a part of American film as Rosebud, the ruby slippers, the lightsaber, "As Time Goes By" and HAL 9000, yet Scott is so much of Patton that we tend to forget that a full-fledged movie exists around him. I cannot say that he didn't deserve the Oscar, nor can I take away his Oscar because he refused his nomination when I am choosing Marlon Brando two years later for an Oscar he turned down.
Scott gave his best performance in Patton, but my choice is Jack Nicholson who, in 1970, gave his best performance in Five Easy Pieces. After ten years of earning his dues in B-pictures like Little Shop of Horrors and Hell's Angels on Wheels and on television with guest spots on "Dr. Kildaire," "Sea Hunt," and "The Andy Griffith Show," Nicholson had his breakthrough role as the drunken Harvard-educated lawyer George Hansen in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. It would prove what a wonderful presence he was in the movies - who can forget him in that gold football helmet on the back of that chopper? - but Five Easy Pieces would prove what an effective actor he could be.
He plays Robert Eroica Dupea, Bobby for short, who works on an oil rig in California. He exists in a blue-collar town, drinking, bowling, screwing around. He has a girlfriend, Raynette (Karen Black), who drives him up a wall with constant chatter and a strange obsession with Tammy Wynette. We assume that we know him, but the best surprise from Five Easy Pieces is that we come to understand that neither we nor his friends really know him at all.
Bobby comes from a wealthy family, all with musical abilities (his middle name comes from Beethoven's Third Symphony). He plays the piano with a certain amount of skill, but it was never good enough for his father. We learn that years ago he alienated himself from his family. That alienation has made him a ball of frustration. He doesn't relate to anyone, nor does anyone relate to him, not at work, not at the bowling alley and certainly not to the family members he left behind. He stands away from everyone else, he hides what is in his mind and in his heart. He lives a very lonely existence from which it seems there is no exit.
His relationship with Raynette is hardly a relationship at all. She's sweet, gorgeous, fusses over her appearance and obsessively listens to Tammy Wynette songs like "Stand By Your Man", which becomes a metaphor for her devotion to Bobby. She needs Bobby far more than he needs her and his approach to her is to consistently put her down. He keeps her in his life, it seems, to have someone over which to feel superior. He doesn't want to commit to Raynette and communicates so little with her that he finds out she's pregnant from a co-worker. Non-committal, he has sex with another woman, Betty (Sally Struthers) - not out of love but just to prove to himself that he's not in love with her.
What we sense from Bobby is a feeling of pent up frustration. There is hardly a moment when he feels relaxed or at ease. We see in his eyes that he is always thinking about something else. The saddest thing is that here is a man barely into his thirties, already having regrets. No one really knows him. When his buddy Elton, from work, talks to him about the importance of family, Bobby unloads "It's ridiculous. I'm sitting here listening to some cracker asshole, lives in a trailer park, compare his life to mine." At this point, we understand that we know nothing about him, and it opens the film's unexpected second half.
The second half of Five Easy Pieces is almost alien from the first. Bobby is informed that he has to come back home because his father has had a stroke. He drives from California up to his family's home on the coast of Washington. He drags Raynette along with him and leaves her in the motel while he goes to visit. He hasn't seen his father or the rest of his family in some time. We sense that from the moment he walks in the door.
We meet his brother Carl (Ralph Waite, who was soon to be the patriarch of "The Waltons"), who had an accident and can no longer play the violin. We meet his sister Partita (Lois Smith), who is in love with Spicer (John Ryan), her father's male nurse. We meet Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is Carl's girlfriend as well as his student. And in the center is Nicholas, their father whose stroke has rendered him catatonic.
Bobby doesn't seem to belong amid this bunch any more than he fits in with the folks back home. He smiles a frustrated smile that hides a great deal. Raynette shows up in a cab and is polite to the family and the family seems to like her. Bobby doesn't really want her there but he explodes on a visiting intellectual snob who tries to put her down with words that she (correctly) assumes that Raynette doesn't know. Raynette's defense is to come back with a story about a cat that was run over in the road. For the first time, Bobby comes to her defense. "You shouldn't even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate." That statement doesn't come out of love for Raynette but an excuse to throw the woman's intellectual jackassery back in her face.
Nicholson has a dozen moments like that in Five Easy Pieces. Just when we think we have him figured out, he turns on us, does something unexpected but never really finds a path for himself. He has moments that are startling, like his sexual encounter with Betty that ends with the revelation that he has the word "Triumph" on this T-shirt. There's the now-famous "chicken salad" scene in which he argues with a waitress over the proper way to make his breakfast before sweeping the entire contents of the table onto the floor. There's an unexpected moment (my favorite) right at the beginning in which Bobby is stuck in traffic and climbs onto the back of a moving truck to see the source of the holdup. He sees a piano and sits down on the flatbed and starts to play as the truck exits the freeway to parts unknown.
However, it is the ending that brings two of the most heartbreaking scenes of any movie I can remember. One involves a moment between Bobby and his father (William Challee) in which he pushes the old man in his wheelchair out to the shore and opens up, perhaps for the first time. "I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of. I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really, I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking for auspicious beginnings, I guess I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation. My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before ... I left ... Are you all right?" We sense that this has been a long time coming. The old man, who never speaks sits silently in his chair and stares. Is he staring at Bobby? Does he hear him? What would he say if he could speak?
The other takes place on Bobby's way back home. With a lot on his mind, he enters the restroom of a gas station, then exits and asks a truck driver for a ride to Canada. Leaving Raynette behind in the car, he cruelly heads out in the truck with no indication of where he is going. What does he hope to find in Canada? Why does he abandon Raylene and his car? I don't think that even he has an answer.