• Academy Award: Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
Though I saw both The Goodbye Girl and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in 1977, I was much too young to be distressed that the wrong Richard Dreyfuss performance was winning the awards (or even to be aware that there were awards, probably). Looking back now, however: ugh. Two years earlier, in Jaws, Steven Spielberg used Dreyfuss’ manic tendency to superb effect. He did it again with Close Encounters, casting Dreyfuss as a character who becomes increasingly obsessed after he’s “chosen” (as François Truffaut’s scientist puts it) by an alien race seeking to make contact. That quality serves Dreyfuss less well in the glib The Goodbye Girl, in which he plays a struggling actor sharing an apartment, via a contrived complication, with a single mother (Marsha Mason) and her young daughter (Quinn Cummings). Granted, the character, Elliot Garfield, is meant to be overbearing and flamboyant, and I could argue that much of what seems like excess on Dreyfuss’ part—for example, the famous staccato “I don’t. like. the panties. drying. on. the rod,” with a pair of panties pulled from the rod to punctuate each word or phrase—is actually excess on Elliot’s part. Overall, though, the combination of Dreyfuss and screenwriter Neil Simon gets a little toxic, as their respective eager-to-please sensibilities are too similar. It’s easy to wonder about the original version of the film, which was called Bogart Slept Here and began shooting with Mike Nichols as director and Robert De Niro as the male lead. De Niro was fired, reportedly because he couldn’t sell Simon’s one-liners, and the script was radically overhauled, but an actor inclined to fight superficial slickness might’ve been just what was needed.
• New York Film Critics Circle: John Gielgud, Providence
Sometimes it’s really hard to determine whether a performance qualifies as a leading role. John Gielgud’s misanthropic writer, Clive Langham, is unquestionably the protagonist of Alain Resnais’ Providence, and the entire film is essentially a study of his diseased, dying mind. However, Gielgud isn’t actually onscreen frequently until the final reel or so. Much of the time, we’re watching the novel he’s composing and revising in his head, a bitter roman à clef featuring various members of his family (played by Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, and David Warner). When Gielgud is onscreen, he’s his usual magnificently imperious self, delivering what are more or less self-directed soliloquies with robust energy, while somehow simultaneously creating the impression of a man who’s running on fumes.
It’s marvelous work, and an inspired choice by the NYFCC… but it still seems a bit odd to name someone Best Actor for a film in which he appears less often than most of the ostensibly supporting cast. (Though his voice, or just his cackling laugh, often intrudes on the soundtrack during the imagined novel scenes.) What sells it, perhaps, is Providence’s extended epilogue, in which Langham entertains his actual family; not only are they revealed to be nothing like he depicted them, but Gielgud expertly delineates the distinction between the private and public self, shifting gears radically in the presence of others while retaining hints of the maudlin, abusive egoist previously seen holding court alone in his castle. Gielgud went on to win an Oscar just four years later for Arthur, and kept working right up until his death at age 96 (he was 73 when he made Providence), but he was rarely offered opportunities as gloriously rich as this one.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
Of the three major critics’ groups, only LAFCA predicted the Oscar winner—the other two gave their award to actors who weren’t even nominated. But you know who was nominated that year? Woody Allen. Such was the power of Annie Hall, his first “mature” film (in the sense that it isn’t a non-stop joke-fest). Allen has been nominated 16 times as a screenwriter and seven times as a director, but this was (and will likely remain) his sole nod as an actor. Looking back at the performance today, it’s clearly the same one he always gives, which makes it difficult to evaluate; it’s hard to argue that he’s “better” in Annie Hall than he is in Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, etc. At the time, however, it marked a significant departure from what he’d been doing, just as the film itself represented a sea change.
A year earlier, Martin Ritt’s The Front gave Allen his first opportunity to play a recognizable human being, as opposed to the broadly exaggerated comic persona he’d established in his stand-up act, and Annie Hall saw him import that modulation into his own movies, to surprisingly poignant effect. He still tosses off a one-liner as deftly as ever, but he also gives Alvy Singer genuine moments of frustration, tenderness, envy, and regret. Allen was clearly conscious of the leap forward, too: In one scene, Alvy interrogates Annie about her choice of men and reading material—fundamentally serious stuff, albeit still peppered with jokes—while standing in front of goofy photographs Annie took of him earlier in the film, when he was terrified of some live lobsters. While nobody would ever mistake the guy for Brando, it’s appropriate that he was recognized for achieving this initial synthesis of comedy and light realism.
• National Society of Film Critics: Art Carney, The Late Show
Former Honeymooners second banana Art Carney had a brief late-career renaissance in the 1970s, winning the Best Actor Oscar (and Golden Globe, in the Musical/Comedy division) for Harry And Tonto. Three years later, the NSFC singled out his performance in Robert Benton’s The Late Show, a neo-noir about an aging private dick attempting to solve the murder of his ex-partner. While the film is a mystery with a fairly complicated plot, it’s primarily a character piece. Rather than world-weary, the detective, Ira Wells, is just plain weary, and Carney plays him as if every step he takes and word he speaks demands real effort. Many of his scenes place him opposite Lily Tomlin, as a new client who wants Ira to find her lost cat, and it’s an inspired pairing that lets Carney explore the entire spectrum of exasperation, which he manages to do without getting bogged down in crotchety cliché.
Even more miraculously, he lets Ira gradually warm up to this frequently annoying woman in a way that feels genuine rather than contrived. In many ways, this performance is the template for what Clint Eastwood has been doing onscreen for the past couple of decades, even though Eastwood remains physically trim, while Carney was overweight and riddled with mildly debilitating ailments, many of which he incorporated into this character. In both cases, there’s an acknowledgment of frailty and encroaching obsolescence that cathartically belies a tough-guy exterior. For viewers who only know Carney from The Honeymooners, and have trouble picturing him as a tough guy, it’s worth seeking out The Late Show. He was born to be middle-aged and surly.
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: Burt Reynolds, Smokey And The Bandit
Although Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest box-office stars in the world for more than a decade—ranked No. 1 on Quigley Publishing’s annual list for five consecutive years (1978–82), a feat matched only by Bing Crosby—he got no critical respect until Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in Boogie Nights. That isn’t terribly surprising, as light comedy heavily predicated on personal charm rarely impresses people as great acting. (See Grant, Cary, Legendary Oscar-Snubbed Performances By.) Breezy isn’t easy, however, and Reynolds was at his laid-back best in the first Smokey And The Bandit picture, which I was surprised to find, when I revisited it not long ago, has more of a blithe screwball feel than I recognized as a little kid. When Sally Field’s runaway bride hops into his Trans Am, the Bandit’s initial attempts at conversation mostly involve her calves, which he notes are bigger than his. “Do we really want to talk about legs?” she asks, and the casual, almost indifferent way Reynolds tosses off, “Well, one of us does” makes the line much funnier than it looks on paper. In fact, he does so little, especially compared to the usual huffing and puffing comedians engage in, that he risks coming across as lazy, or even arrogant—which is precisely how critics perceived him. Audiences loved him, though, and I suspect it was because they identified with him not as a larger-than-life hero, but as a regular guy who seemed mildly amused to be the center of attention. Most comic actors seem desperate to be loved; Reynolds looked as if he couldn’t care less. In later films, that quality genuinely did cross the line into boredom, but for a while, at least, it worked.