-When “cream of the crop” meant something

When I finally got to experience Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen a couple of weeks ago (thank you, Arclight), I came to the same realization that many cinephiles do as they walk out of the modern multiplex these days: they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

While a larger discussion of Lawrence would certainly be worthwhile (although I may not be worthy), what I found to be the biggest topic of the post-viewing discussion was the utterly fearless (and debut) performance by Peter O’Toole in what I can’t imagine can be considered anything less than one of the most powerful, brilliant and iconic performances in film history.

And yet he didn’t win the Oscar.

I couldn’t imagine any performance that could have come anywhere close to what O’Toole delivered, let alone surpass it. I was deathly curious to know who on earth could possibly have won that year, so I looked it up. You know who beat Peter O’Toole for Best Actor in 1963?

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Well. There’s just not much you can say about that.

But then, two days later, I was listening to my favorite film critics, Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, the hosts of Filmspotting, and during their podcast they offered up their weekly poll question:

In 1977, Rocky won Best Picture. If you could go back and give Best Picture again that year, with the same nominees, which film would you give the Oscar to?

All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
Taxi Driver

The point of the question was: look at those Best Picture nominees. Four of the five pictures are unquestioned classics and, in any other year would stand out, head and shoulders above every other film. Yet, in 1977, they were all in the same class. I mean, come on. All the President’s Men, Network, Rocky and Taxi Driver in the SAME YEAR? Wow. How do you choose?

And Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia? Two of the finest performances ever put to screen. IN THE SAME YEAR.

It got me to thinking about real quality in movies and how few and far between it seems to come these days. Yes, we do get really terrific performances and we get films that will most certainly hold up and might even one day be considered classics, but, looking back, will there ever be another year like 1977 again?

Or like 1973. Take a look at who was nominated for Best Actor that year:
Jack Lemmon – Save the Tiger
Al Pacino – Serpico
Jack Nicholson – The Last Detail
Robert Redford – The Sting
Marlon Brando – The Last Tango in Paris

Can you even imagine a year when Lemmon, Pacino, Nicholson, Redford and Brando are all nominated in the same category? Talk about star power. (Today, Oscar producers are happy when just Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt get nominated.) But that’s not just star power. That’s legend. Every single one. (By the way, Lemmon won.)

Or try 1981. Best Actor:
Robert De Niro – Raging Bull
Robert Duvall – The Great Santini
John Hurt – The Elephant Man
Jack Lemmon – Tribute
Peter O’Toole – The Stunt Man

This was John Hurt’s second nomination. Duvall’s third. De Niro’s fourth. O’Toole’s sixth. And Lemmon’s seventh. I mean, come ON. (De Niro won)

How about 1968, Best Actor:
Warren Beatty – Bonnie and Clyde
Dustin Hoffman – The Graduate
Paul Newman – Cool Hand Luke
Rod Steiger – In the Heat of the Night
Spencer Tracy – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Yes, look at the names, but also look at the films. When was the last time the top five performances actually came from five FILMS this good? (Steiger won.)

And the most recent example, 1983, Best Actor:
Dustin Hoffman – Tootsie
Ben Kingsley – Gandhi
Jack Lemmon – Missing
Paul Newman – The Verdict
Peter O’Toole – My Favorite Year

At this point, neither Paul Newman nor Peter O’Toole had won (each had 6 nominations). [O’Toole still, to this day, has yet to win a competitive Oscar, after 8 nominations. The Academy gave him an honorary one in 2003.] This was Lemmon’s 8th nomination (he had won twice before), and Hoffman’s 5th (having won once). Of course, Kingsley won, with this, his first nomination.

So not since 1983 has there been, in my opinion, a year to make us go “Wow….how do you choose?”

Are there no more legends? Is the talent just not that good anymore? Is what’s there spread too thin and too far apart?

Will we ever again see a year where Atticus Finch goes head-to-head with T.E. Lawrence? Will we ever again see a REAL Best Picture race where the Academy voters have to choose between Network and Taxi Driver (and choose Rocky instead)?

Maybe not.

But, who knows…. Stranger things have happened. (Right, Marisa?)

p.s. Until then, don’t wait as long as I did to catch a classic. If there’s a performance or a film listed here you haven’t seen yet, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. The Academy may not do it right every time, but sometimes they do it exactly right.