In 1974, the Best Actor category of the Academy Awards had one of the most impressive groups of nominees in history. Michael Corelone, I mean, Al Pacino joined a list of soon-to-be legends: Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, and Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express. Harry and Tonto’s Art Carney, celebrated for his stint on The Honeymooners but in his first leading role, rounded out the five, giving the audience a chance to rest their hands from tireless applause.
The other men in this category would go on to collect 33 nominations and seven wins. Hoffman and Nicholson would become two of the eight male actors to ever win two Best Actor statuettes. But in 1974, the playing field was levelnone of these acting luminaries had yet tasted Oscar goldand after Carney scored the stunning upset in his only nomination, the Academy was forced to play catch-up.
In 1975, Carney would present Nicholson with his first Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, beating Pacino's Dog Day Afternoon. In 1979, Dustin Hoffman won his first for Kramer vs. Kramer, beating, you guessed it, Al Pacino. Pacino would not receive a single nomination for a performance in the '80s, and entered the '90s as Hollywood's most celebrated actor without the glint of Oscar. In 1992, he was nominated twice in what was called the "Year of Pacino," for a supporting turn in Glengarry Glen Ross and a hoo-ah tour-de-force in Scent of a Woman.
So Washington and Downey, Jr., go home robbed, and a string of strange consequences ensue. Washington comes up for consideration seven years later with The Hurricane, loses, and returns in 2001 for his turn as crooked cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Oddsmakers had him behind Russell Crowe's widely-praised career performance in A Beautiful Mind, his third of three consecutive nominations. But the Carney Consequencewith assists from Crowe's highly-publicized awards temper tantrums and affinity for brawling in the months leading up to the ceremonyclaims another victim.Crowe is leapfrogged by the "overdue" Washington on a night when the Academy goes all-out to make amends for its shameful historical paucity of winners of color. After recognizing barrier-shattering Sidney Poitier with an honorary Oscar, a hysterical Halle Berry stuns the audience with a Best Actress victory that left some, including Angela Bassett and Time critic Richard Corliss, scratching their heads. In her wake, Berry left Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger empty-handed, who would eachsurprise, surprisescore Carney Consequence carryover wins in the next two years.
The curse of Carney goes even further. His win has also hobbled a swath of actors considered "lightweights," as Carney was one of the last actors from a non-dramatic background to take home the Best Actor Oscar. Since then, Hollywood has grown increasingly disinclined to award funnymen and so-called dilettante performers over their dramatic peers. Carney was one of the last actors to win the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe and be nominated for, let alone win, the Oscar. Since Carney, just four actors have won the lighter Globe and the leading Oscar, while a stunning 17 musical/comedy winners have not even been nominated. (Jim Carrey won those Golden Globes for both The Truman Show and Man on the Moon but didn't even get a sniff of an Oscar nomination for those or his incredible work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
Consider brilliant British comedian, mannerist, and actor Albert Finney, the only nominee from that wild 1974 race never to win. Finney's five nods and goose egg of victory stands as a prime example of the Academy's disdain for actors not deemed sufficiently "serious" for the gravitas of the leading category. Sure, manic comedian Robin Williams won for Good Will Hunting, but only after getting serious and moving to the supporting category following three unsuccessful bids in the big-boy shoes. In the nearly 25 years since the 1974 contest, only three lead actors have won for roles considered predominantly comedicRichard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl, Academy darling Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets and, if you can consider a movie set in a Nazi concentration camp a comedy, the chair-stepping Roberto Benigni. Lost in Translation's Bill Murray, who won the British Academy, New York/LA Film Critics and Golden Globe awards, lost to Sean Penn in 2003; Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow charmed everyone except for Academy voters; and in the supporting category, Eddie Murphy swept the big preseason awards for Dreamgirls, only to come away empty-handed on Oscar night.
So where does this bring us this year? Mickey Rourke had to be considered the frontrunner early in the year, winning the Golden Globe and appearing on every talk show to expound upon his stunning artistic revival. But Rourke's share of public gaffes could spell trouble for his Oscar chanceslike Crowe in 2001. He lost the Screen Actor's Guildthe acting union's popularity contestto the more serious-seeming Sean Penn. Penn was also another deserving nominee in 2001 bested by the Carney-Pacino-Denzel-Crowe karmic wheel. Pencil in Rourke as the next Carney victim.
There is another Carnic casualty on this year's Oscar slateRobert Downey Jr., whose nomination for his turn in blackface in Tropic Thunder bespeaks his ascent to the podium of hottest actor in town. You might recall that Downey Jr. was in that talented 1992 crop that was cleared to make way for Pacino's compensatory statue. Though unlikely to win an award this year, the soon-to-be "overdue" Downey Jr. should clear his February calendar for the next few years because his rise as a nouveau box-office draw and awards magnet means that he will soon join the ever-growing category of great actors who are recognized after their best work. He currently holds the mantle of the Carney Consequence; he is a ticking bomb of Academy machinations to come.