February 17, 2009

The Carney Consequence

A poor Oscar choice for Best Actor in 1974 set in motion a ripple effect of makeup awards by the Academy that is still being felt today.

Joe Horton

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.

Art Carney presents Jack Nicholson with the first of many make-up Oscars handed out by the Academy.

As the winner is announced—back when presenters said "and the winner is…", before that was deemed too emotionally damaging for insecure actors to hear that they were losers and was changed to "and the Oscar goes to…,"—an audible gasp runs through the Chandler crowd when Carney's name is called and he literally jumps and skips up to the stage to accept his prize. At this moment, Carney becomes the first link of an irrevocable chain of events that will forever influence the Academy Awards.

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 level—none of these acting luminaries had yet tasted Oscar gold—and 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.

Pacino accepts his make-up Oscar for Scent of a Woman in 1992.

But by critical consensus, Pacino's Scent of a Woman performance as the blind, drunk, sex-crazed, suicidal ex-army colonel wasn't the best of his career. More problematic, it wasn't the best of the year. Not even second-best. It was a good year for actors in 1992, and both Denzel Washington's Malcolm X and Chaplin, as enigmatic, tortured historical figures played by major movie stars disappearing into their roles, were superior performances. But the scent of Pacino was in the air. Pundits said he was "overdue." It was "his year." He won, less for his work that year and more for his remarkable career that had been denied Oscar over the course of 20 years and seven nominations, chiefly and most glaringly in 1974.

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 Consequence—with assists from Crowe's highly-publicized awards temper tantrums and affinity for brawling in the months leading up to the ceremony—claims 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 each—surprise, surprise—score 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 comedic—Richard 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 chances—like Crowe in 2001. He lost the Screen Actor's Guild—the acting union's popularity contest—to 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 slate—Robert 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.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


Article by Joe Horton

Contact this author