I am reflecting on this because, well, the red-carpet-set sporting events are coming up soon and I also just watched One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (for the first time admittedly,) a film that was one of the few films, ever, to sweep the "five major" awards (Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, Picture), and I can't help, as I often do, but embrace the urge to scrutinize this "award-winning" performance of an actor, in this case, Jack Nicholson, against other performances in his career.
The limits of the Oscars, especially when it involves such an iconic actor with a long resume, leads me to, albeit irrationally, to weigh this apparent pedastol performance against others that I as an Academy of One, would hold higher.
My personal inclincation, for Jack, goes to The Shining. (Again, albeit irrational - I weigh Cuckoo vs. Shining). The portrayal of madness is always captivating because of how frightening it can be, when captured as perfectly as Jack does - because we are staring into the wild feiry eyes, repelled by the creepy tongue-waggings and disturbed by the visceral howls (specifically displayed throughout The Shining) that suggest that this human being has gone beyond the brink, has been possessed by chaos, whose derranged mind makes him as dangerous as a wild animal - and to see that portrayed, in a performance, and have it be believable, makes you wonder how an actor turns that on and off - outside of the filmed experience - that's the real scary part, you're "conjuring" madness and embracing it.
Whereas in Cuckoo's, the performance that was "awarded," he is playing RP MacMurphy - (similar to Jack in The Shining, they are both the characters of a novel, one from Ken Kesey, the other from Stephen King), but MacMurphy, by distinction, is only "pretending" to be crazy, as a ruse to maybe pick up some bucks on some easily-swindled mental patients. So, while I can watch Cuckoo's Nest and consider it a very strong film, all around, certainly worthy of awards, worthy of four stars, etc etc, I can't help but get momentarily be irked that one performance of "pretending" to be crazy gets the honor and the other where he certifiably goes crazy (and beyond) does not - but it brings us back to the flaw of the Oscar's...
It seems to keep score.
If you've already got an Oscar, like, say, you had won one within the last five years, you might get passed over for another performance, regardless if you're current work is more deserving. (See: Russell Crowe passed over for more nuanced and disturbing role in A Beautiful Mind, perhaps because he won for the essentially one-dimensional performance in Gladiator). Whereas, if Jack's nominated for 80's The Shining, the tacit suggestion may be, hey--he just won back in 75 for Cuckoo's...
The other flaw is the 'make-up' Oscar, the one that's awarded almost for combined work of the past performances that were surprisingly passed on (see: Denzel Washington missing for Malcolm X but yet, winning for...Training Day? And/or, Martin Scorcese missing for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, The Aviator and...winning for...The Departed??)
Anyhow...my longwinded point is - whether or not I, subjectively, feel Cuckoo is (or is not) one of Jack's best performances - it is futile (and, almost a waste of all the words I've used so far) to get upset about it - because his winning in 75 was likely just a byproduct of the competition of that year. And, one has to admit that Robert DeNiro probably gave the performance of his life in the film, Raging Bull, for which he won, over Jack, that year.
So, we should reflect on the power of the director, in this case, Stanley Kubrick. For certain directors, the impact of their signature can outshine the performances in the minds and memories of the audience.
When you think of The Shining, you think of an ax wielded against a door with the inevitable delivery of "Heeeere's Johnny," but, you'll also quickly hear those shrieking strings, stabbing their way through the soundtrack, those blunt and sudden dateline black screens ("WEDNESDAY"), the camera chasing scurrying bodies through a maze, the type writer with pages and pages of one sentence, the blood getting off the elevator, the creepy emptiness of that spooky hotel.
The movie itself, it seems, is almost competing with Jack, on who can best disturb/effect the viscera of the viewer. In essence, the power of the film, Kubrick's eery wordless naration by way of camera angle, pacing, editing and soundtrack, could have such a wave of influence thus that Jack's performance becomes (not merely) an (albeit formidable) added gale pushing the tidal wave forward. Whereas in the, by comparison at least to Kubrick, even-keel delivery (with exception of admittedly exceptional editing and good use of close up) of Cuckoo's director Milos Forman.
Then, I thought, this seems to be true with 4 of Kubrick's (arguably) 5 most revered films: The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket. The exception, I would say, is Peter Sellers triple-pronged performance in Dr. Strangelove. Whereas Jack, and commendably Malcolm McDowell (in Clockwork) deliver two of the most memorable performances of all time, the circumstance of the film - (Jack going crazy, and Malcom's evil-reveling-Alex being "corrected" by the State) dominates are regard.
We all remember their performances, but it is Kubrick's hand that frames that devestating close up of McDowell's face in the milkbar, or that positions the camera lying on the ground facing up at Jack, as he bangs on the freezer door (or follows along his dragged-body through the kitchen):
Space, the black obelisk, the monkeys, the classical music all over the soundtrack, and the immortal hallucinogenic time warp sequence are all the bigger stars of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, does anyone else remember Matthew Modine's (or, for that matter, Vincent D'Onofrio's) impressive turns in Full Metal Jacket? You remember one giving the thousand yard stare at the end - and the other shooting himself in the bathroom, but they are both led more dominantly by the hand of Kubrick.
In a weird way, I guess I was arguing that maybe it would be hard for an actor to compete with the dominating personality/style of a director - and thus, that the often chincy Oscars had no recourse but to give Kubrick's work and his actors that awkward stare that some cosmopolitan mainstream squares in the room would give the avant-garde dude who just hooted a Ginsberg poem in Portugese at the wine and cheese party, and then move on...
Sellers, is the exception - as, even though I would argue Dr. Strangelove to be an invaluable commentary on the Cold War, the arms race, the imbecility of those in power (with such a horrifying effect that such gum-chewing, gun loving, shruggers-off-of-death have their fingers on the buttons) - still, his performance, (with the exception of Slim Picken's riding a bomb like a bucking bronco) is the most memorable facet of the film - and, probably due to Kubrick's 1964-youth and still-developing-style, is able to compete with the director.