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Best Actor Oscar Winners - 1970s

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Hollywood in the 1970s was markedly different than the one that existed in the previous three decades. The old studio system was gone thanks to financial struggles and a seismic cultural shift that saw the rise of the youth-oriented counterculture. Hollywood responded by opening the doors wider to more experimentation, resulting in a second golden age known as New Hollywood.

Unlike the heroes of movies past, actors played a wide range of loners, iconoclasts and anti-heroes, a reflection of the new focus on gritty realism and the dark underbelly of the American experience. Some great performances won Oscar, others were ignored (read: Al Pacino), but all are worthy of our admiration. And the winner is…

1. 1970 Best Actor – George C. Scott in ‘Patton’

20th Century Fox
Bigger than life and even war, George C. Scott’s characterization of famed General George S. Patton was flawless and one of the best performances of an historical figure in cinema history. Scott played Patton as a flamboyant loose cannon who bucks authority at every turn in order to ensure victory in the field, where he’s kept busy by his superiors because of his undeniable talent. But his refusal to bend leads to a small, but fateful action that keeps him away from the invasion of Normandy, an epic battle where his skills would have undoubtedly shined. Scott’s towering performance was no match for his fellow nominees, though he famously refused the award in his belief that he wasn’t in competition with other actors – an action in perfect harmony with the iconoclastic character he played.
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2. 1971 Best Actor – Gene Hackman in ‘The French Connection’

20th Century Fox
As the rough-and-tumble New York detective, Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman delivered one of the finest performances of his career. Abusive, bigoted, alcoholic and disrespectful of his superiors, Hackman’s Doyle was nonetheless a dedicated cop who stops at nothing to track down the source of a big shipment of heroin about to be smuggled into the city. Few could argue the choice of Hackman for Best Actor, who won the Oscar over Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday, Walter Matthau in Kotch, George C. Scott in The Hospital and Chaim Topol in Fiddler on the Roof.
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3. 1972 Best Actor – Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’

Paramount Pictures
Following a near decade-long slump where he saw his box office stature wane, Marlon Brando returned triumphantly to the fore with one of his most iconic roles, playing Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga, The Godfather. Coppola fought tooth and nail with Paramount Pictures to cast Brando; the studio felt the actor was too difficult and past his prime, and wanted either Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas instead. But Brando took a pay cut, submitted to screen tests and even put up a bond stating he wouldn’t delay production in order to win the role. As a result, he delivered what many considered as his greatest performance. Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor, which he famously refused due to Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans in movies.
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4. 1973 Best Actor – Jack Lemmon in ‘Save the Tiger’

Paramount Pictures
A determined Jack Lemmon waved his salary and worked for scale to portray Harry Stoner, a Vietnam veteran out of touch with the ideals of his friends whom he lost in the war. Stoner is a seemingly successful garment manufacturer who employs unscrupulous business practices while struggling financially to keep up appearances. Stoner was the most unlikable character that Lemmon ever played on screen: he lies to others and himself, cheats on his wife with prostitutes, and even burns down his warehouse for the insurance money. Lemmon’s won the Academy Award over Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, Al Pacino in Serpico and Robert Redford in The Sting.
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5. 1974 Best Actor – Art Carney in ‘Harry and Tonto’

20th Century Fox
Better known as the comic foil of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, Art Carney was a versatile performer whose career crossed film, television, Broadway and even radio. His finest moment on celluloid was undoubtedly in Harry and Tonto, in which he played Harry Coombes, a retired teacher and widower who goes on a cross-country trek with his aging cat, Tonto, to reunite with his past after learning that his New York apartment is about to have a date with a wrecking ball. Over the course of his 3,000-mile journey, Harry has increasingly disappointing encounters with a young hitchhiker (Melanie Mayron), his three children (Philip Bruns, Ellen Burstyn and Larry Hagman), and an old flame who has slipped into senility (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Carney was a surprise win that year, beating out the iconic performances of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II.
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6. 1975 Best Actor – Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

HBO Home Video
Having tasted bitter defeat in losing Oscar to Art Carney, Jack Nicholson found himself on the podium delivering an acceptance speech the following year for his performance as the uncontrollable R.P. McMurphy in the adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This time, Nicholson bested Walter Mathau in The Sunshine Boys, Maximilian Shell in The Man in the Glass Booth, James Whitmore in Give ‘em Hell, Harry and Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. With Carney himself presenting the award, a jubilant Nicholson bounded up to the podium and proceeded to give thanks, including to his agent whom Nicholson said had told him that he had no business becoming an actor.
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7. 1976 Best Actor – Peter Finch in ‘Network’

MGM Home Entertainment
In playing the mad-as-hell Howard Beale, the aging TV news anchor who ranted and raved about the illusions of television and the sorry state of the world, Peter Finch delivered a power-packed performance unmatched by anyone in the decade. But his triumph was bittersweet at best, as Finch had died of a heart attack just a couple months before the Academy Award ceremony. He was 60 years old and became the first-ever actor to win a posthumous Oscar, beating Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties, fellow Network co-star William Holden, and a visibly-stunned Sylvester Stallone in Rocky.
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8. 1977 Best Actor – Richard Dreyfuss in ‘The Goodbye Girl’

MGM Home Entertainment
At 30 years old, Richard Dreyfuss became the youngest-ever performer to win the Oscar for Best Actor thanks to his manic performance as Elliot Garfield, an arrogant, but wounded actor who sublets an apartment with a divorced ex-Broadway chorus dancer (Marsha Mason). The two immediately don’t like each other and struggle to co-exist. But Elliot soon has his spirits and ego crushed after his portrayal of a homosexual Richard III ends with one performance, leading him on an alcoholic binge and an eventual romance with Mason. Dreyfuss had little competition that year with fellow nominees Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Richard Burton in Equus, Marcello Mastroianni in A Special Day, and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
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9. 1978 Best Actor – Jon Voight in ‘Coming Home’

MGM Home Entertainment
Long before he was known as the ostracized dad of Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight was one of the 1970s’ most celebrated and successful actors. He became a star with his performances as a naïve gigolo in Midnight Cowboy and a businessman being hunted down by Georgia hillbillies in Deliverance. Both roles earned him Academy Award nominations, but it was his performance as an angry Vietnam veteran who returns from the war a paraplegic in Coming Home that gave him his Oscar. Voight’s transformation from bitter to hopeful through his love and companionship with a V.A. hospital volunteer (Jane Fonda) is nothing short of revelatory, as his performance ranks among the best of the decade.
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10. 1979 Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’

Sony Pictures
Dustin Hoffman delivered one of the best performances of his career as a workaholic advertising executive who learns through lots of trial and error how to take care of his young son (Justin Henry) while in the midst of divorcing his wife (Meryl Streep). He starts as a less-than-capable caregiver, but over the course of the film he becomes a nurturing father, only to face losing his son when his wife – now working a lucrative job – tries to retake custody. Kramer vs. Kramer was a hit at the box office and earned wide critical praise, particularly for the realistic performances from Hoffman and Streep. Hoffman was awarded the Oscar over fellow nominees Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome, Al Pacino in …And Justice for All, Roy Scheider in All That Jazz and Peter Sellers in Being There.
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