Michael O'Keefe received his only Oscar nomination so far for portraying Ben Meechum in The Great Santini.
O'Keefe plays the son of the Great Santini Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) who deals much of the brunt of the abuse Bull Meechum puts down on his family. The main focus of the film is actually the father son relationship between Ben and Bull, making O'Keefe's performance quite essential to the entire film. O'Keefe performance though is not the great achievement that perhaps it might have or could have been able to.
There are certainly strong moments in his performance though. His chemistry, and dynamic with Duvall does feel authentic enough, as he usually quietly reacts to the Great Santini's abuse, but at times with more hatred does he address the abuse. These moments are carefully handled by O'Keefe and are effective. He shows through this that this relationship has been going on for a long time, and only when pushed past his limit does he really completely cry out against what his father does to him.
What is interesting though also is O'Keefe does not portray Ben relationship with Bull and entirely negative one. There still is a love a between them, even though it is greatly reduced do to Bull's abusive behavior. Both actors do manage to make this strange and difficult relationship work. They are natural together, and since their fights never seem like something new, they make the relationship seem quite authentic despite the oddity of the relationship.
The problem in O'Keefe performance comes though when he really is pressed in his big emotional scenes. They are not utter failures by any means, but they are a lot less than they could have been. O'Keefe in these scene unfortuantely is not natural as he needs to be, and the fact that he is acting the scenes unfortuantely comes through a little bit, unlike say how Timothy Hutton handles similar scenes in Ordinary People.
It is not that O'Keefe is not bad by any means, but these scenes unfortuantely show an inability, and inexperience in his performance. If he was able to really bring out the emotional strength possible in these scenes they could have been amazing, rather than just fine. This goes for his performance to, there are a lot of good moments, and the overall performance is good I would say, but I also think it could have been great.