David Carradine did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory.
The nominees for best picture for 1976 were the winner Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver, and All The President's Men. Each of these films are now considered bonafide American classics (personal opinions aside), but of course there were five nominees the fifth being Bound For Glory which for has become the forgotten selection. Perhaps it is Bound For Glory rather low key style that has pushed it into obscurity or maybe that it stars a lesser known actor than those other films since the star is David Carradine. Carradine does have notoriety as more of a cult actor through his work on the television series Kung-Fu, and more recently in Kill Bill, which Kung-Fu likely contributed to him getting that part. There's no Kung-Fu of any kind to be found in Bound for Glory though, although interestingly enough this performance is not truly all that far from his Caine in Kung-Fu, particularly not in the early scenes of the film where it shows Woody just trying to get a read on what he should do for his life. This mostly depicts Woody as he goes about his Midwestern town, spending time playing guitar, visiting with other locals, his family or his girlfriend (Melinda Dillon).
In these scenes Carradine actually plays Woody as a bit of sage of the Midwest in his particular way he acts towards life. There is a certain otherworldly quality that Carradine is able to manage within his portrayal of Woody. It is not that he is above human or anything in anyway like that, but rather Carradine finds a grace in the simplicity of the man. There's one very memorable early on when Woody is told to give a woman wasting away a fortune. Carradine is brilliant in this scene as Woody is in no way giving the woman a fortune in reality, in fact he's not even really pretending to give her one rather just telling her things that are realistic truths. Even within these words though Carradine captures almost something mystical within the calm and reassuring way that Woody manages to break the woman out of her daze. Although in a way he is moving about in these early scenes Carradine does not play this as Caine from Kung-Fu. Carradine doesn't necessarily do an exact imitation of the real Woody Guthrie but more importantly he manages to capture the essence of his optimistic spirit through the easy going demeanor that Carradine establishes.
Naturally being a film about a musician there are more than a few musical performances by Carradine throughout the film. The film actually chooses to let these sequences play out in a particular subdued way. They are never there to exactly be the center of attention in any given scene. Carradine in turn does not over accentuate any moment of his performance, and in no way changes, not really even his voice, when he goes about playing a song. Carradine shows so well is that the songs of this fluidity about them in the way he performs and sings them. They are Woody's natural state of being really, and the way the song comes out always feels in an unrehearsed fashion. He might as well just continue speaking when he sings, not due to the manner of his singing, but rather because Carradine makes it actually as though that is when Woody is able to connect most with people around him. This ends up being Woody's calling, when his unique manner as a man prevents him from being able to find any sort of steady work otherwise. Woody then goes about taking to the road, and seeing what there is for him in the rest of America.
Along the way through America Woody sees many of the former farmers turned into poorly treated pickers who often try to make their way through the train yard, where they find a non too sympathetic group of company men. Carradine is very effective in being a reactionary presence as seeing their difficult lives and often brutal treatment seems to offer him a specific purpose. Carradine expresses well a loss in actually that sort of optimism he had before, and Carradine plays it as though really perhaps Woody knows nothing of the real plight of people. It is interesting portrayal because Carradine actually makes Woody more down to earth as the film progresses as he learns more about the world. This even when Woody begins to find success where Carradine makes the biggest impact through Woody's playing. It no longer seems as part of him in either way really. When performing what he wishes to perform Carradine brings a greater drive presenting an intriguing way the powerful passion that develops in Woody for the cause, that's still within his unassuming personality though nevertheless quite palatable. His performances though are also quite a bit different when he is forced to play his songs, but only his songs that are without any overt sort of social statement. Again Carradine is terrific because he does not compromise the way he has set up Woody, even though Woody is forced to go against his nature. Carradine creates the considerable discontent and distaste in Woody in a striking fashion, while still in a subtle way fitting his subtle man. The final act of the film does not exactly resolve everything for Woody as he is still stuck between worlds it seems through his growing success as a singer, and his desire to fight for the plight of the less fortunate. This might have felt far more arbitrary of an ending if it were not for Carradine's performance. He realizes so well the personal style and philosophy of Woody that is that of the drifter in both mind and body, who could never be set in one place because that's simply isn't who he is. Carradine gives strong work here giving a memorable and unique portrait of the folk singer.