Malcolm McDowell did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Michael Anderson "Mick" Travis in If....
The film follows those discriminated being the under class men and those just considered undesirably by the elite students, which is ignored, encouraged, or also ignited by the staff. Malcolm McDowell plays "a" student in the school Mick Travis a role he would technically reprise in O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital. I write technically because the character is only in name only. All three films are directed by Lindsay Anderson but the character is used to serve a purpose rather than being the story of a single man over three films. The latter two films are more alike, and would make more sense to be examined together. This film is set aside a bit more in that even though this film does have a surreal bent it is less extreme or at the very least less comical in nature than those films. This once stands more alone particularly due to the nature of Mick Travis in this film along with McDowell's portrayal of him, which is actually more limited than you'd expect. For much of the film his character is almost depicted as just one of the characters in the story, not necessarily given a greater importance. Early on we see him only as the student most likely to be different, arriving initially in the school sporting a ridiculous mustache.
For much of the film we are only given snippets of McDowell as Travis as the film focuses on several of the various other characters within the school, Travis is just one of them. When it cuts back to Travis McDowell portrays him generally with this general sort of discontent as though he is annoyed by the atmosphere around him and his main focus is that of finding some way in order to alleviate the problem. In these moments one thing does become obvious which is why Stanley Kubrick cast McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange based on his performance in this film. In many ways his performance as Mick here feels a bit of warm up to playing Alex later on. In both films he plays rather atypical school boys though in this case he begins as a far less psychotic sort as McDowell very much stay fairly low key particularly early on where he is almost a supporting player. McDowell there is instead sort of personifies the discontent in the school through his portrayal of Mick's own behavior which slowly changes due to the increasing cruel behavior of the staff and some of his fellow students.
McDowell's performance realizes the gradual growing discontent in Travis as the film continues, though this is fairly minor arc since McDowell from the start shows Travis is already unhappy with his surroundings. What McDowell instead portrays the change as almost this loss of humor towards the abuse in a way. McDowell in the early scenes, and for much of the film portrays this cheeky comic sensibility in his reactions to his "oppressors" in the earlier moments which he also attaches to his initial rebellions which usually make up of basically pranks or fairly mild indiscretions. McDowell engages a sense of fun in that behavior early on as though Mick is not technically taking it overly seriously, in each reprimand though McDowell portrays a more severe reaction along with a growing intensity that makes Mick's transitions to more intense rebellious acts fairly natural. Now though most of his performance is attached to that arc there is the occasional pseudo reprieve of sorts such as when Mick goes out riding a motorcycle to a cafe where he meets a girl, named the girl. What follows is a surreal sequence which McDowell does well enough with in just being part of it in that he brings that certain physically mad energy in his performance that works well within that style. Much of the film though is just gradually portraying Travis sinking to the breaking point but the breaking point is a surreal affair. It's an insane bit at the end though to McDowell credit he does make the progression natural to a certain degree though not all the way. The breaking point though still is a jump further but again that goes in line with the way it is depicted to begin with. The rebellion is ridiculous as it goes from a prank to fully automated machine gun firing into a crowd with Mick as the leader of the murderous students. This final moment as it stands alone is a highlight for McDowell as we see him go full Alex DeLarge, as he brings that same chilling glee as he commits such a violent act. It's a memorable moment and it works well enough in terms of the character mainly due to the film embracing the surreal insanity all the more by the end. Where McDowell in that later film both acted as the humanity of the film, and thrived within its insanity, that's not quite the case here. He doesn't stand out in the same way, and not just due to screentime. He's occasionally engulfed by the film rather standing fully on his own as he does not master the tone in the same way. The character of Mick sometimes feels compromised which is never the case as Alex. It's a good performance, certainly a strong debut, but in the end it does feel but a warm up to his most iconic role.