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The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1975

1975 is the kind of year you just glance at and then move on. It’s one of those years where, at face value, nothing is wrong, and then after the fact, you think, “Wait, were those the droids I was looking for?”

What I mean by that is — all of the choices they made (well, most of them. One of them — whatever), you look at them and immediately go, “Yeah, good choices. There’s nothing really wrong here.” But, when you do think about it, are they actually good choices?

Take Best Picture and Best Director from this year. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A classic film. A great film. There’s no denying that. Miloš Forman. A great director. Has made some classics — Amadeus, Man on the Moon, Ragtime, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Hair — there’s really no denying that the film and director are great. But — are they really worthy of winning Best Picture? Or more specifically, are they worthy of winning Best Picture this specific year? It’s just a thought. I’ll bring it up later when I actually go over the categories. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about every time I go back to the categories. If you want to get a head start and try to see what I mean, take a look at what else (and who else) was nominated (and by exclusion, wasn’t). Just take a look. (Hint: My argument is going to have something to do with being cinematic vs. being theatrical.)

Anyway, the other major categories that happened this year basically amounted to a clean sweep for Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher took hom Best Actor and Best Actress. Interesting fact on that, because lord knows I’m all about the interesting facts. The only two times Jack Nicholson has won the Best Actor Oscar, his costar also won the Best Actress Oscar as well. That’s an interesting fact, right? Every time Jack has won, he helped his costar win too. That says something, methinks. What, I don’t know. But something.

Oh, and the final award was Lee Grant for Best Supporting Actress in Shampoo.

Now, what I was getting at up there is, with this category, when you first look at it — and this is even after you’ve presumably seen all the films like I have — you go, “Yeah, George Burns, he was great in that movie. That makes sense he won,” and keep walking. I liken it to that scene in the thriller when the guard watching the prisoners or whatever is looking for the person that did something or isn’t supposed to be there. And they’re hiding out in the group. And the guard is looking to spot them, and they look right at our protagonist, and there’s that long moment where they lock eyes, and the movie cuts it to be like, “Oh, fuck, he knows.” And then after a second the dude looks away and continues, presumably having seen nothing out of the ordinary. (Which, cinematic vs. theatrical, you see why I chose this specific analogy.) A moment like that you just look at and go, “When the dude does find out the guy he looked at was the guy, does he have a moment of, “You know, I thought something was wrong there.” Does he have that feeling of “I should have trusted my instincts?”

If you’re still not following the metaphor, just keep reading, I’ll explain it later.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1975

And the nominees are…

George Burns, The Sunshine Boys

Brad Dourif, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Burgess Meredith, The Day of the Locust

Chris Sarandon, Dog Day Afternoon

Jack Warden, Shampoo

Burns — Watching The Sunshine Boys, at first I didn’t know what to expect. Being  a child born in the 80s (the late 80s at that), I really had no idea about Neil Simon plays. It really wasn’t a name I knew outside of a vague notion that it was someone well known in some circles. And after the movies I’ve seen that he’s written the plays for (and most of the time, the screenplays for, as well) — The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl, The Heartbreak Kid, California Suite, The Cheap Detective, Murder by Death — I’ve discovered that, both specifically and generally, when Simon is on, he is on. But when he misses, it’s kind of awkward. He’s — in a very, very dissimilar manner, mind you — kind of like the Family Guy of the 70s. I find that his films — specifically Murder by Death, The Goodbye Girl and The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys too — are mostly really, really funny. The dialogue really works and elicits laughs (in different ways too. Obviously The Goodbye Girl is not the same type of humor as Murder by Death (god I love Murder by Death)), but, the parts that don’t work, just, really don’t work. I don’t even think it’s an era thing, I think it’s just a comedy thing. But, still, I have to say, I do find myself laughing quite a bit with Neil Simon films.

This one in particular. It’s about two old vaudevillians who haven’t worked together for forty years (it’s the 70s), and are now being solicited to appear on a tribute to Vaudeville. They were one of the foremost teams back then, like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and had this one particular sketch, “The Doctor Sketch” that was just a “Who’s on First” type classic. And Walter Matthau is one of the two, and his nephew is the guy that organizes getting the two on the show. And Matthau at first is adamant about not doing it. He says he had a falling out with Burns and that they don’t agree anymore — until the nephew says he contacted Burns and that he agreed to it.

The point of the movie is, the two argue like hell, but for no real reason. They don’t really know why they’re arguing, they just do. Matthau keeps changing one word in the sketch — the most minor word, too — when Burns, the doctor, shows up and knocks on the door, he’s supposed to say, “Come in!” but instead he says, “Enter!” and Burns tells him to say it the way it’s supposed to be said. And he’s telling him, “We’ve done this sketch a thousand times, say it the way we’ve always said it,” and they just bicker the whole goddamm time. And Burns plays sort of the older member of the team. He’s happy in retirement, he sits with his grandchildren, falls asleep in the back room, looking out in his backyard. It’s like that. And he really doesn’t care anymore, he’s enjoying old age. And Matthau is the neurotic one. The one who’s always yelling about something, the, “Whaddya Mean it’s at three o’clock?” — you know, Walter Matthau. He’s always like that.

It’s a hysterical performance by Burns, who plays off of Matthau quite, quite well. My only questions with the performance are, how much of a lead is he, and, how much of this is a veteran win? To answer the first, I think it’s okay to call him supporting because, he doesn’t show up until about twenty minutes in, and then he goes away for a stretch in the middle and toward the end as well. While there is a long stretch where him and Matthau are the only two on screen, and the film is ostensibly about them, I think, screen-time wise, he can be considered supporting. I don’t know. It’s a grey area. Matthau got the lead nomination. It’s tough. As for the other question — I can’t really answer. I just know he was hilarious, and my vote is coming down to how much I can negotiate the fact that he may be a lead and decide whether I’m voting for the humor of the team or from his performance itself. It’s tough. But he’s definitely top two for me.

Dourif — Here’s a performance I totally understand why they nominated it, but is not one I’m ever going to vote for. In a film with an entire cast of mental patients, they’re all characters. His was just the biggest downer of the bunch. I never gravitate toward this character, in any movie.

The movie, if you’ve lived under a rock, is about Nicholson getting arrested and choosing a stay in a mental hospital instead of prison. He figures it would be easier time. But, he shows up, and finds out the head nurse treats the ward like her own private fiefdom, presiding over it like a tyrant. And him, being a natural born rabble-rouser in the Cool Hand Luke sense, just makes trouble because it’s what he does. And he stirs up all the inmates and breaks them out to take them fishing, all that. And Dourif is the patient who is the most — and least, probably — fucked up of the bunch. He’s the kid with family problems who tried to commit suicide. And he’s on the ward to get better, but, the nurse basically manipulates him and controls his every emotion. With the right set of words she can make him feel like he’s totally better or make him feel worse than he’s ever felt. And basically that’s the character. Nicholson shows up and teaches the kid to be himself, and he starts legitimately getting better. Except the nurse comes in at opportune moments and brings him back down again. And finally she says the right thing at the right time and the kid kills himself. It’s the lynchpin role in the film that really affects Nicholson’s storyline. His death causes Nicholson to do something really drastic, which in turn leads to the climax of the film, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it.

But, Dourif is good in the role — it’s just — it’s the kind of role, like I said, I just don’t gravitate towards. To me it’s the role that’s so well-dramatized as a role that it’s easy to garner a nomination out of it. To me it’s the role that earns the nomination and not the actor. Of course, had a bigger actor taken the part, I’d probably be saying how great they did. But, what are the Oscars built on if not hypocrisy? (Though I will say a bigger actor would probably find a way to put a definitive stamp on the role, which is probably what makes all the difference.) There are a few roles like this that pop up, and almost every time I’ll end up saying, “Yeah, it’s good, but, it’s the role, not the actor.” There’s always that role. Like, in a prison break movie. The old guy that helps out. And you know the old guy will sacrifice himself so the rest can get out. That archetypical role. There’s rarely anything new there. But, if the archetype is played well, it’s almost always worth the nomination. The ‘oldie but goodie.’ So, it’s fine and all, but, no vote.

Meredith — Man, I love Burgess Meredith. He’s just one of those faces that seems etched out of granite. Even back in the 30s, he looked like that. Ever see him in Of Mice and Men? He looks and sounds exactly the same. It’s great.

Anyway, this movie, is actually based on a novella, and strangely, is one I’d read before I’d seen the movie. I remember reading the novella and thinking it would make an interesting movie if it were done well (and some things were changed). And when I saw the film — I thought it was terribly 70s. It was terribly 70s and the film wasn’t terribly engaging, either. It was weird.

The film is about — oh, fuck I don’t even want to get into it, it’s so strange. Half the film is about a writer who moves into a bungalow on a studio lot and meets an aspiring actress and her father and things get fucking weird. It’s about how fucked up and fake Hollywood is, is basically the point of the movie. There are gross exaggerations of what you’d see in Hollywood based on a writer who tends toward the surreal. And then, inexplicably, midway through, we change protagonists, and we follow him, and then by the end, a big riot happens that was pre-ordained by a painting the first protagonist guy did. It’s really strange. But, like I said, if done correctly, could be a good film.

In the film, Burgess plays an old Vaudevillian (that’s two this year), who is now poor, and an alcoholic, and goes around door-to-door selling things. And he’s not doing so well. But, he also has a relationship with his daughter, where, he still tries to be the Vaudevillian around her, always putting on a show. This, more than Burns’s nomination, is a veteran nomination. Make no mistake about that. Maybe it’s because the film wasn’t engaging at all to me, but, I felt Meredith’s performance didn’t have much to it aside from the novelty that it was him doing it. If we really want to see a great Burgess Meredith performance, look to the next year, in 76, with Rocky. But, it’s nice to see him nominated, but, against Burns, no vote.

Sarandon — Oh, man, Dog Day Afternoon. I hate that I have to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.

The movie basically is — right from the start, Al Pacino, John Cazale, and a third dude, show up at a bank to rob it. That’s right in the first thirty seconds. And, as it happens, the alarm is tripped and it ends up with Pacino and Cazale inside with all the people who work there, as the police surround it outside. And the movie basically becomes a hostage situation. And over the course of the film, as the police are figuring out information about their suspects, they go home to Pacino’s wife and kids. And his wife is this overweight woman who basically lies in bed all day, while his three or four kids (of a very young age) run around. And it’s a tiny ass scene, but, speaks volumes about what’s to be revealed.

Because, later on, Pacino gives up his motivations for robbing the bank, which are — he has a lover, Leon, played by Chris Sarandon, and he’s robbing the bank to pay for Leon’s sex change operation. And Leon really just has one scene in the movie. It’s a phone conversation between him and Pacino. Pacino demands they bring him down there, and they put him on the phone in the convenience store across the street. And they have this great conversation between the two of them that’s really the dramatic centerpiece of the film. And I thought Sarandon was brilliant in the part.

There’s a question here as to just how short the scene is to warrant a nomination and/or win, but, since Burns is the other choice and he has the same questions, it’s really a split decision. I thought Sarandon was great, and to me it really comes down to either him or Burns.

Also, the film is brilliant, and you should see it if you haven’t. But seriously, how haven’t you seen the movie already?

Oh, yeah, just for trivia — if you don’t know who Chris Sarandon is — he’s Susan Sarandon’s first husband, the one who gave her her name — didn’t know that, did you? Though you probably could have surmised — and he’s also the man who voiced Jack Skellington in A Nightmare Before Christmas. I love telling people this stuff, because he’s a dude you’d probably go, “Never heard of him,” and yet, he’s actually kind of well-known at the same time.

Warden — Jack Warden. I love this man. He’s always great. He’s one of those character actors that any time he shows up, he’s worth watching. I love that Warren Beatty kept casting him in all his 70s movies (and that he got Oscar nominations for them as well).

Shampoo is a fim that’s heavily steeped in the 70s. It’s basically about all the sexual decadence that occurred right before the Nixon administration (yeah, Nixon, right? It was some president. I can only assume it was Tricky Dick. It works the best thematically), and is a chance for Warren Beatty to basically play himself.

He plays a hairdresser, whom most other men assume he’s gay, which allows him to make out like a bandit — literally — by fucking all their wives. Basically — Warren Beatty. He fucks everybody in this movie. The climax of the film is literally, a climax. He’s fucking Julie Christie on the floor of a kitchen.

Anyway, Warden plays a conservative rich dude — and he sends his wife, Lee Grant (who won Supporting Actress), to Beatty to get her hair done. And she’s been fucking him for a while, and Warden has no idea. Which leads to many comic scenes of him almost walking in on them and being completely oblivious to what’s really going on. It’s a fun performance, and, an interesting movie, mostly as a time capsule of sorts. But, still, I can’t vote for the performance. There was definitely a funnier one to vote for if I’m going based on that.

My Thoughts: To me, it comes down to Burns and Sarandon. It’s a coin flip, but, in this case, I’ll take the veteran side and say it’s Burns. He’s awesome.

My Vote: Burns

Should Have Won: Burns, Sarandon

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. George Burns is a legend. It’s nice that he has an Oscar.

Performances I suggest you see: Burns, Sarandon, Dourif (mostly for the film), Warden (mostly for the film).

Rankings:

5) Meredith

4) Dourif

3) Warden

2) Sarandon

1) Burns

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