The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1974
1974’s a fun year. The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno — and those are just the Best Picture nominees.
The Godfather Part II wins Best Picture in a decision nobody can contest, no matter how much we all love Chinatown. It also wins Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola — finally — after he was snubbed for The Godfather in favor of Bob Fosse for Cabaret a decision that works in the historical sense (both directors have Oscars, which is great), but not in the specific category. Best Actor this year was Art Carney for Harry and Tonto, a veteran/career Oscar, and one of the worst decisions of all time. I love Art Carney, but, come on, when you see who else was nominated in that category (hint, three of the four come from the Best Picture nominees), it was a terrible decision. Best Actress was Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (most likely a makeup Oscar from 1973, but we’ll get to that another time), and Best Supporting Actress was Ingrid Bergman for Murder on the Orient Express, which I talked about already. So this year is almost like the opposite of — whatever other year I talked about recently, which had a bunch of good acting decisions but a bad Best Picture decision.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1974
And the nominees were…
Fred Astaire, The Towering Inferno
Jeff Bridges, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Robert De Niro, The Godfather Part II
Michael V. Gazzo, The Godfather Part II
Lee Strasberg, The Godfather Part II
Astaire — This is a year where everyone assumed Fred Astaire was gonna win. I remember stumbling upon a site that gauged Oscar categories by percentages, calculated through some kind of complex formula. It was one of those things where, if you buy into it, you want to know all about it. Me, personally, I like to know about everything generally then cherry pick which ones I like the best that help rationalize my decision. Because there’s so many sources of information to choose from, you either have to listen to everybody or nobody. So I compromise by doing both. I look up every piece of information there is (I’m talking Oscars here), then just go with what I want. Sometimes instinct is the best way to go. Then again, instinct is also based on knowing about all these different sources and then synthesizing it with what I know to be true based on experience, so, who the hell knows what’s right. By that’s beside the point.
On this site, with whatever formula it used, there was a list of greatest Oscar upsets of all time. And it showed, mathematically, what the biggest upsets were. And I remember this race specifically being on there, because Astaire was something like a 94% favorite, and everyone else in the category took up the remaining 6%. Crazy, right? It had to do with the fact that De Niro, Gazzo and Strasberg were all in the same film, and a vote split seemed almost assured (look at what happened with the first Godfather back in ’72). Plus, Fred Astaire was a movie icon. A living legend in his golden years, getting a veteran nomination for a poignant performance. And it’s Best Supporting Actor. The win seemed like a slam dunk. But, he didn’t win. Perhaps for the best, but at the same time, regrettable. It would have been nice to see Fred Astaire get an Oscar. But, De Niro was amazing. There’s an alternate universe that has Fred Astaire winning this category, and it would just as okay as the actual result that happened here.
Anyway, The Towering Inferno is a film that’s really not good enough to be nominated for Best Picture, but is one of those films that gets on because of what it is. That is, a huge budget film, a big studio passion project — the kind of film the studio is taking a huge gamble on that they really only put out once a decade, maybe. It’s a film that also, not surprisingly, made a lot of money, but that doesn’t seem to be a requisite for it to be nominated. I look at films like Cleopatra, Doctor Dolittle, Hello, Dolly! — these big budget films that are so huge they can’t be ignored, but in actuality might have been kind of — bombs. Those three were bombs in one respect. They made money, but, they also cost a shit ton, and quality-wise, I think they’re not quite up to snuff compared to what was envisioned. Though I do like Cleopatra a lot. It just could have been almost an hour shorter and been just as good.
The Towering Inferno, to me, is one of those films. Not that it’s bad — it’s actually a really fun watch — but it’s kind of unwieldy at points and drags a bit too. But, it was a huge film and almost had to be nominated for Best Picture to validate it. It’s about a giant skyscraper that was built, I think the tallest in the world. And a big party is thrown for its opening, and of course, something goes wrong. There’s some faulty electricity and it sets the building on fire, and, pretty soon, the whole thing is up in flames, with all the guests trapped 80-something floors up. And the film is about the firemen trying to get up there and get the people out while also trying to put out the fire.
The cast of the film is stacked. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen are the lead firemen. William Holden either plays the man who designed the building, also known as the architect, but I couldn’t think of the world while writing that part of the sentence, or he plays the man who paid for the building. Either way, he’s the dude that is adamant that there’s nothing wrong and is worried the building won’t be a success. Faye Dunaway is in it — for some reason I’m thinking she’s related to one of the main characters. I think she’s McQueen or Newman’s girlfriend or something. I don’t think she does anything here except for be a female presence. And then Richard Chamberlain is in it, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner — the cast is crazy. And Fred Astaire — good old Fred — plays a con man, who is there to woo older women and get them to bring him home with them. And he’s going after Jennifer Jones, but then she leaves and the fire breaks out. And then he survives but she doesn’t, then feels bad and turns over a new leaf. But that’s really not part of the film, the film is kind of like The Poseidon Adventure meets Titanic. We get all these little vignettes of people as they either die or escape to possibly die later or be rescued while also seeing the main plot line of the firemen trying to get everybody out. It’s a great film, a nice popcorn flick from the 70s that — while not quite as good as The Poseidon Adventure — is still really fucking good.
That said — you know what this Fred Astaire performance is before I even tell you. He’s barely on screen, and he’s good in the role because he’s old and he’s Fred Astaire. You want to vote for him because of who he is. The performance isn’t all that great. He barely does anything. It’s the kind of role built into these types of movies. I’d say Shelley Winters in Poseidon Adventure, but at least she did something there. But in these movies there’s always the token old actor who is meant to be poignant just by simply being there. That’s what this is. It’s the kind of role that I’m never gonna vote for unless I have no real winner in mind, but is also one that I’d be totally okay with if it did win because, hey, it’s Fred Astaire.
Bridges — Hey, it’s Jeff Bridges. This was his first Oscar nomination. Scratch that. Second nomination. I forgot about The Last Picture Show. Kind of surprising he got in here though, to tell you the truth. This really isn’t the kind of film or performance the Academy goes for. I guess they really must have liked it to vote it in.
The film is about Clint Eastwood, who’s a bank robber masquerading as a phony preacher, going back to a town in which he previously pulled off a heist, in order to pick up the stolen money, which was hidden in a schoolhouse. What happened was, Eastwood hid the money and he’s the only one who know where it’s hidden, and now he’s hiding out as a preacher until he can go pick it up. But — and this is great — in the opening scene, we see him delivering a sermon, and a dude comes in with a gun and starts shooting at him. And Eastwood has to run away and avoid being shot. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges, a car thief, is shown stealing a car right out of the lot from a car salesman, and he drives by as Eastwood is being shot at and Eastwood jumps in and rides with him. And Bridges finds out who Eastwood is and is really excited and wants to tag along with him. So they go up to where the money is, finding the rest of Eastwood’s gang in the process, one of which is played by the great George Kennedy. And they get there, only to find that the schoolhouse has been replaced by a secured police building. So the whole group plans on knocking over the building, even though they’re not on the best of terms. So, the movie then becomes a heist film. And one things leads to another and — well, Bridges dies at the end. Sorry to spoil it for you. But the reason I bring it up is because, it’s essential to the performance.
Bridges plays the role as a kid who is a car thief, but is also really excited to be along for the ride. He’s really overexcited about everything, and really wants to help out. And in that kind of role, you know the character is gonna die. And they way they do it, instead of just simply having him get shot by the cops, is really what led to this nomination. During the heist, the men are discovered by police and escape narrowly via a car chase. However, George Kennedy double crosses the two, kicks them out of the car, and pistol whips them and kicks them a bunch of times. However, since Bridges was especially sarcastic to him, and he took a disliking to him, he is especially mean to Bridges. He really does a number on him. And he drives off, only to be shot and killed by the cops quickly after. But Bridges and Eastwood get away, only to discover that the schoolhouse had been moved to another location, and that the money is still inside of it. However, before they can celebrate, we see that Bridges is bleeding internally — really bad too. And he hadn’t said anything about it so as not to be a bother to Eastwood and possibly be left behind. He wouldn’t have been left behind, but that’s the character — he’s so happy to be involved that a bit of pain is irrelevant. So they drive off, seemingly having won, and then Bridges dies from the internal bleeding. Sound familiar? It’s the exact same type of role that won Frank Sinatra an Oscar back in 1953.
Bridges is really good in the role, and I think it’s the way the character is structured that led to him getting this nomination. It’s the kind of role that makes him instantly likable, makes him dynamic, since he’s very upbeat all the time, and he gets to die heroically because of what the evil dude did to him. He was never gonna win this, but, he’s great here and I’m glad he was nominated.
Also, one more note about the film — this is the first directorial effort of Michael Cimino, who had written (I’m assuming co-written) one of the Dirty Harry films before this, and now was getting his first chance to show his directing chops. Apparently it worked, since after this he got his passion project off the ground — a little film called The Deer Hunter. Nice bit of trivia. He directed this film too.
De Niro — Okay, the big elephant cock in the room. I love multiple nominations for one film. I only have to write one synopsis. Plus — it’s The Godfather. Who the fuck doesn’t know what this movie’s about?
Brief synopsis in case you’re trying to remember exactly what happened here. Because I know you’ve seen it. Don’t tell me you got this far reading and haven’t seen The Godfather Part II. People were killed for less offenses in olden days.
It picks up a few years after the first film left off, while also simultaneously going back in time and showing you what happened beforehand. First, the “present day” storyline. Al Pacino and the family are out in Vegas and are continuing the empire there. He gets shot at one night after his son’s communion and decides to lay low for a while. He leaves Robert Duvall in charge of the family and goes down to Cuba, where he’s involved in a major deal with Hymen Roth — Lee Strasberg — that will make the two of them “bigger than U.S. Steel.” While down there, he tries to have Roth killed, because he knows Roth was the one that tried to have him killed. And there’s the whole bit about Fredo unknowingly being the one that told them how to get close enough to do it, and there’s the “You broke my heart, Fredo,” bit and all that. But basically, that’s the main Pacino storyline. And then he gets indicted and has to go through that congressional committee hearing, and then there’s the whole bit with Diane Keaton and the divorce, and then the whole Fredo out in the boat, and that’s that part. Now, while this is going on, we cut back in time to the turn of the century — this is how the film begins, if you remember, with Brando’s character as a young boy coming to America. And we see him later on as De Niro, being poor and trying to make ends meet, dealing with the local mob boss who scares everyone into paying him, and how De Niro eventually becomes the Don of the city and became the Brando we saw in the first film. It’s great stuff. So that’s the film. But you know all this, because you’ve seen it before, right? Right.
Seriously, don’t let me — or anyone else — know you haven’t seen it. Keep it to yourself and go watch it as soon as humanly possible. Shit, I’m due to watch this movie again soon. All this talking’s gonna make me do it.
Anyway, De Niro. He plays young Marlon Brando. The fact that he’s playing the character alone should have won him the Oscar. That character is so iconic, even only two years after the first film, that, to me, De Niro didn’t have to do anything and he’d have won the Oscar by default. Seriously. But De Niro, master craftsman that he is — well, I don’t know. Does he actually do anything in this movie, or is the power of Brando that hangs over it that makes it so good? I don’t know and I don’t care. I say De Niro was brilliant and that he deserved this award hands down. And even historically this makes up for him not getting the Oscar for Taxi Driver two years after this.
Gazzo — Okay, that was one Godfather performance taken care of. Now for number two. You may not remember who Gazzo was in this movie offhand, but — yes you do. He played Frank Pentangeli, the old man who has that really raspy voice and thick eyebrows. You know who I’m talking about. We first see him at the communion, and no one wants to talk to him and are treating him like an old, senile man. The only one talking to him is Fredo, which — seriously, Coppola, what brilliantly subtle characterization. Every second of this film is perfect. Anyway, he’s trying to see Pacino, but keeps getting delayed — after all, everyone has to see the boss at one of these parties. And he gets in there and complains about Hyman Roth’s men, but Pacino tells him to leave them alone. And he’s disgruntled, and then after the assassination attempt, it’s assumed that he was the one behind it, because he was so upset. But then Pacino visits him and tells him that he knows it wasn’t him and that it was Roth who tried to have him killed, and tells him his plan and such. Then, later on, Roth tries to have him — Pentangeli — killed, under the guise that it’s Pacino who’s behind it. Which then leads to him becoming a witness for the hearing and he goes under witness protection. And he’s the star witness for the committee. But then, Pacino goes and gets his brother, who lives in Italy, and brings him over to the hearing. And not one word is ever exchanged here, but — the brother doesn’t speak a word of English and knows nothing about what’s going on. But, Pentangeli sees this and knows — these motherfuckers are gonna kill my family if I keep testifying. So he changes his story, says he made it up, and is kept under custody for perjury. Then Duvall visits him and cryptically is like, “Dude, you fucked up, but, back in Roman times, if someone fucked up, he killed himself, so he could die nobly, and then his family was taken care of.” So he goes and kills himself. That’s his storyline. Remember him now?
Gazzo does a great job in the role, but, in terms of the three performances from this film, he’s third best. Which still puts him third overall on the list. But, it’s pretty clear, if one of these performances was gonna win, it was gonna be De Niro.
But, also, seriously, how was John Cazale not nominated? He was fucking phenomenal as Fredo here. For my money he’s the best performance in the movie. I get not wanting four people from the same film in one category, but, you totally could have nominated him instead of Gazzo and it would have been fine.
Strasberg — Anyway, here’s number three. Hyman Roth. Legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. This nomination was almost a given. It’s a bonus that he was so fucking great in the role.
Basically, as Hyman Roth, he gets to sit around being old and being passively manipulative. We see him buddying up with Pacino and doing the deal, while, behind his back, planning to kill him. All his exchanges with Pacino are about subtext. Like, Pacino is bringing a suitcase full of money for his half of the deal, and is supposed to bring it to Roth immediately. But he doesn’t. Roth thinks it’s because he doesn’t trust him, but Pacino knows it’s because he’s gonna have Roth killed. And Roth knows that Pacino knows that he was the one who took the shot at him, but instead of saying anything he just goes, “Hey, remember when Moe Green died in the last movie? Yeah, I know that was you, but, when it happened, I didn’t say anything, because it wasn’t my business.” And he’s like, it’s all about the business and not personal matters. And he ends up surviving the attempt Pacino makes on his life, then goes from country to country, trying to find asylum, because he’s wanted by most countries. And then Pacino has him gunned down in the airport. That’s his storyline.
Strasberg is amazing as Roth. It’s hard picturing anyone else playing any of the roles in this movie. Which is what makes them so perfect. In the third one, there are a few roles you can see being played by different actors (not gonna name names, but, you know which ones), and that’s why it’s not as good. But, here, Strasberg is perfect as a man who’s dying but is acting as though he won’t ever die. It’s fantastic. Not as good as De Niro in my opinion, but still great and second choice.
My Thoughts: I know Astaire has the sentiment going, and while I’d have been okay if he won, because I love Fred Astaire, but, it really is all about De Niro here for me. I’m not voting any other way. Almost any result in this category would have been fine, but for my money this was the right one.
My Vote: De Niro
Should Have Won: De Niro for performance. Astaire for sentimental reasons.
Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. One of the best decisions of all time. Even if Astaire won here it would have been acceptable, just not as good on the overall scale as this result was. Vito Corleone was such a great character that he won TWO Oscars. That’s fucking fantastic. But is there anyone that thinks this result isn’t acceptable?
Performances I suggest you see: There’s only three films here. Isn’t that great? The Godfather Part II, and hell, part I too while we’re at it, is a must-see film, perhaps the most must-see film ever made. But you know this, so I don’t have to tell you any more, do I? The Towering Inferno is a great watch, and I highly recommend that you put it on one summer day, when it’s too hot to do anything, and all you do is sit in your AC, drink some lemonade and watch movies like this. That’s what this movie is for, lounging around and being entertained by it. Trust me when I say it’s worth the time. (But watch The Poseidon Adventure first, it’s better than this is.) And Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I recommend, but it’s not essential in the least. Do it if you like Clint Eastwood movies, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, or any of the above. It’s definitely one of the better Clint Eastwood movies, which isn’t saying much, since they’re all mostly good.
1) De Niro