The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1991
1991. This year makes me smile. It’s so fucking good. First, here’s a list of the films that came out in 1991: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Backdraft, Barton Fink, Beauty and the Beast, Boyz N the Hood, Bugsy, Cape Fear, The Doors, The Fisher King, Hook, JFK, Necessary Roughness (a personal favorite of mine. A great football movie that is largely unknown), Point Break, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Thelma & Louise, and of course, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. It was a very good year, 1991.
What makes me even happier is that, 4 out of the 5 Best Picture nominees are incredible films. Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, and The Silence of the Lambs. The Prince of Tides? Ehh, not so good. But te other four? Wow. There was almost no bad choice this year (though Bugsy would have been kinda weak, considering they ignored Goodfellas the year before). And then the acting choices. Anthony Hopkins as Best Actor for Hannibal Lecter? Genius. Jodie Foster as Best Actress for Clarice Starling? Awesome. Mercedes Ruehl as Best Supporting Actress for The Fisher King? Best choice of the category. Jonathan Demme as Best Director for Lambs? Good choice (considering Stone had two Oscars already for directing, and one for writing). Jack Palance gets a Best Supporting Actor Oscar? Well, let’s talk…
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1991
And the nominees were…
Tommy Lee Jones, JFK
Harvey Keitel, Bugsy
Ben Kingsley, Bugsy
Michael Lerner, Barton Fink
Jack Palance, City Slickers
Jones — And we start with JFK. Like I need another reason to tell you to see this movie.
We all know about this movie, right? About the dude who went to trial to prove that JFK’s murder was a conspiracy by the government. Stacked cast, famous as hell. I’m pretty sure everyone’s seen it, or, at the least, is a movie that everyone’s meaning to see. What’s so brilliant about this movie is its editing. It is edited better than just about any movie ever made. Seriously. And the film itself is just fascinating. Whether you believe it or not. That’s not even part of it. Just watching how this film is constructed is a thing of beauty.
Now, Tommy Lee Jones’s part in the movie is a bit complicated if you haven’t seen it. But I’ll do my best. Basically, what happens in the film is that Kevin Costner tries to prove a conspiracy behind the assassination, but tries to do it from the outside in. He does this mainly by putting on trial, Tommy Lee Jones, a gay man named Clay Shaw (also known as Clay Bertrand). He tries to prove through witness testimony that a male prostitute (played by Kevin Bacon. Which, of course he was) heard Tommy Lee Jones and another gay man, played by Joe Pesci, talking about the planned assassination with Lee Harvey Oswald (BRILLIANTLY played by Gary Oldman), and there’s a whole bunch of other shit going on, with communists groups and this and that, but, basically, Tommy Lee Jones is the man that’s on trial. And he’s fine in the film, but, he doesn’t really get too big a role here.
The film is mostly an ensemble, though I guess Costner gets the bulk of the screen time, as does Oldman, in an interesting way. It’s not that Tommy Lee Jones was bad in the film, it’s just — I feel like this nomination was a film and a career nomination. That is to say, when they really like a film, they like to give it at least one acting nomination. When a film has zero acting nominations, that means either they don’t like it and voted it in because that’s just how it is, or it’s truly an ensemble film. Or, it’s full of foreigners, and the Academy don’t like that.
Don’t believe me? Check this. Of all the Best Picture winners, here are the ones that got zero acting nominations. Slumdog Millionaire — foreigners. Return of the King — ensemble. The Last Emperor — foreigners. Though Peter O’Toole was in it, but still, foreigners. Gigi — I guess foreigners. Actually this one’s kinda tough. I mean, Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier were nominated for Oscars, but this is more of a musical. I don’t know. This one is strange. Around the World in 80 Days — I think that one explains itself. The Greatest Show on Earth — about as ensemble as you’re gonna get. An American in Paris — I guess we have to amend it to include musical as well. Though I guess in later years they embraced the musical performance. Grand Hotel — scratch that, this is about as ensemble as you’re gonna get. All Quiet on the Western Front — I can’t explain this past, it was the third Oscars ceremony. And Wings. But, that was for Outstanding Production. The film that won Most Artistic Production, Sunrise, did have an acting nomination (and win). Ten films. Out of 83, and all are foreigners, musicals, or ensemble films. Even Chariots of Fire got an acting nomination.
See what I mean? Now, JFK didn’t win Best Picture, so the theory doesn’t exactly fit with this, but, being someone who follows the Oscars as I do, I know that if a film doesn’t get any acting nominations whatsoever, especially in the modern era (which, modern now will include, last thirty years), it means it has no chance of winning Best Picture. Unless of course it fits into one of those categories. Used to be three, but now, it’s two. Because the musical clearly gets acting nominations (see: Chicago). So that, I feel, is part of it. They look for someone to nominate from the film to show their support. Also, what goes into it, is who the actor is. Tommy Lee Jones, I know for a fact, most likely got this nomination because he was putting in years of solid work without any recognition. This was their way of recognizing him. How do I know this is true? Dude won this very category two years after this for The Fugitive. Have you seen The Fugitive? It’s awesome, right? Well, if you’ve seen it, you know, All Tommy Lee Jones does in that movie is make sarcastic comments and be persistent. It’s clearly not a performance that would win an Oscar unless the dude is someone the Academy respects. If they weren’t voting for the man over the performance, there is no way the winner of the Oscar that year for Supporting Actor isn’t Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List. Ain’t no way.
So, what I’m saying is, this is clearly a veteran nomination as well as a “film” nomination. So I feel no guilt in saying — I’m not voting for this in a million years. Nice to see him nominated, though.
Keitel — I love when a film is nominated multiple times. I really do. It usually happens in Supporting.
Okay, Bugsy is about the gangster who went out and started Las Vegas. However, it’s not exactly like you think it is. The dude comes from out east, goes to visit California — he’s a bit of a hothead now, he’s got some temper issues. People call him by his nickname, he doesn’t like it. He has a tendency to hit first and think later. So he comes out to California, and — there’s a great scene where he finds out a famous dude lives in a particular house, so he immediately stops the car, gets out and knocks right on the dude’s door. He invites himself in, walks around, admiring the place, and then basically muscles him out of it, all in the nicest way possible. They just cut to the next scene and he’s living in the place — falls in love with Annette Bening. This is while he’s still married, with kids, mind you. And while he’s out there, he gets the idea to build what is essentially Las Vegas. And the rest of the film basically deals with him building this town up from scratch (it’s a desert. It’s literally from scratch), and using shitloads of money in doing it. And the irony of the movie is that none of the mob guys understand what he’s doing, and he’s giving them these shares of the place, and then, when he gets too much in debt (because it fails miserably at first), they kill him. And then Las Vegas became what it is today. It’s kind of a love letter of a film, kind of glorifies the man in a way that he wasn’t, but still, it’s a really great film to watch.
Now, here are the supporting players. Warren Beatty is Bugsy, by the way.
Harvey Keitel plays Mickey Cohen, a Jewish gangster who doesn’t give a FUCK about anything. He’s the dude that openly robs from the mafia, knowing it’s their money he’s taking. He doesn’t care. That’s what he does. And he’s like, “Go ahead, do something about it.” And Bugsy meets him and is like, “I like you, how about you come work with me.” And he works with him. He’s the muscle of the operation. Keitel gets to play really over the top. And by over the top, I mean, just completely “don’t give a fuck.” He gets to be the guy doing crazy shit all the time. It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of weird he only got one nomination in his career (thus far), and that this was it. But, hey, it’s cool. He was pretty great in the movie.
Kingsley — And now the other supporting player in the film. Kingsley plays Meyer Lansky, who is kind of the steadying influence of the film. He’s the dude that sits at his desk, crunching numbers, and doesn’t really care one way or another as long as everything balances. And he shows up several times throughout the film to be like, “Yo Bugsy, you need to chill the fuck out.” Like, hey, you can’t be here and have your kids out there. It sends the wrong message. Or, hey, you’re making all this noise, just cool it. Or, hey, they think you killed this dude, and I don’t care if you killed him or not, but, lay low. If you did kill him and you’re lying to me, it’s your ass. Don’t lie to me, whatever you do. Because I vouch for you. Shit like that. And Kingsley’s good in the role, it’s not like he’s bad. But it’s just — it’s not a flashy role. It’s the slow and steady role. And to me that’s not as interesting. He gets maybe one really good scene in Bugsy’s house as Bugsy is doing seven different things at once and he keeps coming back to Kingsley who is standing in the doorway, waiting for him, but other than that, it’s not really the type of performance you watch and go, “Academy Award winner, right there.” It just isn’t. Nice that he’s here though. Who doesn’t like Ben Kingsley?
Lerner — If you’ve seen this movie you know it’s game over right now. Am I right?
First off, let me say, John Goodman totally should have been here too. Him and Lerner were by far the two best things about that film, acting-wise. Turturro was also great, but, with the Best Actor field they had, I understand why they left him off. But, wow, this film is fucking incredible.
It’s about a playwright who is touted as “the next big thing” in New York, and writes these plays about regular people and human suffering and all these great, deep things. And then he gets a call to go out to California to write for the pictures. And it’s a lot of money, so he goes out to do it. And he gets there, and is essentially assigned to write a B movie. It’s a “wrestling picture with Wallace Beery.” I mean, clearly a B picture, “what do you need, a road map?” And he’s taking this deadly seriously, meanwhile they’re looking for someone to write a throwaway script. And he gets the worst case of writer’s block while staying at this hotel — which may or may not be hell, by the way. There are a lot of hints that suggest it might be — and dealing with all the shit that goes on there. And there are a lot of detours he takes, like meeting a famous writer who is a drunk and a wife-beater, and his next door neighbor (Goodman), who may or may not be a serial killer — things like that. Anyway, it’s a brilliant film, and I guarantee that most people with any taste in film will enjoy it. It’s perhaps the Coen brothers’ best film, which is saying something.
Anyway, Michael Lerner plays the head of the studio — Capitol Pictures — who is perhaps the most interesting studio head I have ever seen put to film. He’s the kind of guy who, when Barton is in the room, treats him like royalty, like he’s making the greatest picture ever put to screen. He tells him everything he wants to hear. And still, as Tony Shalhoub tells him later on, “He forgot about you before your ass left the seat.” Just watch this scene. This is the first time we meet Lerner in the film.
“The writer is KING here at Capitol pictures!” Isn’t it great? Everything that Barton says is turned into a positive. This man is fucking brilliant in this movie. How he didn’t win this award, I have no idea.
Well, yes I do. There was only one thing keeping him from winning this Oscar, and that’s —
Palance — The veteran nomination. I hate it when this happens.
I’m torn. You want Jack Palance to have an Oscar because he’s so awesome, but on the other hand — Michael Lerner was fucking great. Let’s get to the film, try to keep this as analytical as possible. Though I’m not sure why, the Academy didn’t vote with logic here.
Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby are all city men. Crystal hates his life, Stern is having an affair because he hates his marriage, and Kirby is a confirmed bachelor who likes to make them take weird and crazy trips once a year. This year, he makes them go on a cattle drive. It’s meant to be a fun thing, not for serious. So they go on the drive. And Jack Palance is the head of the drive. He’s the old, grizzled cowboy who doesn’t take kindly to city slickers. He’s a hard ass, and expects them to act like true cowboys. And most of his screen time consists of him snarling at Billy Crystal and telling him that he “craps bigger than him.” He gets these nice exchanges like, “Hey Curly. Kill anyone today?” “The day ain’t over yet.” But he only shows up for brief moments. And then one day some of the cattle break free and he makes Crystal go with him to fetch them. And they talk, and become friendly. And Palance has this monologue that plays on the whole cowboy thing, where he’s hints at how he might have wasted his life out on the trail and how he should have been with a woman, but never comes out and says it, and then he dies. He just dies. And after he’s dead, the other two co-heads of the drive get drunk and have to be sent off, so its up to the guys to bring in the cattle. That’s basically the film. There’s also a really great line after Curly’s dead, where Billy Crystal delivers the eulogy like, “He’s a man who went too soon,” and then Daniel Stern is like, “But the man ate bacon at every meal. You can’t do that.” He’s like, “No, dude was a cowboy. He ate bad food and drank whiskey every night. There’s a reason he died, man.”
Palance’s performance is good, but, he shouldn’t have won this Oscar. It would almost be like if Marlon Brando won an Oscar for being in The Freshman, with Matthew Broderick. Raise your hand if you get that reference without having to look it up. I’ll tell you anyway, because I’m so nice. The film is about Broderick running into a man who is basically the real Don Corleone. He’s the guy they based the character in the film on. And it’s Brando basically parodying the performance in another film. Yeah. That’s what this is like. Palance plays on his cowboy persona to comic effect. It’s nice, but, no, he shouldn’t have won. Yet, it’s a veteran nomination, so you can’t really argue with it too much, because — they’re gonna do it anyway. This is what they do.
My Thoughts: It’s clearly Lerner all the way. No one even comes close to his performance. Like, not even within a mile. But, it’s a veteran nomination year, which makes everything suck. Especially when there’s a performance that’s so clearly better than the veteran performance that so clearly had no chance of winning. It’s really a shame. (Note: Clearly.) But, Lerner is my winner here. Hands, head, shoulders, knees and toes down.
My Vote: Lerner
Should Have Won: Lerner
Is the result acceptable?: I guess. I do love Jack Palance. Still would have preferred Lerner though.
Performances I suggest you see: JFK is about as essential a film as there’s ever gonna be. Everyone should see it. It’s one of those history essentials. Not seeing it is synonymous with ignorance. So don’t be (insert insult here), see this movie. Also, Barton Fink is a fucking hysterical movie. Everyone should see it. It’s also brilliant. That’s what’s so good about it. It’s so fucking dark and brilliant. Lerner and Goodman really both deserved Oscars for their performances. Also, Bugsy is a great film. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. I highly recommend it. And, City Slickers is fun, in a, 90s kind of way.