The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1970

Oh, 1970 — a year I don’t like, even though I know, there isn’t anything I can do about it.

Patton wins Best Picture, Best Director for Franklin J. Schaffner, and Best Actor for George C. Scott. Now, Best Actor I have no problem with. George C. Scott gives one of the best male acting performances of all time here. I completely understand that. And even Best Director I get. But Best Picture? I don’t know. I mean, it’s a perfect fitting Best Picture, but, the other film that was up this year was Love Story, and I’m extremely partial to that. That, to me, is a perfect film. Patton is kind of a long mess. Not really a mess, but, the only real reason I think it won is because it was “supposed to.” Looking at it you think, “There’s a film that’s a Best Picture,” but, really, is it? It’s kind of boring. It’s a good film, but — I don’t know. I don’t think it needed to win. (And just so we’re clear on this bias, I did see Patton before I saw Love Story, so I’m not just saying Patton should have lost because I really want a film I love to win at all costs. I don’t do that. I so stay as objective as I can. I respect Patton, but I’m not sure I can say I accept that it should have won. Plus, Love Story beat Patton in the Globes. I notice how, when one gets it wrong, the other usually gets it right. And I felt the Oscars got it wrong this year.)

1970 is also notorious for featuring the worst Best Actress decision of all time. Glenda Jackson won Best Actress for Women in Love, beating Ali MacGraw for Love Story. Now, everyone here says here that Glenda Jackson should not have won. This isn’t a sentimental thing. This is literally, she should not have won. The film is terrible, and she’s not even really a lead. Plus Ali MacGraw gave the performance of a lifetime. It’s a terrible decision all around, made worse by the fact that they gave her a second one three years later for A Touch of Class, which is a glorified romantic comedy (with some drama at the end), which would have been okay if they just gave her that one. I don’t know what the fuck the Academy was thinking there, and here. Don’t worry, I’ll have a lot to rail on when I get to that category. As for the rest of this year, though, Best Supporting Actor went to John Mills, for Ryan’s Daughter, because — well, I don’t fucking know. It’s decisions like that which are the reason I don’t like this year at all.


And the nominees were…

Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces

Lee Grant , The Landlord

Helen Hayes, Airport

Sally Kellerman, MASH

Maureen Stapleton, Airport

Black — Five Easy Pieces is a film a lot of people consider a landmark or a masterpiece. I don’t feel one way or another about it. I’m glad I saw it, because it is so highly regarded, but I wasn’t particularly enamored with it.

The film begins with Jack Nicholson as a dude taking odd jobs. We first see him working on an oil rig. He spends his nights drinking beer and bowling, and he doesn’t seem to particularly give a shit about anything. We get a hint that he’s musically talented, when, one day, he’s driving to work, he sees a piano being transported on the bed of a pickup truck. So, when traffic stops, he climbs on top and starts playing the piano, even as the truck drives in the opposite direction of where he works. Then he gets a call and needs to travel home. So, he travels with his girlfriend (Black) and they go to his parents’ house. And during the trip they have that famous scene at the diner. Which one? This one:

And then he goes home, and we see he’s from a family of talented musicians, and he’s the one who gave up on his talent. So there’s an uneasy reunion of sorts there, compounded by the fact that Nicholson tries to hide his girlfriend by leaving her at a motel, but she gets bored and comes over, and most of her scenes are her being uncouth and the family being awkward and Nicholson being embarrassed. And then he tries to talk to his father, but he’s basically unresponsive because he’s dying, and then he leaves with his girlfriend, and, really feeling as though he has nowhere to go (the theme is why this movie is considered a landmark), the final scene is him ditching his car and his girlfriend at a gas station and hitching a ride with a trucker to “wherever.”

The film is good, it’s just, I don’t particularly love it. Some might see it and fall in love with it. That’s what movies are for. To be fallen in love with. I’m not gonna tell you not to see it, because it’s still a good movie. I just can’t recommend it as strongly as someone who loves it (and there are many). I want to be as up front as possible here.

As for Black’s performance, I didn’t think she did all that much. Most of her scenes are her playing the unrefined girlfriend at a table full of geniuses. It’s a tragic character since, she loves Nicholson to the best of her abilities, but the only reason he’s with her is because he’s forcing himself to be. You know he doesn’t love her, but she doesn’t. It’s a good performance, I guess, but it’s the kind of thing where, if I liked the film better I’d probably like the performance more.

Grant — This is a weird fucking movie. It’s so 70s it scared me.

It’s about a landlord — big fucking surprise — who buys a building expecting to evict all the tenants and do what he wants with it. The landlord is played by Beau Bridges, Jeff’s brother. And he comes from a crusty, rich white family, the kind who still use racial slurs casually. And Bridges is more accepting of his black and hispanic tenants — his family is not — and when he gets to know them, he starts to think twice about his plans. And he eventually starts dating a half-black girl, and then accidentally knocks up one of his tenants, and it gets weird, and it’s some weird romance thing — honestly I don’t know what this movie is supposed to be. But, I’m only here to talk about Lee Grant’s performance.

Lee Grant plays Beau Bridges’s mother in the film. She’s hysterical. She sounds like a Jewish mother from Scarsdale. She drinks all day, plays croquet, and does all the things you’d expect a rich white woman to do. She also has these hilarious subjective shots where you can see what she’s thinking. Like, when she finds out her son knocked up one of his black tenants, we flash to her picturing herself, surrounded by a bunch of black children, singing them spirituals and being their “mammy.” It’s hilarious. She’s so racist in this movie. She’s so over the top in this movie too, it’s really hysterical. It’s a great performance. It saved the film for me. Plus, she’s an actress who usually gives good performances. She was great in Detective Story almost twenty years prior, and someone giving a good and nominated performance earlier definitely helps them in my eyes when it comes to a vote later on. Will I vote for her? Probably not. But she’s a solid second in a year that really, to me, is very weak. It’s not the actresses that are weak, it’s just that they aren’t interesting to me. It’s a boring year. Thank god Lee Grant was entertaining.

Hayes — Oh boy, oh boy. Two nominees from the same film. But, what a film to do it in. This film is literally like seven films in one.

The whole thing is basically one evening at an airport while a lot of shit happens. The big thing is, a plane is in the air and a man is on board with a bomb strapped to his chest. But that comes later. First, Burt Lancaster is the head of the airport, whatever his title is. He’s having problems at home, as his wife thinks he spends too much time on the job. And then there’s his chief of operations, who is Jean Seberg, who was the woman in Breathless. I’m not sure if they have a thing or not. It’s irrelevant. And then there’s a subplot where the plane’s pilot, Dean Martin, is a womanizer (surprise, surprise) who got a stewardess pregnant and has to deal with his wife finding out about the affair.

Okay, back to the two subplots that matter here. First, we have the main one. A man who is down on his luck and was just fired (who also has a history of mental illness), played by Oscar winner Van Heflin (best known probably as the dad in Shane), brings a bomb on board the plane with him. This is the 70s, so, you could do that sort of thing. And then his wife finds out about it, I forget how, and she’s wandering around the airport, all distraught, trying to tell somebody. But they’re busy, so they keep making her wait, and she just keeps waiting, because, well, I guess it’s not important. Or because she loves her husband. I forget. Whatever. Then she tells them about it and they get word to Dean Martin and they try to get the bomb away from him. And in the scuffle, it goes off and the dude is sucked out. So now they have to land the plane with part of it missing. And George Kennedy is there as the expert pilot who is brought in to — this is actually the weird part — move a stuck airplane. There’s a big airplane stuck, and they have to move it so they can bring the damaged plane in. So, that’s the main plot.

Then, also, there’s a plot about a crazy old lady who sneaks onto planes illegally. She gets a lot of screen time at the beginning. What she does is — I forget the exact scam, but she says something about her son leaving something behind, and they let her on to give it to him, and she just gets on the plane. I think she uses an old ticket or something, and has been traveling this way for like 30 years. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Helen Hayes. She’s been scamming the airlines for like 30 years and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. So they sit her down and try to explain to her why it’s wrong, and she somehow manages to answer with some crazy logic that they can’t argue with. And what happens is, she always manages to sneak on the plane amidst all the chaos. Whenever she’s caught and they move her aside, she slips away and finds someone who isn’t wise to her scam and gets on the plane. And then she ends up on the plane with the bomber (sitting next to him, actually), and they use her as a distraction to get closer to him without him noticing. Then they bring her back and intend to hand her over to the police, but the joke is she manages to slip away yet again. It’s quite fun how she does it.

Helen Hayes is fantastic in the role. Really quite fantastic. She plays this woman perfectly. This is a woman who’s learned how to scam people. Like, when they ask her to see her ticket (which she doesn’t have), she deflects by being like, “Oh, I notice an accent you’ve got there. Are you from (wherever)? You know my son moved to (wherever) with his wife, and they’ve been trying to get me to visit there, and — “, and she keeps talking until something comes up, like a person says, “Can I get an extra pillow?” and the stewardess loses her concentration and moves on. It’s a performance that I guarantee when you see, you’ll put her as a sentimental favorite in this category. But what’s great about it is, with the category so weak, she could have (and totally did) win it. Plus it’s a veteran nom, so it’s great all around that she won here.

Kellerman — MASH is a great film. It’s impossible to describe unless you’ve seen it or have seen the TV series. But I’ll try.

Basically, from the beginning, new guys come in, and they do nothing but drink, chase women, and do all the shit soldiers aren’t supposed to do. They steal shit all the time, and yet, are good at their jobs. And the film is mostly episodic, jumping from one set of hijinks to another, ending with a big football game with them against another squad (which, of course they use all the tricks in the book to get a ringer or two on the field).

Kellerman plays the new chief nurse who shows up midway through the movie. She ends up sleeping with Robert Duvall, who is a religious soldier and kind of an antagonist to the two main guys — Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould — and are embarrassed when they realize everyone is listening to them. She gets the nickname Hot Lips after telling a dude to kiss her “hot lips.” Then she’s the victim of a prank to find out whether or not she’s a natural blonde, so they end up lifting up the shower tent to get a look. And then she gets upset and leaves.

Honestly, I don’t think she did all that much in this film to warrant a nomination. But, I’m not nominating, so, it doesn’t matter. She was never really in contention to win, and I think they nominated her out of love for the film. It’s part of that, every film in the running for Best Picture usually has at least one acting nomination. This just happened to be that acting nomination.

Stapleton — Well, we took care of the synopsis, so —

Maureen Stapleton plays the wife of the bomber. We first see her looking nervous in the airport. And she’s nervous and on the verge of a nervous breakdown for most of her scenes. Then she has the breakdown as she explains the husband’s situation. That’s basically all she does. Act nervous and scared, then scream and shout and be upset, and that’s it. Her big development is that she feels better that she told about her husband because it was the right thing to do, even though she loves him. She’s afraid he was gonna hurt other people. That’s really it. No way at all she was gonna win here, though I can see why they nominated her. Hollywood eats that shit up.

My Thoughts: I wasn’t particularly into any of these performances. Helen Hayes’s was clearly the best by virtue of the fact that she was the most entertaining one by far on this list. Plus she’s a veteran. Voting for her seems like a win-win.

My Vote: Hayes

Should Have Won: I guess no preference, really. But Hayes’s performance was the most fun, so I side with her the most. But otherwise, no preference.

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. Helen Hayes is a legend. Lee Grant would win her Oscar five years after this, Maureen Stapleton got hers eleven years after this, Sally Kellerman wasn’t really in MASH enough to make an impact (and the only other film I really remember her from is Back to School, so not really enough to deserve an Oscar either way), and I didn’t feel one way or the other about Black’s performance. So why not give the veteran another Oscar? This is the perfect year to do it in.

Performances I suggest you see: See MASH. It’s a hysterical movie. I’ve never seen the TV show so I can’t compare. But I like the movie a lot. And I don’t even like Robert Altman films. But, definitely see that. Then, I guess, Airport is worth seeing because it’s kind of the grandfather of disaster movies. At least, modern day disaster movies. And it has such a great cast. Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy — it’s a fun movie to just watch. Enjoy it on a hot Saturday afternoon. And a lot of people call Five Easy Pieces a landmark film. I don’t really feel one way or the other about it. Though that “I want you to hold it between your knees scene” is pretty funny. I figured it was worth mentioning that people consider it a classic even if I’m not particularly over the moon about it.


4) Kellerman

5) Stapleton

3) Black

2) Grant

1) Hayes

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