The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1961
Love this year. Love this category. Strong year all around, despite a questionable decision here and there. West Side Story wins Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno (talked about here), and this category. I don’t have a problem with any of them, even though I’d have gone another way on all of them. Matter of personal preference. I just love The Hustler.
Best Actor was Maximilian Schell for Judgment at Nuremberg, which I consider one of the worst Best Actor decisions of all time (Paul Newman really should have won for The Hustler. So much so that the Academy, when they gave him his Oscar (twenty-five years too late), they gave it to him for the same role!), and Best Actress was Sophia Loren for Two Women, a decision I don’t really like (which I talked about here).
Then we have this category, which might be the strongest Best Supporting Actor category of all time. Look at these five: Bernardo, Montgomery Clift (in a really strong performance), Peter Falk, and two greats: George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. Amazing. Who do you vote for here? I know who I vote for. What about you?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1961
And the nominees were…
George Chakiris, West Side Story
Mongtomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg
Peter Falk, Pocketful of Miracles
Jackie Gleason, The Hustler
George C. Scott, The Hustler
Chakiris — It’s West Side Story. I think you know about this one. Remember? Gangs? Sharks and Jets? Tony and Maria? Play it cool? I like to live in America? I feel pretty? Tonight, tonight? Somewhere, someday? Knife fights? Snapping? Dancing? You’ve seen it. If you haven’t, what rock have you been living under?
The film is great, and Chakiris is great as Bernardo. He’s the Tybalt of the movie, so of course he’s going to have the best role. Everybody remembers Bernardo? Am I upset that he won? Probably not. Do I think he should hav won? Not really. He didn’t need it. I’ll explain later.
Clift — Judgment at Nuremberg is an essential film if you want to feel like a good American. One of those, you kind of need to see. Like The Miracle Worker, Inherit the Wind and The Diary of Anne Frank. Very important, historically. And also a great film, so it makes me want to tell you to see it (and the rest of them) if you haven’t.
It’s about the post-World War II Nuremberg trials, where all the Nazis were tried for all the war crimes they committed. Namely, killing Jews. And it’s about the trials. Spencer Tracy plays the American presiding judge, who is basically Spencer Tracy. He’s just, and kind, and understanding, but he realizes he needs to be fair, but also realize what was done during the war. And he’s got to wrestle with patriotism and justice. And then there’s Maximilian Schell, who has to defend the clearly guilty parties. And he does so spiritedly, because that’s his job. And then there are a bunch of supporting roles, namely Maximilian Schell, as a man testifying against the judges for stuff that was done to him during the war, and Judy Garland, a woman who doesn’t want to testify and has to be coerced into doing so.
Clift has his big scene on the stand. He plays a mentally retarded man who was made sterile by Nazi experimentations (they did it on purpose so he wouldn’t procreate). And he’s great in it. It’s a very good scene. Not really one I’d consider to be worth voting for, but — Montgomery Clift is an actor who probably should have an Oscar for his entire body of work (like Judy). And, I can’t see why they’d vote for a virtual unknown (before and after) in Chakiris when they could award one of their own. It’s just weird.
Falk — Peter Falk. I love this man. It’s not possible to love a man more than I love this man.
This film — Frank Capra’s last film — is a remake of a film Capra made almost thirty years prior, Lady for a Day. It’s about Apple Annie, a poor apple seller, who gave her daughter up to a Spanish convent when she was young so she’d be able to have a decent life. Now, she sells apples to the locals, who pay her because they like her. And one guy, Dave the Dude, a gangster, buys them from her because he believes they’re lucky. So what happens is, she writes to her daughter, to find out how she’s doing, and finds out that her daughter is engaged to a count, who wants to come see her mother before they get married. So they say they’re coming to visit. Problem is, Annie wrote the letter on the stationary she took from a fancy hotel. So her daughter thinks she’s a well-to-do woman. And Annie feels bad that her daughter is under the impression and will be let down and disappointed in her.
But then, Dave the Dude’s showgirl girlfriend, feeling for Annie, one woman to another, makes Dave help her. So Dave goes and orchestrates a huge scheme, whereby they’ll pass Annie off as a society woman. They get her to stay in a penthouse of a gangster who is out of town. They get a crooked judge to pretend to be her husband. They give her a makeover and get her all dolled up real nice. Then they organize a huge engagement party for her daughter, which, of course, almost fails many times, but, through almost divine intervention, succeeds. (They think it’s all gone downhill, but then the mayor comes in and goes along with it, and everyone is happy.)
Peter Falk plays Dave the Dude’s chief henchman. He’s the muscle, of sorts. Reporters snooping around? Falk handles it. They need someone to move the car, Falk does it. That’s basically the role. He gets to come in during these crazy situations and be like, “Is this really happening or am I just drunk?” He’s the reactionary character. He’s the audience substitute, of sorts. It’s not really a performance you can vote for, but, it’s Peter Falk, and he’s awesome, and is fun in the role. So it’s great that he’s here. But, I can’t vote for him. There’s nothing of substance here for a vote. Fun film, though. A bit long, and clearly shows Capra’s age (I think the best version of this story could have been made by Capra right in between the two versions. So, 1943, 1944, maybe.)
Gleason — And, The Hustler. And, a double nomination. I love double nominations. And I love The Hustler. So that’s great. Double win.
The Hustler is about “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who wants to take on the big time. It opens with him entering the pool hall of “Minnesota Fats,” played by Gleason, the proverbial whale. He’s the big man everyone wants to take down to be “the best.” Right at the top of the film, Eddie is throwing down every dollar he has in the world to take on Fats. And he wins. He wins big. However, he refuses to stop playing until Fats says he’s finished. So they keep playing. Ten hours, twenty hours. They play for almost a day straight. And Eddie, not really used to this, is tired, sluggish, and Fats is as chipper as ever. And Eddie eventually loses everything.
Then, afterwards, Eddie is upset, angry, and goes to get more money to face Fats again. However, he tries hustling in the wrong bar, and gets his thumbs broken. Which means he might never play pool again. During this time, he meets Piper Laurie, who is a bruised woman — she has her problems — she’s a recovering alcoholic who is trying to better herself by taking college classes. And they get together, finding something in each other’s flaws, and start this beautiful relationship. Then, shortly after Eddie gets better, he’s approached by George C. Scott, a professional gambler who “only bets on sure things.” He agrees to stake Eddie for the majority of his winnings (having seen him face Fats at the beginning of the film). Eddie agrees, gets back on a table, and shakes off the rust. He then gets a game with a rich man in Kentucky. Problem is, he plays billiards, which Eddie isn’t prepared for. And he plays, and wins anyway, but along the way, Scott, who is focused on winning money, sees that Laurie is a potential distraction for Newman (because he loves her), so he basically takes her back to his hotel room and does some nasty things to her. He beats her, and I think they hint that he sodomizes her as well. All while Newman is playing. And then she goes and kills herself, and this breaks Newman. It destroys him.
Newman then shows up in Fats’s hall, and challenges him to another game. And it’s clear, this time, he’s a changed man. He’s ready. He plays Fats, and just annihilates him. He really just beats him down, to the point where he makes a lot of money. And Fats calls quits, saying Newman wins, and as Newman was playing, he was basically verbally abusing Scott the whole time, albeit very subtly. And then, as he leaves, Scott comes over and says that half the money is his, and Newman intimidates him into backing down. However, Scott tells him never to walk into a big time pool hall again. It’s a fascinating, fascinating movie. It’s just perfect.
Gleason is incredible as Fats. Even though he only shows up to bookend the film, I thought he was incredible. Plus he’s Jackie Gleason. I really loved the performance, and personally, he was my favorite of all these performances.
Scott — And now, on the other hand, George C. Scott. He’s got the real supporting performance of the film. That is, his performance is the one with all the weight (figurative) and significance. And he’s the one with the screen time to chew up. And he does a great job with the role. But, I still prefer Gleason’s performance. Which, I guess it doesn’t matter, since I’m pretty sure they split the vote anyway and cancelled each other out. Which sucks. Either way, these are two great performances in an even greater film. These two really make this category as strong as it is.
My Thoughts: One of, if not the toughest, Best Supporting Actor races of all time. Definitely one of the strongest. All five of these men should have had Oscars, either for their careers or their performances. So, we’re gonna have to count down. That’s the only way I’m gonna get to an honest vote based on how I feel.
First of — I guess — has to be Peter Falk. I love Peter Falk, the man is incredible. But, this wasn’t his year. He has to be the #5 here. It’s just too tough. And I hate that. In a weaker year I’d definitely give him a shot at a vote. (Not for the performance, for the man.) I just can’t here.
Fourth — I guess — kind of has to be Chakiris. Wow. Really? Was not expecting that. He has to come off second because, while he was great as Bernardo, he’s the one actor on this list who didn’t really have a distinguished career. So, for me, when the performances are even, I need to look at history and the actors themselves to narrow it down. And really, he has to come off here for me. Because —
Montgomery Clift comes off third. I love Monty, he was a great actor, and was great in the part, but, unlike Judy, he didn’t have the benefit of a weak category. Had he given this performance a year earlier or a year later, he’d have won, probably. But he didn’t. So, here, he’s a strong third for me. Really fucked over by a strong year.
And second and first, for me, anyway, have to be the two Hustler performances. I love the film, and it’s pretty clear these two performances are great. Here’s where it gets troublesome, though. For most people watching the film, George C. Scott has the bigger role and the bigger part for a win. However, I love Jackie Gleason’s part and him as an actor more. So sentiment makes me want to vote for him, but pure performance makes me want to vote for Scott. So, the tiebreaker — thank god — is history. Scott won Best Actor in 1970 for Patton, which remains one of the single best male performances in the history of film. So I really don’t feel bad about not voting for him here. I’m sure the two split votes anyway, and that’s how Chakiris won. So, it really doesn’t matter. But, I’m always gonna vote how I feel, and here, it’s Jackie Gleason.
My Vote: Gleason
Should Have Won: Uhh — all of them? How do you call this one?
Is the result acceptable?: Actually, after all this thinking I’ve just been doing (and by that I mean, reasoning my way through the category), I think I’m gonna have to say no. Originally it was a simple yes, but, think of it this way — if Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott or Montgomery Clift wins this, you go back and think, “Wow. George Chakiris was great in West Side Story. But, he wasn’t that much of an actor, didn’t really do too much outside of it. The others had very impressive careers. I guess it makes sense. He lost in a really strong category.” Here, it’s like he’s preventing three people in this category from having an Oscar (replacing Scott for Peter Falk in that equation. Not that Falk would have won, but, you get what I mean). So, while it is acceptable, sort of, that he won for the role, since he was great, who he beat and what he beat them for — I kind of see that as a bit unacceptable. For me, tiebreaker goes to history, and the actors he beat had more of a history. But, I can very easily see why other people find this very acceptable. I just — can’t. Kind of.
Performances I suggest you see: You need to have already seen West Side Story. That’s how essential it is. You need to have seen it like, before high school. So, if you haven’t, don’t tell anybody and go watch it right now.
The Hustler is a perfect film, and if you’re a film fan you need to see it. I don’t really think I need to say any more there. Need is need. And you need to see this.
Judgment at Nuremberg is also an essential film. One of those, “you should feel bad about yourself as a person if you haven’t seen it” films. You need to see it. So go see it. It’s great. So it shouldn’t be difficult.
Pocketful of Miracles — I don’t really recommend it, but, the story is good. I like that. But, this version is overly long and not that entertaining (there’s so much dead air here. Capra just lets scenes and shots linger on for way longer than he should. You can see why this is his last film), and the first version is too short and not properly developed. So, I’m not sure which one you should see. One of them, though. See one version. Maybe the original, because it’s quick. But, this one has Peter Falk. I don’t know. But the story is good. So that’s something.