The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1978
I love 1978. Few years make me happier. I love The Deer Hunter so, so much. I think it’s an amazing film. My favorite Vietnam film, probably. This and Apocalypse Now are like a joint one and two. Anyway, it wins Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Cimino (which I talked about here), and this award, which I’m about to talk about (obviously).
Then, the rest of the year had Jon Voight winning Best Actor for Coming Home, which I don’t think I’d have voted for, but am very okay with, since Jon Voight definitely deserved an Oscar, and De Niro would get his two years after this. Jane Fonda also won Best Actress for Coming Home, which I don’t like at all (as much as I love Jane Fonda), just because I think Jill Clayburgh really should have won for An Unmarried Woman. But I’m not too broken up about it. I think it was a poor choice, but I don’t want to riot or anything (this isn’t 1970). And then Best Supporting Actress was Maggie Smith for California Suite (which I talked about here). That’s a decision where, while I personally would have voted for Meryl in Deer Hunter, I totally get why Maggie Smith won, and her winning ended up working out for the best anyway, since Meryl won Best Supporting Actress the year after this (for a better performance).
So, in all, I really like four of the six decisions this year, and the other two I’m okay with, even though one of them I’m bordering on disliking. In all, though, a strong year. And this category — wow, look at how strong it is. I have three legit people to vote for here.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1978
And the nominees were…
Bruce Dern, Coming Home
Richard Farnsworth, Comes a Horseman
John Hurt, Midnight Express
Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter
Jack Warden, Heaven Can Wait
Dern — Coming Home is very much a sister film to The Deer Hunter. It’s also kind of like Born on the Fourth of July. It’s very much about the experience of coming home (get it?) from Vietnam and dealing with paralysis.
Jon Voight gets paralyzed in Vietnam and is in a military hospital. The first thirty minutes is him dealing with not being able to use his legs anymore. He’s very bitter. He meets Jane Fonda, a nurse, and starts a relationship with her. Her husband is off fighting still, and she starts sleeping with Voight. And we see them together for a while, and there’s this subplot of Penelope Milford, a fellow nurse, whose brother came home and is mentally fucked up, and she’s dealing with him, and then he kills himself. But what we’re focused on is this plot. After a while, Bruce Dern, Jane Fonda’s husband, comes back early. And she’s sleeping with Jon Voight. And she breaks it off with Voight to care for her husband, but it’s pretty clear that Dern is messed up. He’s got PTSD, is withdrawn, distant, prone to outbursts. Then he finds out about the affair, and there’s this great scene where he calmly goes to the beach with a gun and holds it to his wife and Voight. And there’s a long standoff where he’s just standing there, with the gun, and eventually he stands down. He puts the gun down, and instead, walks into the ocean and kills himself, because he can’t live with the reality of what he’s been through.
The film itself is pretty good — I don’t love it like I do Deer Hunter, but it is a solid film — and what makes the film work as well as it does is the performance of Bruce Dern. He’s the lynchpin of the film. Without him, it doesn’t work. And his performance is like a bolt of electricity through this movie. It’s incredible. So much so that, I really want to vote for him here. I think he might be the best performance in this category. Which makes things so much tougher for me come voting time. I really don’t like having to choose here.
Farnsworth — Richard Farnsworth is an actor who was originally a stunt man. And I think it was this film, where they said, “You know, he has a way about him. Let’s put him in front of the camera.” Because he has this soft, really calm voice and this demeanor about him — if you’ve seen The Straight Story or The Natural, you know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, this film is a 70s western, which, after The Outlaw Josey Wales, any western that wasn’t an Eastwood western just wasn’t very good. It’s about Jane Fonda and James Caan, two ranchers, who are in danger of losing both their lands to Jason Robards, a land/cattle baron. And they team up to save the land from him — this is kind of a forbearer to those “family fights to save farm” films of the 80s, only this one is couched under the ideology of the western.
And Farnsworth plays an old ranch hand whose been working the farm for a long time, since back when Fonda’s father was alive. And he’s like a mentor to her. He’s basically there, shows up for a few short scenes, then he has one big scene where he tells her a story about how he spent all his life on that land, and loves it, and then he dies the next day. That’s pretty much it. And it’s a pretty boring movie.
It’s clear I have no desire to vote for Farnsworth here. He’s clearly my #5. His film is by far the weakest, and he had absolutely no shot here, and I’m not going to pretend like he did.
Hurt — Midnight Express is such a great movie. You need to see this. It’s like Spinal Tap or something. You can’t quote Spinal Tap unless you’ve seen it. Here, you need to see this just so you can be like, “At least you’re not in a Turkish prison.”
The films is about a dude who tries smuggling hashish back Stateside, and gets caught and thrown in a Turkish prison. He gets an unusually large sentence. And the whole situation is very sticky, so he’s just stuck there until his shitty lawyer and his father can do something to get him out. And conditions are harsh. He gets the shit beat out of him on a daily basis. There’s a guard that likes to rape inmates — it’s fucking brutal. And the film is literally about this dude’s experiences in the prison.
And John Hurt plays a dude who’s been in the prison longer than anyone. And he’s slightly crazy at this point, and just sits around, musing and smoking pot. That’s basically what he does, sits there, smokes, and just says shit. He’s not really in the film, but Hurt does a good job with it. I wouldn’t put him anything about a #4 here though. There are better performances to vote for.
Walken — And Mr. Walken. God, I love this man.
The Deer Hunter is an amazing film because it spends the first hour just introducing you to the characters. The film starts with Robert De Niro, Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, and that other actor whose name I can’t remember who plays Axel — all working in the local steel mill, going out, drinking at the local pool hall, just having a good time. And Savage is about to get married the next day, and we see them hanging out at the bar, drinking, as the rest of the very small town prepares for the wedding. And then he gets married, and we find out him, Walken and De Niro are leaving for war soon. And there’s a big wedding reception — like, thirty minutes long. It’s really long. They just part again. And there we see the relationships hinted at — like, Walken is dating Meryl Streep, but it’s hinted that he had an affair with the bride (which is pretty much proven later when her son has Walken’s blonde hair and not Savage’s brown hair), and a bunch of other stuff. And then they all go out deer hunting the next day, and we see that De Niro is crazy into it, and Walken is also into it, but not as much as De Niro, while the rest of the guys treat it as an excuse to drink. But we get to meet the guys.
Then, boom, quick cut — we’re right in the middle of the shit. Vietnam. We see De Niro and Walken meet up while taking down a village. But then they get captured by some Vietcong and are taken to this hut, where they’re forced into one of the tensest scenes ever put to film — the Russian Roulette game. And they have to go through that, and eventually all get out, but during the escape, Savage breaks his legs and loses the use of them, and Walken gets severe PTSD.
And they all get sent home. Well, discharged, anyway. Savage goes home, paralyzed, Walken stays in Vietnam, while De Niro goes home. And De Niro goes home, disillusioned, starts a relationship with Meryl, and deals with what we saw during the war. Walken, on the other hand, gets tempted into playing Russian Roulette for real. Because he’s basically dead inside. And a crooked Frenchman lures him into a game, where he wins because he’s fucking crazy and will put the gun to his head and pull the trigger twice, even though he’s not even playing.
And then, later on, De Niro goes back to find Walken, being kept hooked on heroin by the Frenchman as long as he keeps winning and staying alive. And De Niro, trying to get Walken to snap out of it and come home, plays a game against him. And Walken ends up dying from it, and De Niro has to go home, one friend dead, the other paralyzed, back to his sleepy small town, living with all this. It’s a powerful film.
Walken is fantastic in it. The scene he has in the hospital when they ask his name and he just stares at the doctor blankly before just breaking down and crying for no reason is a really great moment. Here’s the thing, though, him, Warden and Dern were both great, so a decision here is really, really though. And I hate that.
Warden — Heaven Can Wait is the middle film in this trilogy of sorts of this story being told on screen. The first version is Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the most recent version is Down to Earth. Even if you haven’t seen this film — you’ve seen this film. I’ll explain it using this particular plot, but trust me, you’ve seen it.
A quarterback who just got his team to the Super Bowl is riding his bike one day and gets in a terrible accident. He wakes up, and he’s standing next to the wreckage with a dude with a clipboard. The thing is, the dude is an angel, and he was sent from heaven to collect the souls of the people who died in the crash. And he showed up early, and, not wanting the people to suffer, pulled him — him being the quarterback, played by Warren Beatty — out early. The thing is, dude fucked up. Warren Beatty wasn’t supposed to die. He pleads his case, saying it wasn’t his time, and they bring him up to Mr. Jordan (played by James Mason), who finds out that he indeed was not supposed to die for another forty to fifty years. Which obviously causes a problem.
They go to put Beatty back in his body, but they’ve already buried him and cremated the body. So they need to find him a new body. Which isn’t so easy. So what they do in the meantime is, they find him a loaner body, that of a millionaire whose younger wife and her lover (his aide) poisoned him and left him to drown in his bathtub. So he goes into that body, which naturally causes his wife to flip the fuck out. And he pretends to be this millionaire, and decides he has to play in the Super Bowl. So what he does is, he calls up one of his coaches — Max Corkle, played by Warden — who he was always good friends with, and tells him he wants to play in the game. Corkle thinks he’s nuts. But then he tells him who he is. Which makes him think he’s even more nuts. But then he convinces him by telling him something only he would know. And Corkle knows it’s him, but doesn’t believe it. So he says he’ll get him to the team for a tryout. And he does, and he starts training to play quarterback, and obviously to the rest of the team thinks it’s crazy having some 50 year old rich dude suddenly being your quarterback.
But anyway, Beatty also, during this time, falls in love with Julie Christie. She’s a woman fighting for some nonprofit organization who the rich dude (who was a dick before he was killed) was screwing over. And Beatty meets her, and says he’s gonna help them out as an excuse to get to know her. And he gets to know her in the body of this millionaire, and she starts falling in love with him. Problem is, the body was only supposed to be a loaner. Eventually, the dude’s wife and lover and up killing him (they kill him with a sniper rifle and his body falls into a well). So Beatty is now a spirit again, upset that he can’t be with Christie any longer, and everyone is wondering where this dude went. Corkle shows up, knowing something happened, and the cops do as well. And there’s this great scene where the cops are questioning them, and Beatty is communicating to Corkle in the room, and everything just gets really crazy. But anyway, Beatty ends up getting to go into the body of his backup quarterback, who somehow ends up dying right before the Super Bowl. So he gets to go into the body of him and win the Super Bowl just as he’d planned.
And the final scene is him, now the backup quarterback, and Mr. Jordan telling him that he’s going to end up forgetting everything, his former life and Julie Christie, and from now on will be this other guy, and think he has been for his entire life. And he forgets, and Corkle comes in, because Beatty had hinted that he’d be in the game, and says something to him, but he doesn’t remember. And then Christie, coming to talk to Corkle, meets Beatty, now in the body of this other guy, and even though he doesn’t remember her and she hasn’t met him before, they feel this connection to one another, and they walk off, and you realize, true love persevered anyway.
It’s a great film. Also, like I said, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen it. This is the version of this story to see, over the other two. Everyone in it is so great. Warden is probably my favorite here, just because he’s so entertaining. He’s a real character actor. He’s fantastic in everything. And he plays Corkle so well. He believes what he knows, but also realizes just how crazy everything is, and spends the film, running around, doing something he knows is nuts and thinking he’s crazy, but also thinking, “But this dude definitely is my friend.” It’s a great performance. I’d love to be able to vote for him here, just because he was great and because he as an actor should have won an Oscar. But I don’t think I can. It sucks.
My Thoughts: Okay. This, to me, comes down between Warden, Walken and Dern. Dern gave the best performance, Warden gave the most likable performance and Walken gave my favorite performance. And all three are actors who should have Oscars. So — since it’s really tough, and since Coming Home already won two acting Oscars, I’m taking Walken. How can I not? Plus, he won, so, it works out every which way. Who doesn’t like Christopher Walken? (Note: If the answer is you, you may want to keep that to yourself.)
My Vote: Walken
Should Have Won: This is tough. Honestly, Walken, Dern or Warden should have won. That’s how good this was.
Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah, it’s Christopher Walken. I mean, it’s a shame about Bruce Dern and Jack Warden, but it’s Christopher Walken. Of course this is acceptable.
Performances I suggest you see: The Deer Hunter is a perfect film, and an essential film. As is Midnight Express. As is one version of Heaven Can Wait. But this is the best, so, let’s say this one. I really don’t even need to say anything else — you need to see these three films if you want to be taken seriously as a film person. Then, Coming Home is a really great film with strong performances. Really highly recommended.