The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1981
I hate 1981 as an Oscar year. I love it as a year for great films and performances. All of it stems from the Academy selecting Chariots of Fire as Best Picture, which is the single worst picture in terms of quality to win Best Picture. Nothing comes close. This film is not good.
Then, Warren Beatty wins Best Director for Reds (talked about here) and Maureen Stapleton wins Best Supporting Actress for it, both of which are pretty acceptable decisions. Then Best Actor (talked about here) and Best Actress (talked about here) were Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for On Golden Pond. Fonda’s Oscar had to happen, and there was no other alternative. It’s a great decision by default. Then Hepburn’s Oscar is acceptable, even though I’d have gone another way. So that’s 1981. Pretty solid, except for the terrible, awful, soul-crushing decision for Best Picture.
Which beings us to this category. I love it. Jack Nicholson always brings class to a category. Then you have Ian Holm, great actor. James Coco, who was fantastic in the role and was also in one of my favorite movies of all time, Murder by Death. And then there’s Howard Rollins, which, it’s nice to see a black guy get in there. And then John Gielgud. A living legend. Not to mention — Arthur is legit one of my top 20 favorite films of all time. It’s so fucking funny. I love this decision so much.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1981
And the nominees were…
James Coco, Only When I Laugh
John Gielgud, Arthur
Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire
Jack Nicholson, Reds
Howard Rollins Jr., Ragtime
Coco — Only When I Laugh is a film that’s nearly impossible to find. It was the last film with three nominations I had left on my Quest. To put that into perspective, all films had two nominations or less back in November or December. Yeah. Hard to find. It’s a great film though. So if you do manage a chance to see it, do so.
The film begins with Marsha Mason about to be let out of rehab. She’s been in there for seven months and is now being released. She’s an actress who is also a drunk. And she went on a bender after her boyfriend (a playwright) broke up with her. Now she’s sober, and coming home. And her two friends, Joan Hackett (a woman obsessed with staying young and depressed about getting old), and James Coco (the gay best friend who is also an actor) throw her a party. And she’s out of rehab and taking it one day at a time. And her daughter, who’d been living with her father, asks to come live with her, which adds to her stress level.
And then she gets back together with her ex-boyfriend, who wrote a play based on their relationship, which also adds to her stress. And she’s dealing with all this stuff, and then her daughter asks her to have lunch with her ex-husband, which puts her over the top. At a birthday party for Joan Hackett, she falls off the wagon pretty hard. And they try to be nice to her but also strict, which leads to an amazing scene where they try to deal with her. Then she goes out to a bar, gets more drunk, and ends up getting sexually assaulted. And then she reevaluates her life, and ends up going to lunch with her ex-husband, which is really the step to her true recovery. It’s a great film.
Coco plays her gay best friend, an actor who is almost 40 and has never gotten a real part. He’s stuck in off-off-broadway shows with all the crazy shit in them, working for no money, and no one will see it. And he’s basically just around for the whole movie, and really is the heart and soul of this one. He does a great job with the character, and, really, in this category, for me ranks as a #2. In a stronger year, maybe he’d be a 3 or a 4, but here — a 2. Solid 2.
Gielgud — Arthur is one of the funniest movies ever made. Everything about it is amazing. Granted, it wouldn’t be accepted as much today (as evidenced by the terrible remake with Russell Brand), but it doesn’t matter. This is a perfect film.
Dudley Moore is an heir to six billion dollars. He spends his days binge drinking and cavorting around town. We first see him, being driven around New York by his chauffeur, as his picks up a hooker. He spends the night with the hooker, basically making a giant ass of himself at a restaurant. This is what he does. He drinks, picks up women, then has everyone else clean up for him. The gist of the story is, his parents want him to marry Susan, an upper class woman. He is not even remotely interested in Susan. However, his mother tells him he’ll be disinherited if he doesn’t marry her. So he goes along with it, because six billion dollars is a lot of money. However, one day, he comes across Liza Minnelli. She gives fake tours around the city and is very much a free spirit. She’s — quirky. And Arthur is immediately interested in her, and starts seeing her.
This would be a good time to bring up Hobson. Hobson is Arthur’s butler, and has been his closest (and only, really) friend since he was a child. Hobson has raised Arthur, and is basically his father. Hobson is played by John Gielgud, in case you didn’t know. And they have a great relationship. Hobson is the typical proper butler, but is nothing but sarcastic at all times. Like, the first time he shows up, he walks in on Arthur and the hooker in bed. And Arthur introduces him to the hooker, who says, “Hi.” And Hobson goes, “Yes, you obviously have a wonderful economy with words. I look forward to your next syllable with great eagerness.” He’s hysterical.
And the thing with Hobson is — he’s dying. He knows this, but Arthur doesn’t. And when he sees that Arthur is in love with Liza Minnelli and not with Susan, who he’s only marrying for his parents, he goes and tells her to go to Arthur, and facilitates their getting together. And then he ends up in the hospital, dying, and Arthur cares for him until he does die. And then he goes on a crazy bender, really sad that Hobson died. And then, on the day of his wedding, he decides he doesn’t care, and would rather be poor with Liza Minnelli than rich with Susan. And his grandmother refuses to disinherit him, saying no member of his family has ever been poor. It’s a touching story.
The story itself, though, has nothing to do with how funny the movie is. Dudley Moore is so fucking hysterical in this role — no one else could ever have played this. He says the funniest fucking things throughout this movie — you seriously just need to see it.
As for Gielgud, he’s perfect as Hobson. He really is. It’s not even close how much he deserved this award.
Holm — Chariots of Fire is a film about runners. One dude is a Jewish runner. He wants to be the best. He wants to be a competitive racer, but no one likes him doing it. Ian Holm is an Italian coach who trains him. He trains for the Olympics. He won’t run on Saturdays because he’s Jewish. He has two races. He loses one because he falls down. He wins the second one. That’s the film.
In case you didn’t know, I don’t like this movie. But I like Ian Holm. He was okay in this, but, I’m never gonna vote for him here because I don’t want this film winning any more Oscars.
Nicholson — Reds is the story of John Reed, who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World. It’s also the story of the Russian Revolution, of sorts. It’s a very interesting film for many reasons, mostly because it’s almost four films in one. It’s structure is different from just about anything I’ve ever seen.
First off — have you ever seen Band of Brothers? How all the episodes begin with the actual veterans talking about what happened, and then it segues into the story itself? That’s how this film is structured (twenty years earlier). The film has what it calls “witnesses” who are people who knew the persons in the film, or studied them, and they tell the story as it unfolds. So, that’s one part of the film. The second part is the actual “film.” That’s split into two parts, even though it’s kind of three. First off, we meet Diane Keaton. She’s a society woman and is used to the whole fake, stupid culture you see at operas and stuff. And she meets Beatty who chastises her for being part of all that bullshit and not doing something. He’s a communist, and is fighting to promote his political ideals. And this half of the film has her becoming intrigued with him and moving in with him, and traveling with him as he goes to conventions and workers meetings.
Then there’s this middle part, where he sort of grows distant from her. He’s upset with her lack of political beliefs and grows apart from her. He goes to Russia a lot during this time and comes and goes, and she ends up trying to be an actress and dating Eugene O’Neill, who is played by Nicholson. And he hires her to be in one of his plays (which sucks, and Keaton is terrible in it), but he’s madly in love with Keaton. And the thing is, she really loves Beatty but is with Nicholson because Beatty doesn’t want her at the moment. And Nicholson knows that but stays with her anyway. He knows she’ll leave him as soon as Beatty says he wants her back, but doesn’t care. He’s also the guy who tells her he’ll always be there for her, any time, no matter what happens with Beatty. And that’s the second part of the first half of the film.
The second half of the film takes place as Keaton goes to Russia and is reunited with Beatty. There’s this big famous reunion at the train station that takes place. Then they’re in Russia as the Communist Revolution goes on, and they see the spirit of it, then try to introduce that to the US, and he gets a kidney infection and dies, and its sad. That’s the film. We’re only interested in the Nicholson part here. It’s a great film though. Interesting on many levels. A bit long though. But still, film people should see it at least once.
Anyway, Nicholson here — I’m not really sure why he was nominated, outside of the fact that he’s Jack Nicholson and is playing Eugene O’Neill. I don’t have a problem with it, simply because he didn’t win, but I really don’t think he did enough here to be worth a vote (a similar line of thinking to his other supporting performance in 1983).
Rollins — And, Ragtime. I know people who love this book. I have to assume this book is very similar to the movie, which would explain its weaknesses. I don’t really love this movie, but I don’t dislike it either. It’s just not for me. It feels like a lot of dead air to me. Nothing really interesting enough to sustain as much time as it goes on.
The film is very scattered — a lot of stuff happens. Basically, what I got out of this were two stories (mostly because those were the two nominated). First, there’s the story of Evelyn Nesbit, which, me being a Vaudeville fan, I know all about, and it made me happy to see that included. Basically, she was a dancer who had an affair and her husband killed her lover and then she got famous and tried to divorce him. Then, there’s this story:
Howard Rollins plays a black pianist who is just trying to earn his way. He has a son with a woman who is taken in by another family who is sort of involved in the plot — it’s complicated. Anyway, he does his thing, and one day, a group of racist white men throw some dog shit onto the seat of his brand new car. And he, instead of letting it slide, makes a fuss over it to a policeman. And the policeman tells him point blank, “Look, these are local boys, and this can only turn out badly for you. So if you just let it go and move on, everything will be okay,” trying to look out for his best interests, and he’s like, “No. They put it there, let them clean it up.” And eventually the policeman has to arrest him for creating a nuisance (because of the whole racist society going on at the time). And then, later one, he and his friends try to take revenge on the guy who did it, but end up killing the wrong person. And then they end up becoming these notorious activists, and end up in this big shootout and standoff with the police, that turns into this whole hostage situation, and basically, this dude who went from a simple piano player to wanted terrorist, is at the middle of all of this. And the police tell him he’ll be okay if he comes out. And he does, but, once he comes outside, a sniper kills him. Basically, racism is bad.
Rollins is fine in the role. I think he did a good job with it. But, he’s no better than a fourth for me. This was a pretty boring film to watch. The only highlights for me were Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit and James Cagney as the police chief in his final film role. That was pretty cool. Rollins — fine — but no more than fourth.
My Thoughts: I think I’ve made my choice clear by this point — it’s Gielgud all the way. I don’t think you quite understand just how much I love Arthur. Coco is a second choice though. He was awesome. Still, Gielgud all the way. Go Hobson!
My Vote: Gielgud
Should Have Won: Gielgud
Is the result acceptable?: Every which way you look at it. John Gielgud is a legend, and, is incredible in the film. He uses his perfect diction and extraordinary manners to great comedic effect. Easily the best supporting role this year and the most acceptable decision in the bunch. Great job, Academy.
Performances I suggest you see: Arthur. I really can’t be objective with this one, so I’m just gonna say, if you haven’t seen this movie, we can’t be friends. It’s not that harsh a reality — it’s one of the funniest movies of all time. I’m doing you a favor by making you see this.
Only When I Can Laugh, if you can find it (it’s on iTunes) is a great film. Definitely one of Neil Simon’s better films. Marsha Mason and James Coco are amazing in it. It’s just a fantastic film. Funny and bottoms out and has shit get real for a minute there. Really well done.
Reds is kind of an essential film. Maybe it isn’t totally essential, but it’s close. It’s pretty classic. Sure, it’s long, and drags a lot past the midway point, but it’s well made. And Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty give top notch performances. You should probably see it because it’s so major. Plus it’s one of the more interesting directorial efforts. How many films have you seen shot like Band of Brothers? Exactly. Highly recommended if you have the patience for it or are serious about liking film.
Ragtime — it’s good. Not great. If you like the book, maybe see it. I don’t know how to recommend this one. It’s watchable, though. Once, anyway. Then, Chariots of Fire, see it so you can rail against it. That’s my way of thinking. If you see it, then you can complain about it. It’s pretty funny how not good it is. Aside from the Vangelis music, there’s really nothing good here at all. And that’s funny to me that the Academy chose it. See it for that.