The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1998

This is a rough year for most people. It’s not just because Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. I don’t have a problem with that. Honestly, I don’t. Because, Steven Spielberg won Best Director for Ryan (as I talked about here), and I can live with the Best Picture choice as long as they made the proper Best Director choice to go along with it (which they didn’t do this past year). Gwyneth Paltrow also wins Best Actress for Shakespeare (which I talked about here), and Judi Dench wins Best Supporting Actress for the film as well (which is just awesome. Go Judi).

So, as it stands, we have a “weak” Best Picture choice, a weak Best Actress choice (sort of. It’s a weak overall choice. Based on the category, it’s kind of bad, but — well, just read my article for my full thoughts on the matter), a good, but not overly great Best Supporting Actress choice (though best in the category), and a perfect Best Director choice. That’s one, maybe two, out of four. And only one really strong one. The other three are questionable. Then, you have this category, which I’ll tell you right now — good from a historical perspective (James Coburn is awesome), terrible from a category perspective. Really terrible. And you have Best Actor, which was Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful. Which — that’s pretty much the nail in the coffin for 1998. This is one of those “let’s all just pretend this never happened” years.


And the nominees were…

James Coburn, Affliction

Robert Duvall, A Civil Action

Ed Harris, The Truman Show

Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare in Love

Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan

Coburn — Affliction was a tough film for me to watch. It’s just — not that interesting. One of those small, personal dramas that always pop up come awards season. Small films, and there’s always one or two where people are like, “This is incredible.” The Academy just eats this shit up.

Nick Nolte is a town sheriff. He’s not a particularly great guy. He’s a shitty father, and just kind of a fuck up in general. We see him going about his life while simultaneously flashing back to how he got this way, which is realyl what we’re interested in, anyway. Basically, James Coburn is Nolte’s alcoholic father. And he’s a mean drunk. He comes in, picks on his son and beats him up for the fun of it, and is just physically and emotionally abusive. We see lots of brief moments of him pushing Nick Nolte as a child. And then there’s a scene where his wife is dying, and he’s done nothing about it for weeks, and is like, “She’ll be fine.” He’s kind of a dick, basically. And Nolte continues, now that he’s older, going to visit him, even though Coburn is the same as he always was. And then Nolte ends up beating him up, finally, which kills him. And then Nolte burns him down in the barn to make it look like an accident and disappears. That’s pretty much the film. As you can tell, I’m not particularly enamored with the film, though Nolte did do a good job with it.

Coburn, now — he was fine. I mean it’s James Coburn. But let’s not pretend this isn’t what it is — a veteran Oscar. It doesn’t matter how good he was, because he was gonna win anyway. And honestly, I saw this performance after I saw Billy Bob Thornton’s, and I’m gonna tell you — no matter how much I love James Coburn and how much I’d like him to have an Oscar — he’s performance was nowhere near as good as Thornton’s. It just wasn’t. So let’s just state it like it is — we love Coburn, him having an Oscar is nice, but he was not the best performance in this category. Veteran Oscar. Like when Morgan Freeman won in 2004. It was also widely understood that he was not the best performance in the category but won because he was who he was. This stuff happens in the Supporting categories, so it’s not surprising.

Duvall — Another veteran nomination. At least here, Duvall is having fun with it. He was never gonna win. It’s just a nice gesture to include him. Which is cool.

The film is actually quite interesting, because it did not go even remotely the way I expected it to. Basically, John Travolta is the head of a big and powerful firm who handles injury cases and stuff. He’s good at getting settlements for people. He’s rich and cocky. And then he is asked to defend the people of a town whose water has become contaminated by toxins being dumped in the river for years and years. And it’s the kind of thing where — a big company was doing it and is now lying about it. And he doesn’t want to do it, because they can’t pay and it’ll cost money, and he’s just not interested in something that won’t be a huge pay day. But eventually he sees how bad it is, after traveling there, and he soon becomes obsessed with the case. He makes it his personal mission to help out these people. And he uses all the reserve money the firm has, and gets all the men to forclose on their houses trying this case, because he’s convinced they can help out these people and get them the money they deserve. And he turns down settlement after settlement, telling these people they deserve more. Because they do, but, they’re up against a big corporation, and the longer it gets dragged out, the less footing they have. And eventually, it gets to the point where the whole thing implodes and Travolta has to accept a slap in the face settlement that’s like a tenth of what he was originally offered. And he ends up being bankrupt and alone. And you’re watching this, going, “Holy shit, this is decidedly not the happy ending I was expecting.” It ends pretty bleakly. I mean, there’s a title card at the end that says the EPA eventually brought up a suit and the people got a lot of money, and that Travolta eventually got out of debt and opened a small firm somewhere, but — man, is the rest of it bleak.

Anyway, Duvall plays the head lawyer that works for the big corporation. And this is kind of the James Mason role in The Verdict, only quirkier. He’s the established pro who knows exactly how to win over a judge and jury, and is the slow and steady dude who knows how to make sure the other guy loses. And on top of that, he’s a baseball nut. We first see him sitting in a secluded area of a library, eating his lunch and listening to a Red Sox game. And an intern comes in to give him some papers, and he has this (seemingly) nice conversation with the kid, and is like, “What do you want to do, where do you see yourself in twenty years?” and all of that, and basically works the whole conversation into him being like, “You work really hard, and all you want is a nice, quiet place to eat your lunch and listen to the ball game without being disturbed by anyone. And anyone who is stupid enough to do that is clearly risking their job at this firm,” and is basically saying, “Why the fuck are you bothering me?” and scares the shit out of this kid without ever raising his voice or saying anything mean to him. It’s awesome.

But, we see him later, looking like he just doesn’t care about anything. There’s a big conference meeting, and he’s like an hour late, and comes in, saying he got caught up in some business, meanwhile there’s some ketchup stains on his bag, indicating he was clearly at the ball park. It’s a fun performance. Duvall does a great job here. He was never gonna win, but the nomination is pretty great. So that’s good.

Harris — Yeah. I’m not sure what all the love is for this movie. I mean, it’s really well made, and I think the concept is brilliant and that there are a lot of great moments to this movie, but some of the moments are just — strange. And overall, I think it’s a solid 4-star film, and yet everyone else says it’s this five-star masterpiece. And I just don’t get that. I feel I should tell you this now. Full disclosure.

The film is about Truman, played by Jim Carrey, who lives this idyllic, sitcom-esque existence where he’s in a small town and everything is happy and great. But, little does he know, the whole thing has been orchestrated since he was born, and is one giant television show that the entire world watches. Everyone around him is an actor, being paid to be there and being fed lines, even the town itself is a giant soundstage. And Truman has no idea. All he knows is the town. He has a dream of going to Fiji, and wants to get out of the town, but never seems to be able to. And one day, he starts noticing a bunch of strange things happening. He turns on the radio and hears some weird people talking about backstage stuff for the show, and accidentally sees people working on a set in a place he wasn’t supposed to be. And eventually he starts figuring out that the whole thing is fixed. And it’s then we meet Ed Harris, who is this crazy, hipster, director of the show, who is that crazy artist type who things the whole thing is this work or art and will be his masterpiece. The kind who is crazy, dictatorial, and is saying all these abstract things about how he wants this to bare fruit into people’s souls, meanwhile all he’s doing is telling people to move to the left.

And Truman eventually finds out it’s all fake, and decides he’s going to leave. Which isn’t easy. Because the “town” on the soundstage is surrounded on all sides by water — it’s a crazy big soundstage. And he decides he’s gonna go out on a boat and sail to the end. And he’s got this terrible fear of water (which I think was probably instilled in him so he never tried to leave), and he goes out on the boat, and Harris, who doesn’t want his masterpiece to fail, starts attacking him with rain and thunder and stuff, which makes the boat go crazy and almost tip over, and basically he puts him in such danger that he might actually kill him, which would really fuck him over more than the alternative. And the end of the film is Carrey reaching the edge of the soundstage, Harris telling him that the real world is no less of a lie than this fake one is, and Carrey opens the door and walks out, into the real world.

It’s a great film. It really is. My only problem with it is everyone proclaiming it to be better than it is. (It’s kind of like Inception. People mistake the strength of the idea with the execution of it. Both were executed very well, but not as well as people say they were.) Now, Harris — the performance is just way too fucking weird for me. This was one of the things in the movie where I was like, “Really?” As soon as you see Harris, you immediately know what the character is, and you just watch him, going, “Really? Yoko Ono? You’re really gonna drop something like this in a movie that was fascinating without it?”

I can’t vote for this. At all. This — is not something I can reasonably vote for. At all.

Rush — If Geoffrey Rush hadn’t already won an Oscar unfairly (unfairly is my opinion on the matter), I’d seriously be considering him for a vote here. Now, he’s just a great performance I can’t vote for. Which is fine.

Shakespeare in Love — I think we know about the film by now. William Shakespeare is a fledgling playwright, currently writing “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” a comedy. However, over the course of the film, it becomes Romeo and Juliet. So basically it’s the story of how Romeo and Juliet came into being. Not true at all, but a great story. And we see Shakespeare deal with his wife cheating on him, and him getting depressed and ealing with writer’s block, so he turns the comedy into a tragedy, and he casts the play and puts it on, and Gwyneth Paltrow is a noblewoman who wants to act, but they don’t let women on the stage, so she pretends to be a man, and then her and Shakespeare fall in do Romeo and Juliet together and it’s romantic and all, and she’s married to another dude, so it’s strangely reminiscent to the play, and then everything turns out all right.

Geoffrey Rush plays a theater owner who is deep into debt and is ducking collectors. And he agrees to put on Shakespeare’s play, expecting it to be a comedy, telling everyone it’s gonna be great and getting money by promising acting roles to mobsters. And he gets to be the producer, dealing with all the snags and getting stressed, and also getting all the sarcastic lines, like, “Oh, yeah, a tragedy, that’ll make them happy.” It’s a fun performance. A perfect performance to win, had he not won before. But, he won, so, he’s out. That’s how this shit works. Plus there’s always Billy Bob.

Thornton — A Simple Plan is a movie I had heard about a lot, mostly because of Billy Bob’s performance. All I knew going in was that Billy Bob was great and Bill Paxton was also in it. I had no idea Sam Raimi directed it whatsoever. I just thought that was a weird fact to share. I really hadn’t heard about this one at all before watching it, plot-wise.

The film is about Bill Paxton, who, along with his brother, Billy Bob (a somewhat slow but very good-hearted dude) and Billy Bob’s friend (who Paxton doesn’t like but begrudgingly hangs out with because his brother keeps saying he’s okay. And they go hunting, and while chasing a fox, they find a crashed airplane that has $2 million in it. And they decide to take it and hold onto it. And the plan is for them to hold onto it and wait to spend it until no one’s looking for it. And then they decide to put some of the money back in case people find the plane. But then they come upon another dude, and have to kill him, and then the whole thing completely unravels, and then they find out the plane is part of a huge kidnapping case and the money is the ransom, and some dangerous people start looking for the money, and then Billy Bob’s friend wants to spend it, and they have to kill him, and the whole thing really unravels in the most tragic way.

Billy Bob is fucking brilliant here. He so perfectly layers this character that it works. First, he’s a simple dude, who all he wants is to pay the back taxes his father’s farm and live there. And then he goes along with this whole thing because he follows his brother’s lead. And we see the whole situation weigh on him more and more, and — I don’t want to give up what happens, but, it’s a powerful performance. He definitely should have won this.

My Thoughts: Billy Bob gives the best performance. He’s the vote. Hands down. That’s it.

My Vote: Thornton

Should Have Won: Thornton

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. I love James Coburn. I love that he has an Oscar. I refuse to vote him in for this performance though. That the Academy did, is all right by me. I’d have preferred Thornton, especially since he came away empty handed twice for performances that were clearly the best in their categories, but, for just James Coburn having an Oscar, that’s very acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: Shakespeare in Love is a great film. You need to see it. This is one of those situations where I recommend people see this if they haven’t so they don’t unfairly shit on the decision. It’s a great movie. A great, great movie. It’s a matter of opinion whether or not it should have won Best Picture, but it’s still a great film. See it.

The Truman Show is also a great film. Might be essential too. It’s a pretty major film and is very well-known. In fact, just watch all of Andrew Niccol’s films, because the dude is great at coming up with good, smart ideas. They don’t always execute perfectly (see: S1m0ne), but they are smart. And this is a film that’s not only smart and well-directed, but also one that pretty much everyone knows about. So just see it. It’s great.

A Simple Plan is also a strong film. Not amazing, but really good. Anchored by Billy Bob’s incredible performance. If you haven’t seen it, this might be one of those films where you really discover it’s something you love and didn’t know about before. Check this one out, if you haven’t. A real hidden gem.

A Civil Action is also a strong film. It’s pretty engaging, and well-done. Recommended if you get the chance.


5) Harris

4) Coburn

3) Duvall

2) Rush

1) Thornton


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