The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1960

Love me some 1960. That’s been the gist of all the articles I’ve written about it so far. The Apartment is one of my five favorite films of all time. I think it was one of the best Best Picture choices of all time. And I love Billy Wilder winning Best Director for it, though, as I said here, Hitchcock really should have won this for Psycho. It’s just a fact of life.

Then, Best Actor (which I talked about here) was Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry, which is just a wonderful decision, Best Actress was Elizabeth Taylor for BUtterfield 8, which, as I said here,  was a tough situation, and has a reputation for being a terrible decision, and it is a terrible decision, but the Academy kind of had their hands tied here, so, I understand it. And Best Supporting Actor was Peter Ustinov for Spartacus, which is a great decision. Peter Ustinov is awesome.

The real reason I love this year though is the films. The Apartment, Psycho, The Sundowners, Elmer Gantry, Spartacus, Peeping Tom, The Magnificent Seven, Inherit the Wind, La Dolce Vita, Breathless — there are some great films that came out this year. That’s why I love me some 1960.


And the nominees were…

Glynis Johns, The Sundowners

Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry

Shirley Knight, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

Janet Leigh, Psycho

Mary Ure, Sons and Lovers

Johns — I must have said this at least three times by now, but I love The Sundowners with a passion. This is one of those movies I’ll be indebted to the Quest for, because without it, I might not have seen this movie for a long, long time.

The film is about a family of “sundowners,” which means, they travel the land and pitch their tent wherever the sun goes down. They’re led by Robert Mitchum, a sheepherder who loves what he does. Deborah Kerr, his wife, does not like it. She wants to settle down and have a house like a normal family. This is the major point of contention. She wants to convince him to do this, but he’s stubborn and refuses. Every time he finishes a job, she says she wants to settle down and get him to agree that this is finally the last one, but he always takes another one, thus starting the whole cycle over again. We start as he finishes a job and she tries convincing him to settle down, and of course, he takes another job. And then, the rest of the film is very episodic. And that’s what gives it most of its charm. There are a lot of small moments that build to a complete picture. Like the scene where the men he hires as extra help don’t want Deborah Kerr to cook for them because they trust their cook and don’t know if she’s any good. So they have to have a competition where she cooks for them and has to prove she’s any good. And then there’s the sheep shearing contest, where Mitchum (the top sheep shearer) goes up against a challenger to see who can shear the most sheep. It’s amazing. I tell you you’ll be as invested in this contest as you would the final game in a sports movie. It’s that good. And the rest of the film has a bunch of little episodes. They get money, lose money, win it back, and eventually they get a horse and race the horse, and that gives them enough money to get a house.

The point of the film we’re most interested in is this one. The family hires Peter Ustinov as an extra drover. And he travels with them. And they stop at an inn along the way, and Glynis Johns is the proprietor of the inn, and she and Ustinov start up a little romance. That’s mostly what it is. She’s nice and charming and all, and I like that she got nominated, but the performance isn’t substantial enough to vote for here. It’s not. Glad she’s here though, but there are better people to vote for here.

Jones — Elmer Gantry is a tremendous film. It surprised the hell out of me. Because I expected a good Burt Lancaster performance, the type that’s solid but unspectacular, but enough for them to give him an Oscar because he’s Burt Lancaster. Nuh uh. It was a whole lot better than that. And the film was amazing to boot. Was not expecting that at all.

Burt Lancaster plays a hard drinking, woman-loving traveling salesman. You know the type. He talks fast, can get anyone to buy anything, and loves the booze and the women. And one day, he comes across a tent that has a religious revival. Ever see Marjoe? Kind of like that. With all the preaching and the speaking in tongues. That sort of stuff. And he looks at it and is like, “I can make a fucking killing here.” Because they accept donations. And he’s like, “Fuck, I’ll just keep them for myself.” So that’s what he does. He goes to the head sister than runs it — Jean Simmons — and gets in with her. She takes a liking to him, and he comes on. And they start up this whole routine where he’s the charismatic preacher, telling them they’re all damned and will go to hell, and she comes in, good cop, like, “No, no, just ask for forgiveness and give us money, it’ll all be okay.” And this works, really well. And Lancaster eventually worms his way into Simmons’s heart, gets her to sleep with him, because she thinks they’ll get married. And things go really well for a while.

Then, enter Shirley Jones. She used to date Lancaster, and was gonna marry him. But he broke up with her, and her father threw her out of the house (you can guess why) and she became a prostitute. So she’s a prostitute, and she hears about Lancaster, because he’s become sort of a big icon in that part of the country, going on talk shows and stuff, talking about how bad the sinners are, meanwhile he’s the biggest one of all. And she’s like, “Oh, Imma get this fuck.” And she blackmails him. She says she wants money, otherwise she’s gonna spill the beans and tell everyone who he really is. And then he pays her, and she says she won’t do it, but the story gets out anyway, and things get really bad for Lancaster, and the whole thing culminates in a big fire at the church they built, and Simmons dying in it because she’s crazy religious. It’s a powerful film. My favorite is Lancaster’s last line, where he quotes from the bible to explain why he won’t preach anymore, and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child and spoke like a child. Then, when I got older, I put away such childish things.” I love that line.

So, the film is great and Lancaster is superb. Now, Jones. She’s our focus here. She’s good in the role. I can see why they gave her the Oscar. I’m not against her winning her winning, because she was really good — charismatic, charming — really nailed the part. I just happen to like another performance more (you can guess which). So while I’m not against her winning, I’m just gonna be voting for someone else.

Knight — The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is an interesting film. I was expecting some sort of thriller, based on the title. Boy, was I off.

The film is about Robert Preston (aka Harold Hill from The Music Man who was also nominated for Victor Victoria), a traveling salesman, who has to deal with all his family’s problems. He gets fired, has to look for another job, and his wife thinks he’s having an affair, because she’s not sleeping with him anymore, and he goes and talks to another woman in town, and his wife thinks they’re sleeping together. It’s all pretty family drama. What we’re interested in is Shirley Knight. She’s the oldest daughter of the family who is about to go to her first school dance. And she spends most of the first part of the film wanting a dress or whatever, and dealing with all of these issues teenage girls have. Then she meets a local boy at the dance and likes him, but he’s Jewish, and that causes problems because the town is anti-semitic, and eventually he kills himself, and that upsets her, and yada yada. Honestly, the film isn’t very interesting.

As for Knight’s performance — it’s good. I liked it. I thought she did admirable enough to get the nomination. I mean, I wouldn’t have put her on here, but it’s not like it’s terrible enough where you’re like, “Why is this here?” I can see it. I won’t vote for it, and it’ll be my #5, but hey, there’s no shame in that. She’s on here. That’s what counts.

Leigh — Do I need to talk about Psycho? Don’t we know this? Janet Leigh, woman who steals $40,000 from her boss, goes on the run, ends up at the Bates Motel, takes a shower. If you don’t know this, the rest of the film doesn’t matter right now. See this damn movie. Right now. Stop whatever you’re doing, put this on right now.

I think Janet Leigh is totally effective here, because she is the main character of the movie. And she makes you feel everything she’s going through, which — once we get to her big moment in the film — is exactly the point. I think she is note perfect in the role because she not only conveys exactly what she needs to convey, but she also does a great job (alongside Hitchcock. Hitchcock also has a lot to do with it. But, honestly, does it matter how much of the performance is informed by the director? A performance is a performance. I’d give examples, but I don’t want to unfairly throw some actors under the bus) adding to the tension of the situation. It’s a really effective performance, and, honestly, in this category, I think she was good enough to win.

Ure — Sons and Lovers is a film I thought was gonna suck. And, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by it. I’ve said this multiple times by now, so I’ll skip the pre-story.

The film is about a family. The father, Trevor Howard, works in a coal mine and comes home and drinks all night to cope with the work. He’s drinking the family’s money away, and is kind of violent when he’s drunk. Then, the mother is Wendy Hiller. She’s overly protective of her son to the point of smothering. The son is Dean Stockwell. He decides he needs to get away from the family and live life. He ends up having an affair with Mary Ure, who is married, but separated. The film ends up mainly being about how the mother takes over this kid’s life, to the point where he leaves a woman he could have a future with because he’s attached to his mother. Then she dies and he ends up with nobody.

Ure is fine here. I did think she was charming in the role, and I found myself engaged by her performance. So I can see why she was nominated. But I wouldn’t vote for her, though. I’d put her a solid fourth on this list. My heart is really with Janet Leigh here. And if I’m not voting for her, I’m voting for Shirley Jones or Glynis Johns.

My Thoughts: I really liked this category. All five of the performances were really good. But really, just looking at this category, only one performance truly stands out. How can you not give this to Janet Leigh? Really, that performance was perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it needs to accomplish. Now, I understand why they’d go another way, but me, I can’t.

My Vote: Leigh

Should Have Won: Leigh

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah, I guess. I don’t really feel that strongly on this one. But I do think Janet Leigh should have won. But, I guess it’s acceptable. It is what it is.

Performances I suggest you see: Psycho. You need to see it, and if you don’t know that/have no plans to see it, you’re an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies.

The Sundowners. I love this film. It’s so engaging. One of the best films I discovered because of this Quest. I recommend this film so highly you don’t even know. It is an incredible film. I’m not even going to continue talking about how great it is. Just watch it. It’s so fantastic.

Elmer Gantry. Really great performance by Burt Lancaster and a great film on top of it. This film comes highly, highly recommended. It’s so incredibly done and Lancaster’s performance is just spellbinding.

Sons and Lovers. Very solid film. A bit melodramtic, but very well-made, and I was always engaged. That’s more than I can say for most films. I recommend this one.


5) Knight

4) Ure

3) Jones

2) Johns

1) Leigh

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