The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1959

1959 is a checkpoint year for the Academy. That’s what I call it as of right now. Checkpoint seems the optimal word. Think of it this way. You’re playing a video game, going through all these parts of the level, some easy, some difficult, and then you get to the checkpoint, and you get that rest. You don’t need to think, and you know you’re safe for the moment. That’s what this is. No matter how you feel about most years, what wins Best Picture, no one can argue with Ben-Hur. No one. It’s a checkpoint. The unquestionable winner, and then we move on and continue complaining.

Aside from Best Picture, Ben-Hur also wins Best Actor for Charlton Heston (talked about here) and Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here). You can’t really argue with either, though I’d have gone another way on Best Actor. Then Best Actress was Simone Signoret for Room at the Top (talked about here), which is one of the worst decisions of all time in that category. I really hate it. And Best Supporting Actress was Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank (talked about here), which I don’t like as a decision, because I feel there were two better performances that split votes, leading to the current result.

But, in all, you can’t argue with most of 1959. Three of the six decisions are unquestionably okay. Two are, even though they don’t really matter, and only Best Actress is the terrible decision. That’s a checkpoint. You hit the checkpoint, and you’re mostly safe for the moment and get a breather. And there’s like a 15% chance you might randomly die.


And the nominees were…

Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur

Arthur O’Connell, Anatomy of a Murder

George C. Scott, Anatomy of a Murder

Robert Vaughn, The Young Philadelphians

Ed Wynn, The Diary of Anne Frank

Griffith — And we start with Ben-Hur. It’s weird to see a category begin with someone whose last name starts with G. I find these coincidences fascinating.

Ben-Hur, in case you don’t know, is about Judah Ben-Hur, a prince in Israel. The Romans come in and pretty much take over. And Ben-Hur wants only for his people to live freely. And the Romans pretty much throw him in jail, and imprison his mother and sister as well, for no good reason. And then he ends up in the galleys of a ship, and it gets sunk by pirates, and he ends up saving the ship’s captain, who was unnecessarily cruel to him because he was defiant. So the man turns around on him, and even adopts him. So then Ben-Hur once again becomes a nobleman. He gets rich again and becomes a charioteer. Which, of course, leads to the big chariot race where he beats his former best friend (who was the dude who got him thrown in jail). It’s one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema ever put on screen. Then he finds his sister and mother in a leper colony. Then the film takes another turn, and becomes about Jesus. Jesus shows up and gets crucified, and Ben-Hur, watching this, loses the desire to get revenge on all of those who wronged him.

It’s a long film, but a great film. It’s one of those films you watch in sheer awe, because it’s so big and expansive. You just wonder how they managed to get so many people to be on screen like that.

Anyway, Hugh Griffith plays an Arab sheik. He shows up, oh, about two-plus hours into the almost four hours the film is. After Ben-Hur becomes a charioteer, he meets Griffith, who is in Rome for a chariot race. He’s very charismatic, and likes having a good time. A gambler. He sees Ben-Hur and his host don’t get along, so he asks Ben-Hur to ride his horses in the race. And then he wins a private bet and makes a lot of money. That’s really all he does. It’s really a minor, minor role in the film. And, given how little he does, it’s surprising that he won this award. But, like Best Supporting Actress for this year, I’m convinced he won because of a vote split. That’s the only way it could have happened. Because, in terms of substantiality of performance, he was maybe third, at best. Maybe. He was flashy and charismatic though, which is probably why people voted for it.

That, or the fact that it’s Ben-Hur, and it was going to win every award it was nominated for, regardless (like Return of the King). Actually, that’s probably what happened here. And if that’s the case, it makes perfect sense and there’s nothing we could do about it. C’est la vie.

O’Connell — Double nominees. Love this.

Anatomy of a Murder is a perfect film. It was very controversial when it came out, because there were very frank and clinical discussions of rape and women’s undergarments in the film, and they were so scandalous that even Jimmy Stewart’s father took out an ad in his local newspaper telling people not to see this. I guess Otto was just a magnet for controversy.

The film is about Jimmy Stewart, a lawyer who used to be a D.A. but now spends his time fishing and drinking with his buddy, Arthur O’Connell. O’Connell is a former lawyer who now drinks like a fish. And one day Lee Remick comes to see him. She’s the wife of an Army man who killed another man. He’s openly confessed to the murder, but said it was because the other man raped his wife. And she sort of seduces Stewart into agreeing to take the case. And he does.

So the rest of the film becomes about Stewart trying to get this guy off from murder, and we see him coming up with strategies and looking for evidence, as well as lengthy courtroom scenes — which, as I always say, makes all films exponentially more interesting. And what Stewart tries to do is get the guy off with a plea of temporary insanity. And most of the film — a good 90+ minutes — is nothing but courtroom. Just trial. And Stewart is the type of lawyer who appears laid back and common, but is sharp as a tack and prone to big scenes. Loves the theatrics. And then, on the other side, the DA has hired George C. Scott, a young prosecutor who is like a big ringer for them.

And then Stewart works to get the rape thing on the record and does, but then the wife goes on the stand and actually hurts her husband’s defense — the whole thing is a very objective look at trials, with just enough cinematic subjectivity thrown in (we mostly see things from Stewart’s perspective, which even then is mostly objective, since it’s his duty to get the guy off, not speculate whether or not he’s guilty) to keep things riveting. And what happens is — well, I’ll leave it up to you to find out. You won’t be disappointed by the film. Trust me. It’s just brilliant, through and through.

Now, O’Connell plays Stewart’s alcoholic colleague, who gets the perfect kind of Oscar role. He gets to play the drunk who gets to say funny things from time to time, and then, in his moment of need, he gets to redeem himself by overcoming his illness and finding a huge piece of evidence that helps turn the tide of the trial in their favor. To me, while watching the film, I was amazed that he didn’t win. But, I’d wager a guess that the reason he didn’t win has a lot to do with the next nominee on this list (and the fact that Ben-Hur was gonna sweep everything no matter what).

Scott — George C. Scott plays the Assistant D.A. who helps out the prosecution. And he is fucking spellbinding in his role. He even delivers a final summary that’s so good even Jimmy Stewart says in the film, “That was the best closing summary I’ve heard in my entire life.” He’s that good. However, he doesn’t have a character to develop. He’s just there, does his job, and that’s it. Granted, he’s amazing in the role, but, between the two nominees from the film, Arthur O’Connell has the character arc and is more of a crowd-pleaser. He’s a drunk who redeems himself, like Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach. So, between the two, I side with O’Connell (plus Scott won his Oscar for Patton in 1970). But Scott was easily a #2 in this category. He was really amazing.

Vaughn — I love Robert Vaughn. He’s not really an actor I’d consider one who’d win an Oscar, but seeing him get a nomination feels like a nice validation. He’s awesome.

The Young Philadelphians is another courtroom movie, but one that’s nowhere near as interesting as Anatomy of a Murder. This one is much more of a melodrama. One I didn’t like very much, either, until the courtroom scenes started. Then I was like, “Okay, fine. You win again, trial movie.”

Paul Newman is a young lawyer with a chip on his shoulder. His mother was married to a prominent, yet impotent, man (Adam West, humorously), who leaves her on their wedding night. She goes and sleeps with an old friend of hers, and West dies (I think he kills himself) that night. So Newman grew up knowing he had a claim to some sort of title, yet not having it. And he meets a woman and falls in love with her, but she’s rich and is expected to marry another rich dude. But, Robert Vaughn, their mutual friend, a rich drunk, tells her she shouldn’t give in to societal pressure and should marry the man she loves. But then her father convinces him to postpone the wedding for a year while he gives him a job at his firm. The girl thinks this means his father bought him off, and that they won’t get married, so she leaves him and goes to Europe and marries the dude she’s supposed to marry. So Newman, upset (because her father planned this), decides to work real hard and climb the social ladder.

So Newman becomes a respected lawyer, and then the Korean War happens, and Vaughn loses his arm. Then one day he’s arrested while drunk and charged with the murder of his uncle (who controlled all of  his money). He has Newman defend him. And Newman gets him of and reconciles with his woman. And everybody’s happy. (Melodrama.)

The film is okay. I didn’t particularly care for it until the trial began. Vaughn was okay, but, it wasn’t really a performance you vote for. Just one where you’re happy for him to have been nominated. Nomination is the reward, kind of thing. So, he’s a #5, and was never going to win, but we’re happy he’s here. Go Robert Vaughn.

Wynn — And Ed Wynn. Craziest voice in the history of cinema (sorry Bobcat Goldthwait). Love this man. Love this movie, too. This is a really engaging film for one whose sole location is an attic.

The film, obviously, is about Anne Frank and her family living in the attic, hiding from the Nazis. I refuse to summarize it because, one, this is pretty major. As a human, you need to see this movie. In order to be counted as a person, you need to see this movie and know this story. It’s also utterly captivating, so I’m doing you a favor by making you watch this.

Ed Wynn plays a man who comes up to hide with the family who causes a bit of turmoil. He shows up right when they’re worried they don’t have enough to feed the people they have. So that’s a point of contention. Then he has all of these habits that start to annoy everyone, most notably, his allergy to Anne’s cat, which is what gets them all caught later in the film. He’s a well-meaning man, but he just can’t help but fuck up. He does a good job with the role, and it’s nice to see Ed Wynn get an Oscar nomination, but, honestly, Joseph Schildkraut should have been the one to get nominated from this movie in the Supporting Actor category. He plays Anne’s father. To me, he did a much better job. But, he won an Oscar already, and Ed Wynn is awesome, so I’m not all that bent out of shape about it. Though, I’m not voting for Ed here. Scott and O’Connell were much better choices.

My Thoughts: To me, this is obvious. It’s Arthur O’Connell by a mile. But, it doesn’t matter, since Ben-Hur was gonna win everything it was up for (it didn’t win Best Screenplay, but, if you watch the film, you can see why). Still, O’Connell is the vote here.

My Vote: O’Connell

Should Have Won: O’Connell

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. I don’t really care that much. All of these actors deserve Oscars in some way. I think this was kind of a weak decision, but I can understand it. You can’t argue when a film like this wins everything. So I’m ultimately okay with it.

Performances I suggest you see: Ben-Hur. The Diary of Anne Frank. You need to see them. End of story. Do it.

Anatomy of a Murder is a perfect film. While you don’t need need to see it, I think you need to see it. I really think you need to see it. If you love film, and love many of the films that I have come out and said I love, you will love this movie. It’s so engaging, I bet that if you showed this in a high school political science class, all the kids that paid attention would love this film. It’s like a less comic Inherit the Wind. Because Inherit the Wind has jokes and is about evolution and stuff. This is very real, and very Law and Order. There are frank discussions of rape and women’s panties, and this in an era when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. If you know you’re history, you know how big of a deal that is. So, see it. You will not be disappointed.


5) Vaughn

4) Griffith

3) Wynn

2) Scott

1) O’Connell


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