The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1983
I got a request for this one. I was so excited to get a request for this category that I bumped it up from its original December date to now. (Also, yeah, I totally have all the categories scheduled. I do it in the interest of not having to do any work later. Now I can just look at the list and see when things go up and don’t have to think about it and can just start typing.)
1983 is a weak year in Academy history, mostly because Terms of Endearment is a weak Best Picture winner. It’s a great film, but a weak Best Picture choice. And the other options weren’t really all that good this year. I, personally, would have gone with The Right Stuff. I also love the Big Chill, but that’s not a Best Picture winner. Also, James L. Brooks winning Best Director for Terms of Endearment was fine because Phillip Kaufman wasn’t nominated for The Right Stuff. So at least there you can be like, “Well, they couldn’t make the right decision because they didn’t nominate the best effort.” So, the Picture/Director link-up works in this case. And Shirley MacLaine winning Best Actress for Terms is a perfect choice because she was 23 years overdue by this point. Robert Duvall winning Best Actor for Tender Mercies is a great macro decision, since the dude deserved an Oscar. I didn’t love the performance, but given the overall category, it works as a decision. And then Linda Hunt winning Best Supporting Actress for The Year of Living Dangerously, for playing a man (!). I talked about it here. Seriously, she plays a man. And nobody notices. That’s so awesome.
So that’s 1983. Weak (overall) Best Picture choice, and also one I wouldn’t really choose (just because it’s so — not a Best Picture choice), great decisions for the majority of the acting categories, mostly based on the actors themselves more so than the performances. And Best Director was fine because the person who should have won wasn’t nominated (and The Dresser was. What the fuck?). And then there’s this category — which makes no sense whatsoever.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1983
And the nominees were…
Charles Durning, To Be or Not to Be
John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
Rip Torn, Cross Creek
Durning — I fucking love To Be or Not to Be. This film was originally made by Ernst Lubitsch in 1942, and that version was great, but so is this version. Anything with Mel Brooks is just great. Let’s just focus on this version, because I’m gonna tell you to see both anyway. They’re basically the same film. Here’s a remake where they were so faithful to the original, they took lines verbatim and used them again. Which I think is great. In a lot of cases, I subscribe to the theater mentality in regards to remakes, which is — if it’s well-respected and there aren’t any extenuating circumstances (like, based on a book, or whatever), then treat it like a play — you’re not redoing it, you’re just restaging it. It’s like, “Here’s my version of Hamlet.” You’re putting on this movie, and here’s your way of doing it. Don’t fuck with it too much, just, do it, so people can enjoy it.
Anyway, the film is about a Polish theater company. Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft (actual husband and wife) play a husband and wife song and dance team. They also hate each other. They fight all the time. And he tries to be a Shakespearean actor, but he sucks, and she’s entertaining the notion of an affair with a young military man. The other thing he does is — he performs a farce about Hitler. Which is a problem, since it’s World War II, and Hitler is taking over Europe. And a lot of it is screwball — he keeps trying to do his “to be or not to be” speech, and the military man keeps going back to meet with his wife in the dressing room, getting up and walking out while he acts, greatly pissing him off.
Then, later on, when the war is in full swing, the soldier is involved in an underground resistance against the Nazis. However, a professor, whom they all trust (played by José Ferrer), is a Nazi spy. And he gets the names and addresses of all the members and is planning on turning them over to the Nazis. So, what they do is, they have Mel Brooks pretend to be the officer the professor is supposed to meet, so they can get the list. And of course, screwball fashion it doesn’t quite work out as expected. I won’t ruin it, but, it’s hilarious. Then, the professor eventually is killed, which poses a problem because — the real officer shows up to meet with him. And that’s Durning. So Brooks has to pretend to be the professor. But then they find the body, and it gets crazier and crazier, and eventually — well, I won’t ruin it, but it’s fucking hysterical.
Charles Durning is fucking fantastic here, as the put-upon SS officer. It’s a perfect comedic role for him, and he nails it. And I would love nothing more than to vote for him here, because everything about the role and the film works. So, for me, he’s definitely a finalist for a vote.
Lithgow — Double nomination. Love it when we have these.
Terms of Endearment is probably the biggest example of the “weepie” there is. Kind of a chick flick, but kinda not. It’s one of those films I knew was one that was considered a tearjerker from a young age, and I generally avoided it because of it. But then I started the Quest, and went through all the Best Pictures first — so I put it on, and — holy shit. This movie ruined me.
You think you’re gonna be okay. You think, “Oh, I’ll be fine. I know when films are being manipulative. won’t let it get to me.” Fuck that shit. I wept like a fucking child when I watched this.
The film is about a mother/daughter relationship. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Shirley MacLaine is overbearing yet deeply cares for her daughter. Debra Winger loves her mother, yet hates her at the same time. Debra Winger gets married to Jeff Daniels and has kids. We see them struggle to raise them and get by. And he has lots of affairs, and she has one too — with John Lithgow, a timid banker with a disabled wife. But it doesn’t last. Then she leaves him, but goes back and they try to patch things up.
Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine starts seeing her next door neighbor — Jack Nicholson, a retired astronaut. Cross that off your list of professions played by Nicholson, folks. He’s been a thorn in her side for a while — he drinks and parties a lot and has a lot of young women over to the house whom he fucks. (Big stretch for Nicholson. How was he gonna pull this one off?) They meet, go on a date, and fall for one another. But he breaks up with her when Winger shows up, having left Daniels. But he comes back and they reconcile.
Then, the movie takes a decided turn. A doctor finds cancer on Winger, and discovers it’s terminal. And then she’s in the hospital, dying, and everything comes to a head. And I’ve got to tell you, if you don’t burst into tears during the moment where Shirley MacLaine yells at the doctors to get something for her daughter and the scene where Debra Winger says goodbye to her kids — you don’t have a soul.
This is a movie that I’m surprised a loved. Something about it was utterly engaging all the way through. And then the bottom fell out, and it destroyed me.
Anyway, we’re here for Lithgow. And while he was good here like he always is, I think he did a better job the year before this in The World According to Garp. Plus, he’s up against Nicholson, who had the bigger role. This is all just preamble for me saying that I’m using the vote split between him and Nicholson to not vote for either of them in order to decide between the two performances I really want to vote for.
Nicholson — Nicholson, as I said, plays the retired astronaut who parties and fucks lots of women, who then falls in love and decides to settle down with Shirley MacLaine. Actually, I can see why they would consider that part Oscar-worthy.
But, seriously, I’m not voting for Nicholson. Sure he was good, but — he’s Nicholson. He’s a lead actor and him being in this category is like sending A-Rod down to the minors for the playoffs. Of course they’re gonna fucking win. Why do you need to vote for him? Really? What does he gain by winning this?
Shepard — Oh man, The Right Stuff. Anyone who’s seen this movie has that reaction of, “Oh man. That movie’s awesome!” Because it is awesome.
The Right Stuff is about the first astronauts. It starts with Chuck Yeager — badass that he is — played by Sam Shepard, trying to break the sound barrier. He’s a cocky pilot who’s convinced he can do it, despite everyone who’s tried it dying in their attempts. However, before he can do it, he breaks a couple of ribs in a horse riding accident. This will prevent him from leaning over and locking the door of the plane. But — badass that he is — rather than let the injury stop him, motherfucker breaks off a broom handle and uses it as a lever, and then goes and breaks the sound barrier. Because he’s a fucking boss.
Then, we flash forward to a few years later, when NASA is trying to get pilots to train as astronauts (you know, to beat the Soviets). They go to the base, looking for men with “the right stuff.” Unfortunately, they can’t take Yeager because he never graduated college. They do, however, take Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward and Ed Harris. Quaid is Gordon Cooper, Fred Ward is Gus Grissom and Ed Harris is John Glenn. Yes. The John Glenn. Oh, and Scott Glenn is Alan Shepard. So what they do is, they pick seven men — the Mercury Seven — and put them through a bunch of tests. And this involves all the great stuff from the NASA training montage — the keeping the ball in the air as long as you can — all that great stuff. This is where the movie gets awesome. (It had to, because Yeager’s not here for this part.)
Then we follow those men as they go on space missions and test out all the equipment that hasn’t been fully developed yet (aka, they might die working on this stuff), and eventually see Glenn’s mission where he orbits the earth. It’s pretty awesome.
And the film ends with Yeager — who’s having of “the right stuff” was put into doubt when he couldn’t get into the astronaut program — setting an altitude record (reaching the edge of space). But, on the way down he gets burned really badly. But — rather than be picked up by the ambulances, he walks up the runway to meet the ambulance like a fucking badass. That’s the right stuff.
As you can tell — this movie is fucking amazing. And Sam Shepard is the biggest badass in the world as Chuck Yeager. He’s not in the film for most of it, but that’s why this is a supporting category. Plus, badassery counts for a lot.
Torn — Oh, Rip Torn, the best actor built on a pun for a name. Love him.
I do not, however, love this movie.
It’s based on the author who wrote The Yearling, the book the movie is based on. That movie is very good — this one, not so much. The author leaves her husband, goes to a cabin in the woods — way far in the backwoods — to try to write a novel that doesn’t suck. There, she runs into a black woman who becomes her maid — because that’s how racism in movies works. And then she meets Rip Torn and his daughter, who basically become the basis for the character of the book. Daughter gets a deer, and it gets too big, and he has to shoot it. And the woman writes a book based on that. Honestly, this movie made the whole thing feel like cheating.
As you can tell — I don’t like this movie, and I don’t think anyone in it should have been nominated for Oscars, even if they’re Rip Torn. I love Rip Torn, and I love that he has an Oscar nomination, but goddamn did I not like this movie. He’s my #5, and despite him being Rip Torn, I would never in a million years vote for this performance.
My Thoughts: Tough category. Good actors, good performances, just — no clear winner. Torn is clearly #5. Lithgow was good, but, not really in the film all that much, at least as compared to Nicholson, and even he is just, good, but — why vote for him? Seriously. Dude is clearly a lead actor. Don’t just vote for him because he’s a big fish in a small pond.
So that leaves Durning and Shepard. And while I loved Durning’s performance, Chuck Yeager is too badass to not vote for. Seriously, just watch the film. Sam Shepard is the biggest badass in the world. That alone should give him this Oscar over Nicholson. So I’m voting for him.
My Vote: Shepard
Should Have Won: Is there really a call here? In a way, all of them had legit claims to a win besides Rip Torn, and even he sort of has a claim because of who he is. So there’s not really a definitive “should have.” I’ll say Shepard though, because, he was awesome.
Is the result acceptable?: I guess. It’s Nicholson. He was good in the role. I just, wanted to spread the wealth a little bit, you know? We know Nicholson is great. He didn’t really need this. But I get why they gave it to him. There’s no real winner, and he’s Jack. He was good, and that was all they needed. Personally, Sam Shepard has always been great in stuff, John Lithgow is a respected actor, Charles Durning had a great run of memorable roles in films — I don’t see why you don’t just give it to one of those three. Nicholson’s not really known for being a supporting actor, you know? Plus, compare this performance to his A Few Good Men performance. Which one deserves the Oscar more?
Performances I suggest you see: Terms of Endearment is
The Right Stuff is an awesome film.
To Be Or Not to Be is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.