The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1980

Oh I hate 1980. What a dumb “Academy” decision. Ordinary People wins Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford (talked about here), beating out Raging Bull. Yeah. There’s no one that can defend that decision.

Best Actor this year (thank god) was Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, so at least some justice was has. Best Actress was Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter, which I really like as a decision, despite how good Mary Tyler Moore was in Ordinary People. And Best Supporting Actress was Mary Steenburgen for Melvin and Howard, which, to me, makes absolutely no goddamn sense at all. But, meh, it’s pretty irrelevant historically.

So that’s 1980. Two, maybe three good decisions, and two horrendously bad decisions. But we all know how badly Martin Scorsese should have won Best Director here, so there wasn’t really anything this year could have done to overcome that.


And the nominees were…

Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People

Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People

Michael O’Keefe, The Great Santini

Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard

Joe Pesci, Raging Bull

Hirsch — Double nomination. These are the equivalent of winning $5 on a $2 scratch-off lotto ticket. Just enough to make you feel good for a half a second.

Ordinary People is a family drama about a kid (Timothy Hutton) whose brother dies in a boating accident. And afterward, he tries to kill himself. And the movie begins after he comes home from the hospital after the suicide attempt. And he starts going to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). And at first, he wants nothing to do with it, and Hirsch, rather than act like a shrink, trying to get him to open up, is like, “Don’t want to talk, go right ahead, I don’t give a fuck. It’s your life.” And eventually he starts opening up and discovering his feelings, and we start to see what things are like for him at home. His father, Donald Sutherland, tries to connect with him, but is awkward and unable to. And his mother, Mary Tyler Moore, is very cold and distant toward him, because his brother was the star athlete in the family and was the favorite of pretty much everyone. So now that he’s dead, she’s completely withdrawn from the world and is putting on a front whenever she’s in public.

And Hutton starts to get better — he starts dating a girl, and starts getting happier. But soon a friend from the hospital kills herself and he starts to lose his hold on stability. And Moore and Sutherland start fighting more, and Hutton is in the middle of it, and slowly they all come to terms with just how much Moore has withdrawn from everything. There’s a scene where Hutton asks her why she never visited him in the hospital, and she doesn’t have an answer, and then he’s like, “If my brother were in the hospital, you’d have gone to visit him,” and she snaps back, “He never would have been in the hospital.” Which pretty much explains everything about her character. And eventually Hutton gets over his brother’s death, and Sutherland eventually leaves Moore because he can’t deal with her anymore, and this finally brings him and Hutton closer together.

The film is actually a good film. I did like it a lot. I just have an everlasting grudge against it because it beat Raging Bull this year. That’s how this works. Don’t know why — it just does. We’re a strange species.

But, we’re here to talk about the performances. First, Judd Hirsch. Honestly, he should have been the only role from the movie nominated in this category, and not only would he have given it a run for its money, he might have even won the damn thing. But —

Hutton — Timothy Hutton gives by far the best performance in this category. It’s not even a question. You watch all five of these performances, and it’s no question — Hutton is the best. It’s just incredible what he does in the film. Problem is — he’s the lead of the film. That’s not an embellishment. The film is about him. But — Donald Sutherland gets top billing and Hutton is an unknown at this point. So, they commit category fraud and put him in here. So, he automatically becomes the best performance in a supporting category because he’s a lead role. And when you add the strength of the actual performance, he’s so far ahead of everyone else here, you almost can’t vote for anyone else. And I’ll explain why when we get to the bottom.

O’Keefe — The Great Santini is a film that’s been recommended to me for years. By Netflix. I guess it’s one of those “you seem to like movies Robert Duvall is in,” and “a lot of other people who like the stuff you like also like this movie.” So it’s always been up there, recommendation-wise. And I always put off seeing it. I’d seen like, two minutes of it once on TV and was like, “Meh, I don’t need to watch this.” Which was stupid. Thank god for this Quest.

The film is about an Air Force pilot, Bull Meechum, aka “The Great Santini” who is an ace pilot and the ultimate army man. And he’s a great soldier, but that makes him a pretty shitty father. He has his moments, but overall, he’s very — he gets his family up at 4 am every day, is very strict, and very much wants things his way. To that extent — it’s a perfectly realized character. Seriously, you believe this guy. Duvall is tremendous. And the film is about Duvall’s relationship with his son, O’Keefe, who is 18 and doesn’t want to join the army. He wants to go to college. But to Duvall, it’s not even a question that O’Keefe won’t join the army. To Duvall, it’s like, “Sure you can go to college, I want you to go to college. Just as soon as your two years are up, you can go to college.” And O’Keefe is like, “But I just want the college part. Not the army part.” And Duvall just can’t accept that.

And we get this nice picture of what the relationship between them is like. Duvall will wake him up at 4 am just to give him his birthday present, which is a jacket his father gave him, which he thinks he’ll love, but he’s like, “Yeah…great.” And then they play a game of basketball — and Duvall always wins — and O’Keefe beats him. And Duvall refuses to accept this. He just taunts his son. Tosses the ball off his forehead, tries to force him to play another game. And then when he won’t, he spends all night practicing. But then there are some good parts. Like, O’Keefe and Duvall are at the army club for his birthday, and Duvall gets him some drinks. And he proceeds to get absolutely shitfaced. Like, eight martinis shitfaced. And they have a good old time, and then we cut to later and Duvall is carrying his passed out son upstairs as the rest of the family is waiting to have a birthday dinner for him.

It’s a really great film. You get a really clear and strong portrait of these characters, and both are wonderfully played by Duvall and O’Keefe. Thing is, though — I’d vote for Hirsch and Hutton over O’Keefe, and I’d vote for Pesci over him if I didn’t know Pesci would eventually win an Oscar (and maybe even then). So, while he is strong, to me he’s only a #4 here.

Robards — Melvin and Howard is a completely fictionalized account of a real incident.

It begins with Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) riding a dirt bike in the middle of the desert. And as he rides, he crashes and cracks a couple of ribs. And he’s passed out for a while. And along comes this guy Melvin, who stops to take a piss and sees him laying there. So he picks him up and gives him a ride back into town. And he has no idea he’s Howard Hughes. And Melvin is kind of dumb, but in a likable way. You know? Like, he starts talking to him, even though it’s clear he doesn’t want to talk back. And he eventually gets Hughes to start singing a Christmas carol with him — one he wrote himself. And you can just see Hughes go from wanting to stay as quiet as possible, to engaging in the necessary small talk (because the guy tells him he won’t help him out if he doesn’t talk to him), to begrudgingly singing a Christmas carol, to warming up to the guy and singing along with him. And then the guy drops him off at his hotel in Vegas, and he gives him a couple of quarters for a phone call, and then as he leaves, he identifies himself as Howard Hughes, which of course the dude doesn’t believe.

And that’s it. That’s the extent of Robards’s performance. We then follow Melvin around for the rest of the film, and then midway through we find out that Hughes is dead and left his entire fortune to the dude. (That’s the real life connection to the film. A dude came forward and claimed to have been left a huge sum of money by Hughes after he picked him up hitchhiking.) And there’s a lot of stuff with Melvin and his wife (played by Mary Steenburgen). She leaves him, he tries to get her back — this and that. That’s all pretty irrelevant for this part, since Jason Robards is the goal and he’s literally only in the film for about seven minutes.

Robards is fine in the role. There’s a lot of humor that comes out of the scene. But, he’s literally only on screen for about four minutes, plus he won this award twice already by this point. There’s no way I can vote for him in this performance knowing he has two. Maybe if he had zero I’d be like, “Okay, I can kind of see it,” but even then — how does he compete against all the other ones? So, he’s my #5, even though his part of the movie is pretty funny.

Pesci — Raging Bull. I’m not gonna give you a synopsis. You should have seen it by now.

Jake LaMotta. Boxer. Self-destructive. Violent. His life is defined by violence. We see him through the years. Pesci is his brother, Joey. He’s his manager. He spars with him — they’re best friends. But eventually, De Niro, though his paranoia and violent tendencies, drives everyone in his life away, including Pesci.

Pesci is really great here. Honestly, I had him pegged as the vote for the longest time. But, honestly, knowing he’d win for Goodfellas, and the strength of Hutton’s performance, which I always considered the best anyway, I have to vote for Hutton over him. If Raging Bull deserved any acting awards, it was Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. This one just would have been a nice bonus if it happened.

My Thoughts: Timothy Hutton has to win this. Especially if we’re voting now. The reason is, having the gift of hindsight, the person I’d have voted for other than Hutton here (who actually was a supporting part in his movie) is Joe Pesci. But, I know Joe Pesci would win this award ten years after this, so I don’t need to vote for him. And Michael O’Keefe was good, but not as good as Timothy Hutton. And Jason Robards had two of these already and literally was only in the movie for about four minutes. Which leaves Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton. And, while Judd Hirsch would have been my vote if Hutton wasn’t here, Hutton’s performance is just too good to ignore, and he has to be the vote. That’s all there is to it.

My Vote: Hutton

Should Have Won: Hutton

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. I’m telling you, he gave the best performance in this category. The only real downside to it is that he deprived Judd Hirsch of an Oscar. Other than that, this is easily the best decision in this category, despite him actually being the lead of the film.

Performances I suggest you see: Raging Bull. If you don’t know you need to see this, whatever I say here doesn’t mean a damn thing.

Ordinary People is a great, great film. Seriously, the only bad thing about it is that it won. It’s got great performances by its main cast, and the film is totally engaging. Seriously, it’s a great film. Plus, you should probably see it so you can join the argument as to which film should have won this year.

The Great Santini is also a great film. Definitely not for all, but it’s for a fair amount of people. I feel like a lot of people are gonna really enjoy this one. Duvall is excellent, O’Keefe is great, and the majority of the picture is interesting and engaging. It loses a bit of steam with the rednecks attacking the black guy part but overall it’s a really great film. Highly recommended.


5) Robards

4) O’Keefe

3) Hirsch

2) Hutton

1) Pesci

One response

  1. Michael

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it before, but as you’re somebody that I know loves courtroom movies, I highly recommend Breaker Morant. It’s a spectacular film. I’m post about it here because it was released in 1980 and it features a top-notch supporting performance by Jack Thompson as the lawyer.

    January 27, 2012 at 7:50 pm

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