The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1964

1964 is a year you can’t really argue with, because it’s a complete “Academy” decision. As much as I love Mary Poppins and especially Dr. Strangelove, My Fair Lady makes the most sense as an Oscar decision. It wins Best Picture, Best Director for George Cukor (which, good for him. He had to wait thirty years for it) and Best Actor for Rex Harrison. All of these are acceptable decisions. You may not have voted for them, but they are acceptable decisions.

Best Actress for this year was Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins, which is cool. Not a groundbreaking performance, but — it’s Mary Poppins. We’ll go with it. Best Supporting Actress for this year was Lila Kedrova for Zorba the Greek. I don’t particularly like it, but that’s because I think the Academy should vote for Agnes Moorehead every time she’s nominated and doesn’t have an Oscar (which, since she never won, is every time).

So that’s 1964. It has to be acceptable because of My Fair Lady. I’m cool with most of the decisions. Don’t particularly like two of them, which, ironically, are the supporting categories. But even so, they’re not very major, and the categories are weak as hell, so, meh.


And the nominees were…

John Gielgud, Becket

Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady

Edmond O’Brien, Seven Days in May

Lee Tracy, The Best Man

Peter Ustinov, Topkapi

Gielgud — Becket, while my least favorite of the 60s British costume dramas (Oscar-wise), is still a great film. It’s about Henry II appointing his friend and drinking buddy Thomas Becket to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. And he figures it’ll be one of those positions where, he can appoint his friend, and he can control the position — because he’s facing lots of opposition. But, Becket, once appointed, starts taking the job seriously, and starts to become a huge problem to Henry. So the film is about the two of them dealing with all this. And it takes place behind closed doors, so we get to see all of this happening in private quarters. And eventually Becket is banished from England, and he goes to France, and ends up being hidden by the King of France — played by Gielgud. And then O’Toole apologizes and takes him back, but eventually Becket refuses to do what Henry wants if it goes against God, and Henry has him killed.

Which, is a very tough decision for him — it’s like Michael having Fredo killed. It really weighs upon his conscience. And only serves to make Henry even more of a complex character once The Lion in Winter rolls around, because it takes place years after this.

The film is actually pretty strong. It’s my least favorite of the bunch because it’s so sausage fest. There are almost no women in it, and if there are, they’re naked, and they’re mistresses. The other films are either about bigger dilemmas (like A Man for All Seasons) or have strong female presences (The Lion in Winter and Anne of the Thousand Days). I like those much more. But, I do like this one. And I especially like the continuity between this and The Lion in Winter. You get O’Toole playing the character twice. While there’s not really a direct mention of this film, it’s still the same man. You know O’Toole had that in mind when performing.

Anyway, Gielgud plays the king of France, and he’s a nice scheming little dickhead. I like the performance a lot. Gielgud has his perfect diction, and that makes him always interesting to listen to. But I liked how much of an asshole he was. It was so fun to watch him be so condescending to everyone. He definitely gave my favorite performance here. The downside to it is — he’s not really in the film for all that much. It’s nice and flashy, but, not quite enough to consider a strong supporting performance, voting-wise. Plus, the fact that he’d win an Oscar later on for a much more deserving performance in Arthur hurts his chances for getting a vote. Loved the performance, though. He was such an asshole.

Holloway — My Fair Lady is — a film everyone should know about. If you’re on this blog, you should have heard of or have seen this film. It’s a musical version of Pgymalion. ‘Enry ‘Iggins teaches cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle how to be a proper lady (on a bet). There are lots of great songs — “The Rain in Spain” (which falls mainly in the plane), “On the Street Where You Live,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t it Be Lover-ly?”, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Great songs. Great story. Great stars. Great acting. A nearly perfect film.

It’s not a perfect film, but that’s only because it’s a bit too long. Still — it’s a near perfect film, and people’ love for it makes up for its length. I love that.

As for Holloway’s performance — he’s really good as Eliza’s father. He’s got that perfect lower glass air about him. Though he’s not really in the film all that much. He shows up early on to get some money out of Higgins, telling him he can have his daughter if he pays him some small sum. The sum is small for Higgins but huge for Doolittle. And Higgins is astounded by his complete lack of morals, the fact that he’s willing to give up his daughter for what is essentially $50. And then he goes away, and later on, we find out that he was give an large sum of money by an American and is now a rich man, bound by morals, and hates it. He’s really entertaining, and, while I like that he got nominated, don’t really see the performance as substantial enough to win, despite the weakness of the category. I mean, if you’re not even gonna nominate Audrey Hepburn, why would you vote for this performance? That’s a slap in the face to her if everyone else is gonna win but her.

O’Brien — Seven Days in May is a great political thriller in an era that was just giving birth to the genre. There weren’t really political films before the 60s. Everything before this was very reverential. It was always, “Look at these great Americans — what they did to make this country what it was.” And first it started with the Western — once the 50s started, the Western got very revisionist. It was, “Oh, yeah, the Indians were people too (Devil’s Doorway — hooray, exploding sheep!). And they weren’t evil (Broken Arrow). And actually, the whites could be just as evil and bloodthirsty (The Searchers). And then, once that genre started fading, the political thriller came up. The Manchurian Candidate is sort of the colloquial start. Kind of like how most people consider The Maltese Falcon the start of the noir genre. It’s one of those, nothing is really set in stone, it was trending toward it for a while, it’s just — that was the major one, so everyone points to that.

So, for me, this is a genre that holds lots of interest, because here you really start to see real critiques of the government. Obviously Dr. Strangelove is the film that will take precedent this year, but there were two other ones that were just as good (the other coming up in just a second. I’m sure there were more, but I don’t want to go look right now).

This film is about an army officer (Kirk Douglas) who starts to become aware of a plot to overthrow the government. And slowly, he starts questioning people, using various leads and stuff, and slowly starts figuring out who is involved, when it’s going to happen, and all of that. And the whole thing is about getting hardcore evidence so they can not only stop it, but make sure everyone involved gets their just punishment. And the film is one of those thrillers. We see lots of random people, most played by famous actors in bit parts, and they’re either in on it or help to stop it. And Edmond O’Brien plays a senator who is a close ally to the President. And he’s getting old and is a drunk, so what they do is they keep him on a military base and in a constant state of inebriation so he can’t contact anyone (because he was starting to uncover stuff as well). And he convinces an army dude to help him escape the base so he can call the President and let him know what’s going on.

It’s a very small role, for the most part, but, it’s Edmond O’Brien. His stature as a character actor and the fact that everyone is strong in this film led to him being nominated. This was one of those deals where, they had to nominate somebody, and he was a choice no one would question. But he wasn’t going to win here. He won his Oscar (in a category where he beat three better performances, which all happened to be from the same film), and didn’t need this. So he’s actually the weak link in the category, performance-wise. I don’t love the category, but he was definitely the one nominee who most was nominated for his stature and not for his performance. (Though the film is great, and that always helps.)

Tracy — The Best Man is a fascinating film. It’s about the backstage dealing that go into a Presidential election. What I like about it is how it’s a back and forth between the two candidates, both trying to get their party’s support for the nomination in the upcoming election (which they’re all but guaranteed to win).

Henry Fonda and (the recently deceased) Cliff Robertson play the two candidates. And Fonda is intellectual, smart, reasonable — almost everything you’d want in a candidate. Problem is — he had an affair, and that sort of alienates him, and a nervous breakdown. So that causes concern. Cliff Robertson, however, is the young guy. The upstart man of the people, who is strongly for populist things — yet, he’s very much willing to do anything to get the nomination. And the two of them don’t like each other and think the other is not qualified to be President.

And the film takes place at the Democratic convention, as the two of them (and the rest of the party) wait to see who a very popular former President (played by Lee Tracy) is going to back. And the party keeps mucking up the voting to wait until they see who Tracy is going to back.

So the film starts with Fonda in his hotel room — “Headquarters” — speculating about things. We see him, get to know him, see his strengths, his faults. Then Tracy shows up. And he comes in and talks to Fonda. They’re old friends, so Fonda sort of assumes he’s going to be the guy to get Tracy’s backing, but he knows he still needs to convince him. He doesn’t want to fuck it up. So he talks to Tracy, and Tracy stays neutral, not letting him know how he’s decided. And Fonda assumes that means Tracy will back Robertson. Then we meet Robertson, the same thing as with Fonda, and then he talks to Tracy. And again, Tracy doesn’t give away his hand. And Robertson assumes that means he’s going to side with Fonda.

And the thing is — while all this is going on, we learn that Tracy is dying. He has cancer which is terminal, and he’ll be dead within a year or two. So the whole time, he’s dealing with his mortality and all this, and neither candidate picks up on it. Fonda doesn’t know because Tracy doesn’t tell him. But Robertson — in Tracy’s interactions with Robertson, he pretty much spells it out. And Robertson is so wrapped up in trying to get the nomination that he doesn’t pay attention to him.

So, the rest of the film is a series of the two candidates, each thinking the other will get the backing, trying to outdo one another. Which slowly devolves into shady tactics — like, Robertson sends out an attack ad against Fonda, who refuses to retaliate. And we really get a sense of who these men are by all of this business, and we get to see who (if either of them) will make the better President. And in a way, that’s what Tracy does as well. He tells them one thing, then does something else, and sees how they react. Like, the two men have three possible Vice President candidates, and Tracy ends up offering the spot to all of them. So the whole thing is about these men reacting (and overreacting) to perceived situations (which, given the time period, is a great analogy), to the point where Fonda’s men uncover something in Robertson’s past that could easily get him thrown out of the race. But he hesitates to use it. (See the analogy?) And we see the whole thing get tenser and tenser, until, finally — Tracy says he’s going to back a totally different guy for President.

It’s a really great film. I was with this every step of the way. Because there’s something about the situation and the strength of the characters in it that really make this a fascinating, fascinating film. Also, just so we’re clear — this is based on a play, and the characters are based on real people (Tracy is based on Truman, Fonda is based on Adlai Stevenson and Robertson is based on JFK), but it’s not remotely based on anything that happened (obviously, considering the ending).

I really loved this film. And I loved Tracy’s performance. I’m really considering voting for him. I thought he was great here. The only downside is that he might not have that big a role in terms of voting. But then again, not many of these nominees did. So I guess it won’t affect things all that much.

Ustinov — Topkapi, strangely, is a film I knew about long before I’d ever seen it. That’s because, back when I started really getting involved with movies (which was like, 2003), I started doing what I do now, which is check to see what films are starting to enter the pipeline. And back then it seemed easier to know and keep track of. Now it seems like half the shit that’s announced either never gets made or falls apart. Like, do most people even know that Lone Ranger movie isn’t happening? It’s chaos now.

But, anyway, back then, I’d read all the buzz, and one movie that was being floated around — for the longest time, too. I’d heard about it on and off for like, six years (which, actually, gave way to that Italian Job sequel “The Brazilian Job”, which is still being talked about, eight years later), and it was a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair, the Pierce Brosnan remake of the Steve McQueen film. All opinions about that film or the sequel to it aside — it was supposed to be called “The Topkapi Affair”, which I assume had to be them remaking this film and just using the Thomas Crown character as a lead. And that actually makes sense. Because the film is a good candidate for a remake, and the lead in this version is Maximilian Schell, who might be the least charismatic person I’ve ever seen in one of these movies. He’s really, really bland. It’s like he was doing a Charles Boyer impression (who himself is incredibly bland). Add that to the fact that his costar was Melina Mercouri, who was just not aging well and was clearly not the right person to be the cast as the woman he’s sleeping with. So it makes sense that they’d take this story and remake it.

Oh, all of that was just my way of saying I’d known about this long before I saw it. It has nothing to do with the Quest or anything. I just like to tell these stories. They add personality. I find that, a lot of the time, I’m more interested when famous people tell stories like this instead of doing all the bullshit rhetoric they give to the media. So I like to incorporate it, because you never know who’d like to hear it.

Anywho, Topkapi is a heist film. A crazy ass heist film. You sort of get an idea of the tone by the opening credits. It’s this crazy, psychedelic funhouse thing that’s just — I was not expecting to be put on an acid trip so early. It’s about Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell trying to rob an expensive egg (hello, Ocean’s Twelve) from the Topkapi Palace. And the film is about them recruiting people and then executing the heist — standard heist progression. You should understand how that works. You’ve seen the Ocean’s films, I’m sure if you’re reading this blog you’ve seen others. Rififi, The Asphalt Jungle, whatever. You understand how these things work. Just know — this film is more of a comedy. Not laugh out loud funny, but, humorous. It’s not like they’re all dead if they get caught. It’s one of those, they get caught, and they’re all in prison and are like, “You know what we could steal next…”

Peter Ustinov plays Arthur Simon Simpson — a hustler who spends his days trying to give people tours of Istanbul — the kind where they end up losing their money and their watch during them. And they hire him as a dupe. They tell him they’ll pay him to drive a car into Istanbul and deliver it to a specified location. And he doesn’t know that the car has lots of explosives and guns in it. They figure, if the police search the car — he’s fucked, they’re still good. So, they catch him, and then, when he tells them who told him about it, the police hire him to spy on the other two. If he doesn’t, they’ll kill him. And what happens is, they have a situation where Ustinov tells them, since he’s the one who brought the car in, he’s the only one who can legally drive it, so they’re all stuck with him. But, since they never really tell him stuff anyway, all his information to the police is utterly useless. And then, through a series of misadventures, they end up having to actually use Ustinov as part of the heist, because one of the team gets injured and can’t do his job. And the final irony is, at the end, his last note to the police actually does tip them off as to what they were up to, yet, after they successfully pull off the heist and are questioned, he backs up their phony alibi and goes in with them. So they all end up in jail, when he could have been totally free.

It’s a funny performance by Ustinov. I like how dumb he plays the guy. And honestly, in a category like this, Ustinov actually does really contend for a vote.

My Thoughts: Okay, so, we have a problem on our hands. The three I have it narrowed down to are Ustinov, Tracy and Gielgud. I loved all their performances a lot.

First off, I think, has to be Tracy. He’s not really an actor who had a career where I’d vote for him if his performance weren’t must-win. You know what I mean? Like, Morgan Freeman in 2004 — his performance wasn’t that great, but, he’s Morgan Freeman, so everybody votes for him. That’s fine. But, when it’s not Morgan Freeman, and it’s someone who has been around, but hasn’t really done much high profile stuff, it’s tough to vote for them unless they unquestionably gave a great performance that’s the best in the category. And here, Tracy was good, but in most years, I wouldn’t consider him to be more than a 3 or a 4. It’s not a performance you have to vote for in my eyes. So that, to me, disqualifies him for a vote, since, this is a category of 2s contending for a #1 (at best). So when you have three performances I put on par (regardless of whether that par is good enough for other years) with one another, you have to take into account which one you liked the best and which actors were of greater stature. How else would you decide a tiebreaker scenario?

So, for me, this comes down to Gielgud and Ustinov. Now — Gielgud’s performance I like the best. But, he’s barely in the film. That hurts. Ustinov is a strong character and provides humor in his stupidity. It’s fun. So to me that’s kind of a wash. And in terms of stature, both had Oscars (I’m talking from a 2011 standpoint, knowing Ustinov won before this and Gielgud won after this), so whichever one won would have two and the other would have one. Regardless of the outcome. So, since I really can’t decide so much, I’m just gonna take Ustinov, since he won, and going with the winner is just easier. I don’t consider this a category you vote for so much as one you put the stamp of approval on. Like, “Okay, fine, next.” Assembly line.

Also, just so we’re clear, my rankings are based on my favorite performances, not my favorite films. I hated the category, so I felt there was no better way to do the rankings. If I ranked by films, my voting ranks would be out of whack, and if I did it this way, at least I could explain it that way.

My Vote: Ustinov

Should Have Won: No preference at all. I hate this category.

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. Who doesn’t love Peter Ustinov? Plus, Gielgud would later get his Oscar for a wholly deserving performance, Edmond O’Brien had one, and the other two weren’t quite worth voting for. So, it’s totally cool.

Performances I suggest you see: My Fair Lady. Why wouldn’t you see such a classic film? You need to, because it’s so unquestionably major. Though I will say — if you’ve seen both this and Pygmalion, from 1938, and only if you’ve seen both — the way I like to watch them is, if I want the whole experience, I watch My Fair Lady. But if I just want the dialogue and the enjoyment of the Higgins character — I watch Pygmalion. Because that one’s just the brilliant Shaw dialogue. And I love that I have both of these films to choose from. It’s like having an album version and a single version of a song. Anyway, you need to see this film. It’d be embarrassing if you didn’t.

The Best Man is a great, great film. I recommend this to everybody, because I think a lot of people are gonna be caught up in how captivating the whole thing is. And to people who love politics and political films, I especially recommend this film, because it’s really, really well made. If you know me, you know I’m not big on politics in general, and political films for me I’m mostly indifferent toward. But this film is really, really great.

Seven Days in May is a really good film. I liked it a lot. It’s a nice thriller about an attempted takeover of the government. What was so great about it is how not recent it is. If this shit were made today, it would have the Jason Bourne score, it would have all these military scenes, and even a pointless action scene thrown in. At least, here, the pointless action scene isn’t really action. Though it was kind of pointless. I’ll give you that. But I liked how all of this happened like it would — behind closed doors, with people talking. I liked it a lot. Above average political thriller. Great film. Recommend it.

Becket is a good film, with great performances by Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton and John Gielgud. Now, I have to qualify my recommendation as such. In terms of the British costume dramas of the 60s, I rank them thusly: 1) A Man for All Seasons, 2) Anne of the Thousand Days, 3) The Lion in Winter, 4) Becket. That’s my personal preference for these films. However, despite being the lowest ranked, Becket is still a good film and worth watching just as much as those other ones. It is a good film and I do recommend it, especially alongside The Lion in Winter, since they’re about the same character. So you get a nice double feature there.

Topkapi, I didn’t care for all that much. I enjoyed it. But I didn’t love it. I thought it was a film that had a good foundation, and could benefit from a strong remake. Unfortunately, I don’t know how well that remake could happen nowadays, since I know exactly how they’d make it (and how many action scenes and chases would be added on for no reason), but, at some point, there could have been (or could be) a pretty interesting remake of this that could come out. Otherwise, don’t avoid it. If you think you’ll like it (and like heist films), check it out. It’s one of the more notable ones. That’s worth something. Though, in this category, with strong films and not-so-strong performances, I consider this the least interesting of the bunch. Then again, the films are all pretty strong.


5) O’Brien

4) Tracy

3) Holloway

2) Ustinov

1) Gielgud

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