The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1951
The great thing about 1951, for the acting categories, is that you can just say, A Streetcar Named Desire, and that eliminates any questions. The bad thing about 1951 is that A Streetcar Named Desire didn’t win Best Picture. Which is just strange.
An American in Paris wins Best Picture. I’m not sure anyone has ever figured out why. Even stranger is that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli, didn’t win Best Director for it. George Stevens won Best Director for A Place in the Sun (a terrible decision, talked about here). This reminds me of the year after this. The Best Picture/Best Director split alongside the best film not winning Best Picture makes me think they deliberately didn’t want to vote for it. I don’t get it. Streetcar is an American classic.
Humphrey Bogart (finally) wins Best Actor this year for The African Queen (talked about here). This was a career win, pure and simple. The clear best performance was Brando in Streetcar, but Streetcar winning the rest of the acting awards — Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and this category — probably made it feel like overload. Plus Bogart is one of the few names (alongside Henry Fonda and John Wayne) who, if they won an Oscar for any performance, any year, no one would question it because they are who they are. So, I accept the decision (plus Brando won twice after this), but based on what performance won and what didn’t, it was a terrible decision.
So, that’s 1951. Great, outside of Best Picture and Best Director. What the hell happened?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1951
And the nominees were…
Leo Genn, Quo Vadis
Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
Kevin McCarthy, Death of a Salesman
Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis
Gig Young, Come Fill the Cup
Genn — Quo Vadis is a big Roman epic. It’s partly about history, mostly about religion. That’s why most people don’t revisit this one past a joy in the giant sets and lavish costumes.
The film is about Nero fucking up Rome and eventually burning it down. And the main story is Robert Taylor, Roman soldier, falling in love with Deborah Kerr, a Christian. And he converts, and Rome don’t like that. And Nero burns down Rome and blames the Christians, and then the Christians leave Rome. It’s long, almost three hours, and the only real interesting parts (aside from all the historical things, for you history buffs) are Peter Ustinov as Nero. We’ll get to him in a minute.
Leo Genn plays Robert Taylor’s uncle and Nero’s most trusted advisor. He sees the way things are going, and tries to tell Nero that if he continues like this, the Christians will become martyrs. But Nero’s crazy, so he doesn’t listen. And Genn is sort of the voice of reason, and just as things turn the tide and get to the point where Nero is burning shit down, Genn slits his wrists. That’s the sign that shit is past the point of saving.
I don’t quite get why Genn was nominated. I mean, symmetrically, it works — crazy vs. sane, with the two nominations. But, aside from the fact that he’s a respected actor, I don’t much understand the nomination. Even so, no one would ever choose Genn over Ustinov in this category. You watch the film and see that Ustinov is the one to vote for (if anyone).
Malden — A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s so essential that I shouldn’t even have to explain it. Blanche Dubois, Stanley Kowalski, “Hey Stella!”, “…kindness of strangers.” Very famous, classic film, brilliant movie. If you haven’t seen it, you need to.
Karl Malden plays one of Stanley’s friends who plays cards with them. He’s the nice guy of the group. He’s not rowdy, is very polite, and is intrigued by Blanche. He talks to her, which she loves, since her main goal is to be considered as desirable as she was in her youth. So they go on a date, and things go pretty well. But then he finds out about her past, which she’s been lying about, and lashes out at her. He berates her and makes her lose a bit of whatever grip on her sanity she had left. But he feels bad about it afterwards. And then, after Brando rapes Blanche and sends her to the institution, Malden finally stands up to him and hits him, and then starts crying, because he knows how fragile Blanche was (plus because she was probably his only chance at happiness.
It’s a strong performance by Malden. Now, maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for scenery chewing, but I liked Ustinov’s performance better than Malden’s. I thought Malden was strong, but I liked his nominated performance in On the Waterfront better than this. But, knowing that Ustinov would win twice after this, I’ll lean toward Malden for a vote, since he is Karl Malden, and he did deserve (at least) an Oscar.
McCarthy — Death of a Salesman is one of the most famous plays of the twentieth century. You should know what it’s about. Willy Loman, salesman, starting to go nuts, “attention must be paid” — it’s a brilliant play. Thing is, it doesn’t lend itself to film very well. This version is very stagy. And very theatrical. I, personally, prefer the Dustin Hoffman version to this one. I thought Frederic March’s performance was way too — too 40s. It would have fit in a different era. Not in an era of more realistic acting that was the 50s.
Kevin McCarthy plays Biff, Willy’s oldest son. He’s still his father’s pride and joy, even though he’s pretty much a fuck up. His father remembers him when he was in high school, captain of the football team, all this promise. But he was a fuck up even then, but his father never knew. And now, he’s trying to go places, start a sporting goods business, but no one takes him seriously, and he ends up having a horrific interview and stealing the dude’s pen, and he pretty much gives up all hope. McCarthy is good here, but, not good enough for a win. I’d vote for Ustinov and Malden over him. Love the nomination, just, can’t vote for him.
Ustinov — So, Ustinov plays Nero, and is fantastic. It’s a performance that actually made me do a double take because — while he’s playing crazy and over-the-top, it’s actually toned down compared to how most people would play over the top and crazy in this era (for awkward crazy, see Frederic March in Death of a Salesman). You obviously see he’s putting on a performance, but it’s the right level of over-the-top where you recognize it as strong but never turn on it and look at it as camp. I really, really liked this. It’s a testament to Ustinov that he could pull this off so well.
Honestly, if I didn’t know he’d win twice after this, I might actually vote for him here. But, he did win twice, and Karl Malden is Karl Malden, so I don’t know if I can vote for him. But I loved the performance.
Young — Come Fill the Cup, despite its title, is not a porno. It’s about James Cagney, a newspaper reporter who just got over being a drunk. He got sober, and is now trying to maintain his former job and not give into the temptation to drink. His editor asks him to help sober up Gig Young, his son or nephew, a playboy who is married to Cagney’s old girlfriend, but is sleeping around with a singer. And Cagney agrees to do it, and tries to sober him up, but he doesn’t want to sober up. He loves going out and drinking and partying. And it’s an interesting portrait of alcoholism, especially given its era. I actually enjoyed this film quite a bit. It also has a great closing line, where Cagney goes back to the newsroom, and it’s like 3 am, and a guy asks him, “Why don’t you go home?” and Cagney says, “Don’t you see? I am home.”
Young is pretty good here, as the drunk. But he often played drunks. Probably because he was one. So, I didn’t see this as an exceptional performance. I don’t have a problem with the nomination, but I wouldn’t vote for him. Plus he won an Oscar in 1969 anyway. So, to me, he’s a #5.
My Thoughts: There are really only two people to vote for here — Karl Malden and Peter Ustinov. I, personally, would vote Ustinov based on the performance. Nero is just a great character to play, and Ustinov has a great time with it. But, knowing he’d win two of these in the future, plus the fact that it’s Karl Malden and he was just as good as Ustinov, Malden is clearly the person to vote for here. It’s not even a question.
My Vote: Malden
Should Have Won: Malden, Ustinov
Is the result acceptable?: It’s Karl Malden. (Yes.)
Performances I suggest you see: A Streetcar Named Desire. Essential. See it or you’re dead to me.
Quo Vadis — if you like big Roman epics (I do), can stand some religious overtones (I can, knowing this is from 1951, back when the country was openly religious. My tolerance is higher for older films), and like big colorful, expensive films, this is actually pretty good. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as Cleopatra or Spartacus, but, it’s pretty good. It’s like The Robe — you know what you’re getting, you’ll be entertained, plus, here, you get a strong Peter Ustinov performance. So I recommend it. It’s a good time.
Death of a Salesman — skip it unless you love the play and want to see all versions. If not, stick with the Dustin Hoffman version.
Come Fill the Cup is actually pretty good. Most people won’t be able to find this and most wouldn’t give a shit, but it’s a nice look at alcoholism and it’s a James Cagney film, which adds some interest. If you want to look for this (I have it), I recommend it. It’s not bad. Not essential by any means, but not bad at all.