The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1954

1954. On the Waterfront. Case closed. It wins Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan (talked about here), Best Actor for Marlon Brando and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint (talked about here). All four perfect decisions for all time.

The other decision that wasn’t this category was Grace Kelly for Best Actress for The Country Girl. This is perhaps the single most contested decision in Academy history, as a lot of people feel Judy Garland should have won for A Star is Born. I, personally feel the category is too close to call, and the fact that Grace Kelly also made Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Green Fire and The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri, decidedly tips the scale solely in her favor. That’s just an incredible list there for a single calendar year.

Which brings us to this category. Also, look how short this synopsis was. That’s called restraint. It doesn’t happen often with me. Anyway, this category — the Waterfront log jam led to Edmond O’Brien winning, which, I’m glad happened. Because Edmond O’Brien is the fucking man.


And the nominees were…

Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront

Karl Malden, On the Waterfront

Edmund O’Brien, The Barefoot Contessa

Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront

Tom Tully, The Caine Mutiny

Cobb — Triple nomination. What a way to end the month. I love it. Especially since it’s On the Waterfront, and you probably should have seen it by now. So I really don’t need to write all that much. (Score! Less work!)

Waterfront in a nutshell — corruption on docks. Coulda been a contender. Brando rats ’em out.

That was a haiku. Bam. I just reviewed a movie with a haiku. (I should totally do more of those.)

Seriously though, if you don’t know what this movie is about, be better.

Lee J. Cobb plays the union boss who runs the docks with an iron fist. He’s a mean motherfucker. And Cobb is fantastic in the part. This part was good enough to win the Oscar. (So was his Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men.) Problem was, the two other nominated performances from the film were also good enough to win. Which caused some voting problems, understandably.

Malden — Karl Malden plays a priest who tries to get the men to stand up to the corruption at the docks. He’s the conscience of the film. Malden plays it beautifully. I thought this was better than his Streetcar performance that he won for. Which, continues to cause problems for this category.

O’Brien — The Barefoot Contessa is a film about Bogart as a former alcoholic director who used to be big, who is taking a paycheck from a playboy billionaire to produce an ‘ego’ film. And they’re in Mexico and discover Ava Gardner, who is a barefoot dancer. They try to get her for the movie. And the movie is basically that. Things don’t go as planned, she wants to get married and not be a star, and — well, guns go off.

Anyway, Edmond O’Brien plays a publicist for the billionaire, who is insincere in every way, and he does the dude’s dirty work without question. But then, over the course of the film, Bogart convinces him that he’s worth more than that, and he ends up quitting. That’s really all he does. The performance is not that great. He won because he’s Edmond O’Brien and because all the (superior) Waterfront nominees split votes. Which I’m glad is the case, because O’Brien definitely deserves an Oscar, and might not have ever been recognized had it not been for the log jam at the top. Definitely not voting for him though.

Also, if you want to see a great Edmond O’Brien performance (I have to say this every time he comes up), watch The Girl Can’t Help It. This motherfucker steals the movie, he’s so good. His “Rock Around the Rock Pile” rendition is one of the great comedy scenes of all time.

Steiger — Our last Waterfront nominee. Rod Steiger plays Brando’s brother, a lawyer for Lee J. Cobb. He’s involved in all the shady stuff, and tells his brother to keep his head down and shut up. But when Brando doesn’t, they send Steiger to talk some sense into him, and if he doesn’t come around, to send him to be killed. Which leads to the great taxi cab scene, which is one of the greatest scenes in film history. The great moment in that scene is when Brando does his “contender” speech, and then says he’s not gonna go along, and Steiger pulls a gun on him. And then Brando, rather than flinch or anything, just shakes his head sadly and pushes the gun away, like, “No, don’t do that.” And then Steiger realizes he couldn’t shoot his brother, and in his reaction, we see that he let his brother down, gave up his dignity, and gave up his life too. Because he lets Brando out of the car, and then is taken to be killed himself.

For me, Steiger gave the best performance among the three nominees and is probably gonna be my vote.

Tully — The Caine Mutiny is about a young officer on a ship during World War II, whose commander (Bogart) starts acting crazy. He gets really paranoid and delusional. And eventually it gets to the point where his behavior is threatening the lives of the crew, so the men refuse to listen to him. And are put on trial for mutiny, and have to convince the superiors that Bogart is actually insane.

Tom Tully plays the former captain of the ship, who everyone liked, He was a nice guy, laid back, went with the flow. Only thing was, the ship, under his command, was one of the worst in the navy. So he gets transferred out, leading to Bogart coming in. And Tully’s like, “Be careful what you wish for.” And then later on, he comes back as the new captain after Bogart’s gone, and everyone’s happy to see him. That’s it, really. He doesn’t have all that much to do here. He’s likable in the role, but it’s not substantial enough of a role to take down those Waterfront nominees. or Edmond O’Brien. So he’s a #5. Love the film though. Absolute classic of cinema.

My Thoughts: This is really down to the Waterfront nominees for me. I’m perfectly okay with Edmond O’Brien winning, especially since Malden and Steiger later won Oscars. And O’Brien’s a boss. So that’s totally cool. Thing is, though, I didn’t like the performance. I would not vote for this performance just because he’s Edmond O’Brien. So I’m choosing between the Waterfront nominees. And for me, Steiger gave the best performance, with Cobb a close second. And while it should make more sense for me to vote for Cobb since Steiger won an Oscar later — I know the history. So that’s kind of specious logic. I know Edmond O’Brien wins so it doesn’t really matter anyway. So I’m just gonna vote for who I thought was best. And, to make it more practical — I didn’t vote for Rod Steiger in either of his other two nominated performances, so this is me making it up to him, because the dude totally deserved an Oscar.

My Vote: Steiger

Should Have Won: Steiger, Malden, Cobb, O’Brien.

is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. Edmond O’Brien is a badass. Watch The Girl Can’t Help It. Watch D.O.A. — this man definitely should have an Oscar.

Performances I suggest you see: On the Waterfront. If you haven’t seen this, you’re dead to the world. Stop watching movies. You’re doing it wrong.

The Caine Mutiny is a great, great film. Really fantastic. A classic, too. It’s probably in the level just below essential, where everyone doesn’t have to see it, but it’s a film where a strong majority of film buffs will look at you like, “You haven’t seen that?” if you haven’t seen it. So see it. Don’t be a schmuck.

The Barefoot Contessa — it’s okay. It’s Bogie. It’s not particularly great, but not a bad watch. I’ll give it a passing recommendation, if you get the chance.


5) Tully

4) O’Brien

3) Malden

2) Cobb

1) Steiger

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