The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1948
I am very on the record about despising 1948 and calling it the single worst Best Picture choice in the history of the Academy. I have, and will always, stand by that statement (even against Chariots of Fire). Out of a list that includes: The Snake Pit, Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the Academy chose, as its Best Picture of the year for 1948 — Hamlet. Fucking Hamlet!
Best Picture choice aside, the rest of 1948 isn’t bad at all. I might go so far as to say Best Picture is really the only mistake they made. Almost. Best Actor was Laurence Olivier for Hamlet, which makes perfect sense, since Olivier deserved a statue, was known as a Shakespearean actor, gave a terrific performance, and the category sucked (no Bogie. Don’t ask me why). So that worked out. Best Actress was Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (talked about here), which I feel is one of the top five Best Actress decisions of all time. Best Supporting Actress was Claire Trevor for Key Largo, which is the other decision I don’t like. While Trevor is an actress who should have an Oscar, Agnes Moorehead should have won one more so. And she was terrific in Johnny Belinda. Trevor’s performance was just okay. And Best Director this year was John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which (as I said here), of course I love, because I feel the film should have won Best Picture.
This category, though — this one was one of those where, finally a deserving actor got his recognition. Walter Huston, to me, was worth voting for every other time he was nominated for an Oscar. Every other time. Dodsworth — I voted for him. The Devil and Daniel Webster — I’d have voted for him over Gary Cooper, who won that year (even though Orson Welles ultimately was the vote there). Yankee Doodle Dandy — he was probably the best actor in the bunch to vote for. So, to me, finally, he gets his due here. And that makes me happy.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1948
And the nominees were…
Charles Bickford, Johnny Belinda
José Ferrer, Joan of Arc
Oskar Homolka, I Remember Mama
Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Cecil Kellaway, The Luck of the Irish
Bickford — Johnny Belinda is a melodrama that isn’t a melodrama. That is, the first half of the film is so deftly able to draw the audience into the story through the characters (and the actors’ performances) that once the full-on melodrama kicks in, you’re totally with the film.
The film begins with Lew Ayres as a doctor who takes a job in a small town. And it’s the type of place where people call him at all hours, like, “Mr. Johnson’s dying,” and he goes over, and the dude just has gas. And he’s going around, being town doctor, when he meets Jane Wyman. She’s a mute girl who lives with her father, played by Bickford, and her aunt (that is, Bickford’s wife’s sister. His wife is dead), played by Agnes Moorehead. And Bickford thinks his daughter is stupid and treats her basically like a farm animal. He struggles to work the farm as it is, working long hours, and since his daughter is “stupid” and cannot help, he doesn’t have much use for her. Tom him, she’s just in the way. And because of this, he never taught her to speak or communicate.
And Ayres shows up one day and discovers that Wyman isn’t stupid. He discovers that she developed her own form of communication and, is actually quite intelligent. So what Ayres does, with Bickford’s permission, is teach Wyman how to communicate via sign language. And Bickford thinks it’s a lost cause, but allows him to try anyway. And after a while, Wyman is able to communicate. And there’s this great moment — kind of like that moment in My Left Foot where Christy writes “Mother” in chalk on the floor — where Bickford first sees that his daughter isn’t stupid, and can communicate, and is overjoyed, and finally shows his love for her. It’s a nice moment.
But anyway, since Wyman has spent all that time with Ayres (who is somewhat older than she is), she falls in love with him. He’s the only one who’s actually gotten close to her. But he has a woman in another town, so he’s not interested in her back. But, still, now she can communicate, and becomes a part of the town. Except, some of the townspeople — mostly the people her age — shun her and treat her like a freak. And this one dude, chief bully and asshole (who openly mocks her but is secretly attracted to her), what he does is, at a dance is, he takes her into a barn and rapes her. And she’s in such shock she can’t (and won’t) tell anybody. And what happens is, she gets pregnant. And since she won’t tell anyone who it is, everyone assumes it’s the doctor, Ayres, and he gets ostracized by the town.
And Ayres doesn’t care what people think, he’s only concerned for Wyman and the child. And since the family’s been shunned by everyone, Bickford has even a tougher time keeping the farm going. And Moorehead and Wyman tend to the child and help on the farm. And what happens is, the asshole who raped Wyman, he decides he wants to see his son, so he shows up to see the kid. And Wyman won’t let him, because she knows what he did. And Bickford — he comes in and figures out what happened by his daughter’s reaction. So he goes to tell everyone, and the dude goes to stop him, and there’s a struggle, and Bickford ends up falling to his death down the cliffside. And the dude runs away and everyone assumes it was an accident.
The what happens — the asshole and his wife, they convince the town that Wyman is an unfit mother and that they should adopt the baby instead. So they go to try to get Wyman to sign a piece of paper giving up her rights to the child, but she refuses. And when the dude comes to take the kid away, Wyman shoots him. And then of course, there’s a trial (what would melodrama be without a trial?). And the doctor eventually comes to the stand to try to defend Wyman, but both of them are outcasts so it does no good. Until, the asshole’s wife comes to the stand and admits that her husband did rape Wyman, and admitted to it while he was drunk one night. And everyone, realizing they were wrong, declare Wyman innocent and she gets to be reunited with her child.
I fucking loved this movie. So much. Because, the first half is so intimate. It’s just a man teaching a girl how to communicate. And you get these nice portraits of all the characters, so by the time the actual melodrama part kicks in, they’ve already got you. Not to mention, Jane Wyman gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t speak a word in the film, and yet, she’s so good — it’s beyond words. And Ayres, Bickford and Moorehead are also so good in it as well.
Bickford gives the type of performance where, if I just watched it, I’d say, “This dude deserves an Oscar,” and I’d be convinced that he won this year, until I looked at the category. And then when I saw that he lost to Walter Huston, only then would I be like, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.” But if it weren’t for Walter Huston, Bickford wins this category hands down.
Ferrer — Have you seen that Simpsons episode, “Tales from the Public Domain”? Where they reenact The Odyssey, Hamlet and Joan of Arc? Well, if you’ve seen that — and I imagine a lot of people have. It’s one of their best episodes — then you will get a big kick out of this movie. Because the Simpsons is so good at parodying the story that you get every single beat of the story in 1/3 of an episode. So when you watch this film, you’re like, “I know that, and that, and that,” and you’re just following a story you know. It’s pretty great.
The film is about a French peasant girl, Joan, played by Ingrid Bergman, who hears God speaking to her to lead the French to victory over the English. And she goes there to tell them this, and they think she’s crazy. But eventually, she gets to go in front of the dauphin (played by Ferrer), but the thing is, they try to trick her. They believe that if she was truly sent by God, she’d be able to know the impostor they put on the throne is not really the dauphin. And Ferrer hides in the crowd, watching, and Joan immediately goes over and finds him. At that point, he becomes convinced, and becomes Joan’s biggest supporter. And she goes to war and helps the French turn it around. But eventually she’s captured by the English and burned at the stake. That’s the film, and you should know this, because I assume you’re educated and/or have seen the Simpsons episode.
(There’s also a great Georges Méliès film about Joan of Arc. And if you see the film with the DVD commentary track by the hilarious French guy (which I think I linked to at some point on this blog), watch that one. It’s hilarious.)
The film is pretty solid, actually. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It’s really colorful and really well-made. A solid film, overall. As for Ferrer’s performance, it wasn’t that spectacular. Not so much as to beat out Huston and Bickford. Add that to the fact that he’d win Best Actor two years after this (not to mention the fact that it was for a performance I consider to be a “meh” choice), he really had no shot here. He’s a #5. And if you think he wasn’t, you really underestimate how badly Walter Huston needed to win this one.
Homolka — I Remember Mama is one of my favorite films of all time. I love this film so much. It’s so touching.
It’s about a family of Scandinavian immigrants living in the U.S. And most importantly, it’s about a girl remembering her mother. The film is told via narration, as the eldest daughter of the family writes a memoir of sorts, remembering what it was like growing up. And we see the family, dealing with finances, struggling to survive, and Mama has this line she keeps repeating, “We will not have to go to the bank,” which means, if they don’t have enough money to pay the rent and everything, they’ll have to go to the bank and take out of their savings (which we find out later, don’t exist). And a lot of the film is about all these little moments that are involved with growing up. Like, one of the daughters, for her graduation, wants this vanity set — a cheap plastic toy thing, essentially. And Mama, wanting her to get it, trades in her broach (which had been passed down in her family for generations) in order to get it for her. And the girl, when she finds out, immediately goes and trades it back. There’s a lot of moments like that.
As for Oskar Homolka, he plays a pretty big role in the film. The part’s not that huge, but it’s important nonetheless. He plays the Uncle of the family, who is the member they don’t see very much. Like, you have your close relatives, who are always there, but then there’s the one who comes once a year or less, and when they do, the kids don’t really know how to interact with them, because, they know they’re family, but, they don’t see them, and — that kind of thing. And he’s the specific uncle who is very scary. That is, he’s gruff and intimidating, so the kids are afraid of him. But he’s really soft-hearted. And at first, we think he’s kind of scary, but slowly, and as the children grow up, we see that he’s actually a really nice guy. Like, when one of the daughters gets very sick, he brings her to the hospital to help get her treated. And then later, we find out that he’s dying, and the oldest daughter is sent to visit him along with Mama, to give her an introduction to death, of sorts (kind of like when kids are sent to their first wake). And she goes and talks with him, and it’s this big moment.
But anyway, Homolka plays the uncle, and he does a great job with it. He’s a very charismatic character, and does a really great job with the role. Only thing is, Walter Huston needed to win here, and Charles Bickford was just as good and had more of a resume. So no matter what happened, Homolka was no better than third for a vote. A shame, but, that’s how it goes sometimes.
Huston — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a film you need to have seen. I will summarize it thusly: Three men, gold, paranoia, don’t need any stinkin’ badges, madness, death. You should know the film by now, and if you haven’t seen it, you don’t deserve to get a summary here.
Walter Huston plays Howard, and he’s wonderful in the role. I don’t think there’s anyone who’d say Huston didn’t deserve this, and if they did, they probably haven’t seen his other nominated performances, because even if someone thought another performance was better, if you factor in the fact that he was good enough to win three other times — he wins this in a landslide regardless.
Kellaway — The Luck of the Irish, which, sadly, is not the Disney Channel original movie, is about Tyrone Power, as a dude who goes to Ireland to learn about his roots. And while there, he meets a leprechaun, played by Kellaway. And the rest of the film is a comedy where, after Power is nice to Kellaway and doesn’t steal his treasure, Kellaway sets out to help him out, and he follows him back home and becomes his butler (with Power suspecting him to be a leprechaun but never truly finding out if it’s true or not), and helps him discover what he truly wants. It’s a nice little fairy tale of a film. Not tremendous, but pretty good. I’m not the biggest Tyrone Power fan, so that seemed like a weak point to me.
The best element of the film is Cecil Kellaway’s performance. He’s perfectly cast as a leprechaun. Kellaway and Barry Fitzgerald are the two quintessential Irish actors. Also Victor McLaglen, but McLaglen is more hulking. These two are more — wily. Kellaway’s really great here. I can’t vote for the performance, but, he was really great. Both times he was nominated (here and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), he was really great. But unfortunately, either time, I couldn’t vote for him. Shame.
My Thoughts: This is a no-brainer to me. It’s Walter Huston by a mile. Never mind that he was amazing in the role. He’s an actor that’s so good, you give him an Oscar for anything he does. So he’s the vote here. The only other person you could consider voting for is Charles Bickford. But even so, Huston is the only vote here.
My Vote: Huston
Should Have Won: Huston
Is the result acceptable?: It’s Walter Huston.
Performances I suggest you see: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you haven’t seen this film, you don’t like movies.
I Remember Mama and Johnny Belinda — not even gonna sugar coat it — if you haven’t seen these films, we can’t be friends. These movies are so good, so wonderful, that I count them as essential viewing if you really want to talk movies with me.
The Luck of the Irish — it’s enjoyable enough.
Joan of Arc — it’s a solid film. I liked it a lot. It was nice and colorful, and it was basically like an extended version of that Simpsons episode. I enjoyed that. I knew the story going in. Still, though, solid film. Really well-done. Definitely worth checking out.