The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1957

The great thing about 1957 is that, despite a perfect Best Picture choice in The Bridge on the River Kwai, people still have the opportunity to complain about it, since 12 Angry Men was also up for Best Picture that year. I think the Academy made the right choice, but it’s great that the debate exists. It’s the mark of a good year.

Alec Guinness also won Best Actor for the film and David Lean won Best Director for it (talked about here). Both were perfect decisions. Then Joanne Woodward won Best Actress for The Three Faces of Eve, which, as I said here, was also a perfect decision. She was incredible.

Now, that brings me to the Supporting categories…Best Supporting Actress was Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara, and you can see Best Supporting Actor right down there. I honestly don’t know what the hell happened with these two categories. First off, for Umeki — she doesn’t do anything! She sits there demurely and speaks her native language the entire time! And for those saying, “Well, she’s Japanese, and it was a major thing for a Japanese person to win an Oscar.” And I’m like, “Yeah! Sessue Hayakawa, motherfucker! He’s right here!” I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all.


And the nominees were…

Red Buttons, Sayonara

Vittorio De Sica, A Farewell to Arms

Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place

Russ Tamblyn, Peyton Place

Buttons — Sayonara is about a group of air force pilots in Japan. Brando is engaged to the general’s daughter and Red Buttons is engaged to a Japanese girl. And that’s frowned upon in the army. So the army makes Buttons’s life hell, because they don’t want the men marrying Japanese women. It’s cool for them to fuck them and leave them, but they can’t get married. And Brando at first doesn’t understand it, but soon sees how much Buttons and his wife are in love, and even falls in love with a Japanese girl himself. But then the army decides to transfer all the men with Japanese wives back stateside, and since they waive all their rights when they get married, the women can’t come. So Buttons, in order to be with his wife, poisons himself, along with her, and the two die in each other’s arms.

The film is — I don’t know. I originally didn’t like it, but then it sort of grew on me. I don’t love it, and it isn’t a film I’d watch a lot, but I do have a growing respect for it. It’s also very colorful.

Still, though, I think Buttons should not have won this award at all (and Umeki shouldn’t have won Best Supporting Actress). I think those were terrible decisions. Buttons is fine here, but there were much better choices in the category. Much better choices.

De Sica — A Farewell to Arms is another adaptation of the Hemingway novel. The first was 1932, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. This one is Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. I guess the role requires stoic leading men.

He’s an ambulance driver and she’s a nurse, and they fall in love. He is injured and works it so he stays at the hospital longer than he should to be with her. But then he goes back to duty, but returns, and they get together again, and she gets pregnant, but dies in childbirth, and he’s upset.

The film is okay. The first one felt like an appropriate adaptation. This one felt overdone. It felt like too much money was spent on it. It would be like if, today, they announced that they were making a $100 million adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. A straight adaptation. Just $100 million, same story, nothing different. And we’d all wonder — why? Why retread the same ground when you’re not doing anything differently except spend money?

Anyway, de Sica plays Hudson’s friend, who is the charismatic supporting character of the film. And he eventually is executed by the Italian army as he helps Hudson to escape. It’s a strong part, one Adolph Menjou played back in the ’32 version really well. Here — it loses some of its luster just because the whole film feels dulled by the sheen on it. de Sica is fine, but definitely not worth voting for at all. If I were gonna vote for him, I’d vote for him as a director. The performance would have nothing to do with it.

Hayakawa — The Bridge on the River Kwai is a very famous film. You should know what it’s about.

Hayakawa plays the officer in charge of the POW camp who is tasked to build the bridge. He has to complete the bridge, otherwise he’ll be forced to commit seppuku, and really tries to convince Alec Guinness of this. And they have their early struggles, and Guinness is thrown in the hole, but then he comes out a full-fledged devotee to the cause. The great thing about the Hayakawa role here is that it’s a complex Japanese character. Rather than just being evil, we see what’s going on with him, and we see that he’s a person too. He has to answer to his superiors as well. He doesn’t want to be cruel, but he has to, or it’s his ass.

It’s a really strong performance by Hayakawa. Very memorable. It’s one of those performances, much like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia — you just take for granted that he won for it. And then when you find out he didn’t, it’s, “What? Really?” Now that I’m involved with the category in this sense — I still think he was good enough to win, but now I have to decide between him and Arthur Kennedy. I’m still not entirely sure which way I’m gonna go with it.

Kennedy — Peyton Place is a film I liked a lot. A lot, a lot. And I’m not sure why. I knew it was the basis for the soap opera of the same name, so that didn’t give me too much confidence in it. Yet — I really enjoyed the film.

It’s basically an exposé of a small New England town, narrated by one girl who grew up there. The thing most of us wish we could do with our towns. And we get a bunch of different stories about all the different people in the town. It’s very ensemble with stories overlapping. I’m not gonna go over them all. I’ll just talk about the stories relevant to these two performances. (Oh yeah, it’s a double nomination.)

First is Kennedy. Kennedy plays Lucas Cross. He’s the father of Hope Lange, who is the best friend of Diane Varsi, who narrates the film (she’s the girl writing this whole thing, Scout-style). And the family lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Their mother committed suicide some years back, and since then Kennedy has become (or maybe he was before, I forget) a terrible alcoholic, who beats and rapes his daughter (Lange). And what happens is, she gets pregnant. And she gets the town doctor to give her an abortion (they can’t have her getting pregnant, everyone would know it was him who did it). But, as he performs the abortion, he makes Kennedy sign a written confession, saying he raped his daughter, then tells him that if he steps foot in the town again, he’ll take the confession to the police.

So Kennedy goes away for a good portion of the film. Then, at Christmas, he returns. He tries to reason with Lange, saying he’s changed, and that he wants to make amends. But she doesn’t believe him and tells him to leave. And he gets angry, and goes to beat her again. But she kills him in self-defense, and buries the body. And then we find out that he joined the army, and was on leave. So the soldiers come looking for him, and she admits to Lana Turner (Varsi’s mother) what she did, and Turner, trying to do the right thing, tells the police, and then there’s a big trial, and that provides the climax of the film. This storyline is actually the heart of the film, and is my favorite by far.

Kennedy is really great as Cross. I really loved his performance a lot. He gives the kind of performance that stands out in this film. He’s like the Philip Seymour Hoffman of this film. He’s big and flashy, and for my money, definitely worth a vote. Whether I vote for him over Hayakawa remains to be seen. But to me, he was definitely good enough to win.

Tamblyn — Now, Tamblyn (who you’ll know as Riff from West Side Story) plays a boy in Diane Varsi’s class. At first, he’s shy and meek, and Varsi ends up meeting him and seeing him innocently, and they end up sort of dating. The thing is — he’s very shy and doesn’t know how to talk to women, and she ends up befriending him and almost sleeping with him (it’s subtly implied that he’s gay), but then she doesn’t. He does a good job in the role — he’s that kid that’s worried he’ll never get with a woman because he’s too shy. He’s good, but — no way does he beat Kennedy here. This category to me is between Kennedy and Hayakawa. Nothing against Tamblyn, but — Kennedy was better.

My Thoughts: It’s between Hayakawa and Kennedy. Kennedy outdid Tamblyn in their film, so Tamblyn’s out. De Sica didn’t really do all that much, and Buttons was just not good enough for a vote at all. So it really is between the two.

And my line of thinking there is — just vote Hayakawa. Here’s a dude that’s been around since silent films (he’s the mysterious Asian businessman with the cattle brand in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat), he’s a veteran, he delivered a great performance here, and — it’s clear the Academy is interested in giving a Japanese person an Oscar. I’m guessing it was one of those things where (like 2001 with Denzel and Halle Berry), it was a guilt thing. Which is fine. If you award a good performance. Miyoshi Umeki did not give that performance. Sessue Hayakawa did. So if they’re gonna vote for a Japanese actor, why not him? Plus Kennedy and Tamblyn have the vote split going on, so that’s even more of a reason to vote for Hayakawa.

My Vote: Hayakawa

Should Have Won: Hayakawa, Kennedy

Is the result acceptable?: No. Not even a little bit. Sessue Hayakawa was amazing and was technically a legend. Or at the very least, a veteran. Arthur Kennedy was also amazing and had several Oscar nominations under his belt. Russ Tamblyn is Russ Tamblyn. He was fucking Riff, for christ’s sake! And Vittorio De Sica directed Bicycle Thieves. These qualifications alone put them better than Buttons. Because Buttons’ performance was good for only a nomination. Once you get into the category, everything about the other nominees qualifies them over him for a vote. So no, not acceptable at all. Terrible decision. One of the worst in the category’s history.

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, you’re dead to me.

I highly, highly recommend Peyton Place, because I really loved it and think it’s a tremendous film. I feel like a lot of people won’t have my reaction to it, but I don’t care, I’m recommending it highly nonetheless. I love it.

Sayonara — it’s colorful. I have a weird relationship with this film. The first time I saw it I didn’t like it. I thought the story was boring and overly Hollywood. I thought Brando’s southern accent was ridiculously bad, I thought the two supporting performances were terrible Oscar winners, and the only thing I liked about it was that it was gorgeously Technicolor, and that it was clearly shot on a soundstage. I like that. But then I watched it again, and I was more engaged with the film, yet I still didn’t really like it. So I don’t know. I guess I’ll recommend it. There’s enough here to recommend a watch, but — I’m not sure what. I know I’ll never like this film, but maybe it’s the colorfulness of it, that makes me unable to shun it completely.

A Farewell to Arms — meh. I think it’s too overindulgent, and the Borzage version in 1932 covers the story just fine. I only recommend films like this because they’re big and expansive, and they’re always pretty to look at.


5) De Sica

4) Buttons

3) Tamblyn

2) Kennedy

1) Hayakawa

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