The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1965

1965 is a strong year that is relatively unanalyzed. Mostly because, when you glance at it, you see, “Oh, The Sound of Music, and Dr. Zhivago was nominated,” and keept going. Clear-cut, no contention, moving on. But, when you look closer, Darling and A Thousand Clowns (not so much Ship of Fools) were also really strong films nominated for Best Picture. So, while the winner was easy to call, the category itself (among some of the others in the year) was really strong.

Robert Wise won Best Director for The Sound of Music, which comes with the territory (plus Lean won twice). Lee Marvin won Best Actor for Cat Ballou, which, as I said here, I hate. I hate it because it’s a terrible decision (Richard Burton or Rod Steiger really should have won), and because I can’t really argue about it that much, because I love Lee Marvin. Best Actress was Julie Christie for Darling (talked about here), which is a top ten decision for all time. Best Supporting Actress was Shelley Winters for A Patch of Blue (talked about here), which is a terrific decision (which is saying something, since she won one already).

That brings us to this category — one of, if not the weakest Best Supporting Actor category of all time. Holy shit. None of these performances would rate as a #2 for me in any year. And depending on the year, they might not even make #3. This is just terrible. (But fortunately the end decision does, performance quality aside, actually help keep the year strong. There’s no bad decision at all in the year.)


And the nominees were…

Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns

Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix

Tom Courtenay, Dr. Zhivago

Michael Dunn, Ship of Fools

Frank Finlay, Othello

Balsam — A Thousand Clowns is a movie I went into with zero expectations and ended up loving.

Jason Robards used to be a joke writer on a children’s TV show, but quit. He’s been unemployed for five months, and lives with his nephew, who was left in his care years ago. And the kid is his best friend, and is like a little apprentice to him. And every morning, he goes and watches all the people (it’s New York) walk to work. So there’s a sea of people in suits walking with briefcases every morning. And he watches and just talks about how they’re all suckers. And the kis is with him, and is only like 12, but we can see that he’s very intelligent and precocious for his age.

And eventually social services come to investigate Robards, and he has to prove that he’s capable of being a guardian to the kid, otherwise they’re gonna take him. And when the people come (a man and a woman, coincidentally dating), Robards seduces the woman, thinking that’ll take care of it. And they start dating, but the thing is — in order for him to keep the kid, he has to get a job, something he adamantly has been against doing for the entire film. And his big thing is — he doesn’t want to give in and go back to work, but he also doesn’t want to get rid of the kid until he sees that the kid has grown up. He wants to see him show some maturity first.

And Robards has a meeting with his brother (played by Balsam, who literally is only in like two scenes), who tries to convince him to go back to work. Then, Robards finally has a meeting with his former boss on the kids show. And the dude just starts insulting him, but Robards doesn’t respond at all. And it’s at this point that the kid stands up and yells at the dude for being a dick. And Robards is like, “Finally, you showed some goddamn spine!”, and agrees to go back to work.

It’s a really, really great film. I was surprised at how good it was. And after I saw it, I was so glad it was nominated for Best Picture. That increases the amount of people that would see this film exponentially.

But, Balsam — he’s really only in like two scenes of the film. It’s not that the performance was good or bad, it’s just — the sample size is not big enough to really say this was good enough to win this award. But the category is so weak that you probably have to vote by actor and not by performance, all things considered. So I have no idea what the hell to do here.

Bannen — The Flight of the Phoenix is a great, great film, about a downed plane in the desert, and the survivors working together to rebuild it to get it back to safety. It’s pretty famous. You should probably see it. It’s a classic.

The only real problem with this nomination is — Ian Bannen is barely in the film. I was watching this for the first time during this Quest (having only, god help me, seen the 2005 remake, which is nowhere near as good as this is), and I got about an hour in, and got really caught up in the story, and then realized, “Wait, which one is Bannen?” And I was like, “Oh, it has to be this guy or this guy,” since they had strong roles up until that point and seemed like their arcs would be the fullest. And then I found out — no, he played this other guy. And when I watched for him, he’s basically just in the crowd for almost every scene and then comes forward like twice and says lines. It amazed me that of everyone, they chose him for this nomination. It sucks because, if they had chosen someone else in the film, I could have theoretically voted for them. But now, I can’t, because if I do, I’d be voting for the film, and not for the performance.

It’s things like this that make the category one of the weakest Best Supporting Actor categories of all time. So far we have: two scenes, and background character.

Courtenay — See, here is a nomination that is probably, in this category anyway, the total package. He’s in a big film, is in the film for a decent amount of time, and gives a good performance.

Oh, also, Doctor Zhivago is really famous. You probably should have seen it.

Courtenay plays Pasha, a dude who starts the film as a mostly apolitical man, or lightly political, but after being stabbed by a Cossack during a peaceful protest, he becomes a Bolshevik. He marries Julie Christie and eventually leaves her when World War I breaks out. Then later on he’s presumed dead.

It’s an okay performance. I liked it. It stood out. But like the rest of the performances on this list, it’s not really something I see as “must vote for.” They’re all still pretty weak. I totally understand people being like, “Of course you have to vote for him.” But to me, this feels too on the nose as a vote, because I remember watching the film, just as a film, and then about midway through, going, “Oh yeah, there are performances nominated from this,” and checking to see who was playing who, I realized who Courtenay was, and was like, “He hasn’t really done all that much.” And I felt that Rod Steiger had given a better supporting performance. So I think that’s what’s keeping me from voting for him. That and the fact that a win feels a bit too on the nose. I’ll explain it down at the bottom.

Dunn — Ship of Fools is an ensemble film about a bunch of people on a boat bound for Germany from Mexico during the rise of the Nazis. And there are a bunch of individual stories we follow, like Oskar Werner as the ship’s dying doctor and Simone Signoret, an aging woman who is also a thief or a drug addict. Or both. I forget. It’s something. And then there’s Viven Leigh and Lee Marvin. There are a bunch of little stories. I don’t particularly like the film all that much.

Michael Dunn plays a dwarf (he is one) who is our narrator. That’s pretty much it. He talks to the camera and narrates occasionally, and is also a minor character on the ship who pops up in some of the stories. It’s one of those nominations where — of course they were gonna choose him, since the film got a lot of nominations, and was going to get one here. Thing is, though, the performance is not really that good. So, in a stronger category, it would be okay and you’d just ignore it. Here, it’s like it’s taking away a spot from someone who could have won. It’s awful.

Finlay — And, Othello. It’s pretty famous. You probably should know what it’s about. This one is Olivier in blackface.

Finlay plays Iago, and that performance alone is almost always worth a nomination if the film is done right. Only problem — the role is too on the nose, especially if played straight. People stopped winning acting Oscars for Shakespearean/classical literary roles after 1950. That’s why this, despite seeming like a strong nominee, is actually a really weak one. Seriously, it’s 1965. What if this performance was given today? Would you vote for a straight stage performance of Iago? That’s what this feels like to me. It feels terribly outdated, and I refuse to vote for it. Had this performance been given in the 30s or 40s — oh hell yeah, I’d consider it for a vote and possibly even vote for it. But here, I can’t do it.

My Thoughts: I hate this category. I’m gonna have to rank them based on how much I liked the films, because none of these performances even rate for me. But, performances — I’m not gonna vote for Shakespeare. Plus I don’t like when performances are stagy. They feel too theatrical, and I never feel like they’re of Oscar quality. I need editing. Dunn — get the fuck out of here. He narrates the film and pops up to comment once in a while. He reminds me of that doctor in Grand Hotel, who keeps showing up, like, “Yup, nothing ever happens here.” Bannen — he’s barely in the film. He really is. While watching, I actually said, “Where the fuck is this guy?”, and when I figured out who he was, I said, “But he hasn’t said or done anything for the entire film!” So he’s out. Love the film, but he didn’t do anything in it. I’m really surprised they picked his performance to nominate.

So the vote is really between Balsam and Courtenay. I liked Courtenay’s performance, and his Best Actor nomination for The Dresser in 1983 (much more worthy of winning than Albert Finney’s, I felt) helps his case. And Balsam — he’s more of a character actor than Courtenay, I feel, plus I really loved A Thousand Clowns. That, and — a Zhivago win just feels a bit too on-the-nose. So, since the performances all weren’t vote-worthy — and Balsam won — I’ll take Balsam. Why not? Courtenay feels like the alternate choice, but I’ll take Balsam. I really don’t like this category, but I love the film, and Balsam is awesome. So that’s 2 out of 3.

My Vote: Balsam

Should Have Won: No one.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. I mean, what am I gonna say, no? At least I like the film.

Performances I suggest you see: Dr. Zhivago is pretty major. Based on sheer scale alone, it’s essential.

The Flight of the Phoenix is also a pretty famous film. May or may not be essential, I can’t quite gauge it, but you should still see it. It’s pretty great. It’s in that level of great films that may or may not be essential, but are very well known. So you should just see it and eliminate any questions.

I highly, highly, highly recommend A Thousand Clowns. It’s really amazing. My favorite film by far on this list.

Othello — Shakespeare, Olivier — you know what you’re getting. Simple as that.


5) Dunn

4) Finlay

3) Courtenay

2) Bannen

1) Balsam

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