The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1958
1958 is a pretty weak year. A weak Best Picture winner from a relatively weak set of nominees. I love Gigi, but it probably shouldn’t have won Best Picture, and wouldn’t have in a stronger year. And of the remaining nominees, only The Defiant Ones was really worth voting for. The rest were really stagy and were basically plays on film.
Vincente Minnelli finally won Best Director for the film (talked about here). Thank god. The man was practically owed two by this point. Best Actor this year was David Niven for Separate Tables (talked about here), which I guess is an okay decision. Curtis and Poitier cancelled each other out and Newman would eventually win one. And David Niven’s awesome. Best Actress was Susan Hayward for I Want to Live! (talked about here), which had been coming to her for some time. And Best Supporting Actor was Burl Ives for The Big Country, which was a great decision, since he was great in both that and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this year.
And then there’s this category. Hiller had been solid for over 20 years, and was good enough to win Best Actress twenty years earlier. This was an easy one.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1958
And the nominees were…
Peggy Cass, Auntie Mame
Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables
Martha Hyer, Some Came Running
Maureen Stapleton, Lonelyhearts
Cara Williams, The Defiant Ones
Cass — Auntie Mame is a film about a young boy whose father is ruined in the Depression and kills himself, and is sent to live with his eccentric aunt, played by Rosalind Russell. And she’s the most eccentric woman. She does crazy things, acts on impulse, has the kid, age 10, make cocktails for a room full of guests. She’s fun and free-spirited, and the film is basically two and a half hours of that.
Peggy Cass plays Agnes Gooch, who, if you can’t tell by the name, is a very homely woman who is very — it’s like a cross between Annie Potts in Ghostbusters, and Marla in A League of Their Own. She’s hilarious in this movie. This performance is so great. This a complete performance. She creates a character here. This is the kind of character, nowadays, you’d expect to be recurring on SNL and then get a movie made of it. She’s really great here.
It’s the kind of performance that’s like — it’s one of those scene-stealing performances that you want to vote for over the obvious winner. It reminds me of what I said about William Hurt in A History of Violence. It’s a performance that was never going to win, but it’s so electric that you want to vote for it. This is kind of how I feel about this one. I’m sure I won’t end up voting for it (because of the next nominee), but I really did love this performance.
Hiller — Separate Tables is an ensemble film about a bunch of people at an inn. David Niven is a disgraced general who likes to tell long and boring war stories, and then everyone finds out that he’s been disgraced and his reputation is damaged. And then Deborah Kerr is a spinster whose mother basically controls her existence, and then she learns to make her own decisions and tell her mother off. And then Burt Lancaster is there, having a secret affair with Wendy Hiller, who runs the hotel, and his ex-wife (Ava Gardner) comes back and tempts him to go back with her.
Hiller, playing the owner of the hotel, gets to pop up a lot in all the other storylines (not that they’re separate, but you know what I mean), and she gets her own with Lancaster. It’s a good performance. I liked it. And also, she’s an actress who had consistently put in great work over the years (I voted for her as Best Actress for Pygmalion in 1938, and she was terrific in A Man for All Seasons in 1966, which she was also nominated for). So this was an easy veteran win for her. Easy. As much as I liked Peggy Cass’s performance, Hiller deserved an Oscar. She wins this hands down.
Hyer — Some Came Running is about Frank Sinatra, as a war veteran, who wakes up after a bender on a bus in his hometown, a place he doesn’t really want to be. Next to him is Shirley MacLaine, a lower class woman who has come with him. He’s now home, after having been sent to boarding school years earlier, and still hates the town for it. He meets his brother (Arthur Kennedy), who is now a respected member of the town and doesn’t want his brother fucking it up. So he tries to make him respectable. He introduces him to Hyer, who plays a schoolteacher and love interest for Sinatra. And then Shirley MacLaine is also there as well. Sinatra told her to go away, but she’s in love with him, so she stays in town, hoping to convince him to be with her.
And what happens is — Dean Martin is a gambler who shows up in town, and Sinatra is trying to be respectable, but also not fall in with Dean Martin. It’s a struggle. And by the end, Sinatra finally responds to MacLaine, since he sees that she’s really an innocent person, and she ends up taking a bullet for him (since her ex-boyfriend thinks Sinatra stole her away and has come to kill him). It’s a good movie.
Hyer is Sinatra’s love interest, and she doesn’t really do all that much to do. At first she’s a redemptive figure for Sinatra, but then it doesn’t end well. And then he goes over to MacLaine, who has this nice scene with Hyer in the schoolhouse, where she tells her how she’s worried she’s gonna go after Sinatra. Hyer really doesn’t have much to do, though. I’m not really sure why she was nominated. But then again, the category is kinda weak, so I guess it’s a product of that.
Stapleton — Lonelyhearts is a film based on Nathaniel West’s novella, which I know only because I had to read “The Day of the Locust” in college, and the book had both that and “Miss Lonelyhearts” together. So I knew of the book, but not really what it was about outside of the fact that it’s about a dude that starts writing as a female advice columnist. I think one of my friends actually read it and tried explaining the plot to me. But I don’t remember.
I do remember watching it, knowing nothing about it and going, “Wow, Montgomery Clift did this? And Robert Ryan? Oh shit, it’s Myrna Loy!” And that pretty much sustained me throughout the film, since I didn’t find it terribly interesting.
Clift starts writing the Miss Lonelyhearts column, and — honestly I can’t remember what happens. I’m confusing what actually happened with what I heard happens in the book. I’m guessing that the film toned down whatever satire happened in the book. But I think this is about him writing the column, having these deep problems with his father, and him working through all that. I think. I’m forgetting. I do, however, remember Maureen Stapleton’s performance.
This is her first role, and she plays a woman who writes into the column about her husband, who was crippled and can’t have sex with her anymore. And she meets with Clift and tells him this whole sob story, and he ends up sleeping with her, but then we find out that she made the whole thing up and was basically looking for some sex. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering that correctly.
Stapleton is good here. It’s a strong performance. But she’d win one of these in 1981, so I feel no need to vote for her. Plus the film is really lacking, and I don’t want to see this film win an Oscar. So, Stapleton is effective, the film isn’t, and that’s pretty much it.
Williams — The Defiant Ones is a perfect film. Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, a black prisoner and a white prisoner, chained together, escape and have to stay together as they flee. It’s an American classic. One you pretty much need to see if you care about film at all.
Cara Williams plays a woman the two run into toward the end of the film. They run into her son, and he takes them to her. And Curtis is sick by this point, and she helps nurse him back to health. And her husband abandoned the family, and she and Curtis start getting closer. And it’s clear she wants to be with Curtis. And what happens is, its seems like this nice and idyllic moment where they’re gonna get free. They’re both healthy and rested, and now Curtis looks like he’s gonna find love. So what happens is, Curtis goes with Williams in her car, and she tells Poitier (since they agree to split up so as not to attract attention) to go through the forest and he’ll reach railroad tracks. And then, as she and Curtis drive away, she tells him that she lied to Poitier, and that she was sending him into a swamp, where he’ll almost certainly die, so that way there’s no chance he’ll get caught and possibly tell what happened to Curtis. And Curtis, who has become friends with Poitier by this point, gets upset and goes back to help Poitier (which is really what leads to them getting caught). And she has her son shoot Curtis, since she’s upset that she’s not getting some dick. Essentially.
It’s actually a very complex character she plays. I really liked this performance a lot. If Williams were more of an established actress (she didn’t really do that much outside of this), I’d consider voting for her. But Wendy Hiller really deserved one of these. She really did. I have to vote for her.
My Thoughts: It’s Hiller. I loved Cass’s and Williams’s performances more, but Hiller was very much deserving, and this was a good role to do it with (and a category to do it in, too). She should have won.
My Vote: Hiller
Should Have Won: Hiller (and also Cass and Williams)
Is the result acceptable?: Yup.
Performances I suggest you see: I highly, highly recommend Separate Tables, The Defiant Ones and Auntie Mame. They’re all great films, and the last two are classic. You should see them all, and they’re all great. (I’d say The Defiant Ones is very close to essential, Auntie Mame is not as close, but the amount of times it’s referenced, you should probably see it, and Separate Tables is just a great film all around with great performances by great actors. Chances are, you love one of the actors in this movie and will come to it anyway. So see it. It’s great.)
Some Came Running is a great, great film. Great performances by Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Kennedy, and a great film. Highly recommended. One of Sinatra’s best serious roles (though nothing beats The Man with the Golden Arm in that department).
Miss Lonelyhearts — interesting. Not great. Myrna Loy is in it, though. I love her. It’s okay. Not a bad film. Just not great. Worth a watch, though, if you liked the book.