The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1962

Love 1962. Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird — what more do you need?

Lawrence of Arabia wins Best Picture and Best Director for David Lean (talked about here). Gregory Peck wins Best Actor for To Kill a Mockingbird (talked about here). Anne Bancroft wins Best Actress for The Miracle Worker (talked about here). All perfect. Then, Best Supporting Actor was Ed Begley for Sweet Bird of Youth (talked about here). I don’t like that one so much. But it’s not that bad, so it’s just unfortunate rather than terrible.

And then this category — holy shit. Scout Finch and Helen Keller. The two performances that were achieved here — by children, no less. Wow. Just wow.


And the nominees were…

Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird

Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker

Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate

Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth

Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Badham — It’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Scout Finch. What more do I have to say?

Duke — It’s The Miracle Worker. It’s Helen Keller. Again, do I have to say anything?

Lansbury — (Oh this is awesome. Three of them.) It’s The Manchurian Candidate. She’s Mrs. Shaw. Again, it’s self-explanatory. (In case it’s not obvious, these first three are all films you need to have seen. And if you don’t automatically understand everything about these films and these performances, it’s your fault. Because the rest of us do. We know how great all three of these performances are.)

Knight — Okay, the first film I need to talk about.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a Tennessee Williams film. One of those. Paul Newman is a dude who left his southern town years earlier to become a movie star. Now he comes back, with an alcoholic actress in tow, pretending he is somebody, meanwhile all he’s been is essentially a gigolo, being supported by middle-aged actresses who want a pretty young toy to play with. And he comes back to town and deals with all the stuff he left behind.

Shirley Knight plays his former girlfriend and daughter of the town “boss.” Newman comes back to find her father out to get him, and he’s not sure why. And then he finds out that when he left, Knight was pregnant and had to get an abortion. And she’s wrestling with all these inner problems and stuff, especially now that Newman’s back. It’s a strong performance. It’s a performance that would be at worst a #3 most other years, and probably a #2 and maybe even worth a vote (like 1963 — she wins that category, no questions asked). But here, she’s no better than a #4, and maybe even a #5 since Thelma Ritter is who she is. It’s just one of those things where the categories that have the absolute winner often end up being some of the strongest ones. This is no different. This is probably the strongest Best Supporting Actress category of all time.

So anyway — Knight is great, the film is strong, but I can’t vote for her, since Patty Duke, Mary Badham and Angela Lansbury were all better. What a category.

Ritter — Birdman of Alcatraz is a film I shouldn’t have to give you a synopsis for, but I haven’t had that much work for this article, so I’ll give you a quick one anyway.

Burt Lancaster is a dude who has been sentenced to life in prison, and the entire time in solitary confinement. He’s been considered a problem for the prisons, since he’s very stubborn, and won’t listen to his wardens. And one day, while on a walk, he spots a wounded bird and cares for it. And pretty soon, he starts collecting birds, and soon has a whole menagerie of sorts. And the film shows how he deals with his prison life by caring for birds, while also becoming the foremost expert on birds and bird diseases. A large portion of the film deals with his birds getting sick and dying one by one, and him trying to figure out a cure. And he does. A cure that not even the top scientists know about. It’s a terrific film. Lancaster is incredible in it.

Thelma Ritter plays Lancaster’s mother, who loves him, and successfully manages to campaign to get his death sentence commuted to simply life. And she comes to visit him dutifully, but eventually they have a falling out once Lancaster meets a fellow bird-lover and falls in love with her. He marries the woman against his mother’s wishes, and they stop speaking.

It’s a relatively small part, but Thelma Ritter is Thelma Ritter, and it’s quite amazing that she never won one of these by this point. So she’s always a threat. But had this performance come the year after this, she would have won. Here — there’s just no way. It’s too strong a category. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

My Thoughts: In a completely objective world, Patty Duke wins this in a landslide, and no one else even comes close. I don’t believe anyone can argue otherwise. (But you will, because that’s how the world works.)

But, we don’t live in an objective world, and people have personal biases and preferences. So, even knowing Patty Duke wins this by a mile, I’m still voting for Mary Badham. Because — she’s Scout. How can I not vote for Miss Jean Louise? I know Duke was clearly the winner, but I always stick by my favorites. That’s just how it is.

(Also, fuck you if you say Angela Lansbury. Yes, she’s great, and yes she wins in almost any year around this, but she doesn’t beat Duke. Not at all. Don’t give me that bullshit. You’re confusing the film with the performance.)

My Vote: Badham

Should Have Won: Duke (and Badham and Lansbury, but mostly Duke)

Is the result acceptable?: This is seriously one of the top five best decisions in this category. It doesn’t even matter that she’s only 16 in this film, this is one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible what she achieves in this movie. (And if you don’t believe me, think about what she had to do. That’s impressive. More impressive than anyone else in this category.)

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen To Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker or The Manchurian Candidate, you’re dead to me.

If you haven’t seen Birdman of Alcatraz, we can’t be friends.

And Sweet Bird of Youth is a solid film. Really good. Recommended. Definitely worth a watch.


5) Knight

4) Ritter

3) Lansbury

2) Duke

1) Badham

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