The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1958

I hate talking about 1958. It’s so — middling. All the nominees for Best Picture feel weak. And the winner is just — fluff. Gigi is a fine film and all, but it shouldn’t have won Best Picture. None of the nominees really should have. The Defiant Ones was probably the best choice among the bunch.

Vincente Minnelli won Best Director for Gigi (talked about here), which actually was a good decision. The dude was owed two by this point. David Niven wins Best Actor for Separate Tables (talked about here) and Wendy Hiller wins Best Supporting Actor for the film as well (talked about here). Both were veteran Oscars and are acceptable to varying degrees. And Best Actress was Susan Hayward for I Want to Live! (talked about here), which she’d earned by this point. I just wish she’d won earlier and someone else could have won here (especially since Deborah Kerr and Rosalind Russell never won Oscars, and if Elizabeth Taylor won here she wouldn’t have had to win in 1960).

And then this category. I fucking love this category. So much. I’d have wanted to vote for Burl Ives without having seen the performance. But having seen it, and the other performance he gave this year that he wasn’t nominated for — oh man, does he win this in a landslide. What a great decision for all time.


And the nominees were…

Theodore Bikel, The Defiant Ones

Lee J. Cobb, The Brothers Karamazov

Burl Ives, The Big Country

Arthur Kennedy, Some Came Running

Gig Young, Teacher’s Pet

Bikel — The Defiant Ones is a real classic. What an amazing film.

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two prisoners (white and black. Taste the metaphor) who are chained together and escape a prison bus. And at first they hate each other, but as they go on the run, they realize they need one another to survive, and throughout the ordeal, they start to respect one another and even become friends.

Theodore Bikel plays the sheriff who is tasked with getting them back. And he’s amazing here. I’m serious. He’s just fucking terrific. It’s very reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. He’s very laid back, very reasonable, and always has a smarter answer than everyone else. Like, they hear some information, the other deputies are like, “We gotta go now!”, and he’s like, “No we don’t.” And they’re like, “What? You idiot, we have to go!” And finally, he explains why they don’t need to go and everyone looks like an idiot. Meanwhile he’s sitting down, leisurely cooking dinner and is like, “Can you shut up now? I’m listening to my radio.” It’s an amazing performance. In all honesty, if Burl Ives didn’t have the year he had, Bikel would be my vote. Otherwise, he’s a #2, and a damn fine one at that.

Cobb — The Brothers Karamazov, is a film that’s based, clearly, on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

I’m not really big on Russian literature myself. Not that I’ve ever read Russian literature, but having seen a bunch of films based on it, to me it seems like a bunch of people with long names going on about land and war and marriage. Lots of v’s and z’s and referring to one another by their full names. I embellish of course. But I’m not wrong.

This is about three brothers, and Lee J. Cobb plays the father of the brothers. He’s pretty much a buffoon. And he gets killed. That’s really what I remember. I remember watching this and going, “Yeah, I like Lee J. Cobb. And he’s doing a good job here. But there’s no way I can vote for a film based on a Russian novel.” Which is true. At this stage in the game (30 years into the Oscars), I can’t be voting for such on-the-nose material. It’s like if you’re a stand-up comedian. If you’ve been doing your thing for 30 years — in 1995, George Carlin was not doing knock-knock jokes. Not the best metaphor, but you know what I mean. By this point, voting for such material is so anachronistic. It’s like, “All right, we respect a classy adaptation of a famous book that’s been made six times already. But do we really need to bestow on it one of the highest honors we have?” And my answer is always no. We don’t. Cobb was good, but I can’t vote for this role. I just can’t.

Ives — Burl Ives wins 1958. He really does. Not only was he great in The Big Country, but he was also Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a role I feel he should have won for, because he was tremendous in that.

The Big Country is about Gregory Peck as a sailor who has retired to the west with his fiancée to live on her father’s ranch. And basically — Peck’s fiancée’s father (Charles Bickford) is the big landowner of the territory. He’s the big corporation. And Burl Ives is the small business who is constantly threatened by him. There’s a big feud between the two families. Meanwhile, Jean Simmons is a neutral party in this, and allows both sides to use her land, but refuses to sell it to Bickford. And the whole film is both sides trying to provoke Peck, but he refuses to fight. They consider him a coward, and he toughens himself up. He then buys Simmons’s land on the condition that he let both sides continue to use it and not give in to either side. And then his fiancée breaks up with him, and he gets with Simmons instead.

Meanwhile, the feud between Bickford’s side and Ives’s side get worse and worse. Ives tries to be civil about the whole thing, but ends up having to kidnap Simmons in order to get Bickford into a trap so they can kill him. And Peck goes down there to save Simmons, and — well, some interesting stuff happens here. This is where Ives’s performance really shows.

The whole thing with Ives is — he’s disappointed in his son. His son is just too violent, he feels. And during this showdown, Peck shows up totally unarmed, yet Ives’s son draws a gun on him. And Ives doesn’t like that. It’s not fair. So he gives Peck a gun and has them fight a formal duel. And the son — asshole that he is — fires before the signal. So Ives lets Peck have a free shot on his son. And Peck refuses to fire on him, even though the son was ready to kill him. And Ives spits on his son because he doesn’t deserve it. And then the son tries to shoot Peck again, and Ives shoots him dead. Shoots his own son dead. And he’s so distraught that he had to do this (in a way, it reminds me of Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges — he’s not necessarily a good guy, but his principles rule everything he does. It makes for a very complex character). And Ives tells Bickford he wants a one-on-one gunfight, so as to prevent everyone else from dying unnecessarily. Since the feud is between them two anyway. And they both kill each other.

It’s a great film. It’s a really solid piece of cinema. It’s one of those films that’s not amazing to watch, but when you think about it afterwards, it’s great. I really like it.

Ives is terrific. Watch his performance in the final thirty minutes. It’s sublime. This and his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof performance make him a runaway winner here.

Plus, he was Sam the Snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Doesn’t that count for something?

He sang “Silver and Gold,” people! “Silver and Gold!”

Kennedy — Some Came Running is a solid film (one of Vincente Minnelli’s best dramas) about Frank Sinatra, as a cynical war veteran who wakes up on a bus in his hometown, a place he never wanted to go back to. Shirley MacLaine, a lower class woman, is also on the bus with him, and in love with him. He was on a major bender and doesn’t even remember meeting her, and doesn’t want anything to do with her. But she loves him.

He goes into town, and settles there for a while. He sees his brother, played by Kennedy, who has become a respected man in town, and doesn’t want Sinatra (who has a bit of a checkered past) to fuck that up. So he tries to get Sinatra to be respectable. He hooks him up with a professor’s daughter, a nice schoolteacher. And  then later on, he has an affair with his secretary. Kennedy doesn’t really have that big a part in the film. I feel like this nomination might be a carryover from his Peyton Place nomination from the year before (which he was really good enough to win for). He was a respected character actor, so it makes sense that he’s here, but the performance wasn’t good enough to vote for. Not against Ives and Bikel.

Young — Teacher’s Pet is a comedy about Clark Gable as an old-school newspaper man. The kind who didn’t even go to high school, got all their experience on the job, and thinks education is a waste of time. And then Doris Day is a journalism teacher who thinks good story writing is something you can teach. And Day invites Gable (whom she doesn’t know, but read an article he wrote about how education is a waste of time) to speak at her class. And he goes to do that, but sees how attractive she is, so he makes up a fake name and pretends to be a new student in the class. And he works his way into Day’s graces (she thinks he’s a prodigy, since he can write so well after seemingly never having written before), and of course, it’s a comedy, so there’s a whole bunch of scenes playing off the situation, and then she finds out who he is, it ends happily, you know the drill.

Gig Young plays a psychiatrist who is Day’s friend. And Gable thinks he’s competing for Day with him. And the whole time, Gable tries to outdo him. This leads to a great scene where Gable and Young get each other shitfaced, and Gable, able to handle it better since he has years of experience, is walking around the next day, while Young is in pain all over. It’s pretty funny. But then we find out that Young is not actually trying to get with Day (I think it’s even hinted at that he’s gay), and is the one who tells Day to give Gable another chance after she finds out who he is and breaks up with him.

It’s a nice part. Young is good in it. But it was never going to win. Plus he’d win 11 years after this, so that’s more of a reason for me not to vote for him. Either way, it’s Burl Ives’s year. Ain’t no one winning but him.

My Thoughts: Burl Ives is the only person that ever deserved to win this category. First off, he was awesome in his role, plus, he was good enough to win this category with his second performance for the year, as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This performance is more — likable — in a way. Either way, he was good enough to win with either, and he deserved this all the way. Bikel is second choice for his awesome role as the smart ass sheriff. Third is probably either Kennedy or Cobb, just because of who they are, and Gig Young, while fun in his role, is in a lesser comic film, and, won one of these later on. Still, Burl Ives is the only one here.

My Vote: Ives

Should Have Won: Ives

Is the result acceptable?: This is one of the best decisions they ever made in this category. It’s not so much that the particular winning performance was top ten or anything, but, combined, the year he had, this was seriously one of the best decisions they ever made. Burl Ives was a perfect choice as a Best Supporting Actor.

Performances I suggest you see: You need to see The Defiant Ones. End of story.

You really should see The Big Country. It’s really great.

You should also see Some Came Running. It’s also really great.

You should also see Teacher’s Pet. It’s a fun little romantic comedy.

The Brothers Karamazov — it is what it is. See it, don’t see it. You know what you’re getting. It’s colorful.


5) Cobb

4) Kennedy

3) Young

2) Bikel

1) Ives


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