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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1957-1958)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1957

Carolyn Jones, The Bachelor Party

Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution

Hope Lange, Peyton Place

Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara

Diane Varsi, Peyton Place

Analysis:

Oh man. This category. I had such distinct feelings on this category that I really need to go deep into it the second time.

The Bachelor Party is one of the most forgotten films of the Oscars. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann not long after Marty. So there’s a pedigree.

A bunch of guys are out for (insert title here) of one of their coworkers. Over the course of the night, all the men have spiritual crises about whether or not they’re happy with their lot in life.

Carolyn Jones plays a character called “The Existentialist.” She’s in the film for about six minutes. She’s found by the guys waiting to cross the street and they try to flirt with her. But she wants nothing to do with them and won’t let them join her at the party she’s going to. They’re all intrigued, so later on when their party turns out to be a bust, they go back to find her.

Don Murray, our main character of sorts, had been trying to find someone to have an affair with, and finds Jones at the party. She tells this rapid-fire story about her landlord and all these other men in her life, with all these extraneous details (kinda like Michael Pena’s stories in Ant-Man).

Over the course of the story, Murray simply tries to sleep with her, but she keeps going, though eventually giving in and going upstairs with him into a bedroom. She tells this story about all these men who are in love with her, despite them being married, and over the course of the story, we get a complete sense of her backstory as well as how lonely she is. She’s charming and mysterious, but also very, very alone. Murray tries to kiss her and she has this one heartbreaking line, “Tell me you love me. You don’t have to mean it.” She tells him to meet her at a bar across the street and mentions how difficult it is to be alone at night.

It’s a hell of a performance, for the six minutes. You get a complete sense of who this character is, to the point where she could have a whole movie about herself based solely on those six minutes. It’s the kind of performance that would almost never get nominated here, so to see it on the list makes me very happy.

Witness for the Prosecution is Billy Wilder. The best. He followed this up with Some Like It Hot. That’s how good he is. Just wildly shifted genres at will. He actually directed three movies this year, this, Love in the Afternoon and The Spirit of St. Louis. Trial drama, biopic, and romantic comedy.

This is a movie about Charles Laughton, an aging barrister, who is supposed to take some time off for his health, but of course never does. He gets roped into a case defending Tyrone Power, accused of murdering an old woman he befriended in order to get into her will. It really looks like he did it, but Laughton is convinced he didn’t. It’s a great movie.

Elsa Lanchester plays Laughton’s nurse, whose sole purpose is to tell him to take it easy and be ignored by him. She’s constantly present, and serves as a bit of comic relief for the otherwise heavily dramatic plot. She gets a bunch of great scenes where she gets to play off of Laughton (her husband, making it even more enjoyable), but ultimately the role doesn’t add up to much. She’s just solid. Don’t think most people would consider her as the vote. Though the category is weak, so maybe.

Peyton Place is the film that spawned a popular soap opera. So that’s what you’re dealing with. However, while that might turn you off at first (it certainly did me), it’s actually a really engaging and entertaining film.

It’s one of those films that they made back in the 40s — Kings Row, and the like. Where you follow a couple of stories in a small town. That’s what this is. All the personal things going on at once, interweaving, cutting back and forth. It’s engaging because every time you don’t care about a subplot, there are three other ones they’re gonna cut to soon enough. I found it really engaging.

I’m not gonna get into all the different stories. We’re just gonna focus on the two that matter for this category.

Hope Lange plays the daughter of the town drunk. She comes from, quite literally, the wrong side of the tracks. She and Varsi are best friends. The first half of the film is Varsi’s story, but the second half is almost all Lange’s. We find out that her father has been abusing her, and on the night of her graduation, he rapes her and she becomes pregnant. The town doctor makes her tell him who is responsible, and he forces the father to leave town or else he’ll expose what he did to the town. She ends up having a miscarriage, which the doctor covers up so as not to ruin her life before it can begin.

Diane Varsi plays Lana Turner’s daughter. She’s an aspiring writer (the one writing and this ‘expose’), whose mother is overly protective of her. Any time she does anything a normal teen girl would do at her age, her mother freaks out. She finds romance with Russ Tamblyn, a classmate. And eventually she has an emotionally charged scene with her mother where she finds out the truth about her father, and eventually leaves town. He later shows up, and tries to assault her again. She kills him and hides the body. She later confesses to Turner, who turns her in, thinking it the right thing to do. Naturally, there’s a trial, where all the sordid details come out. She tries to keep the rape part a secret, thinking it will ruin her impending marriage, at the risk of going to jail for the rest of her life. And naturally she gets a big scene where she’s put on the stand.

It’s a strong performance. A little melodramatic, but that’s the nature of the film. I’m not gonna count that against it. Especially in this category.

She’s fine in the part, but it’s hard to take her when you see the kind of part Lange has to pull off. Plus, it’s a very melodramatic… well, it’s a melodramatic movie. But you have to be aware of that in order to appreciate the performance. Still, this isn’t the one performance of the two nominated ones from the film that I’d vote for.

Sayonara is a film very much of its era. Meaning the subject matter, color design and CinemaScope.

Marlon Brando is an American Air Force pilot stationed in Japan. He’s engaged to the general’s daughter. He befriends Red Buttons, a fellow airman, who is marrying a Japanese woman, which the Air Force frowns upon. They’ll let you fuck them, and even impregnate them, but don’t marry them. Brando at first tries to dissuade him from doing this, but realizes he’s in love and supports him. He also falls in love with a Japanese woman himself, further complicating things.

Miyoshi Umeki plays Buttons’ Japanese wife. She doesn’t speak a word of English in the entire film. She’s the faithful wife in love with her husband, making the best of her situation. This is one of those situations where the win is more about other things than the actual performance, which I can understand.

That said, I’m here to evaluate the performance, which I can honestly say is just fine. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it. The most exemplary thing about it is how Hollywood actually treated it with decency and restraint. She’s made a normal person and not a racial caricature. And she’s an actual Japanese woman and not someone in yellowface. That’s what’s impressive about the performance. Umeki is just okay. In this category, I see why she win, and historically, it means a lot. So I’m okay with the win, ultimately, but no matter how many times I watch this movie, I’ll never think the performance was actually that great. It’s a product of its time, and I understand the win, but I could never vote for it, because she doesn’t really do all that much in the film. She just represents important things.

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The Reconsideration: This was a very contentious category for me the first time. I couldn’t understand at all how Miyoshi Umeki won it. It made me quite angry, but I don’t know why. I guess it was just because the performance didn’t feel like a winner. But it’s not like the category had a clearly defined alternative that should have won instead, or other performances that stood out any more than hers did. So it’s weird that I reacted that way. I think it’s because the first time I saw the film, I didn’t like it, and at that point, if I didn’t like a film and it won Oscars, fuck that. Going back to look at this category, I completely understand how she could have won.

Now, all that aside, I really have no idea how to vote. I wouldn’t take Varsi. She’s fine, but I thought Lange was better. And then Lanchester is decent, but also no. Umeki, also, as I said… the performance isn’t there. I’ll consider her because of what the win means and how overall weak the category is, but honestly… I don’t love the performance enough to really take it.

It’s really Lange or Jones. And honestly, the way Jones packs such a punch in her limited screen time, I’m taking her. Lange is good, and has the type of role that makes sense in this category, but Jones is such a bright spot and characterizes herself so much in such a small part, I want to vote for that. That’s the performance I liked best in this category.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Carolyn Jones, The Bachelor Party
  2. Hope Lange, Peyton Place
  3. Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara
  4. Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution
  5. Diane Varsi, Peyton Place

Rankings (films):

  1. Witness for the Prosecution
  2. Peyton Place
  3. Sayonara
  4. The Bachelor Party

My Vote: Carolyn Jones, The Bachelor Party

Recommendations:

Witness for the Prosecution is Billy Wilder, and great Billy Wilder, making it essential for any real film buff. It’s really good, too. You’ll love this.

Peyton Place is not an essential film at all. But if you’re really into film and film history, this was one of the highest grossing movies of 1957 and was a major hit and a big cultural reference point for a while, so that makes it worthwhile. Plus, a bunch of nominations, five acting nominations, Oscar buffs should be all over this. Overall, it’s just a solid ensemble movie that’s very much of its era but also very entertaining.

Sayonara is another film very much of its era. Gorgeous. The production design and cinematography are beautiful, and the film is very well-made all around. Brando does a hilarious southern accent. Still, it’s Brando, so that should make it worthwhile. Plus it won both Supporting Oscars, which is big for Oscar buffs. It’s a recommended film. You can skip it and be fine, but I think you ought to see it because it’s a big film for 1957.

The Bachelor Party is a forgotten film. It’s actually quite good. The premise is really great, and it’s written by Paddy Chayefsky. I don’t remember loving the film, but it’s been a while since I saw it. I only really go back and watch Jones’ performance. I’s say check it out, it’s worth a watch, though I’ll admit it’s been about five years since I’ve seen it.

The Last Word: This is a pretty weak category, historically. Probably bottom ten, if not bottom five. There’s no real winner here, and I don’t know if there’s anyone that would go higher than maybe a 2 on a weak year, if not 3.

You could probably make a case for any one of these five, because the category is so bad. If I were guessing, I’d say no one would make the case for Varsi. I’d say few would make the case for Lanchester (though some would want to because of the film). Umeki is a good winner historically just because she’s the first Asian actress to have won, even if I don’t agree with the performance itself being worth for a win. Lange is good, but I don’t know how many people would actually take her. Then there’s Jones, who’s great, but only on screen for six minutes.

Honestly, make a solid case and you can’t really go wrong. Umeki is a fine winner because there’s no one else who’d have been a better historical choice. She’s the first (and still only one of two) Asian acting Oscar winner. So that holds up. Performance-wise, it doesn’t really matter. Pick a favorite and explain reasonably why and you’re good on that front. Definitely a minor category, historically, outside of the win.

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1958

Peggy Cass, Auntie Mame

Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables

Martha Hyer, Some Came Running

Maureen Stapleton, Lonelyhearts

Cara Williams, The Defiant Ones

Analysis:

Auntie Mame is a crazy ass movie. Definitely something that feels like it was set on Broadway that they adapted for the screen. It’s a very theatrical film. Rosalind Russell is definitely doing stage type work here.

She’s this crazy flamboyant woman who is placed in care of her nephew when his father dies. So we see the kid grow up around this woman and all the crazy shit she gets herself into. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

Peggy Cass plays Agnes Gooch, a perfectly named secretary hired to take down what Mame says so it can be part of her autobiography. She’s the nebbish woman with an accent that sounds a lot like Annie Potts in Ghostbusters. She’s not particularly important to the plot, but is a very memorable character. She doesn’t show up until about 85 minutes into the film. But once she’s there, you remember her. She’s played entirely for comedy, and is definitely one of the highlights of the film.

It’s hard not to laugh at her screen time, and there’s definitely a complete character there. It’s the kind of character that would probably have gotten its own spinoff show if it were made today.

I’m curious if people consider this substantial enough to vote for. It’s very comedic, but also may be the most fully formed character in the category. It’s gonna be hard not to consider her for a vote.

Separate Tables is an ensemble drama about the guests staying at a seaside hotel. They all interact and much of the drama revolves around two stories — a retired general who is constantly prattling on about his war stories is discovered to have been dishonorably discharged and lying about everything. The other story is Rita Hayworth, a famous model, arriving at the hotel and causing a stir with Burt Lancaster, her former husband. There are a lot of different stories and the acting is all top notch.

Wendy Hiller plays the proprietor of the hotel. She’s present throughout most of the different stories, coming and going as she tidies up, etc. She’s secretly engaged to Burt Lancaster and the presence of Hayworth is causing problems between the two of them.

The performance is good. Nothing that screams “vote” on its own. But given that she was such a respected stage actress and a veteran, I totally get why she won. She earns some consideration, especially in this category, without a clear winner.

Some Came Running is one of those dramas that reminds you that Frank Sinatra can act.

He plays a soldier who comes back to his small town, passed out on a bus with Shirley MacLaine with him. She’s a lower class dame he picked up who is in love with him. Sinatra then reenters his town, and people’s lives.

Martha Hyer plays a local teacher with whom Sinatra falls in love. He keeps telling her he loves her, and she wants nothing to do with him. She’d rather help him get back on his feet and start writing again. He… want something else.

The character is an interesting one, and she’s fine in the part, but ultimately doesn’t have a whole lot to do. She feels like an easy fifth in this category. The role itself is doing more work than the performance.

Lonelyhearts is based on the Nathanael West novel (he’s the guy who also wrote The Day of the Locust).

Montgomery Clift gets a job at the local paper writing a “Miss Lonelyhearts” advice column. He hates it, and fights with his editor about having to do it.

Maureen Stapleton plays a housewife who comes to Clift to tell her story. Her husband is impotent after an accident. She’s unable to leave him, but desperately wants to fulfill her sexual needs. She and Clift have sex. It’s clear he never wants to see her again afterward, though. And she ends up telling her husband about the affair, which causes the husband to come after Clift later on with a gun.

Her temperament in the part is perfect. The need and desperation of this character. It’s a terrific performance. She’s not quite on screen enough, and her storyline doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film, but she’s by far the best thing in it. The entire film is uneven and doesn’t quite work (mostly because West is a satirist, so all the bite the novel had couldn’t be there for the film).

This was Stapleton’s first film role, and she came in with quite the bang. I could see maybe considering her for a vote. A lot of people would overlook this, given that it’s in the slightest film in the category.

The Defiant Ones is one of the greatest films of the 50s. Put it this way — in the south, in the 50s, a black prisoner and a white prisoner are chained together, and escape. So now they literally have to cooperate in order to survive. It’s perfect. Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, great, great stuff.

Cara Williams plays a woman the two men come across on their escape. She’s a single mother, her husband ran out. She feeds and houses the two men. Pretty quickly we see that she’s just as… lonely… as they are. She and Curtis hit it off. Then Curtis gets sick and she cares for him. They get close (read: fucking). She wants to go off with him, and says they can’t take Poitier with them because the police are looking for two men who fit their descriptions. So she gives Poitier directions to the train tracks and sends him on his way. Only Curtis finds out she lied to him… she sent him into the swamps, hoping he died, so that way he wouldn’t be caught and give up Curtis. So he goes off to find Poitier and leaves her.

It’s a good performance. Her final scene shows a lot of complexity to the character. All she wants is to get away, and this is her chance. You really get a sense of who this woman is through her screen time.

This isn’t something that you vote for most years, but here… you can make a case for it. There’s no #1 here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Another category with 2s and no 1. All the performances are solid, but there’s nothing that screams winner.

Hyer is the first one I’d take, as would most people, I’d imagine. Well, I feel like most people would discount Stapleton first, simply by virtue of her film being the one the least people have seen. It’s not like everyone’s going around actually voting on all these Oscar categories while having seen everything. But that aside, we’ll assume people have seen and considered all the performances. So in that hypothetical, then Hyer probably comes off first.

Next… probably Cass. She’s hilarious, but there’s not more there than comedy. Well drawn character, but I wouldn’t vote for it.

Then we have Hiller, Williams and Stapleton. Hiller has the solid, but unspectacular performance. The backbone kind of performance. Stapleton has the electric, “holy shit” kind of performance. And Williams has something in between.

Hiller has the most thankless role, giving a very understated performance, especially given how some of the other cast members overplay their roles. So I’m not gonna discount that. She’s one of those where the quiet work in the role is more impressive than the sparks of the performance.

Stapleton, on the other hand, is all sparks. But the rest of the role isn’t there. It feels like she had more to do that wasn’t in the film. Either that or they just really misjudged the material. I feel like if her character had just a little bit more, I’d be more inclined to actually vote for her.

My vote is either gonna be Hiller or Williams, which I’m pretty sure is where it was at last time. Williams takes what could have been a one-note character and does something really nice with it. I like how she slowly reveals the racism of her character. And then Hiller is really just the rock of that movie, totally worthy in a different way.

This is a tough one. I honestly have no idea what the hell to do. Which is leading me to go the way I went last time, and take Wendy Hiller. When in doubt, look for a tiebreaker, which in this case is past performance. She’s subtly one of the best performances in the movie, and I appreciate that, even if the others are much more showy in what they do.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables
  2. Cara Williams, The Defiant Ones
  3. Maureen Stapleton, Lonelyhearts
  4. Peggy Cass, Auntie Mame
  5. Martha Hyer, Some Came Running

Rankings (films):

  1. The Defiant Ones
  2. Separate Tables
  3. Auntie Mame
  4. Some Came Running
  5. Lonelyhearts

My Vote: Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables

Recommendations:

The Defiant Ones is the most essential film on this list. Culturally important and really important historically, one of the first films to blatantly deal with race in such an open way as this. Great film, too. Poitier and Curtis. Great shit. Highly recommended and essential for any film buff.

Separate Tables is essential for Oscar buffs. Lot of top line nominations and two acting wins. Other than that, not really essential except for the cast. David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Gladys Cooper, Wendy Hiller. Good stuff. Strong film, great performances. Highly recommended.

Some Came Running is worth it because: Frank Sinatra, Vincente Minnelli, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine. Need I say more? It’s a solid drama with great performances and is quite enjoyable. Not essential, but recommended, and most film buffs will see it purely for the cast, and will be treated with a strong film.

Auntie Mame is kind of a famous film. I feel like it sits better with people who see it at a younger age and can enjoy the theatricality of it. Because the older you get, the more theatrical it seems. Very much a stage play, over the top performances. They’re playing to the rafters. But it’s enjoyable, and I’m pretty sure her famous line is on the top quotes of all time list. So there’s that. Not essential, but fun and enjoyable.

Lonelyhearts is not an essential film at all. It’s actually really uneven. The main reason to see it is the cast. I’ll advocate for any film with Myrna Loy in it (yes, even Valentino). Stapleton is dynamite in limited screen time, and this is one of the first films featuring Montgomery Clift and his new face. So there’s that too. Otherwise, not essential in the least.

The Last Word: I think you could make a case for most anyone in this category. Pretty sure Martha Hyer wouldn’t be argued for by the majority. Stapleton’s rationalization is in the performance. As is Williams’. I’d be curious to see why someone would take Cass, if they did. Not that she isn’t worthy, I’d just be curious. And Hiller is someone I feel most people would gravitate toward. I don’t think you could go wrong here (though Hiller, Williams and Stapleton seem like the primary candidates), and I think they ultimately made the right choice with this one.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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