The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1961-1962)

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.

1961

Fay Bainter, The Children’s Hour

Judy Garland, Judgment at Nuremberg

Lotte Lenya, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

Una Merkel, Summer and Smoke

Rita Moreno, West Side Story

Analysis:

The Children’s Hour is a great movie that I’ve mentioned at least once so far. Back in 1936, Bonita Granville. These Three. I voted for her for this movie, essentially.

The play is about two women who run a school. There’s a horrible little girl who doesn’t like getting punished for bad behavior, so in retaliation, she spreads a rumor (based on something she overhears… so kind of like Atonement) that the teachers are lesbians. Naturally, a scandal erupts. Made even more troublesome because one of them actually is a lesbian. So in effect, they’re being persecuted because one of them is a lesbian, and not because they’ve actually done anything wrong. It’s a great movie. This version especially is the best version of the play put to screen.

Fay Bainter plays the little girl’s aunt, who at first is indifferent to the girl’s complaints over her punishment, but then is horrified when the girl tells her what she “knows” and tells all of the parents, essentially ruining the school. There’s a whole process where they question the girls to figure out the truth, and eventually she is made to believe the girl is right. Then she comes by later on, after the damage is done, to apologize because she found out the whole thing was a lie. She comes to clear her own conscience, and falls on deaf ears.

It’s a really solid performance from a veteran. Feels like a #3. Maybe in a stronger year she’d be fourth. But here, solid three. Definitely not something that’s gonna contend, but not something to be tossed away as forgettable or just “okay” either.

Judgment at Nuremberg is a fucking incredible film. About the Nuremberg trials.

The film is about the Nuremberg trials of all the Nazis for war crimes after the war. Spencer Tracy plays the American presiding judge, and Burt Lancaster plays the main defendant of the film, a doctor who engendered genocide, and the whole film is how the man could have done it, and how the German people could have just turned a blind eye to the whole thing.

Judy plays a woman who has been sought out by the prosecution to testify, but wants no part of it, because it’ll force her to relive horrible memories. She agrees to, and then presents her story on the stand: she, a German woman, had a relationship with a Jewish man, who was then arrested and sentenced to death for doing so. She’s then brought back for cross-examination, wherein the defense attorney basically tears down her character and breaks her.

It’s an affecting performance. Very actor-ly. Maybe not as much as Montgomery Clift’s, but similar. I can feel her putting on a performance, but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s an interesting character, because they treat her as such a huge part of the case, and then they put her through such a ringer, and in the end, she’s a sobbing, broken mess of a person, left on the witness stand as all this crazy shit is going on within the trial, and then they just forget about her. It’s the stuff we don’t see with this character that’s fucked up.

I’d say she easily makes top two in the category. Not sure if I automatically vote for her, though the temptation is there, because she’s Judy Garland in this type of role.

The Roman Spring of Miss Stone is based on Tennessee Williams. Our first of two in this category. Also Vivien Leigh. She didn’t make too many films. She’s one of those actresses who, when she hit, she really hit, and otherwise no one really saw her movies.

She plays a woman whose husband dies while they’re on vacation to Rome. She ends up staying there, and becomes victim to a countess, who introduces her to a young man, a gigolo, who mooches off of her for her money.

Lotte Lenya plays the countess. She basically pimps out these young men to older women and gets a cut of the profits. She’s cool. Rosa Klebb and all, From Russia with Love. Here, she’s kind of a conniving, one-note character. Maybe I’d have preferred to see Agnes Moorehead doing this part instead. But she’s fun. Definitely memorable. Not sure I’d vote for her, or even have her higher than fourth here at best. But she’s fine. I’m not against the nomination.

Summer and Smoke is based on a Tennessee Williams play. But it doesn’t feel like a particularly good one. Or maybe it’s just me.

Geraldine Page is a woman whose never really… let’s face it. She’s in her 30s, she’s a virgin, and she’s really tightly wound. She’s home, caring for he senile mother and younger sister, and maybe, just maybe, she’s about to find love with a traveling salesman, who fucks just about anything. It’s kind of like Grease, only instead of Sandy just becoming a whore, Danny also becomes a respectable man who wants nothing to do with her after she does.

Una Merkel plays Geraldine Page’s mother. Her one big trait in the movie is that she’s senile.

Trust me, it’s a boring film. Anyone with even remotely similar tastes to mine will very likely not enjoy this movie at all. Now, as for the supporting performance. Una Merkel plays an old senile grandmother. That’s basically the performance. You know, old and crazy, that sort of thing. She just does batshit insane things and everyone is like, “Oh you crazy bitch, get the fuck out of here, stop doing that!” and Page is the only one who’s like, “Guys, she’s sick. It’s all right mother, now come and sit down.” And basically it’s the kind of thing where they need to keep her on a schedule, otherwise she does something crazy. That’s basically it. She plays an insane mother. Not like,Mommie Dearest insane. More like, senile and prone to do shit like call up the dude her daughter has a crush on and be like, “She really wants to fuck you,” and then when the daughter is like, “You shouldn’t have done that,” she calls him back and is like, “She never wants to see you again, plus she has chlamydia.” That’s the kind of performance. It was enjoyable, since the movie was so bad. I at least got something to hope for. But there wasn’t nearly enough of her in the film, plus, it’s still a #5. So, there.

West Side Story is a perfect film, and in my mind, may be the best musical ever put to screen.

You should know the story by now. Sharks, Jets, Tony, Maria. It’s wonderful.

Rita Moreno plays Anita, and holy shit is she a force of nature in this movie. Her energy, her dance movies — she’s a total fucking package in this movie. She’s undeniably the most memorable performance in the category. It’s also helped by how happy this movie makes me on an elemental level.

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The Reconsideration: When considering this category, it’s hard not to immediately boil it down to two choices: Rita Moreno and Judy Garland. Una Merkel is pretty one note and melodramatic. Lotte Lenya is oily and evil, but not particularly strong enough to vote for. And Fay Bainter is a solid veteran, but again, not quite there. It’s really either Garland or Moreno.

And between the two, Garland has the character and the type of role that feels like an “Oscar” type part. But really, she only gets three scenes, and doesn’t have to do a whole lot in them. She’s not the strongest technical actress, and she’s appropriately emotional in the role and does a strong job at it, but you could honestly replace her with a bunch of other actresses and the performance would have been just the same. Really the part that helps her better than others is the fact that she plays a woman beaten down by life, which… yeah. I feel like the reasons I’d want to vote for her are outside the realm of pure performance. Not to mention, in another year, she might not even have been second for me.

With Moreno, it’s all performance. She’s such a firecracker, and the dancing and singing is all perfect. But then she handles the acting part really well too, like that scene near the end where she confronts them in the store. She’s great. That’s why ultimately she’s the vote her, because she gave the best performance.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Rita Moreno, West Side Story
  2. Judy Garland, Judgment at Nuremberg
  3. Fay Bainter, The Children’s Hour
  4. Lotte Lenya, The Roman Spring of Miss Stone
  5. Una Merkel, Summer and Smoke

My Vote: Rita Moreno, West Side Story

Recommendations:

West Side Story is a life essential movie. Perhaps the greatest movie musical ever made. It’s utterly perfect in every way, and as a human being, you should see it, because it’s an absolutely astounding piece of work. (And if you can, see it in the highest possible quality, because it’s one of the most beautifully shot films of all time.

Judgment at Nuremberg is film buff essential, and needs to be seen if you love movies. It’s so well done. Incredible writing, directing, acting. Must see film. One of the greatest of all time, and for sure one of the top five or ten trial films ever made.

The Children’s Hour is a terrific film, and you should see it because it stars Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. If that doesn’t interest you, then I don’t know what to tell you. What kind of film buff doesn’t want to see those two actresses in the same movie?

The Roman Spring of Miss Stone is not a particularly good movie. But if you love Vivien Leigh as I do, you’ll want to see it. Plus Warren Beatty is in it. So there’s that. Otherwise, not overly great or particularly necessary.

Summer and Smoke was a really boring movie. Haven’t seen it in years, but I remember distinctly not liking it. I don’t think it’s held up well, because not many people have really heard of this. So I’m not one to recommend this. Maybe it’s good. I don’t particularly like it. Objectively it’s not that essential.

The Last Word: The category quickly distills itself into Garland vs. Moreno. I think you can take whoever you want. But I feel like if we’re really going based on pure performance and not outside factors, Moreno wins. But either her or Garland are good choices, and I wouldn’t argue with someone taking either. Though I think they ultimately made the right one.

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1962

Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird

Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker

Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth

Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate

Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Analysis:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect film adapted from a perfect novel. If you haven’t seen it, please, stop reading this and go seek out this film right now. Come find me. I’ll watch it with you.

Mary Badham is Scout. She’s the narrator of the film and the main character of the story. Should she be in this category? Absolutely not. She’s on screen for at least 75% of this movie. The reason you want to vote for this character is because you love Scout and there are sentimental reasons. In terms of pure performance, she’s maybe third. But when you factor in the sentimental reasons, I get it. You could still take her. I always want to. The category fraud (but seriously though) and the overall fact that the performance is just really good and not “holy fuck” good (two other performances in the category are “holy fuck” good), she’s probably not the vote, although I wouldn’t ever argue against taking her.

The Miracle Worker is the story of Annie Sullivan working to teach Helen Keller how to communicate. It’s terrific.

Patty Duke plays Helen Keller. And holy shit. It’s incredible what she pulls off. Some people might think it’s overdone, and I get that. But man, that meal scene is something else. And even that final scene, where she conveys so much without really the ability to communicate, is tremendous. It’s her and Lansbury that are really the two best performances in the category.

Sweet Bird of Youth is, that’s right, you guessed it, Tennessee Williams. His plays are usually good for some acting nominations. This one had three.

Paul Newman is a guy who was run out of town essentially some years prior and went off to make it as an actor. Now he’s back in town with a famous actress in tow, saying he’s gonna be the star of her next picture. Meanwhile, the “Boss” of the town who threw him out last time doesn’t like his return and wants him to leave, especially because the reason he threw him out was because of Newman’s relationship with his daughter. And of course all those old feelings get churned up again as well.

Knight plays Heavenly Finley, the daughter of Boss Finley. I haven’t seen this performance in a while, but from what I remember, she was really solid in the role and did more than I thought I’d see from it. I thought easy throwaway #5, ingenue kind of role. But I felt she did more with it than I expected, even though clearly I’d never vote for it. I remember believing that moment where Newman, who’d been passing himself off as big shit around town, suddenly loses all of it and becomes a nervous mess when he encounters her again. I believed that she had the power to do that. And then she gets to play a lot of inner turmoil because Newman skipped town, leaving her with a baby she had to abort. Meanwhile her father’s parading her around town as the epitome of purity. She gets a couple of good scenes and does a really good job with them. I think she’s a solid four here, and you might even make the case for third.

The Manchurian Candidate is one of the all-time thrillers.

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are soldiers who fought in Korea together. They were put under a brainwashing program after being captured and are secretly sleeper agents. If you haven’t seen this, don’t worry about the plot, just watch it, because it’s perfect, and it’s amazing.

Angela Lansbury plays Mrs. Shaw, Harvey’s mother. She’s secretly controlling her son (and also openly, in a way), using him for both communist agendas as well as trying to further his political career. She’s ruthless, and she’s one of the most memorable characters in film history.

Here’s the thing… she’s great. There’s no denying that she’s great. She’s easily top two in the category. But I don’t know if I vote for her. A lot of people would because of the film and because of the iconic nature of the role. I don’t know if this performance is so good that it automatically wins.

Birdman of Alcatraz is one of the great prison films of all time. If you love Shawshank, it’s hard for me to believe you won’t love this.

Burt Lancaster is a guy in prison (solitary, no less) for life, and ends up by chance having a bunch of birds and studying them and becoming an expert on them from his cell. The idea is that he’s fighting against the system needlessly, and then he puts all his energy into these birds, and actually ends up doing some good.

This is Thelma Ritter’s final nomination. She plays Lancaster’s mother, who manages to (off-screen) get his death sentence commuted to a life sentence. And she comes to visit him all the time, but eventually they have a falling out because Lancaster meets some woman, and then she dies.

It’s not a very big part. She’s good. She’s always good. The part feels weird. She doesn’t have a whole lot to do and doesn’t really fit the plot sometimes. I’d want to look for a reason to vote for her because of who she is, but honestly, I think she might be fifth in the category here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I don’t see how Ritter or Knight even come close in a category like this. The other three all win this in any other year. Then, in all honesty, as much as I love Mockingbird and love Badham’s performance, I don’t think the performance is actually as good as the other two. That is to say, it’s great, because you really empathize with the character and love her and feel for her and all of that. But I’m talking purely technical here. Which I have to resort to in order to pick between the three. Also, the fact that she’s being billed as supporting and has an hour and a half of screen time troubles me, even though I blame the nominations process more than anything. That’s not gonna disqualify her. Still, I felt the other two are better winners in the category. As much as I love Scout.

And then, between Lansbury and Duke, I take Duke. I just don’t think the Lansbury performance is entirely there as much as Dukes is. One could and would easily argue it is, which is fine. For me, though, I was utterly spellbound by what Duke accomplished, and the fact that she was only 15 at the time was not lost on me. To give this kind of performance at 15 is not something that happens often.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
  2. Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate
  3. Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird
  4. Shirley Knight, Sweet Bird of Youth
  5. Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz

Rankings (films):

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Birdman of Alcatraz
  3. The Miracle Worker
  4. The Manchurian Candidate
  5. Sweet Bird of Youth

My Vote: Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker

Recommendations:

To Kill a Mockingbird. Must I? How does one make it to even high school without seeing this?

The Manchurian Candidate is an essential film for film buffs. This is one of those movies that you get to pretty quickly because every one of your movie buff friends is like, “Oh, you gotta see that one.” The cast, the story — Angela Lansbury — everyone sees this. It’s amazing. Must see if you love film, because you’re going to love it.

The Miracle Worker is a film you probably see growing up. If not, see it. It’s great. Film buff essential, and low key life essential.

Birdman of Alcatraz is a classic. Great, great film. Not sure if it’s “essential,” but I think it is. Prison movies are always good, and Lancaster is great. It’s a fantastic film. I consider it essential for film buffs.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a solid film. Lot of stars. Big in the Oscars. There are a lot of reasons to see this. Not overly essential, not compared to the rest of the films on this list. But it’s definitely worth seeing because as a film buff, a lot of people involved are people you like from other places. Worth a watch.

The Last Word: Lansbury, Duke and even Badham. Take any one of them and no one argues. Sure, maybe they disagree, but they couldn’t argue, because all of them are amazing. They really couldn’t have made a bad choice here, so there’s nothing more to say except neither can you, as long as you don’t diminish the performances you don’t vote for. This is one of those categories you dream of.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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