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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1969-1970)

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.

1969

Catherine Burns, Last Summer

Dyan Cannon, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower

Sylvia Miles, Midnight Cowboy

Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Analysis:

Last Summer is a fucking crazy film. I don’t even know if I can really explain it. You kind of have to experience it. It’s also better if you don’t know what it’s about.

I’ll give you the background of me seeing this movie for the first time. I’m nearing the end of the Oscar Quest. Down to the last 400 or so. And I’m home at that point, nothing to do. This is before I moved out to LA. So I’m on weird hours. Going to bed around 5:30am every morning and getting up around 1 most days. And I scour TCM to see what Quest movies are going to be on so I can catch them. And this movie, which was (and still kind of is) hard to find, I see it’s gonna be on TCM at like 2:45 in the morning. So I decide this is probably my only chance to see it, and decide to stay up. I remember being mostly tired but making myself stay up for it. In my mind, since I know nothing about it and can’t really find it, it’s an inconsequential movie that I’m watching just to take it off the list. I have no expectations to even like this thing.

So I start watching, and I kind of like it. It’s weird, but interesting. And then I’m watching, and Catherine Burns shows up. So I’m tuned in to her performance. And I’m watching, and it’s engaging, and she’s great, and I’m starting to get more and more interested in the movie. It’s very late 60s, but it’s engaging. And then the movie gets to the last ten minutes, and something happens that’s just like, “What the FUCK?!” And then the movie ends. And I’m sitting there, thinking I could have ended a nice movie and gone right to bed, sitting there, not knowing what to do with myself, stunned. It’s crazy.

Not to get too into specifics, three teenagers meet while on vacation on Fire Island, and they become friends. They do everything together, and eventually start drinking, doing drugs and experimenting with sex. The first act involves them rescuing an injured seagull and nursing it back to health. Then, one day, Catherine Burns shows up, as the fourth person. She’s this shy, nerdy, inexperienced girl who’s kind of the opposite of Barbara Hershey, who plays the other girl. Or really all the others. She hates the water, can’t swim, doesn’t want to get involved with any sort of risky behavior. She’s the kind of person people hang out with but make fun of mercilessly behind their backs.

I don’t even know how to explain it, but she’s so utterly believable in this part. At first, you might not understand the nomination, but there’s a scene about an hour into the film, where all four are hanging around the house and Burns discusses how her mother died that’s truly remarkable. You really get the sense of how serious this all is to her and how not serious everything is to the other characters. I’ve always considered her someone who’s right there for a vote in this category, and I get the feeling that this might be the time I vote for her. We’ll see.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a major step forward for the ampersand.

Bob and Carol go on a sex retreat and come back all enlightened and open about all things related to sex and their marriage. They have dinner with Ted and Alice, a much more uptight, square couple. And it freaks them out to hear the other couple talk about having affairs around each other and be completely okay with it. And we watch the first couple dealing with this new openness in their marriage, and the other couple struggling with their own marriage in the wake of how happy the other couple now seems.

Dyan Cannon plays Alice. She gets freaked out when hearing about Bob and Carol having affairs and being okay with it. She’s the one struggling the most with opening up to this new attitude toward sex, and in the end she surprises everyone by being the one to suggest… what gives the film its title. The ampersand part.

She’s fine in the part. Don’t love the performance, think she’s just good. Wouldn’t put her higher than fourth here. Mostly it’s between her and Miles for the bottom part. Miles had the better performance, but she had more screen time and made more of an overall impression.

Cactus Flower is one of those titles I never really considered as all that weird until I saw it just now. It always felt like it fit, but also, it’s fucking Cactus Flower. I actually always knew what this film was because, for some weird reason, in my campus bookstore, all throughout college, this DVD was always propped up on a desk right by the checkout counter. So every time I was there, I always saw it. And it was weird. Anyway…

Walter Matthau plays a dentist. The sexiest of all the periodontal vocations. He’s a womanizer and currently dating Goldie Hawn, a 20 year old. She loves him. It’s not mutual. He breaks it off, saying he’s married with kids. She tries to kill herself. He freaks out and says he’ll marry her. Though in order to do that, he needs to get a divorce from his fake wife. So he gets Ingrid Bergman, his secretary (naturally secretly in love with him), to pose as his wife to keep up the facade.

Goldie Hawn is… kind of the lead of the movie. Not wholly, but mostly. She disappears during the scenes where Matthau and Bergman fall for one another, taking a back seat to that story. But they set her up as the lead. She’s good. You’d think it’s a one-note comic performance, but she’s got a lot of depth to her. I can see why they voted for her. I really liked the performance, and I like Goldie Hawn, but in this category, the performance is only third best.

Midnight Cowboy is one of the great Hollywood films. Very much of its era. It’s not an all-time great the way Casablanca is or Citizen Kane is. It’s more of a classic of the 60s. You know what I mean?

Jon Voight is a small town Texas man who goes to New York in hopes of becoming a hustler. So he gets there and has no idea what he’s doing and ends up in a friendship with Dustin Hoffman, playing one of the more memorable screen characters of all time. And the film is more about their friendship and their struggle to make it on the fringes of society. It’s a great film.

Sylvia Miles plays a woman who is in exactly three scenes. She’s only on screen for about five minutes. Voight shows up on the streets and propositions her. She invites him upstairs. We then get a great moment where she talks to her husband as Voight undresses her. Then, afterward, he awkwardly asks her for money. And she flips the fuck out. She thought he wanted to sleep with her because she looked great. And suddenly it all comes crashing down and she flips out. And she comically ends up turning the tables on him, getting him to pay her in order to stop crying. It’s really funny.

The character is great. The problem is she’s barely on screen. She’s memorable, but she’s literally on screen for five minutes. I can’t vote for that.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is one of my absolute favorite movies to talk about. Because the title is memorable. You may have heard of the title even without knowing remotely what the movie is about. Crossword puzzles and shit. But not many people actually know what this movie is, and I love it. Especially because I can set you up the way the movie does, but giving you the premise and then promptly not telling you anything else and letting it win you over. Because there’s a definite way to spoil this movie, and yet, you don’t really have to, because the set up is so good, you don’t need to get that far.

On the boardwalk in Santa Monica, there’s a dance competition. People sign up and the winners get prize money. The goal is simple: you and a partner dance, all day, every day.  You get small breaks, but otherwise, you dance. The last couple standing at the end of the contest, wins. That’s it. That’s the movie. We follow a bunch of different couples as they do this. And the competition gets crazier as they start adding challenges to eliminate people, things like that. And trust me, it draws you right in. You’re utterly fascinated by how this competition is gonna turn out.

Susannah York plays an aspiring actress. She’s done Shakespeare on the stage and now she wants to make it in Hollywood. She’s constantly fretting about her hair and her makeup and her dress. And we watch as she slowly loses her shit over the course of the competition. She’s mostly present throughout the film, but only really gets two or three big scenes. The first big scene is when she discovers one of her dresses is missing. She has a full on meltdown. We see how thin her carefully constructed reality is. She only has two dresses and a very small amount of makeup. Outside of that, she has nothing. The dress becomes a representation of her mental state. The second scene is where she tries to hold onto her sanity and sexuality by seducing the main character. But it’s cut short by their break being over, which she takes as a rejection. Though they do eventually switch to become partners. Her final scene is after one of their “races,” where the couples have to run around a circle, where the last few are eliminated, and one of the competitors dies during the race. And she has a full on breakdown in the shower. It’s a hell of a scene. She underplays the hell out of it. It’s a perfectly acted moment.

She’s someone that definitely could earn my vote in this category. It took me the five years of maturity to really appreciate this performance. She’s top two in the category for me for sure.

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The Reconsideration: This category feels completely different than it did five years ago. Yet, not a whole lot has changed in my opinions.

I can’t take Sylvia Miles. She’s on screen for five minutes, and I just can’t do it. She’s fine, but no way. Dyan Cannon had a weaker performance than Miles but more screen time, so she’s out too. Wouldn’t vote for either. Hawn — I always enjoyed the performance, but I never thought it was great, even when I voted for her last time. Now, with two other people I liked better than her, I can’t rightly vote for a performance I don’t love.

Catherine Burns was always a performance I loved, and last time I ended up not taking her for reasons that had nothing to do with the performance. And this time, Susannah York’s performance made much more of an impression on me, because I was able to focus on it as a performance. I think those two are the main choices in the category. And honestly, I’ve always been so impressed with the Burns performance that I have to take her. There’s something so believable about the entirety of that character, whereas with York, I have to slowly buy into it more, and am conscious of the fact that I feel she’s doing a good job with it.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Catherine Burns, Last Summer
  2. Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  3. Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower
  4. Dyan Cannon, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  5. Sylvia Miles, Midnight Cowboy

Rankings (films):

  1. Midnight Cowboy
  2. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
  3. Cactus Flower
  4. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
  5. Last Summer

My Vote: Catherine Burns, Last Summer

Recommendations:

Midnight Cowboy is an essential movie. Best Picture winner, “I’m walkin’ here!” You should know how essential this is on title alone.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is one of my favorite films of the late 60s. I say it’s essential, because it’s one of the most underrated movies and is a forgotten masterpiece. Highly, highly recommended.

Last Summer is an incredible film. Frank Perry is one of the most underrated directors of all time. I will always talk up his films. They’re all offbeat, independent and very different from what you’d normally expect a film to look like. So some people might not like this because of how laid back it is, narratively. But I love this movie, and all of Frank Perry’s stuff. So I recommend it very highly for film buffs.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a Paul Mazursky film. And he’s an important voice in cinema history, even if most people don’t know it. His films can be hit and miss, but they are worth seeing. This is a very 60s movie. Free love, sex, all of that. But it’s good. I recommend it, even though you’re under no obligation to ever see this.

The Last Word: I understand the Goldie Hawn win, somewhat. But York and Burns seem to have given the two best performances. Just watch all the performances. It’ll be hard not to consider those two the top ones. Hawn is entertaining, sure, and I can see someone wanting to take her. But the other two leave a real mark on their films. Either of those feel like the right choice in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1970

Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces

Lee Grant, The Landlord

Helen Hayes, Airport

Sally Kellerman, MASH

Maureen Stapleton, Airport

Analysis

Five Easy Pieces is a great film. I didn’t fully appreciate it five years ago, but I certainly do now.

Jack Nicholson is a guy who works in an oil field. He has a steady girlfriend, and lives a simple life. Goes out drinking, works. Completely normal. He’s also a piano prodigy, who comes from a family of musical prodigies. He goes to visit his sister, who says their father had a stroke. And the film is about him traveling home, dealing with all sorts of unresolved family issues. It’s a great, great movie.

Karen Black plays Nicholson’s girlfriend. She’s not particularly bright, but loves him. He doesn’t take her seriously, and treats her horribly. And she keeps coming back. The beauty of the character is that you write her off as a one-note stereotype, but you realize over the course of the film how much depth there is to her. It’s quite a good performance that I didn’t fully appreciate five years ago.

The Landlord is a film that only could exist in the 70s.

Beau Bridges is a guy who lives off his parents’ money. He buys an apartment building in a poor, black section of Brooklyn. His idea is to take it, evict everyone and turn it into a house for himself. Of course he eventually starts to like the tenants and decides to fix up the building and make it habitable for them. Thus becoming (insert title here).

Lee Grant plays Bridges’ mother. She’s completely off the wall. She’s rich and out of touch with reality in the most entertaining way. She’s completely old money, the type that’s overtly racist, but because that’s just how she was brought up and it’s all she knows. And she gets these great comedic cutaways. Like when she thinks her son got a black woman pregnant, and it cuts to her imagining she’s this “mammy” to a horde of black babies. She gets a great scene where she gets drunk with one of the tenants of the building. That’s really the highlight of the performance.

She’s very over the top and entertaining. Not someone you can really vote for, but definitely the one you can really like and appreciate. Though you can also really not like it. I can see people being very turned off by it. I think she creates a believable, well-rounded character that happens to come off as a bit broad nowadays. However, we’re in a different era. And the fact that this isn’t a complete parody of a character shows you how much depth she brings to it. And she’s hilarious to boot. I think she’s solidly someone you can consider for a vote, even though I probably wouldn’t take her. But you never know. We’ll see where it goes.

Airport is the start of the disaster film craze of the 70s. The beautiful thing about it is how pure it is. Now, a disaster movie is all about spectacle. The size of the wave, the enormity of the destruction. Here, it’s all about the situation, and the characters.

It begins with a bunch of different characters at a snowy night at an airport one night. We watch all of their dramas play out. Then, midway through the movie, something happens (something utterly insane, in retrospect) and one of the planes is in danger of going down and they have to figure out how to get it down without killing the rest of the passengers. It’s great. Very dated, but awesome. I liked how it focused on the characters and let the situation take over in the second half, using what we know about the characters to enhance the drama.

Helen Hayes plays a batty old woman who likes to stowaway on airplanes. She’s a widow who has no money, and her daughter lives across the country. So she simply walks onto planes and sits down without a ticket. Sometimes she gets caught. She completely admits her actions and doesn’t care one bit. She knows they won’t take her to court — an airline suing an old lady who wants to see her daughter. And she’s got all these methods for getting onto the planes. It’s great. They try to babysit her until they can get her on a plane back to her destination, but she manages to keep ducking everyone assigned to watch her and going back to her usual methods. It’s awesome. She’s really entertaining, but essentially she’s the comic relief. A lot less over the top than Margaret Rutherford in The VIPs.

Of the two performances, she’s the more entertaining. Not the best in terms of pure acting, but definitely more memorable and more enjoyable. So she’s more likely the person people would vote for in this category.

Maureen Stapleton plays the wife of Van Heflin, a man taking a bomb onto the plane. His plan is to blow himself up so his wife gets the insurance money. She’s the patient wife, working tirelessly in a diner, who loves her husband. She realizes he’s up to something and rushes to the airport.

It’s a much more straightforward performance out of an actress we’re used to seeing in much more offbeat kind of roles. She didn’t make too many movies. And this one feels like more of a straightforward performance than usual. She spends much of the film looking sad and depressed, and gets one big meltdown moment. She’s good, but it’s not a performance most people would want to vote for. The scene where she cries and tells the administrators about her husband losing his job is really well acted. But it’s not something I like enough to want to vote for, and I’d wager that to be the case for most people.

MASH is one of the most famous comedies of all time, that led to one of the most famous TV series’ of all time. You should know what it is.

It’s about a (insert title here) unit in Korea. But no real medical stuff actually happens. It’s just shenanigans. That’s really all you need to know. Great cast, Robert Altman, one of the all time great comedies. Incredible film.

Sally Kellerman plays the head nurse of the camp, who of course wants to bring discipline and order to the circus that is the camp. They of course fuck with her at every opportunity, recording her having sex and broadcasting it over the PA system, leading to her earning the nickname Hot Lips. She’s the foil character to all the men and a lot of the performance is her being stern, then humiliated, then freaking out at the situations she gets put in. She’s very good in the part. But the performance… do you really vote for it? It’s really lucky she was even nominated. I’m cool with that. But no way do I love this performance enough to vote for it. Not even in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s so easy to see how Helen Hayes won this category. Was it the right choice? Probably not. But I can understand it. Look at what we have —

Between Hayes and Stapleton, Hayes is clearly the choice. Veteran, much more entertaining, and the performance doesn’t feel as labored and melodramatic. Stapleton is great, and deserves the nomination for the scene where she breaks down alone, but between the two, Hayes is clearly the vote. So that’s one gone.

Then there’s Kellerman. She’s great and she’s hilarious, but you don’t vote for her. Maybe some will say it’s a comic bias, but I just don’t love the performance enough to take it. Maybe she’s a third choice at best.

Lee Grant is great, but this performance isn’t all there for a vote. Most people would have her fourth. Probably because the movie isn’t as good as MASH and because the performance is very much of its era. But I appreciated the characterization and thought she was great, so I have her third. Still, wouldn’t vote for her.

So right there, it’s between Karen Black and Helen Hayes. And you see how Helen Hayes won. Now, for me, I’m not sure I automatically vote for that. Helen Hayes is delightful in the role, but Karen Black’s performance feels much more well-rounded. So I’m gonna take her. Hayes is fine as a winner, but Black is so heartbreaking in her role, she’s my choice. She’s so good. She really deserved this.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces
  2. Helen Hayes, Airport
  3. Lee Grant, The Landlord
  4. Sally Kellerman, MASH
  5. Maureen Stapleton, Airport

Rankings (films):

  1. MASH
  2. Airport
  3. Five Easy Pieces
  4. The Landlord

My Vote: Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces

Recommendations:

MASH is an all-time essential film. An all-time great comedy, and a hilarious, perfect film. Must see for all film buffs.

Five Easy Pieces is an essential film for film buffs. Not as essential as MASH, but if you love film, you have to see this movie. It’s one of the culturally essential films of the 70s, and it’s just an incredible film.

Airport isn’t essential per se, but it also kind of is. Big disaster movie that started a craze and made a lot of money. You should see it, but you theoretically don’t need to. But if you love movies, you’ll find a lot of reasons to see this, from the cast, to how important it is to its era, to the Oscars. You might as well just see it. It’s very enjoyable.

The Landlord is a fun film, but not essential. You can completely skip it and not be missing anything. It’s interesting because it feels like the 70s and gives you an interesting glimpse into the era, but outside of that, you’re not missing much.

The Last Word: Karen Black gives the best performance, but she lost out to the most entertaining performance, which happened to be given by a veteran. These things happen with the Academy, and you have to understand that. I don’t think Hayes was a bad choice, I just think Black was a better choice. The rest are fine, but I wouldn’t vote for them. I think Black ultimately gave the best performance in the category, and if you’re not gonna vote for her, you might as well be voting for Helen Hayes. Those are the two that stick out the most.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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