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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1971-1972)

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.

1971

Ann-Margret, Carnal Knowledge

Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show

Barbara Harris, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?

Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show

Margaret Leighton, The Go-Between

Analysis:

Carnal Knowledge is a Mike Nichols film about relationships. Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel are friends, and we follow them through different relationships over the next twenty years. It’s good. Not great, but good.

Ann-Margret plays one of Nicholson’s girlfriends. He keeps looking for the “perfect” woman and decides his perfect woman has huge tits. So he’s dating her, and she’s older, and devoted to him. And after a while, he starts to become bored of her and get restless.

Ann-Margret was never the strongest thespian, but she’s really solid in this role. Nichols takes her weaknesses and makes them strengths. She has a great scene where, after sex, the camera stays on her as Nicholson showers as she contemplates exactly what she’s going to say next. It makes the words all that much more important. And she mostly holds her own in the performance. It’s good enough to where I’m surprised she didn’t actually win this award. She feels like the kind of person they’d be all over with a vote.

I don’t know if I love the performance, but I certainly like it enough to consider it. There doesn’t seem to be a solid #1 in this category, so she’s definitely in the conversation.

The Last Picture Show is one of those movies I always remembered when I was getting into film as one that was thought of as one of the great films of all time. It always popped up and it never seemed like something I particularly wanted to see. Which meant that the first time I saw it, my reaction was almost assuredly going to be, “Yeah, that was good. But I don’t see why people think it’s one of the greatest films of all time.” I’ve seen the movie a few times since then, and my opinion hasn’t really changed. I think it’s a great film, though I really don’t think it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s one of those essential great films, but I wouldn’t put it up on the list with all the all-time greats.

It’s about life in a small town. That’s basically the film. We meet our characters, see their lives, and sort of drift from story to story as we go along. It’s utterly fascinating, and shot in black and white, which makes the whole thing stick out even more than if it would have been in color. It’s not worth getting into all the specific storylines because it’s a great film, and also is one that every film buff must see.

The two performances we’re interested in are Ellen Burstyn’s and Cloris Leachman’s.

Ellen Burstyn plays the mother of Cybill Shepherd’s character. She’s very cynical and is constantly warning her daughter that her youth and beauty will fade one day. And rather than being the mother to tell her daughter to wait until marriage to have sex, she tells her to get it over with because it’s not that big a deal. She’ having an affair with an oil man and used to sleep with Ben Johnson, who basically ran the town until he died. There’s not really a storyline for her. She’s more just a character who is there. It’s clear that the character has a lot of history and world weariness, and Burstyn injects a lot of that into the character. But there’s not a whole lot she has to do. She does get to intersect with the Cloris storyline toward the end when she tells the guy her daughter is manipulating (because she likes to be wanted) that she isn’t worth it. So there is that.

Cloris Leachman plays Ruth Popper, the wife of the town basketball coach. She’s completely neglected and left alone all day. She sits at home, depressed and sad, a lot like Alison Janney in American Beauty. She starts an affair with Timothy Bottoms, who is on the team. And it injects her with life. She gets to feel like a woman again. Then he leaves her when Cybill Shepherd finds out about the affair and goes after him (mostly because she’s out of other options and knows he’s had a crush on her). But they reconcile in the end.

Between the two performances, I see why Cloris’s is the preferred one. But when you look at it, she really doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time. It’s very effective screen time, yes, but she disappears for a long stretch of the film. But when she comes back for the last five minutes of the film, it’s really impressive.

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is one of the most bizarre films you will ever see. It’s almost stream of consciousness, and is completely surreal.

The opening scene is Dustin Hoffman writing a suicide note on the top of his penthouse balcony and jumping off. And as he falls, the credits sequence happens. And when he lands, he lands in his psychiatrist’s office. And the film goes off from there. It gets pretty crazy. Impossible to explain, and I loved every second of it.

Barbara Harris plays an aspiring actress. We first see her on an audition. She’s utterly charming, even if it’s clear she’s not particularly talented. The audition scene is quite terrific. She’s not great, and keeps chatting her way through it as if it is, even though she knows what’s really going on. Then afterwards, after they tell her to go, Hoffman, intrigued, stays to talk to her. And we get this really long scene where we hear about who she is. She has this wonderful monologue about how she realized she isn’t young anymore. It’s a really impressive scene. She’s brutally honest in the most refreshing way. In this crazy movie you get one moment of clarity, and it’s really quite wonderful. Big fan of this performance.

The Go-Between is a film that bored me to tears when I watched it the first time for this Quest. British period costume drama. Families on holiday, forbidden love between a rich girl and a farmer. That sort of thing. It’s fine. Don’t love it, but it’s fine.

Margaret Leighton plays Julie Christie’s mother. She’s the stuffy matriarch. Think Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave. That type of performance. Mostly she sits there for the film, giving stern looks and controlling her daughter’s life. She’s very much in the fringes for the majority of the film and has her big scene at the end, when she flips out upon learning about the affair between her daughter and the farmer.

It’s a forceful scene, when she gets it, and a lot of the rest of the performance is in the background. So, technically, it’s impressive, being able to convey a lot without being in the center of the frame. But I don’t love the performance nearly enough to want to vote for it.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: So here’s a category where I don’t truly love any of the nominees. Margaret Leighton did a better job than I thought she did, but I still wouldn’t take her. Between Burstyn and Leachman, I’ll take Leachman. So Burstyn’s out. Ann-Margret I love, but the performance is just solid. Barbara Harris is good in limited screen time.

I don’t know who to take, to be perfectly honest with you. Leachman is good, but the severe lack of screen time hurts her. I’d take Ann-Margret over her even though I think Leachman gave the better performance. And Harris is just kind of cruising there, all around solid. And you know what? I’ll take her. I want to take Ann-Margret, but I see flaws in that performance. Harris seems really believable, and I seem to be on a one-two scene punch kick this go-around (like with Carolyn Jones, etc). So I’ll take Harris this time. Maybe my love of the film helps.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Barbara Harris, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
  2. Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show
  3. Ann-Margret, Carnal Knowledge
  4. Ellen Burstyn, The Last Picture Show
  5. Margaret Leighton, The Go-Between

Rankings (films):

  1. Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Thing About Me?
  2. The Last Picture Show
  3. Carnal Knowledge
  4. The Go-Between

My Vote: Barbara Harris, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?

Recommendations:

The Last Picture Show is an essential movie. It’s a classic, and damn near an all-time classic. Must be seen by all film buffs.

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is such a wonderful hidden gem of a movie. Not for everyone at all. But it’s so unique and interesting that if you like movies that are completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, there’s a great chance of you appreciating this. I LOVE this movie.

Carnal Knowledge is a solid 70s drama. Not essential, but you do get Nicholson in his heyday, Ann-Margret looking great, and Art Garfunkel acting. And some Rita Moreno and Candice Bergen to boot. Mike Nichols directing… what more could you ask for? Highly recommended but not essential.

The Go-Between is a costume drama. Julie Christie, Alan Bates, based on a Pinter script (he didn’t write the book though).

The Last Word: What I love about my choice is that not a lot of people are gonna call me out on it because no one’s really seen the movie or all the nominees. But here, it feels like a category with a lot of #2s and no #1. I think you could safely take Ann-Margret, Barbara Harris or Cloris Leachman and they’d all be good choices. I have no issues with Cloris winning, though it still feels like Ann-Margret might have been the most “fitting” choice, not that that means anything either. I take Harris because the performance impressed me, I loved the film, and I don’t see the downsides to her performance as I see in the other two. So that’s where I’m at. You’re probably good to take almost any of these five nominees and be okay in doing so.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1972

Jeannie Berlin, The Heartbreak Kid

Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free

Geraldine Page, Pete n’ Tillie

Susan Tyrrell, Fat City

Shelley Winters, The Poseidon Adventure

Analysis:

The Heartbreak Kid is a great comedy. They remade it with Ben Stiller, but fuck that shit.

Charles Grodin marries Jeannie Berlin. They’re happy, and they’re going off on their honeymoon. And pretty quickly things go wrong. He starts to find her annoying, she gets sunburnt and can’t go out, and he also finds Cybill Shepherd, who he starts to find very attractive. Pretty soon, he decides he wants to leave Berlin for Shepherd.

Jeannie Berlin plays Grodin’s wife, and she’s really funny in the role. The crux of the performance is to come off both funny, annoying and sympathetic at the same time, and she pulls it off. She’s not evil, she’s just who she is. Which is the difference between a nomination and a typical comic performance.

I think I voted for her last time, but I don’t think the performance is really good enough to vote for. She’s just really solid and funny and

Butterflies Are Free is a 70s comedy, but very much like a play. Takes place almost entirely in a single apartment over the course of two days.

A blind man moves into an apartment to get away from his mother and live like an adult for a change. She doesn’t want him to. He meets Goldie Hawn, his next door neighbor. They hit it off and sleep together. Then the mother shows up, trying to get them to end it.

Eileen Heckart plays the main character’s mother. She’s overprotective, doesn’t like him being away from home. Is constantly meddling. She shows up to see how her son is living and openly disapproves of his place, and of Hawn, etc. Then he leaves and she takes Hawn out to lunch and tries to end the relationship. Then she realizes in the end she has to let her son grow up and be free to live his life, hence the title.

She’s good. Most of the performance is her being disapproving and sarcastic. It’s effective. She adds a lot of depth to the character. Not sure I vote for her, but I can see why she won. Especially in a category like this.

Pete ‘n’ Tillie is a film about (insert title here). Go figure.

Walter Matthau is Pete and Carol Burnett is Tillie. The first act of the film is very casual as they meet. He’s charming and kind of a dick, and she’s kind of reserved. They don’t really like one another at first, but the attraction is there. And we watch their relationship grow and change over several years. I don’t want to give too much away, because it’s not relevant to this article, but I really loved this film. It really pulls you in and puts you through the emotional ringer.

Geraldine Page plays Tillie’s friend, a rich, superficial woman. Most of her scenes are her trying to be charming and talking about herself. She disappears for a large chunk of the film. And rightfully so. Her character is really only there to get them together. Then she shows up in the end and has a catfight with Carol Burnett. There’s a scene where she has to state her age, and doesn’t want to do it and faints instead. She then accuses Burnett of forcing the situation to happen, and then they fight. No idea why the fuck it happens, but it does.

I mean… she’s fine in the movie. Wouldn’t vote for her at all. I always get the feeling that the Academy just wants to nominate Geraldine Page for things, which is why she always ends up on the list. I don’t know if I’d have nominated her, but who cares. I’m just happy the film is getting some recognition. She’s easily fifth in the category for me.

Fat City is a John Huston film. I really didn’t like it the first time I saw it, but I’ve come around.

Stacy Keach is an aging boxer who decides to get back into the fight game. And we follow him around as he meet an up and comer, starts a relationship with a drunk, and starts his comeback. It’s pretty good. I don’t love it, but I like it more than I did the first time.

Susan Tyrrell plays the drunk. She’s a likable drunk. Her first scene is memorable and impressive. She’s slurring around the bar. She’s like that in most scenes. Pretty much any time we go into the bar, she’s there. She gets a couple of great moments. She’s a really pitiful, yet sympathetic character. It’s an impressive performance. And in a category like this, she shoots near the top easily.

The Poseidon Adventure is possibly the best disaster movie ever made. I think it’s this and Towering Inferno.

A bunch of people are on a cruise ship celebrating New Year’s. A giant wave comes and capsizes the ship. The survivors have to get to the bottom of the ship (which is now on top of the water) in order to not die. That’s all you need to know.

Shelley Winters plays a former swimmer who is traveling to Israel with her husband to see their grandson. She pretty much gives up once the boat flips over because she knows she’s out of shape and won’t be able to move and climb like the rest of the people can. So for much of the trek to the surface, she’s, in a way, holding everyone back. And she gets to redeem everyone in the end when they get to a flooded hallway, and someone has to swim to the other side with a line so everyone else can make it across. So she does it, being the one with the skills to swim and hold her breath for that long. Of course, right after she does it, she has a heart attack and dies, but you know, it’s a big moment.

They might have voted for her if she didn’t already have two Oscars. I don’t think the performance is really worth one on its own, forget about a third one. I think she’s great and you have to love the character, but the performance is a disaster movie performance. Nothing more. She gets sentimental respect, but she’s not the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This… isn’t a very good category at all. And I didn’t think it was particularly great last time either. I’m gonna have to go whittle this one down, because I don’t know what the hell to do.

Shelley Winters — I love the role and love her, but I can’t vote for the performance. I’ll rank her higher than fifth, but I wouldn’t take her. So that’s one.

Geraldine Page — not nearly in the movie enough and I wouldn’t vote for her over Shelley Winters, who I’m not voting for, so she’s out.

Jeannie Berlin… great comic performance, depth to the character, I would consider her, but I don’t particularly want to take her. I don’t like the performance enough to consider it anything other than a compromise choice.

So that leaves Susan Tyrrell and Eileen Heckart. And right there, I see how Heckart won. But I also don’t love the Heckart performance enough to really want to vote for it. So, given that Tyrrell really inhabits the character and is memorable in the film, I’ll take her. I can at least see and feel why I like that performance over the others. So I’ll take her. Though I don’t particularly love any of these efforts.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Susan Tyrrell, Fat City
  2. Shelley Winters, The Poseidon Adventure
  3. Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free
  4. Jeannie Berlin, The Heartbreak Kid
  5. Geraldine Page, Pete ‘n’ Tillie

Rankings (films):

  1. The Poseidon Adventure
  2. Pete ‘n’ Tillie
  3. The Heartbreak Kid
  4. Butterflies Are Free
  5. Fat City

My Vote: Susan Tyrrell, Fat City

Recommendations:

The Poseidon Adventure is an essential film. It’s entertaining, and historically relevant. So must see.

Pete ‘n’ Tillie is one of the great underrated films of the 70s. Highly recommended. I love this movie and want more people to see it. Consider this one of my Hidden Gem recommendations that I think you’ll love.

The Heartbreak Kid is a solid comedy. Not perfect, but good. Worth a watch.

Fat City is John Huston, which makes it a certain level of essential. A lesser Huston, so not wholly essential, but it’s still Huston.

Butterflies Are Free is essential for Oscar buffs, and huge Goldie Hawn fans, but otherwise not particularly essential. Though it’s good. Worth seeing.

The Last Word: Not a great category. Page doesn’t feel like the choice. Winters feels like the one you want to take because you remember the role fondly and like her, but I don’t think the performance is really worth taking. But to each his own. Heckart feels okay, Tyrrell I think might be a consensus choice for people breaking down the category now. And Berlin — wild card. I imagine not many people would take her, but she could also be worth taking. Depends on which way you feel about this one. This is an easy one to pick a winner for if you really feel strongly, because it’s hard to argue that someone isn’t worth taking. I don’t think the choice particularly matters historically, so all of them are okay choices.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Personally, I think the Academy made the right decision on both occasions. I liked all the nominees with the exception of Geraldine page — I would have nominated Diane Keaton or Talia Shire instead (good, but not great, great in The Godfather). Even Cybill Shepherd was more interesting than Page. I do have great love for Ann-Margret’s and Jeannie Berlin’s performances. Barbara Harris is fantastic too, but I didn’t like the movie. Great analysis!

    May 7, 2016 at 2:43 pm

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