The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1936-1938)
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.
Mischa Auer, My Man Godfrey
Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
Stuart Erwin, Pigskin Parade
Basil Rathbone, Romeo and Juliet
Akim Tamiroff, The General Died at Dawn
My Man Godfrey is a film I’m gonna talk about a lot on this reconsideration, I realized. Because it was nominated in every single acting category. And Best Director. And inexplicably not Best Picture. Because that makes sense. Anyway, here we go, on our third go-round.
William Powell is a guy living in the city dump, a “forgotten man.” He’s picked up by a rich family as part of a fucked up scavenger hunt. He wants no part of them, but because one of the sisters is annoying, he helps the more endearing one of the two just to spite the other. And then he ends up becoming their butler. Hilarity and romance ensue.
Mischa Auer plays the “protege” of the matriarch of the family. Which basically means she’s sleeping with him under her husband’s nose and he’s hanging around and mooching money off the family. He sits around the house all day and does nothing. That’s the character. And he exists to eventually be thrown out by the father once he grows a pair of balls.
The performance is fine. Definitely the weakest of the nominated Godfrey performances. It’s like Jacki Weaver in the Silver Linings Playbook nominations. She’s good, and it’s a supporting role, just… you know, nothing you’d really think needed to be nominated. I have no problem with him being here, this being the first Supporting category of all time. Just… you know, things like this will get weeded out in the future. Since he really doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Definitely wouldn’t vote for him at all.
Come and Get It is a Howard Hawks movie. And, if you guys are watching the films as we go along, you saw clips of this in Frances, since Frances Farmer is in this movie.
Edward Arnold is a lumberjack who will pretty much do anything to get rich. So, kinda like Room at the Top. Or even Place in the Sun. Social climbing leading to bad shit. He’s got a girl, but then he dumps her to marry the daughter of the boss so he can inherit the business. Even though he clearly would have been happier with the other one. And then we cut to much later, when he’s rich and unhappy, and meets the daughter of the girl he dumped, and tries to win her over, in a way. Which of course puts him in direct competition with his own son, who also has a thing for her.
Walter Brennan plays a Norwegian lumberjack (he sounds like John Qualen, if that makes sense to anyone) who is really good at his job. And when Arnold dumps his girl, she falls into his arms. And then later on, when we flash forward, his wife is dead and his daughter (played by the same actress) is the one he cares for.
It’s a good role. It’s great when you know what Walter Brennan normally looks and sounds like, because he’s clearly doing a great job with this role. Not to mention he also gets to play the character as older and younger. It’s really everything you’d want out of a supporting performance. So really, this is pretty much a slam dunk winner. Maybe there’s one other choice, but he’s top two no matter how you slice it. Even before you consider — he’s WALTER BRENNAN.
Pigskin Parade is a fucking crazy movie. It’s always fun for me to go back to it because it’s such a random throwaway 30s comedy with a performance that… well, it’s very much of its time.
There’s a snafu in the scheduling for college football, so Yale, an apparent pigskin powerhouse, invites some tiny Texas school to play them in a game. So, being huge underdogs, they do their best to try to beat the bigger team in the game, to show people they’re no pushovers. And that’s the film. They do everything they can to try to win the game. Judy Garland is in this movie, by the way.
Stuart Erwin plays a backwoods hillbilly who is great at football, yet is dumb as a post. So now they have to figure out how to get him enrolled as a student in order to play him legally in the game.
Much of the performance is him being a yokel. It’s like Forrest Gump mixed with Ma Kettle in The Egg and I. People apparently loved hick stereotypes in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Not sure what to say. I mean… he’s in the movie. And he plays a backwards hillbilly. I explain it by saying, “This is what they liked back then, and this was the first category, so cut them some slack.” Otherwise I have no clue why this is here. Would anyone ever vote for this?
Romeo and Juliet is a story you may have heard of.
Basil Rathbone plays Tybalt. And honestly, if you’re doing Romeo and Juliet, the two roles that are gonna get all the acclaim outside the leads are Mercutio and Tybalt. And Tybalt is a perfect role for Basil Rathbone. He gets to show all his villain tendencies and be charismatic.
Honestly, if it’s not Walter Brennan, he’s the logical alternative choice. I just have a thing where I don’t like to vote for Shakespeare performances at the Oscars. Because, you know… this isn’t the stage. That’s where those performances are revelatory. Here it’s like, “Great, you did a good job.” So I probably won’t take him, even though he’s well worth a vote in this category.
The General Died at Dawn. They just wanted to make sure you knew that.
Gary Cooper is a mercenary who is trying to keep a Chinese warlord from getting a bunch of guns and get them to the peasants who need them. It’s all right. Standard action-thriller for the 30s.
Akim Tamiroff plays the warlord. He’s good in the role, and you can definitely consider him for the vote. But you guys know how much I’m against white actors playing Asians. So I refuse to vote for him on that alone. Were this 1936, I might feel differently. But it’s not. So I don’t. He’ll rank solidly on performance alone, but I will not vote for a performance I feel is inherently racist.
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The Reconsideration: Erwin and Auer are definite no-gos, and Tamiroff I refuse to vote for. That leaves two perfectly acceptable performances in Brennan and Rathbone. And since I’m very anti-Shakespeare at the Oscars (unless I have to… to preempt what will likely happen with Best Actor 1948), plus Walter Brennan is the very definition of a character actor and defines what this award was created for, not to mention the fact that he plays the character as younger and older… seems like an easy Walter Brennan vote without much fuss for me.
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- Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
- Basil Rathbone, Romeo and Juliet
- Akim Tamiroff, The General Died at Dawn
- Mischa Auer, My Man Godfrey
- Stuart Erwin, Pigskin Parade
- My Man Godfrey
- Romeo and Juliet
- Come and Get It
- The General Died at Dawn
- Pigskin Parade
My Vote: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
My Man Godfrey is an essential comedy. And an essential film. If you love film you need to see it because it’s incredible and hilarious.
Romeo and Juliet — you know… it is. I mean, you know what you’re getting. Norma Shearer, John Barrymore, Leslie Howard… you know the story. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want to see it with the stars of the 30s. Or rather, the MGM stars of the 30s. And directed by George Cukor. It’s not essential because no one remembers this version, so it comes down to how much you want to see the elements. Romeo and Juliet, outside of the two essential versions (Zeffirelli and Luhrmann), pretty much comes down to whether or not you want to see these specific people putting it on, whatever version that may be. You don’t need me for that. That’s all on you.
Come and Get It is essential for Oscar buffs because of the win. And it’s Howard Hawks. So there’s also that. Otherwise a perfectly decent film. You’re good either way on this one. But the elements are worth seeing, Hawks, Brennan, Farmer, etc.
The General Died at Dawn is fine. Gary Cooper. Entertaining thriller. No need to ever see this if you don’t want to, but it’s perfectly entertaining if you do. This feels like one of those movies you catch if it’s on TCM and you’ve got nothing else going on.
Pigskin Parade is amusing. It’s certainly that. Innocuous comedy about football in the 30s. But like, actually. Not like Leatherheads. And you have young Judy Garland. So there’s that. Otherwise, one of the least essential films in the history of the Oscars.
The Last Word: It’s either Brennan or Rathbone. I can’t see taking either Auer or Erwin here. And Tamiroff… if you have no issue with him playing Asian, go for it. He’s good enough to be in the conversation. So for me, it’s either Brennan or Rathbone. Rathbone’s character epitomizes this category, and Brennan’s performance and… self… I guess, epitomizes this category. He’s one of the great supporting actors of all time, and his character is sweet and lovable and he gets to play him at like, 35 and at 55. Seems like an easy winner in the first category ever. But hey, Rathbone is just as good if you want to go for it. We play by different rules in the first couple instances of a category.
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Ralph Bellamy, The Awful Truth
Thomas Mitchell, The Hurricane
H.B. Warner, Lost Horizon
Roland Young, Topper
Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
The Awful Truth is one of the great comedies of all time. A comedy of remarriage.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne both get home and find the other is not telling the complete truth about where they’ve been for the past week. Due to suspicions of infidelity, they divorce. Though it’s clear both still loves the other. She starts dating another guy, but he finds a way to screw it up. so she then returns the favor when he starts dating a socialite. But of course you know they’ll realize they love one another in the end. It’s a hilarious film.
Ralph Bellamy plays the guy Dunne starts dating. It’s your typical Ralph Bellamy performance. Sweet, innocent, charming, and the complete dupe for the male lead to get one over on. He played the same exact role in His Girl Friday. Here, he’s a nice guy and all, but he’s not Cary Grant. (There too, really.) He’s involved in a great piece of screwball comedy where Grant and the guy she was thought to be cheating with are both hiding in the apartment while he and his mother show up. And he’s oblivious the entire time until they discover the other two, and then quickly escape.
It’s actually a small role. He’s only got a few small scenes and then the sequence. It wouldn’t really rate as something to nominate, but we are in the first three years of the category, so you give them a break. As a performance, it’s fine, but not something I’d vote for unless I had to.
The Hurricane is a John Ford film. This isn’t about the boxer who got thrown in prison. It’s about a Polynesian who is thrown in prison.
The dude breaks a white guy’s jaw and is thrown in jail because of racism. And they pretty much conspire to keep him there because of that. He keeps trying to escape, and ends up making it worse on himself. You know the deal. And eventually it culminates in a giant storm, hence the title of the film.
Thomas Mitchell plays a doctor who narrates the story through a framing device, and acts as a minor character in the story he tells. It’s a pretty average Thomas Mitchell role. He drinks, but he’s not a drunk. He’s charming. Mostly he’s there to act as the conscience of the film. He’s always in group scenes, but is the third or fourth character in them. He does what he can to help, but doesn’t have the power to do a whole lot. He gets a big monologue near the end when he drunkenly stands up to them.
It’s a good performance. Very well done. You could make a case for it, but I don’t know if I’d take it. He doesn’t have the double threat aspect that Schildkraut has.
Lost Horizon is a great story. One of those films that doesn’t work outside of this early era of film. Because they remade it as a musical in 1973 and it did not work.
A plane full of people crashes in the middle of the Alps. They end up going to Shangri-La, the mythical kingdom where nobody ages. A lot of the film is the group seeing the paradise it is and having different reactions to it — who wants to stay, who wants to leave, etc. That’s pretty much the story.
H.B. Warner plays Chang, the butler of the place. Sort of. There’s an elderly ruler and he’s the guy who runs the day to day. He’s the mysterious servant who has all the secrets. It’s a nice, measured performance, but I draw the line at white people playing Asians. So I won’t vote for him on principle. As far as performances go, it’s definitely one of the top ones in the category.
Topper is a great movie. It’s kind of like if Ghost were a comedy. So, kind of like Ghost, I guess is what I’m saying.
Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are a rich couple who die drunk driving through Connecticut. They come back as ghosts. They’re stuck in the world until they, you know… do what ghosts need to do to ascend. They come across Topper, a meek bank clerk, and they pretty much just haunt him and create comedy until they end up helping him learn to live. You know, that sort of thing.
Roland Young plays Topper, and he’s kind of the lead of the picture. He’s not billed as such, but come on. His name is the title. He’s the straight man to the comedy, the big sequence being where he is passed out and they control him to make it look like he’s walking around. It’s a good piece of physical comedy. If I can get over the category fraud, I’d consider him here. Otherwise it’s not a particularly interesting category.
The Life of Emile Zola is about (insert title here). Would be weird if it were about anything else.
Though really, it’s about (insert title here), specifically as it pertains to The Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus is accused of being a spy simply because he’s a Jew. So they wrongfully throw him in prison for years with no cause or evidence. And Zola defends him and eventually gets him out of prison.
Joseph Schildkraut plays Dreyfus. He doesn’t really get a whole lot to do. We don’t see him until thirty minutes into the film. We get a brief scene of him playing with his family, then he’s called in and pretty much railroaded. They give him the chance to kill himself to avoid the shame, but he refuses. And then they throw him in jail. Where he stays until the end of the film. Schildkraut stands nobly as he’s put through grave injustice, and it’s a strong character. I’m not quite sure the film gives him much to do, but as a character, this clearly is the one to vote for. And honestly, the performance is even the one to take, too. He’s very good here. In a category like this, he rises to the top immediately and isn’t overtaken by anyone.
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The Reconsideration: Bellamy is great, but has little to do and is basically there to be a straight man. Roland Young is a lead, essentially, but does great physical comedy. If you can overcome them not knowing where to place him, I guess you could take him. Warner is good, but I refuse to vote for a white person playing Asian. Mitchell is really solid, but the character isn’t very memorable historically. Schildkraut is playing Dreyfus, and he’s really good in the role. So it’s a slam dunk winner, honestly. Maybe you take Mitchell, maybe you take Warner. Hell, take anyone, really, since they’re just getting the category started. But the one that does fit the best historically is Schildkraut, and I agree with them on the choice.
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- Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
- Thomas Mitchell, The Hurricane
- H.B. Warner, Lost Horizon
- Roland Young, Topper
- Ralph Bellamy, The Awful Truth
- The Awful Truth
- Lost Horizon
- The Life of Emile Zola
- The Hurricane
My Vote: Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
The Life of Emile Zola won Best Picture, making it a certain level of essential for all film buffs. Though, as Best Picture winners go, it’s one of the least essential ones out there. Still, it’s a solid film that’s worth seeing.
The Awful Truth is an all-time comedy and is 100% essential for any film fan. It’s one of the best comedies ever made.
Lost Horizon is Frank Capra, and one of his better ones. Not as essential as the really famous Capra films, but still close. The story is pretty famous and I think film buffs need to see it. All time, it’s not essential, but I say you should see it and it’s also a really solid film. Trust me, it’s good. See it.
Topper is a great comedy and well worth seeing. Cary Grant alone makes it a certain level of essential. As far as 30s movies go, it’s near essential. For all time, it’s just a good comedy that’s worth a watch. If you’re into 30s films, definitely check this one out.
The Hurricane is John Ford, and it has a nice hurricane sequence at the end. Otherwise you don’t need to see it. It’s fine. It’s one of those stories you’ve seen before if you watch a lot of these movies. Overall it’s decent, but you don’t ever have to go out of your way to see this.
The Last Word: Schildkraut holds up the best of any of these, historically, when you factor in the role and the actual performance. Mitchell would work, especially if you didn’t know he’d win one of these in two years. Warner is fine, if you can get over the white guy playing Asian thing. Young, you have to get over him being the lead. And then Bellamy — sure. It’s an open category, but I think they made the right choice.
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Walter Brennan, Kentucky
John Garfield, Four Daughters
Gene Lockhart, Algiers
Robert Morley, Marie Antoinette
Basil Rathbone, If I Were King
Kentucky was one of the hardest films for me to find when I did this Quest the first time.
The film is basically Romeo and Juliet in the South. Two families hate each other because, during the Civil War, one guy killed another guy over some horses. And of course, two members, not knowing the other is of the enemy family, meet and fall in love. And the families both have horses racing at the Kentucky Derby.
Walter Brennan plays the old patriarch of one of the families. He was a kid when the murder happened and now he’s like 80. They loved having Brennan play older than he was. He was playing an old man in his 40s through his 70s. He’s a crotchety old man here, who hasn’t forgotten why he hates the other family, and he pretty much won playing the typical Walter Brennan role on top of playing much older than he was.
Four Daughters is a movie designed for a trio of singing sisters…. and they threw in an extra one that looked like them, even though she wasn’t related to the other three.
The Lane sisters (plus Gale Page) are (insert title here) of Claude Rains. They’re all good at music, and run a boarding house. And the film is about them all finding love in different ways. One with a boarder, one with the boy next door, etc. It’s a film designed to showcase the girls’ singing abilities with a plot drawn around it. I’ll give the film credit for not being a complete piece of fluff and having some dramatic elements to it, but ultimately it’s not a movie that’s overly memorable from this era.
John Garfield plays one of the suitors of the girls. This role made him a star. While most of the leading men are the happy-go-lucky type, Garfield is the brooding, cynical one. He’s the one that stands out from the rest, with a persona that foretells his later noir persona. And it’s clear from the start the character isn’t going to get a happy ending, which adds to the impact he has on an otherwise sugary film.
Which leads to me conundrum. He’s good, but he really doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film. He’s a square peg in a round hole. I feel like voting for him would be like voting for that selfish athlete who has great individual stats, but because of that his team finished below .500. (As a New Yorker, I pretty much just have to say Carmelo Anthony and everyone knows what I mean.) Isn’t the idea to be good and make those around you good as well? He’s charming, but it just doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. I wouldn’t want to vote for him, but I get that some people would.
Algiers is a crime film. Almost a noir precursor.
It’s about Pepe le Moko, a thief hiding out in Algiers after a heist. The police want to get him, but they can’t seem to find him. So they’re waiting him out, keeping him trapped in the city, waiting for him to feel trapped and try to escape. And of course the arrival of a woman threatens to lead to those exact circumstances.
Gene Lockhart plays a scheming con man who wants to turn Pepe in for the reward. He’s such a slimy bastard. He’s slick-talking, playing all the angles, and most people know him as a scumbag. And of course when he tries to rat out Pepe, he ends up… well, it doesn’t end well, as you can guess. It’s a solid performance. Kind of dated, but solid. Don’t know if anyone takes him, but he’s definitely effective within the context of the film.
Marie Antoinette is pretty self-explanatory. If you saw the Sofia Coppola movie, this is just the same as that, just 70 years earlier.
Marie Antoinette is basically sent off to marry the future King of France. He’s shy, and the marriage at first has problems. But eventually they get over it. Mostly we follow their marriage leading to the eventual… you know, head chopping.
Robert Morley plays the Dauphin, her husband. He gets to play shy and aloof at the beginning, preferring to make keys instead of making love to his wife. Then he plays the man who won’t stand up to his grandfather, and is shown that he has the strength to do so. Then he gets to fight for his wife. Then he gets to be a tragic figure when the revolution happens and he’s sent for death but tries to put a brave face on for his family. I really like this performance. I think he did a great job with it, and think he’s well worth a vote in this category.
Apparently this was also a performance planned for Charles Laughton, which would have made a lot of sense, had he done it. And also would have probably won the category (though it’s already a borderline lead, and if it were Laughton, I doubt he’d have ended up as Supporting).
If I Were King is almost the name of a song from The Wizard of Oz. Otherwise it’s something I’m pretty sure 85%+ of the people who read this article will have never heard of.
Ronald Colman is one of those guys who talks a lot but mostly hangs out at a bar all the time. A writer, I think is what they’re called. He’s constantly talking about how shitty the king is and “(insert title here), I’d fix shit.” Little does he know, the king is in the bar in disguise. And such talk gets a person killed. But the king is amused, so he secretly makes a deal with Colman. He tells him he’s going to give him some power for a period of time, to se if he really can do all the stuff he’s talking about. Of course, he’s planning on killing him anyway, but the whole thing is amusing to him. And then Colman finds out what’s gonna happen to him, so he rallies all the poor people to fight, ultimately helping the king. And the king is eventually like, “You know, I can’t deal with all this shit, just go.” And he lets him live. In exile. But you know. Take what you can get.
Basil Rathbone plays the king. And it’s a very memorable performance. Mostly because of the vocal inflection he uses. He sounds like a witch. But in 1938, that works. Look at Walter Brennan. But I like how he plays him. He’s not a villain, per se, even though he’s set up as one. He’s more of a beleaguered king trying to run his country. Sure, he’s gonna kill a man for speaking his mind, but he ultimately doesn’t. So he gets complexity to the role, and he gets to be the antagonist we respect in the end. I always think of this as his version of Richard III. I really like this character quite a bit.
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The Reconsideration: If I weren’t so familiar with Walter Brennan, I might take him here. He’s good, but I can’t shake my knowledge of his screen persona, making me less likely to vote for him, since I’ve seen him give this performance a dozen times. Sure, he’s 44 playing 84, but we saw him play older already. And the performance really only is my third favorite. So I don’t think I take him, even though I understand why the Academy did.
As for the rest, Lockhart is good, but I wouldn’t vote for him. Garfield, to me, is all charisma and no actual performance. It’s designed to make him a star and make him look good. I don’t see enough of a performance there, and I don’t think he fits the tone of the film enough to actually vote for him. That really leaves Rathbone and Morley, who I thought gave the two best performances in the category. Both are absolutely great in their respective films.
And honestly, because the Rathbone performance stuck with me more than the Morley performance, which is quietly steady throughout, I think I’ll stick with Rathbone. He just feels like the right kind of person to win this award, if I’m not taking Brennan. And since we’re still in early days (first five years all count as early days), you have to take that sort of stuff into account. To me, the performances that best epitomize what this category is all about are Rathbone and Brennan. So I get why they went they way they did, but I respectfully am going another way.
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- Basil Rathbone, If I Were King
- Robert Morley, Marie Antoinette
- Walter Brennan, Kentucky
- Gene Lockhart, Algiers
- John Garfield, Four Daughters
- Marie Antoinette
- If I Were King
- Four Daughters
My Vote: Basil Rathbone, If I Were King
Algiers is probably the film in this category that most people would seek out and see. It’s a proto-noir, really solid, and has Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr in it. I definitely recommend it, even though I don’t think it’s required viewing for all film buffs. If you’re into noir, then definitely check this out. Otherwise it’s just a solid recommend.
Marie Antoinette is a solid film. A classy, big budget (for 1938) version of a story you know and have likely seen because of the Sofia Coppola version from 2006. I recommend it because it’s good. You don’t need to see it, but you should, because it’s really solid.
If I Were King is a decent film that, to me, is really worth it for the Rathbone performance. Otherwise it’s basically a mix of Prince and the Pauper meets, I don’t know, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but only if we were in monarch times. It’s fine, but I’d really only recommend it because of Rathbone and not much else.
Four Daughters is worth it because it represents a type of film that only existed in this era. The singing sisters getting a film to show off their talents. Plus you have Claude Rains and John Garfield in a starmaking performance. Solid, not essential, but if you’re spotlighting the era, then it’s slightly more essential, but still not something you have to see. I recommend it because of where it fits in the era and because it’s a type of film that is a part of film history and worth talking about, but otherwise it’s just okay.
Kentucky is a hard film to find, and really only essential for Oscar buffs because of the win. Otherwise you don’t need to see it at all. It’s just okay, not overly memorable. Mostly forgotten, historically. And not that good enough to say that you need to seek it out. It’s just there, if you ever can find it and want to see it.
The Last Word: Brennan is never really a bad choice, but I don’t think the performance was the best in the category. I like Rathbone, and I think he’d have fit as a winner. Morley probably wouldn’t have looked great historically, even though the performance is well worth a vote and a win. Lockhart would have been buoyed by his film being the best remembered of the bunch, but otherwise is just okay. And then Garfield was the biggest name next to Brennan, so a win by him would have looked good based on who he is, but not particularly based on the performance. Ultimately it’s kind of a blank, but looks okay because of the Brennan win, even though the performance is, to me, the weakest of his three wins.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)