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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1945-1946)

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.

1945

Michael Chekhov, Spellbound

John Dall, The Corn Is Green

James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Robert Mitchum, The Story of G.I. Joe

J. Carrol Naish, A Medal for Benny

Analysis:

Spellbound is Hitchcock. One of my less favorite Hitchcock films. Mostly because it has to do with psychoanalysis. Which bores the shit out of me.

Ingrid Bergman is a psychoanalyst. Gregory Peck is a new doctor. He has some weird phobias and things. Bergman quickly deduces that he’s not who he says he is. He tells her he killed the real doctor and took his place. He also has no idea who he is. So they set off to find out the truth, since Bergman thinks he may not have actually killed the other doctor (since, he’s hot, and she wants to sleep with him. So he must be telling the truth). And they go and figure out what’s going on and of course they uncover a conspiracy and all that, and Peck is cured of his shit. It’s Hitchcock, you can guess how it goes.

Michael Checkhov plays Bergman’s mentor. They pretty much go see him, he espouses a bunch on psychoanalysis, interpreting a dream Peck had, and then once they do that, the two go on their way. He’s really only in the film for this one scene, and I wager a lot of the nomination had to do with him being a very respected acting teacher. Much like Lee Strasberg was nominated in his later years (though admittedly for a great performance), or Eva Le Gallienne being nominated for her years of stage work. I feel like that’s a lot of why he got on here more than anything else. I don’t consider the performance anything more than fifth in the category.

The Corn Is Green is a Bette Davis melodrama. How we love these.

Bette is a schoolteacher working in a Welsh mining town. How Green Were My Vowels, I guess you can call it.

She’s determined to educate people, since they’re all illiterate miners and that’s the only life they know, but they’re rooted in tradition and want no part of it. Though one day, a guy comes there looking for help, and she sees that he actually has a chance to escape his dead-end life and make something of himself. So she helps him learn to read and write and pass a literacy test (or GED, or whatever that equivalent is. You know the trope. You get the idea). And eventually he makes it into a university. And Bette of course falls in love with him too. (You know the deal.) Only his girlfriend becomes jealous of him (both with Bette and with the education) and threatens everything because she’s just given birth to his child. But of course there’s Bette… martyring herself to care for the child so he can go on and become somebody at school.

Like most Bette melodramas, they focus on her and her sacrifice, when all the other stories are way more interesting than her. But that’s the deal with these movies. Overall, it’s just okay. The two supporting nominations are the best parts of the film.

John Dall plays the student, in case you couldn’t guess. And he’s good. He’s big and illiterate, and he becomes a well-spoken, intelligent person by the end. Makes a lot of sense as a nominee. Wouldn’t put him any higher than fourth or fifth here. Don’t think anyone would. He’s believable, and does a really solid job with it, but I don’t think he gets any higher than third for most people in this category.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Elia Kazan’s first film. And it’s great. I love this film so much. It’s based on the famous novel, and it’s about a family growing up in relative poverty in Brooklyn. And that’s all you need to know. It’s so great.

James Dunn plays the father of the family. He loves his family more than anything, and he’s also an alcoholic. He has dreams but never really seems to have a job. He’s the kind of person that will go into a bar and buy drinks for everyone even though that’s the only money his family has to live on for the next week. A guy you love who is so nice and gregarious, but constantly makes poor decisions for the long run. He has some great moments, and, in a category like this, easily rises to the top. Maybe in another year, he might not win, but here, he seems like the best choice.

The Story of G.I. Joe is a biopic of the guy who started the toy company. Riveting stuff.

Okay, that’s not true. Though I did just come up with a review for whenever they make a Rosie the Riveter movie.

It’s a tribute to the infantrymen in the army. The ones doing all the day-to-day dirty work who get none of the congratulations. We follow a war correspondent as he goes around with a platoon. And he gets to know each of the men and their stories, and so do we.

Robert Mitchum plays the C.O. of the men. It’s a very realistic portrayal of a soldier — at least it’s not romanticized like most other movies — he’s constantly tired, understaffed, asking for extra men that he just doesn’t get. And he goes about doing the best he can for his men. Sometimes he comes off as strict or gruff, but it’s because he can only do so much at any given time, and it’s clear deep down how much he loves his men.

Mitchum is a very particular type of actor who doesn’t have the biggest range, but he’s a very interesting screen presence, and he makes the most of it here. He plays somewhat against type (though not totally. The world weary detective is not that far off from the beleaguered soldier), and it’s a nice nomination, but I don’t think the performance it that great that I’d want to vote for him. If it weren’t for me thinking, “I like Robert Mitchum and want to think about getting him an Oscar,” he wouldn’t rate that highly for me here at all.

A Medal for Benny is a pretty crazy story. It’s Steinbeck, but it’s about how fucked up small town America can be. It’s very much like Hail the Conquering Hero, only not so much a satire as that is.

Benny is of mixed race and is treated like dirt in town. He joins the army to escape all that. Then, the town later gets news that he’s gonna get a medal from the army, so all the hypocrite white people decide to throw a big parade for him, pretending that they’ve always loved him. The idea being it will help give the town some notoriety. And of course the nail comes in the end when they realize the medal is a posthumous one. And then then have to present it to the father, who is now about to find out his son is dead.

J. Carrol Naish plays the father. Another ethnic role for him. He’s played somewhat for comedy in the early stages. He’s an immigrant who is overwhelmed by all of this stuff. He knows a simpler life and can’t stand all the whirlwind that’s going on around him. Then he figures out what’s going on — the town is pretending like he’s a well-to-do citizen and putting him in a better house — and deliberately wants no part of it and moves back to his little house in the poor section of town because it suits him better. The big scene is when he finds out his son is dead and gets a big emotional moment and a monologue.

The performance is good. The role is well worth a nomination. His acting style is very much of the era. Can be a bit over the top at times, but overall is very solid. I don’t think I’d take him, but I support the nomination.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: James Dunn > everyone else.

Chekhov is a cameo and I don’t consider him worthy of taking at all. Naish is solid, but he’s let down by the lack of a great film around him and really only has one big moment at the end. Dall is solid, but not someone I’d vote for. Mitchum puts up a good fight and manages to rise all the way to #2 for me, but I wouldn’t take that performance. Especially not over Dunn’s. So Dunn walks away with this. He’s easily the best. Put him in another year he might only be second. But here we are. He’s the runaway choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  2. Robert Mitchum, The Story of G.I. Joe
  3. J. Carrol Naish, A Medal for Benny
  4. John Dall, The Corn Is Green
  5. Michael Chekhov, Spellbound

Rankings (films):

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  2. Spellbound
  3. The Story of G.I. Joe
  4. The Corn Is Green
  5. A Medal for Benny

My Vote: James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Recommendations:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a great film. Elia Kazan, based on a classic novel, and it won an Oscar. Essential for a lot of people. Plus it’s great. If you love these kinds of movies from the studio era — reminiscences of one’s childhood. Think I Remember Mama and To Kill a Mockingbird — then this is for you. This movie is absolutely terrific and I love it dearly.

Spellbound is Hitchcock. Why would anyone willing skip a Hitchcock movie? Plus it got nominated for Best Picture? After this, that never happened again. This one’s too much about psychoanalysis for my taste, but it’s still Hitchcock and is a really solid film. He’s his own brand of essential for all film buffs.

A Medal for Benny is okay. I don’t think it works as well without the satire of Hail the Conquering Hero, but there’s no denying that Naish is great in it. Still, I think it’s something you could see if you wanted to, specifically to analyze it against Hail the Conquering Hero to see how similar stories can either work or not work depending on choices made — otherwise, you don’t need to rush out to see it. It’s not essential, and most people don’t even remember it. If you happen to catch it on TCM one day it’s worth a watch, but otherwise, you’re okay without it.

The Story of G.I. Joe is solid. Not essential, not particularly remembered. Worth a watch. Not something you need to rush out to see. Really only Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum are the stars you’d recognize in it. Catch it if it’s on TCM one day. That’s the kind of movie this is. Solid, but don’t go out of your way over the really essential stuff on this Quest.

The Corn Is Green is a Bette Davis melodrama. It’s pretty good. Not great. Not overly memorably or important historically. Mostly relevant to those who like Bette Davis or are into the Oscars, because of the double nominations.

The Last Word: It’s an easy win for Dunn. Who else are you gonna take? I’d wager most people won’t even have seen all the films in the category, so that limits the amount of people who will even have an opinion on the category. But assuming you have seen all five — maybe you want to look at Mitchum because he’s Mitchum. Maybe you really love Spellbound and want to take Chekhov? Really not seeing many other alternatives to Dunn here. Naish, at least intellectually, seems like a solid alternative. But I don’t see enough out of the performance to take him. Maybe others will. Don’t know. Seems like Dunn and done for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1946

Charles Coburn, The Green Years

William Demarest, The Jolson Story

Claude Rains, Notorious

Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives

Clifton Webb, The Razor’s Edge

Analysis:

The Green Years is an almost completely forgotten film.

An Irish orphan is sent to live with his grandparents in Scotland. And we watch him grow up. Lotta vignettes, etc etc. That kind of film. It’s pretty good. Not overly great. But decent.

Charles Coburn plays the kid’s great-grandfather, who becomes his best friend. He’s the one who takes him around and teaches him things, many of which are not befitting of a kid his age, which is the best part. And of course the kid models himself off him, even though he’s constantly bending the truth and drinking too much.

It’s your typical Charles Coburn role. He’s great as per usual. Not sure I automatically give him the vote here. But I can say… at least this time he’s more of a supporting character. The other two were glaringly leads. At least in this one you know he’s supporting because when he’s not on screen, the film drags something awful.

The Jolson Story is a biopic of Al Jolson. Blackface and all.

So yeah. Biopic. Al Jolson. Jazz Singer. That guy.

William Demarest — a guy who is a great character actor, who is best known for a lot of the Preston Sturges films — plays the guy who gives Al his break and becomes his loyal friend for life. The kind of thing where — he’s got some success, gives a kid a break when no one else will, and the kid never forgets it. So when Jolson becomes a huge star and Demarest becomes a no one, Jolson keeps Demarest with him at all times. It’s the friend role. All these musical biopics of this era have that.

Demarest is fine. I like him as an actor. This performance is just pretty good. Easily falls to fifth in this category. This is one of those examples of when there’s an actor you love a lot in films, but when they finally get nominated, it’s for a performance that so clearly can never win or be voted for (and isn’t even their best work). That’s just how it goes.

 

Notorious is Hitchcock. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains. Nazis. This is everything I want in a movie.

Grant is an American agent who recruits Bergman to spy on some Nazis. Specifically Claude Rains. So the rest of the film is Bergman getting deeper into her role and deeper into danger. It’s pretty great.

Claude Rains plays the Nazi Bergman is to seduce and marry. He doesn’t show up until a half hour into the picture. He is in love with Bergman, and she basically dupes him into marriage. He kind of knows better, but also can’t help himself. It’s a very measured performance. He’s quietly menacing throughout the picture. Not my favorite performance of his, though he’s very good in the picture, if that makes sense. Hitchcock is not really a filmmaker who lends himself to awards-worthy performances. But within the film, Rains is very effective. Overall, I think he’s a solid entry in the category, but as much as I’d like to vote for him and get him an Oscar, I’m not sure I can do it for this one.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a classic. Might be a masterpiece, but it’s a real classic and a great drama.

Three men return home from war to their small town. One was a banker with a family. He returns home to them and to his job, but now he can’t shake the horrors of war. He drinks too much, has horrible dreams, and can’t seem to return to his happy life as it was. The other was basically a kid, working as a soda jerk in a store. Now that he’s back, he’s too old to do that but not qualified to do anything else. So he’s left aimless. And the third comes back without hands. Before the war he was a star football player and engaged to his sweetheart. Now, his disability is proving to make life difficult for him. It’s a great, great film. One of the few that openly deals with the plight of the men returning home from war in a big way.

Harold Russell plays the third man, who came back without the use of his hands. He actually did lose his hands in the war. We watch him as he comes home and tries to live a normal life. It makes things difficult for his family, and eventually he comes to believe that his girlfriend could never be married to someone like him. He’d never want her to have to care for him and for him to be a burden onto her, so he pushes her away, thinking it’s best for her. But she doesn’t care, and wants to marry him anyway.

Russell is — it’s hard to judge this role. Because Russell is clearly not an actor. But he did go through the stuff his character did. So it’s an affecting performance, and works well within the framework of the film, but how much of the performance is actual acting, and how much is simply — this guy is this character? You know? Plus he won a special Oscar for the performance, so it’s strange that they gave him too. I don’t know. It works, and in this category, it’s solid, but I’m not sure if he’s such an automatic winner. We’ll see.

The Razor’s Edge is based on the famous novel.

Tyrone Power is a guy who hates high society and can’t stand that life. So he breaks off his engagement and goes to live abroad. He then comes back and is dropped into all the crazy social dramas going on amongst his friends. That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell.

Clifton Webb plays a rich dude who loves being social. That’s all he wants is to have money and be at big parties and gossip — that’s just who he is. It’s your typical Clifton Webb role. He gets to be all those things we’ve come to know from him. And he gets a nice death scene later in the film, after he’s been ruined and is poor. Yet he still wants to be socially included. So Power gives him one final gesture before he dies, making it seem as though he was invited to a grand party (which he clearly cannot attend) so he can feel like he’s still part of that world.

He’s good. He’s usually good. But at this point — I’ve seen him do it, and while he’s solid, I’d take at least three people over him in this category. You could argue that his performance is top three, sure, but I personally wouldn’t vote for this. It’s just solid.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a category I’ve been wanting to go back to for five years. Because I know I was unnecessarily harsh about it back then. The first time I did this Oscar Quest, I was all about who the actors were and how much I liked them more than I was about the actual performances. So when I saw a category like this I said, “Claude Rains? Charles Coburn? And they gave it to a non-actor just because he lost his hands in the war? That’s ridiculous!”

I’m not saying my opinions have necessarily changed (I honestly haven’t really given further thought to how I’m gonna vote — this introduction was written before I watched all the films again), but I did feel I owed it to this category to watch them all again and give them a fair shake, specifically Russell. Though admittedly I’m now pretty hazy on most of the performances in it. But, after watching them all again, I can say that this is how I feel:

Demarest’s performance is fine, but being objectively as possible, I’m not really sure why he was nominated. I like him, and I’m fine with the nomination, but there’s no way I consider him anything other than fifth in the category. I’ve seen him be way better, and this feels like a “tag along” nomination more than anything.

Clifton Webb is always very memorable, but he’s always doing the same thing in his roles, and I just don’t ever like it enough to want to vote for it. I’m fine with him being in the category, and he always makes the categories stronger, but I can’t ever bring myself to take him.

Then there’s Claude Rains — always solid. Very good work. He’s a villain who is also sympathetic. And he plays it well. It’s very restrained work, but as much as I love Claude Rains, I’m not sure I want to vote for him for any other reason than to make up for the loss to Coburn in 1943. But it’s also not like I’m so over the moon about someone else that I’m automatically not gonna take him. Since the other two are also in similar boats.

Coburn is awesome, as he usually is, and this is a very affecting performance. His film is the weakest, which hurts a little, but not a lot. He’s won before, which can also hurt, if you think that way. If I’m honestly voting in 1946, and I know that Rains lost to Coburn in ’43, I might just take Rains to try to make up for it, even though, all things considered, Coburn is better here than he was there and this is a more fitting performance for the category (i.e. it’s actually supporting). So that’s a conundrum.

And then there’s Harold Russell, who, after every time I rewatch the film and the performance, I can’t help but think — he’s not an actor. The performance works, and I’m totally cool with the nomination and I can even understand why he won. But they already gave him a special Oscar, and I don’t think he needs this one on top of it. I really don’t see enough of the performance for me to want to take him. I don’t think the win is absolutely horrendous, but I’m also not voting for a performance that I don’t see as being truly all that great. It’s good, but it’s more personal circumstances overcoming a clear lack of talent. But then again, without the other two being overly strong, he’s still very much in the conversation for the vote.

Here’s what I’m left with:

Russell has the role going for him and looks the best over time as a winner.

Coburn, to me, has the best performance, the weakest film, and the fact that he beat Rains three years prior for a leading role against an iconic role from Rains going against him.

Rains has a solid performance, “overdue” status for me, but the performance isn’t strong enough for me to automatically want to take him.

And that tells me ultimately…

If this is 1946, I probably vote for Claude Rains just to try to get him an Oscar. But, since this is not 1946, and my ultimate goal is to vote for what I think is the best performance in the category, I’m taking Charles Coburn. If I’m playing the “game” then I try to get Rains the award. But if we’re being totally honest and picking what we think is the best performance in the category, that’s Coburn for me this time. I’m not gonna get into the logistics of, “Well if he wins, then he has two and Rains has none.” Russell ends up winning anyway, so it’s irrelevant. To me, the best performance is Coburn, so I’m taking Coburn.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Charles Coburn, The Green Years
  2. Claude Rains, Notorious
  3. Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. Clifton Webb, The Razor’s Edge
  5. William Demarest, The Jolson Story

Rankings (films):

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives
  2. Notorious
  3. The Jolson Story
  4. The Razor’s Edge
  5. The Green Years

My Vote: Charles Coburn, The Green Years

Recommendations:

The Best Years of Our Lives is an all-time essential film. You’ll find it on the list of greatest/most important/essential American films of all time, it won Best Picture and a bunch of Oscars, and it’s a great film. Any casual film buff needs to see this. It’s important.

Notorious is Hitchcock, which makes it essential. It’s great Hitchcock, too. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains. Seriously, what more do you need?

The Razor’s Edge is a solid film. Classy, prestige picture. Not overly essential, but it won Best Supporting Actress, was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and is based on a classic novel. So that makes it worthwhile, but you don’t need to rush out and see it. I’m not really sure if my recommendations system makes any sense. But — some movies I say “catch it when it’s on TCM.” This is one I say — put it in your Netflix queue and let it make its way to the top. That feels more essential than the “if you happen to catch it on TCM,” but also doesn’t put a priority on, “Go out and see this movie right now.” That’s how I rate this one.

The Green Years is pretty good. Haven’t seen it in a while, but I remember the film being decent and Charles Coburn being great in it. I can say for sure that it is not essential, and that most people don’t even remember this/know it exists. Let’s call it a solid film that you should check out if you can find it. It’s enjoyable, but not something you need to put forth a great effort seeking out.

The Jolson Story is fine. Musical biopic. Hollywood-ized. There are better ones out there. It’s fine. Definitely can wait and see it on TCM if you want, otherwise no reason to see this except if you’re really into the Oscars or love musical biopics.

The Last Word: Russell holds up as a winner, even though the performance isn’t all that great. It’s affecting, but the actual performance isn’t all that great. Rains would be nice as a winner, since we love him and we love Notorious, but I’m not all that on board with the performance as a winner. Some people might, in which case, cool. But not for me. Coburn, meanwhile, is great in the film the least amount of people know (which is honestly not all that great outside of him), and for my money, he’s tops in the category. So I take him. Though I think Rains and Russell are also good alternatives. And as I said, if I’m voting purely in 1946, I probably just take Rains. But now, I think it’s best for me to take Coburn just to put more eyes on the performance and because I truly think he did the best job.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Jake

    In the early years of the Academy Awards, the special and honorary awards were not announced prior to the ceremony, but rather presented as a surprise. The only person who knew he/she would be honored, other than those on the Board of Governors, were the recipients themselves, and even then only if they would not otherwise be at the ceremony. So it came as a complete surprise when Harold Russell was presented with a special award. Most assumed that it was intended as a consolation prize, as the Academy obviously wanted to highlight the veteran’s achievement, and he was presumed to be dead-last in the voting, especially when up against people like Claude Rains and Clifton Webb. Essentially, his ending up with two Oscars was a fluke. Had the Governors known he would win Supporting Actor, they never would have voted to give him the special award; and had the voting body known he would be presented with an Oscar regardless of how they voted, the votes would likely have gone different directions.

    July 12, 2016 at 10:18 pm

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