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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1949-1950)

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.

1949

John Ireland, All the King’s Men

Dean Jagger, Twelve O’Clock High

Arthur Kennedy, Champion

Ralph Richardson, The Heiress

James Whitmore, Battleground

Analysis:

All the King’s Men is a fantastic film. A weird Best Picture winner, too. It fits, but it also doesn’t.

It’s about Willie Stark, who rises from a “hick” politician to governor of his state. And along the way he goes from idealist to completely corrupt. The rise and fall of an American politician.

John Ireland plays a journalist who follows Stark throughout his rise and fall. He’s mostly fascinated with this guy and finds himself drawn into rooting for him. And then, after Stark becomes corrupt, he finds himself also being duped and used by him. Stark takes his girlfriend as his mistress. In the end, he remains the same as he was, while Stark is pretty much ruined.

Two things about this performance — first, this is Ireland’s career performance. He’s never been (or will be) as good as he is here. So he’s well worth a nomination. Second, and perhaps more importantly — he’s not supporting. He’s almost a co-lead. Completely understand why they put him here, but he’s not supporting. He’s supporting the way Nick Carraway is supporting in Gatsby. Not a fan of having to take leads in supporting unless I have to.

Twelve O’Clock High is a war film. Air Force. Similar to a film that came out that year — Sands of Iwo Jima.

One Air Force unit has suffered a lot of losses and morale is low. So they assign Gregory Peck to it. And he’s just this big hard ass. And the men hate him. But of course the thing is that he’s the one that’s whipping them into shape, whether they like it or not. So they hate him, but they realize they’re prepared for battle. And of course, someone like Peck, he has a hard time actually relating to the men, even when things are going well. It’s that kind of story.

Dean Jagger plays the one who is able to communicate with the men. He’s the liaison between Peck and the men, sort of an assistant to Peck. The men all go to him with their problems, and he’s the one with the most access to Peck. So he understands both sides. The men love him because he drinks with them and all that stuff. But he realizes that Peck isn’t the asshole the men think he is. At lot of his scenes involve him being present while things happen. A lot of, “I have this guy here to see you, General,” and things of that sort. Of course, that gives him room for subtlety, and it works. He also writes letters to the families of those who die in the air, and is very good at using military red tape to his advantage. He secretly delays all the men’s transfer requests to give Peck enough time to win them over.

It’s a solid performance. Very good stuff out of Jagger. I used to not see why he won, but I get it now. He’s definitely top two in the category. Not sure I ultimately take him, but I definitely support the nomination and understand the win. He’s very solid and likable and does a terrific job in this film.

Champion is a boxing noir. Boxer claws his way to the top by wheeling, dealing and screwing over any and everyone along the way, including friends and loved ones.

Arthur Kennedy plays the crippled brother of the boxer (Kirk Douglas). He’s with him through thick and thin. They’re both waiting tables at the beginning, both in need of money. Kennedy sticks with him through it all. Until he becomes too much of an asshole and he leaves in disgust. At one point, Douglas leaves his wife and starts sleeping around, and she and Kennedy become close, and there’s a kinship there as well. Mostly he’s the conscience of the film. He’s the decent one who even manages to get fucked over by Douglas. Which unfortunately is the same for the performance too. He gets overshadowed by Douglas.

Kennedy is solid here, but (and this isn’t important for my purposes here, it’s just a statement of fact) he’d be better in the future. This was his first nomination, and it shows as one where they see how good he is and are basically bringing him into the fold for the future. Can’t take this performance for the win, but I do like Kennedy as an actor and understand the nomination.

The Heiress is a great melodrama. Even people who don’t love the genre will really like this one.

Olivia de Havilland is a plain woman who is in line to inherit a lot of money from her father. She’s overly shy and he’s domineering and disappointed in her. She meets Montgomery Clift and falls in love with him. He gives her the attention her father doesn’t. He dismisses Clift as an interloper, looking to get a hold of her inheritance and nothing more. He tells de Havilland that if she marries Clift, he’ll disown her, and she’ll get nothing. But she doesn’t care, and plans to elope with him anyway. Of course, on the night they’re supposed to run away, he never shows up, seemingly proving her father right. And pretty soon after, he dies and leaves her everything. Thus reenters Clift. I won’t spoil where it goes from there, but it’s a really good film. de Havilland rightfully earned her second Oscar for this one.

Ralph Richardson plays her father. He’s… good in the role. This one is tough for me, because he’s very proper and condescending. And, on this performance alone, I’m not sure I want to vote for him. But, there’s one thing we must take into account here: also counting for this season is another performance of his, in The Fallen Idol. Where he is very good. However, not this performance and not this category. He’s definitely a lead there. But the two combined make a very compelling case for him in what is otherwise a thin category when you get to voting purposes. So we’ll see.

Battleground is one of my favorite war films. About the battered bastards of Bastogne. All the men who go into the forest and are trapped there all winter, surrounded on all sides by Germans, unable to be rescued or even sent supplies.

James Whitmore plays the sergeant who leads the platoon. It’s the typical “grizzled soldier” role. He’s the one who maintains poise while shit’s going south, yet it’s clear there’s emotion there, which he only shows in the end once they come out safe. He stands out, but he’s still one of an ensemble. The whole film is an ensemble piece, and his nomination feels like the requisite nominee required of all Best Picture nominees in order to seriously contend for Best Picture. He’s as good a choice as any, but even though he’s solid, he doesn’t rate any higher than fourth, if that. However, another thing to keep in mind — he did serve in World War II and came out a lieutenant and this was his second film. Completely get the nomination.

And please, don’t be the person who says, “Well he was great as Brooks in Shawshank, so that factors into my choice.” No it doesn’t. Shawshank wouldn’t exist for another 45 years when he was nominated for this. Don’t be that person.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Interesting category. The two that seemingly float right to the top are Richardson and Jagger. Ireland is solid, but he’s a lead and this is more a situation where you have a decent actor in his one career-defining role. Kennedy would be better in the future, but even so, this performance isn’t great enough to overcome pretty much anyone else in the category. Whitmore is solid, but it can be hard to distinguish him from the rest of the ensemble. He doesn’t stand out enough (for me, at least) to really merit taking over the other two.

Meanwhile, Jagger is an essential element to his film and really stands out. And then Richardson — really good. Plus, he does have The Fallen Idol going for him this year as well. Tough choice.

I’m close to a dead heat in this one. I like Jagger’s performance better in a face-off between the two. But… The Fallen Idol does weigh into it a bit.

I’m left with what is actually a similar situation to Best Supporting Actress this past year, with Kate Winslet giving my favorite performance and Alicia Vikander being nominated for the wrong performance in the right category. Not it’s not an exact parallel. But that’s what it feels like. On the one hand, the Jagger performance is my favorite, but on the other, I support a Richardson win for complete body of work. So I’m fine either way it shakes out, my only question is — do I take Richardson for the lesser of two roles, or do I vote for what was actually my favorite performance in the category?

Yeah, you know… it’s not like Jagger is that much ahead of Richardson that I have to take him. Richardson is great in The Heiress, and The Fallen Idol is just icing on the cake. I’ve come around on the Jagger performance, but I gotta take Richardson here. He’s the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Ralph Richardson, The Heiress
  2. Dean Jagger, Twelve O’Clock High
  3. John Ireland, All the King’s Men
  4. James Whitmore, Battleground
  5. Arthur Kennedy, Champion

Rankings (films):

  1. Battleground
  2. All the King’s Men
  3. The Heiress
  4. Twelve O’Clock High
  5. Champion

My Vote: Ralph Richardson, The Heiress

Recommendations:

All the King’s Men is an essential film. Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Best Picture winner, Best Actor winner — all around classic. Must see for film buffs. Great film.

Battleground is an awesome war movie and I think you ought to see it. It’s really terrific. Did you see Band of Brothers? Did you like the Bastogne episodes? Well that’s what this movie is. And it’s great.

The Heiress is such a wonderful film. Maybe not essential (except for Oscar buffs, and serious film buffs), but it’s a very high recommend, and comes close to being essential. If you do as most burgeoning film buffs do and read a lot of interviews with Scorsese, he talks a lot about this film being a big influence on him as a child, which will make, as I said, serious film buffs want to seek this out and see it. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s great. I consider it an essential film, even if it might not be fully objectively 100% essential.

Twelve O’Clock High is an awesome movie. A lot of war movies have this kind of structure, but it’s always a solid one. It works, and Peck is great, and it’s one of those very solid movies that is well worth seeing. Not essential, but let’s call it a solid recommend. One that you should get to at some point. Put it in the Netflix queue and see it when it gets to the top. Well worth it.

Champion is a solid noir, a good Kirk Douglas performance and a fine film. Not essential, but worth seeing. Like Twelve O’Clock High. Maybe more essential than that because this has a lot of cool boxing elements that show up in later boxing films and also help trace the evolution of how they shot fights in the ring, from the 30s to Body and Soul to this through Raging Bull and Rocky to today. To me, that’s cool. I think it’s worth a look.

The Last Word: It’s Richardson or it’s Jagger. I understand the Jagger win, but to me, Richardson is the choice all around. From looking around, it seems like a lot of people also considered him the choice this year, like NBR, etc. Interesting that he lost this, especially with The Fallen Idol, a film that did get Oscar nominations, also hovering around. I’m not against the Jagger nomination, and it holds up okay. But Richardson does seem like an all around better choice. Not that he’d have held up any better than Jagger, it’s just… he feels like he’d have been better.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1950

Jeff Chandler, Broken Arrow

Edmund Gwenn, Mister 880

Sam Jaffe, The Asphalt Jungle

George Sanders, All About Eve

Erich von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard

Analysis:

Broken Arrow is a great western. I really love it, even though I bet it comes off almost over the top nowadays. Especially when judged in a category like this.

Jimmy Stewart starts as a dude who has no quarrel with the Apache, despite tensions between them and the whites. He ends up learning their ways and becoming friends with them. He ends up meeting Cochise and brokering a treaty with him to let the mail flow freely through Apache land. And he also falls in love with an Apache girl. And of course tensions boil over and Stewart has to decide which side he’s on.

Jeff Chandler plays Cochise, and most people (fairly correctly) think of this as a joke nomination. He plays the “noble savage” stereotype. He’s patient, he’s wise, and it’s every bit of the stereotype you think it is. He’s good in the film, and I get why they nominated the idea of the role in 1950, but nowadays this doesn’t look particularly great. The nature of the role signifies something that I guess is important, but it’s also one of those things — this is a guy from Brooklyn playing a famous Native American chief. And he basically exists to make things easy for the white man. Graham Greeene in Dances with Wolves. Same deal. You can’t take this, no matter how much you might like the idea that a western is getting some love in the acting categories.

Mister 880 is a strange, interesting, actually pretty good film that was fairly hard to find five years ago.

Burt Lancaster works for the treasury department and is tracing a counterfeiter who has been counterfeiting for years. At first you think it’s this big criminal scam artist, and then you find out who it really is — a nice old man who is really sweet and just happens to be doing something illegal. Like Helen Hayes in Airport. And the idea is you see both sides — the nice old man who, yes, is counterfeiting, but is also giving out money to buy kids ice cream and using it for groceries, and Lancaster, who is just doing his job and, in his mind, needs to arrest this guy who has been stealing for years. And of course you can guess what happens in the end when they finally catch him. It’s actually kind of a nice film.

Edmund Gwenn plays the nice old counterfeiter. That’s his type. The man was fucking Santa Claus! Of course he’s a nice old man. He’s very sweet and very likable. They really do their job of showing how he’s just counterfeiting to get by, and after all, he’s just so nice…

Gwenn is solid, as he always is. Part of the role creeps me out a bit, as it would for most people nowadays. In the 40s, old men who took kids to get ice cream were just nice. Now, we have a different word for it. But overall, he’s very nice and does a good job with it. Love the nomination, wouldn’t take him.

The Asphalt Jungle is a great noir. You know the famous heist sequence from Rififi? That was influenced by this film.

Sam Jaffe plays ‘Doc,’ who gets out of prison after a long stretch, and immediately starts planning a heist. He goes around, assembling his crew, and we watch them pull off the heist. And then… we watch the whole thing unravel. Classic noir.

Jaffe is solid. He’s not necessarily the highlight of the cast for me, but he’s solid. It feels like they were gonna nominate someone from this movie, and he made a lot of sense. His nomination here always felt like the reward. I don’t think he ever stood a shot, and I don’t think anyone really takes him on performance alone. Most people would think to take him based on the film. But even then, look at what we’ve got with the next two. At best I don’t think you can put him any higher than third, maybe second if you’re really pushing him up higher.

All About Eve is a perfect film. We have two perfect films on this list, and they’re both all-time classics of cinema. They’re so good it makes you want to talk about which one you take for Best Picture over anything else this year.

This movie — we all should know it. Aging actress meets an adoring young fan who subtly maneuvers her way into her good graces, then becomes her understudy, and then miraculously becomes a star. And before the star realizes it, she’s been pushed aside. Great stuff. The great thing about this movie is how dramatic it is. Nowadays, they’d turn it into a thriller or something, or have the two fight in the end. This isn’t that, and it works completely.

George Sanders plays Addison DeWitt, a theatre critic and all around awful human being. He fits right in with this crowd. He’s a much more cynical version of the Clifton Webb character you’ve seen in this category. Eve uses him to raise her status in social circles, and he sees right through her. But, because he’s morally flexible, he blackmails her. He’s great in this. It’s the perfect Sanders role. The way he says such caustic things to people is just lovely.

Sunset Boulevard is self-explanatory. From the opening iconic image of the protagonist lying face down dead in a pool, to Norma Desmond in her dilapidated mansion, to “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup,” we’re dealing with greatness here.

Erich von Stroheim — this the same guy who directed Greed — plays Norma’s butler, who has stood by her all these years faithfully. He’s the guy who’s been helping her stay sane all this time. He writes her fan letters each week so she can think she’s still someone. He’s the one who knows all the information but chooses what to share and not share with her in order to protect her. It’s a great part and von Stroheim is terrific in that part. He’s a good actor. He’s great in Grand Illusion.

I could easily see him having won this, and he’s definitely someone you can vote for. This category all comes down to personal preference. It’s not that he isn’t worthy, it’s simply whether or not you want to take him.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This one’s either Sanders or von Stroheim, and even then, Sanders is really the one to take. Gwenn is nice, but he won for a better performance. Jaffe is good, but not someone you vote for, and Chandler is a pretty resound no for just about everyone. von Stroheim is definitely someone I could see wanting to take, but for me, as much as I love him and the film, I think Sanders was better. I think it’s a toss up, but Sanders is definitely the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. George Sanders, All About Eve
  2. Erich von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard
  3. Edmund Gwenn, Mister 880
  4. Sam Jaffe, The Asphalt Jungle
  5. Jeff Chandler, Broken Arrow

Rankings (films):

  1. Sunset Boulevard
  2. All About Eve
  3. Broken Arrow
  4. The Asphalt Jungle
  5. Mister 880

My Vote: George Sanders, All About Eve

Recommendations:

All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are so essential I shouldn’t have to tell you how much you need to see them.

The Asphalt Jungle is an essential crime/noir film. The heist sequence here was borrowed for Rififi. Plus, John Huston directed it. No reason not to see this. It’s great, it’s an all-time crime film, and it’s essential for real film fans. Not on the level of the first two films, but still essential.

Broken Arrow is a great western. Essential as far as westerns go. Solid film. Jimmy Stewart. Otherwise, not overly essential. Maybe a little bit essential. I’d recommend people see it just for the sake of film history, since the revisionist western is a big part of film history.

Mister 880 is a good film. A strange film, but a good one. Hard to find, I remember, so if you can see it, it’s worth it. But still, tonally very strange. I’m not sure if it’s a drama or a comedy or what it is. But I liked it. Lancaster, Gwenn — worth a watch.

The Last Word: Sanders is the choice, and he holds up really well historically. von Stroheim would be a good choice. Not the best on pure performance, but good historically because of the impact he had on silent film. Either one holds up the best in this category, and I think they made the right choice with Sanders.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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