The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1951-1952)
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.
Leo Genn, Quo Vadis
Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
Kevin McCarthy, Death of a Salesman
Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis
Gig Young, Come Fill the Cup
Quo Vadis is a biblical epic. These became big in the 50s once Widescreen started to take over and when color became the norm. The studios loved their bible epics. Samson and Delilah was the big one, in ’49, and after that, they started popping up everywhere. So you see a lot of them in the first half of the 50s all over the Oscars.
It’s about Nero and the fall of Rome, bookended by the plight of the Christians. So half the film is Peter Ustinov as Nero fucking the country up, and half the film is Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr falling in love and being persecuted for being Christians. The film is okay. Not great. But it has its moments. Very amusing (as all these biblical epics are) after seeing Hail Caesar.
Peter Ustinov, as I said, plays Nero, and he’s the real supporting character of the film. He’s big, he’s loud, he’s somewhat over the top. That’s what these biblical epics are. But Ustinov is a great actor. He’d win two of these awards. Look at this speech. It’s a great performance. Nero is a larger than life character, and Ustinov plays it well. He’s the real alternative here to the obvious choice. If you want to go for him, you can definitely make that case. I think he veers a bit too much into camp (unintentionally, but that’s what time does)
Leo Genn plays Nero’s most trusted advisor (and Robert Taylor’s uncle), who doesn’t agree with Nero’s handling of the Christians, thinking that if he kills them, he’ll make them martyrs. So when Nero starts to go overboard, Genn kills himself, which leaves Nero without an advisor and basically sends him over the deep end into insanity. It’s a very low key, measured performance. The perfect complement to Ustinov. I get the double nomination from that perspective, but is there anyone who actually votes for Genn in the category? I get not taking Ustinov. But that doesn’t mean you then vote for Genn over him. He seems like a #4 or a #5 for me. Solid, but nothing really there to take.
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most famous films of all time, and needs zero explanation on my part.
Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies. He’s the nice one of the group, and isn’t animalistic like the rest of them. Blanche takes a liking to him, and he to her. And then he finds out from Stanley what Blanche is really like — behind her facade, she’s partially unstable and has already been run out of town for sleeping with a student. And that leads to a confrontation between Mitch and Blanche, where Mitch is humiliated at having been lied to and rejects Blanche, even though he still has feelings for her and he’s her last real hope at sanity.
Malden is great in the part. It’s not that big a role, and it’s one of those performances where — he wins because of the category. In another year he doesn’t win. Here, he’s pretty much the class of the category. And even though he’d eclipse this performance in other years (specifically in 3 years), it’s hard not to take him in this specific category. But we’ll see.
Death of a Salesman is one of the most famous plays ever written. And it’s one they’ve never quite gotten right on the screen. This was the first version, made two years after the play debuted. It’s decent. They put Fredric March in it, and he was pretty much your go-to classy stage type actor. It’s a very theatrical telling, or at least the acting feels that way.
Kevin McCarthy plays Biff Loman, Willy’s son. He used to be a star athlete but hasn’t done anything since. A lot of this stems from him catching his father having an affair with another woman, shattering his views of how great his father was.
McCarthy is fine in the role. Not something I’d vote for, but definitely a solid nominee. He feels a bit too… TV actor in the 50s. That stiff, stern delivery. The kind you’d see in noirs by people playing cops. Maybe he makes third here. Probably fourth. Not someone you actually take.
Come Fill the Cup is one of the really nice gems I knew nothing about that I discovered while going through this Quest. A very underrated Cagney performance.
Cagney is a newspaperman with an alcohol problem. He gets sober with the help of a recovering alcoholic (a great James Gleason) and puts his life back together. He then finds out his fiancé has married another man. That other man, it turns out, is also developing an alcohol problem. So Cagney helps him out, and does what he can to prevent him from going over the edge. And the film becomes about Cagney helping his ex-girl’s husband stay clean and break a big story, ultimately realizing that he’s married to his work more than anything. There’s a famous line where they tell him to go home and he says, “Don’t you see? I am home.” Which is one of the underrated lines in cinema.
Gig Young plays the fiancé. No stranger to alcohol himself, he’s pretty well cast here. I don’t know if I actually vote for him, but he’s definitely very solid. Not sure I think of him any higher than third, at best. And I haven’t gone back to actually see the performance, so I’m going solely on memory. Which was that he was fine, but also — ehh, not a whole lot to really look at. So he’s probably someone I consider bottom two, but since the category has a couple of performances I don’t think are great, he might end up as #3 on sheer “I haven’t seen it recently enough to downgrade it.” It happens.
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The Reconsideration: It’s a relatively weak category. McCarthy is just fine, Young is just fine, and Genn is second fiddle (see what I did there?) to Ustinov. The only two you can really take are Malden and Ustinov. And I can see cases being made for either. Malden makes the most sense, so I’m not gonna overthink it and just take him. And this is without looking ahead to Ustinov’s two wins. If I did that, then I definitely wouldn’t take him. Here, I don’t take him just because I think some of the performance feels a little too over the top for my taste, and Malden is just very solid in relatively limited screen time. I could see it being either one, but I’ll just take Malden and be happy. Streetcar is just a perfect film and all the performances are great.
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- Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
- Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis
- Gig Young, Come Fill the Cup
- Kevin McCarthy, Death of a Salesman
- Leo Genn, Quo Vadis
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- Quo Vadis
- Come Fill the Cup
- Death of a Salesman
My Vote: Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the 100 most essential films of all time.
Quo Vadis is solid, especially worth it if you love Technicolor biblical epics. Not the best, but the color and production design makes it amusing. Not essential at all. That’s one that’s entirely based on whether or not you’re into the genre.
Come Fill the Cup is very solid. I like movies that deal with serious topics in this era. This is all about alcoholism in a blunt way, and I really enjoyed that. As a film, it’s solid, but not something anyone needs to ever see in terms of being “essential.” But in terms of solid films that a lot of people don’t know about that they’ll enjoy, this is a nice little hidden gem I think people should check out.
Death of a Salesman is a famous play, but I’m not sure they’ve ever really translated it to film particularly well. I always felt this version was fine, but very theatrical in its performances. I prefer the TV version with Dustin Hoffman over this, but it’s decent. You can see it, but I don’t recommend it all that highly. It’s just okay.
The Last Word: Malden or Ustinov. Take your pick. I’d be curious to hear arguments for any of the other three, but I feel like it’s one or the other here, and most people would have Malden. Malden feels like the right choice in a relatively forgettable and weak category.
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Richard Burton, My Cousin Rachel
Arthur Hunnicutt, The Big Sky
Victor McLaglen, The Quiet Man
Jack Palance, Sudden Fear
Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
My Cousin Rachel is an interesting one. Richard Burton’s first American movie.
He plays a guy whose cousin dies. And he’s convinced the guy’s wife killed him. That’s (insert title here), played by Olivia de Havilland. So he goes there and meets her, and falls in love with her. Only, did she kill her husband, did she not? It’s kind of like a reverse Suspicion, where he’s in love with someone he’s not sure is a murderer or not.
The film is fine, and Burton is solid, if unpolished before the camera and a bit melodramatic (it comes with the material). Only problem? Burton is the lead. He’s the “My” of the title. The only reason he’s billed supporting is because they didn’t know who he was in Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland was billed lead. So even though he’s good, this is blatant category fraud, and I can’t take him.
The Big Sky is Howard Hawks. One of his lesser ones, but still a Hawks picture.
Kirk Douglas is a Jeremiah Johnson type who is picked up by another guy to look for his father, who has gone missing. Once they find the father, the pair join an expedition to trade with some Indians. That’s pretty much the movie. They’re traveling to trade with the Indians.
Arthur Hunnicutt plays the father. He narrates the film and is the laid-back wise character. Kind of like a mix between Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Walter Brennan. It’s a memorable character. Really well handled by Hunnicutt, and he basically steals the movie. Would I vote for him? Doubtful. Is he a solid entry in the category who could be taken if one were so inclined? Absolutely.
The Quiet Man is a masterpiece. One of the most gorgeous films ever made. I’m surprised it didn’t sweep a lot of the awards this year. Though I guess really that just means Best Picture. It’s the perfect alternative to the political High Noon. And yet… The Greatest Show on Earth…
John Wayne is a boxer who comes “home” to Ireland after accidentally killing a man in the ring. He wants to live a quiet life in the place where he was born. He comes to a small town and meets Maureen O’Hara. And he falls in love with both her and Ireland, and it’s wonderful.
Victor McLaglen plays O’Hara’s brother Will Danaher. He’s a brutish lout who is pretty domineering and not particularly liked around town. Wayne wants to marry his sister, but the way the custom works, she can’t be married until he (McLaglen) is married. And fat chance of that ever happening. So the town organizes a fake proposal with a widow in order to get him to agree to let O’Hara marry Wayne. Of course he then finds out about the deceit and is furious. Not to mention the issue of the dowry. The whole story culminates in a giant fight with McLaglen and Wayne. And it’s awesome.
McLaglen is memorable, and in this category, easily rates top two, I’d think. Maybe he’s third, if you really like Hunnicutt. I find it hard to see him dropping below either lead Richard Burton or crazy over the top Jack Palance. Maybe you don’t vote for McLaglen, but he clearly is right near the top. Gotta put him in the conversation given the category.
Sudden Fear is a noir thriller. Joan Crawford ended up in a lot of these in the latter stages of her career.
She’s a playwright who tells Jack Palance he can’t be in her play. Then she meets him later by chance and falls in love with him. He then plots her murder. Remember that episode where Sideshow Bob is trying to kill Selma? That’s this movie.
Palance is as he usually is. I always found him a bit too over the top in these movies. He’s constantly playing crazy people and whenever he does, he really plays them crazy. It’s not subtle what his character goals are, and he’s also kind of the co-lead of the movie. Way too over the top for my taste. Probably fifth in the category for me.
Viva Zapata! is pretty self-explanatory. About Emiliano Zapata. Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando. The issue here is that Brando is such a good actor you almost forgive the fact that he’s not Mexican, but still… not the best. Anthony Quinn, however, is actually Mexican, so we’re all good to vote for him without feeling any kind of guilt.
Quinn plays Eufemio Zapata, Emiliano’s brother. It’s Anthony Quinn, so he’s always very good. You know that much. And he’s spirited. Brando is the quiet, brooding one while Quinn is the loud, fun one. My favorite scene that I’ll never forget is one where he’s sitting on a chair hanging out and a woman walks by. And he stops her with his gun and uses the gun to lift her skirt. She pushes him away and storms off. And he sits there, amused, and then a second later goes, “I’ll be right back,” and walks off in the direction she did. It’s a wonderful moment.
This is the type of performance where — you don’t necessarily take him every year, but in a year like this, I get it. He’s definitely top two in the category for the year no matter how you slice it.
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The Reconsideration: Burton and Palance are out right off the top. Palance is way too much for me to take seriously and Burton is unabashedly the lead of his film. So they’re out.
Now, Hunicutt is really solid and actually kind of underrated, so he might sneak in there. Though I don’t know if he overcomes Quinn. McLaglen is a solid entry all around in a film I love. I think he’s probably the most limited of the performances, even though I love him. And, with that said, between Hunicutt and Quinn, I take Quinn. So there’s the vote. Quinn is awesome, and there are a lot of outside factors on top of (not aside from) the performance that make him a great choice. So I’ll stick with him.
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- Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
- Victor McLaglen, The Quiet Man
- Arthur Hunnicutt, The Big Sky
- Richard Burton, My Cousin Rachel
- Jack Palance, Sudden Fear
- The Quiet Man
- The Big Sky
- Viva Zapata!
- Sudden Fear
- My Cousin Rachel
My Vote: Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
The Quiet Man is an all-time essential film. One of John Ford’s best, and a perfect film. Must see for any fan of film.
Viva Zapata! is a pretty good film. It’s Kazan and Brando, so that makes it worthwhile. Plus Anthony Quinn is always great. Essential because of the win, otherwise just a solid movie that’s worth checking out because of the people involved.
Sudden Fear is an okay thriller. Not my favorite, but okay. Worth a watch if it’s on TCM or something. Not essential.
My Cousin Rachel is also decent. Richard Burton’s first American film. Plus Olivia de Havilland. Worth a watch for the cast, otherwise not something people really need to see.
The Big Sky is Howard Hawks. So there’s that. I didn’t particularly love it when I saw it. But Hawks makes things somewhat essential if you love movies enough. This, though — ehh. Take it, leave it. The only reason you’d see it is because of Hawks and Kirk Douglas. Otherwise it’s just okay.
The Last Word: I doubt anyone takes Palance and I figure most people also discount Burton for being a clear case of category fraud. McLaglen is great and memorable, so you could go with him. Hunnicutt is solid, underrated and very much in that Walter Brennan vein, so he’s a solid choice too. But Quinn makes the most sense from every perspective, and holds up the best historically. He seems like the right choice and the best choice. I think this one turned out well.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)