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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1953-1954)

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.

1953

Eddie Albert, Roman Holiday

Brandon de Wilde, Shane

Jack Palance, Shane

Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity

Robert Strauss, Stalag 17

Analysis:

Roman Holiday is a perfect film.

Audrey Hepburn is a princess who is traveling through Europe. She’s bored and wants to see all these countries she’s visiting. So one day she sneaks out to enjoy Rome. And she ends up meeting Gregory Peck, a reporter, who figures out who she is and pretty much does all he can to be around her at all times and prevent anyone else from figuring out who she is so he can get the exclusive story. But of course they fall in love, which complicates things. It’s fucking beautiful. Even people who hate romance movies will love this. Trust me. It’s absolutely note perfect on every level.

Eddie Albert plays Peck’s buddy, a photographer, who he enlists to help out. Peck writes the story, he takes the photos, and they split the (hefty) profits once everyone else picks up their story. So he tags around, is involved with a lot of hijinks, and ultimately he’s the amusing sidekick who realizes how great Hepburn is and eventually agrees to not publish anything and humiliate her.

He’s very good in the movie and I liked his character quite a bit. Is this something that needs to win this category? No. Could you vote for him? You probably could. But, as someone who loves this movie (top twenty of all time for me kind of love), I’m not sure that even I would take him. But we’ll see. A case could be made, especially with the layout of this category.

Shane is an all-time western. Which is strange, because the plot is pretty standard and it’s shot pretty standard. But it’s a classic, and because it’s so famous, everyone needs to see it.

A bunch of homesteaders are moving onto some land that a baron wants. So he hires a gunman to drive them out. Not illegally, but through fear and scare tactics. It starts to work, until Shane, a mysterious gunman, shows up and helps the homesteaders fight for their land.

There’s a lot to talk about here in terms of the western genre, specifically in terms of the homesteader plot and the gunman and his role in society. But that’s for a more interesting discussion. We’re here to talk about two of the performances.

Brandon de Wilde plays the young son of the family that Shane stays with and ultimately helps. He’s the one who says “Come back, Shane!” He mostly exists to idolize Shane, but then be told in the end, “I just killed people, that’s bad. So you don’t do that.” It’s one of those performances that, at the time I bet was really well respected. Now, you show this movie to people and most of them are gonna find him really annoying. And then when you tell them he was nominated for an Oscar, they go, “WHAT?!” Definitely not one of those nominees that holds up particularly well nowadays. He’s fine in the movie, but no, no one actually votes for him.

Jack Palance, meanwhile, plays a variation on all the characters he usually played, which is creepy motherfuckers who will kill you as fast as look at you. He’s the gunman they hire. And he’s there to be menacing. A lot of his performance is owed to stillness. He sits there, not doing anything, goading the homesteaders into pulling guns so he can legally shoot them dead in the streets. And he builds as a villain until he ends up in a final shootout with Shane.

It’s a solid performance, but again, not something that holds up particularly well. It’s a great western performance, but not really one that looks great as a winner. Nomination is fine, but you can’t vote for this. Not in this category. He and de Wilde easily fall to the back of the pack. But Palance is awesome in this movie.

From Here to Eternity is an all-time classic. Any film buff will know this on title alone. Plus it features one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

A bunch of soldiers are stationed at Pearl Harbor just before the invasion. And we follow their lives until that fateful day. The main story is Montgomery Clift, a soldier who used to box in the company regiment but no longer does because he blinded another fighter. But they want him to fight, so they start putting him through all these punishments until he agrees to fight. Then there’s Burt Lancaster, the aide to the general who starts having an affair with the general’s wife. And then there’s Frank Sinatra. Who’s… pretty much Frank Sinatra. And we follow them until the attack happens. It’s a classic on every level. Great film.

Sinatra plays a soldier who loves to have a good time. He’s the kind of guy who barhops and hangs out at the whorehouse and they all know his name and pretty much give him run of the place. That kind of guy. And he becomes a friend of Clift’s, and throughout the film we see him having run ins with Ernest Borgnine, who works at the stockade and really just doesn’t like Sinatra. And this culminates with Sinatra ending up in the stockade for going AWOL And Borgnine beating him so bad that Sinatra ends up dying from his wounds.

It’s a really solid performance. Sinatra is charismatic, charming, and manages to play the right balance between levity and drama. Does this performance win most years? No. Here, makes total sense. He went dramatic in a big picture, and he was a big enough star that it really impressed them. Plus, the category isn’t overly strong. You look at this from a category perspective, and he just walks away with it no matter how you look at it. No one else had a chance in this one. In terms of how I’m gonna vote — it’s still probably him. Like I said before, I can make a case for Albert, but other than that, there’s not a whole lot of competition for Frank.

Stalag 17 is another perfect film. Billy Wilder. This is one of his perfect films. Of which there are at least five. Which is insane.

It’s about POWs in a German prison camp in World War II. It’s about them constantly trying to escape and being thwarted by the guards. They soon realize there’s a rat in their midst and they need to figure out who it is. It’s legitimately a perfect movie. Anyone even casually into movies will love this when they see it.

Robert Strauss plays one of the prisoners. And he’s basically the comic relief of the film. He’s a very strong presence though, so I completely understand the nomination. You watch this and you immediately love this guy. He’s awesome. That alone makes him a solid entry in the category and worth considering for a vote. Do I think the acting is necessarily the best? No. But the overall performance is strong and very memorable, and that makes him someone you need to consider.

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The Reconsideration: From a pure logic standpoint, this seems like a cakewalk for Sinatra. Which I get. Now, of course he’s not putting forth the kind of acting effort that you’d think he is. A lot of this is playing off his natural charm and he’s not stretched all that much. But the character works and the performance is affecting. He’s a pretty easy winner. But… Albert and Strauss also can be considered as well. I love Roman Holiday and could just as easily take Albert because of how much I love the character. Same for Strauss. I think I may have even taken Strauss last time. Though I’m sure I probably just took Sinatra. Doesn’t matter.

Sinatra’s really the choice. Gotta take him. Not my favorite character, but I think he did the best work. On a different day, I could be swayed to Strauss or even Albert, but most days, this is Sinatra’s category.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity
  2. Robert Strauss, Stalag 17
  3. Eddie Albert, Roman Holiday
  4. Jack Palance, Shane
  5. Brandon de Wilde, Shane

Rankings (films):

  1. Roman Holiday
  2. Stalag 17
  3. From Here to Eternity
  4. Shane

My Vote: Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity

Recommendations:

This is easy — Roman Holiday is an all-time essential. Even half-serious film fans must see this. From Here to Eternity is an all-time essential. Same deal. Stalag 17 is an all-time essential. Third times a charm. And Shane — four for four. Any film buff must see all four of these movies. The reasons are different, but essential is essential and the reasons don’t matter if you love movies. You must see them all.

The Last Word: It’s Sinatra. Easy win for him. Albert and Strauss could have cases made for them. The other two don’t hold up as well. Pretty easy win for Frank, with the other two being solid choices for those wanting to go against the obvious. I could see that being argued for legitimately.

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1954

Edmond O’Brien, The Barefoot Contessa

Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront

Karl Malden, On the Waterfront

Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront

Tom Tully, The Caine Mutiny

Analysis:

The Barefoot Contessa is a rather melodramatic film. The whole thing is so overwrought it really only holds up because it’s Bogart and Ava Gardner.

Bogart is a film director who discovers Gardner in a nightclub, and turns her into a star. And the whole thing is framed around her funeral, and reminiscences of those who knew her. It’s not quite The Bad and the Beautiful or even The Band Wagon.

Edmond O’Brien plays a publicist who does all the dirty work for the studio. The whole job is one big lie, and he’s very good at it. Everything he does is phony. Until Bogart convinces him he’s more than that.

The performance is fine. O’Brien is a great actor who’s been great in some great movies. This is one of those performances where, had this been a really weak year, it would be nice to see him win. In a year with three great Waterfront performances, it looks like a weak win in every regard except that we all like Edmond O’Brien. The performance is just okay, and I think he won because of the three-way logjam with the other nominees.

On the Waterfront is one of the most essential movies ever made. If you’re making a list of the most essential films of all time, this is in the top 100.

Corruption on the docks, “Coulda been a contender,” Marlon Brando. Everyone knows this movie.

Three performances here.

Lee J. Cobb plays Johnny Friendly, the union boss who runs the docks. In the context of the film, he’s awesome in it. They’re all awesome. The only real question is which of the three do you take over the others? The downside to Cobb is that he can come off as a cigar-chomping “villain”

Karl Malden plays a priest who urges the men to stand up against the corruption of Cobb. He has a lot of fiery speeches and delivers them well. He’s definitely the conscience of the film. The downside to him is that he can come off as overbearing and repetitive to some. Some people voting might look at him and go, “Enough already, I get it.”

Rod Steiger plays Charlie, Brando’s brother, who works for Cobb. He’s the one tasked to keep Brando in line when he starts to ask questions. He’s pretty measured throughout the film, but he does get to be half of one of the single most famous acting scenes of all time and holds his own against Brando. Which really helps him. The downside is that he doesn’t really get that big “moment” that puts him over the top.

Between the three, I can fluctuate from day to day as to who I prefer. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I’m not burdened this time by the logistics of, “Well I’m not gonna vote for this person in this year, and this is my only opportunity to vote for this other person, and this person also won, so…”

It really comes down to which performance I think was best today. So we’ll see where we are in a minute.

The Caine Mutiny is one of the great films that doesn’t always end up in the pantheon of great films. Next to Waterfront, I get it, but all time, this is a classic of the first order.

Humphrey Bogart assumes command of a ship, and pretty quickly he’s shown to be a crazy, paranoid man who subjects the men to all sorts of crazy punishments and regimens to suit his weird behavior. And eventually the men realize this man is mentally not right. So they decide they have to mutiny.

Tom Tully plays the original captain of the ship that everyone loves. He’s relieved and replaced by Bogart. Mostly the character is that he’s very laid back and is more of an equal with the men. It’s like when the player’s coach is replaced by the disciplinarian. Only thing is — he barely has any screen time and disappears for the rest of the film. And then when he’s there he doesn’t really register all that much. I’m kinda shocked they nominated him. Because he really doesn’t do much of anything at all in the movie. It’s one of those situations where you go, “Who was he? Oh, that guy? He was barely in it!” And I went back twice to check that, and he’s barely in it. No way I can consider him anything other than fifth on that alone.

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The Reconsideration: Tully is barely in the film. Miss the first twenty minutes and he’s gone. So he can’t really be the vote. O’Brien is awesome, but if you’re going on the performance and not the actor, I can’t really see taking him over any of the Waterfront performances.

This category will, 95% of the time, come down to which Waterfront performance one prefers. Today… Cobb is pretty good. Steiger I don’t know if I like outside of the cab scene. And Malden is pretty great throughout. I think it’s Malden for me this time. Yeah, I think it is.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Karl Malden, On the Waterfront
  2. Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront
  3. Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront
  4. Edmond O’Brien, The Barefoot Contessa
  5. Tom Tully, The Caine Mutiny

Rankings (films):

  1. On the Waterfront
  2. The Caine Mutiny
  3. The Barefoot Contessa

My Vote: Karl Malden, On the Waterfront

Recommendations:

On the Waterfront — do they get more essential than that?

The Caine Mutiny is essential on a level below Waterfront. It’s essential because it’s a classic, because it’s incredible, and because it’s one of Bogart’s best performances of all time. Film buffs need to see.

The Barefoot Contessa is solid but not essential. Bogart and the Oscar win make it essential for a section of the film buff community, but overall, it’s just a solid film that’s worth a watch but otherwise not something you really need to go out of your way to see.

The Last Word: Honestly, the hardest part about this category is picking which of the Waterfront performances you’re gonna vote for. They’re clearly the best in the category. You can’t really go wrong with any of them. O’Brien is a decent winner, but for a forgettable film. At least if one of the other three won, the only argument would be that someone else from the film should have won instead. An understandable result, but not the best one they could have made, despite O’Brien being a great actor.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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