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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1957-1958)

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.

1957

Red Buttons, Sayonara

Vittorio De Sica, A Farewell to Arms

Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place

Russ Tamblyn, Peyton Place

Analysis:

Sayonara is a word that means goodbye.

It is, though.

Marlon Brando is an American Air Force pilot stationed in Japan. The men are told not to marry Japanese women. Just fuck them and leave them, Pinkerton style. But Red Buttons has. He’s marrying a Japanese woman, the army doesn’t like that. They get Brando to try to convince him not to do that, but Brando sees that they’re in love and is okay with it. And then Brando starts

Buttons, as I said, is an airman who marries a Japanese woman. And he’s a nice guy who loves his wife, despite overwhelming social pressure. And eventually they’re told they can’t be together, and rather than accept that, they both poison themselves and die.

The performance is pretty good. Not sure I vote for him, but I totally get why he won. It’s an important role in terms of what it means and what it signifies. Though, in this category… yeah, he actually rates pretty highly. So we’ll see. I’m over my dislike of the film and the two acting wins, but I’m still not sure I actually like the performance enough to take it.

A Farewell to Arms is David O. Selznick making a big, expensive remake of the Borzage movie from the 30s. And you know — Hemingway. For a movie like this, with that kind of pedigree and that type of everything — it only got one nomination. In this category. Which is almost a consolation prize for a movie that clearly underperformed in every way.

It’s a simple story — army nurse and soldier meet and fall in love during World War I after he gets injured. That’s it. Romance, tragedy, you know the deal.

Vittorio de Sica plays an Italian soldier and the main character’s friend. (Rock Hudson plays him here. Gary Cooper played it in the original. Perhaps that signifies something. Don’t want to get into that here.) He’s charismatic. The role is written to be memorable. Overall — ehh. He’s fine. I feel this is a token nomination and has as much to do with the fact that this is the great Italian Neo-Realist filmmaker as it does anything else. If it’s not him, this performance probably doesn’t rate a nomination. He’s good, but no one would consider him anything more than fourth or fifth in this category. The nomination is clearly due to his stature and not a whole lot else.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an all-time classic. Even casual film fans have heard the title.

A bunch of British and American POWs are captured by the Japanese and told they are going to help build a bridge, one of strategic importance in getting Japanese supplies and troops across. A lot of the beginning is the standoff between the officers, who declare that they will not work under the conventions of the Geneva Code, which the Japanese don’t give a shit about. So they basically punish the officers by making them stand outside in the hot sun all day with no water. Eventually though, Alec Guinness, the commanding officer, decides to have the men build the bridge to help morale. And entirely devotes himself to making the best bridge possible. Meanwhile, William Holden escapes the camp and makes his way back to American troops, who are gonna lead a raid on the camp, and on the bridge. It’s a great movie. A real classic and nearly perfect.

Sessue Hayakawa plays Colonel Saito, who runs the camp and is tasked with building the bridge. At first, he seems heartless and almost barbaric, but as we go along, we slowly find out that he’s under immense pressure from his commanding officers and if he doesn’t complete the bridge, he’ll have to commit suicide to preserve his honor. It’s a very strong performance by a veteran Japanese actor. Him winning would have been a huge deal, historically, but I can see why they ultimately didn’t take him. One, the film won a bunch of Oscars as it was and two, his English wasn’t the best. Of course, that didn’t stop them from taking Miyoshi Umeki, who spoke no English at all. Five years ago, I’d have taken him no questions asked. Here… I don’t think he gives the best performance. He’s definitely one of the top three to take, and I may ultimately end up taking him, but I can see going another way here. I want to weigh my options first.

Peyton Place is an ensemble drama that became a soap opera that ran for a long time. It was also I think the second highest grossing movie of this year. Huge film for 1957.

A young girl narrates a tell-all book about her small town. And we follow all the different stories. It’s good. I actually really like this movie. I like these ensemble small town movies of the studio era. The two stories we’re gonna focus on here are the ones of our two nominees.

First, Arthur Kennedy. He’s a drunk who lives across the railroad tracks with his family. He’s a pretty despicable guy. He beats and rapes his daughter, and is just a huge piece of shit. And one day, he gets his daughter pregnant, necessitating an abortion performed by the town doctor. The doctor, meanwhile, uses this as an opportunity to make him leave town forever. He makes him sign a confession and says that if he ever sets foot in town again, he’ll show it to everyone. So Kennedy leaves and things are nice… until he returns on Christmas. He says he joined the army and turned his life around. His daughter doesn’t believe him. He tries to assault her again, and she kills him.

Kennedy is great here. Seriously. It’s a great performance and the character is really well-drawn. You hate this fucking guy, and you completely understand him. Kennedy plays it perfectly. Definitely the conversation among the other two big options here. And we’ll deal with him more in a second.

Now, for Russ Tamblyn… I’ve always wondered why they chose to nominate him over Lloyd Nolan, who is much better as the town doctor. Tamblyn is pretty bland as the classmate of the main girl who is shy but has a crush on her. Mostly that’s it. He’s just kind of there. Really don’t get the nomination, and there’s really no way anyone actually can think to take him over Kennedy. Sure, Kennedy is doing the full melodrama thing, and some might find that over the top, but there’s no way his performance isn’t more memorable or affecting than Tamblyn’s, which all but eliminates Tamblyn from contention for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I take Tamblyn off to start. The performances that stand out in that movie are Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan and Hope Lange. Tamblyn is along for the ride and I do not get the nomination. Then Vittorio de Sica, while the best part of A Farewell to Arms, is nowhere close to a vote. He makes the overall mediocre movie better, but he doesn’t have all that much to work with, and I can’t take him, especially when there were at least two other performances that not only were better than him, but also had more substantive characters.

Now, Red Buttons — here’s the thing with him: I get the win. His character meant a lot in the political climate of 1957. But now — it’s dated. And he’s… there’s something about his character that makes it feel like he knows how it’s coming across the audience. I don’t like that. The film is a bit dated, despite looking great, and, while I don’t love the performance, I will say that he holds up better than other performances in the film (Brando specifically. Or even Ricardo Montalban, which is about a half a click short of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). So I’d rate him solidly here, but I still don’t see why I’d take him.

To me, the two best performances were Sessue Hayakawa and Arthur Kennedy. Hayakawa has the most complex character and is in the best film. The downsides to him are that he doesn’t really speak English, so it’s hard for me to gauge the actual performance. It’s like how certain actors (Penelope Cruz is one) where they come across sometimes as so much more layered and complex when they’re speaking their natural languages. Not always, but you know what I mean.

Kennedy, meanwhile, has a mostly two-dimensional character in a genre that’s designed to have him play it to the hilt. So of course he can come across as over the top and almost comical, especially nowadays. But, honestly, in terms of which performance made me raise my eyebrows and go, “Oh damn,” he’s the one for me in this category. So I’m torn.

I feel like, were this 1957… well, I can’t even get into that hypothetical. I think actually what’s changing my opinion is the fact that this isn’t 1957. I like Arthur Kennedy and think he deserves an Oscar. However, I think Sessue Hayakawa, for this role, and this film, at this time, would be a huge winner, historically. I think giving a Japanese actor — one of two, this year — an Oscar is a big political statement. So I would like to see that. And that’s making me want to take him. And given the role, it looks okay.

So I think that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna be a little bitch about it. I prefer the Kennedy performance, but I’m gonna vote for Hayakawa, since he’s a close second and I think him winning is the better decision and is just a better story. The Oscars do that shit all the time, so fuck it, I’ll do it once. I never said I was pure. I just said I was more objective than most.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place
  3. Red Buttons, Sayonara
  4. Vittorio De Sica, A Farewell to Arms
  5. Russ Tamblyn, Peyton Place

Rankings (films):

  1. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Peyton Place
  3. Sayonara
  4. A Farewell to Arms

My Vote: Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Recommendations:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an essential film. Best Picture winner, all-time classic. Lean night!

Peyton Place is a film I like a lot. Probably not essential all-time, but it’s definitely something I can recommend. A big film for 1957, spawned a famous soap opera, and has a great cast and is a very watchable movie. I think it’s definitely worth seeing. Solid recommend.

Sayonara is pretty great. Looks gorgeous, and is well-made. The two wins make it essential for Oscar buffs, and otherwise it’s just a high recommend for serious film buffs and recommend for casual film buffs. It’ll appeal to most people.

A Farewell to Arms is… what it is. It’s a big, colorful, expensive remake of a perfectly good film. It’s not bad, but it might be excessive. Still, decent. Worth a watch. I prefer the Borzage version, but it’s still all right.

The Last Word: To me, Kennedy and Hayakawa are the best performances. Hayakawa clearly holds up the best of those two. Buttons was a solid decision at the time that makes sense when you put it in context. But over time, it doesn’t hold up particularly well or look that great from the performance side of things. Hayakawa would look damn well had he won. So he seems like the right choice all around in this one.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1958

Theodore Bikel, The Defiant Ones

Lee J. Cobb, The Brothers Karamazov

Burl Ives, The Big Country

Arthur Kennedy, Some Came Running

Gig Young, Teacher’s Pet

Analysis:

The Defiant Ones is one of the great social commentary movies of the late studio era.

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two prisoners who escape into the swamps of Florida, chained together. So, white man, black man, chained together, have to survive. (Get it?) It’s a fucking great movie. Kind of down and dirty and almost a B movie. But it works. And it’s a really entertaining film. A classic, to boot.

Theodore Bikel plays the sheriff tasked with tracking the two down. Him in this movie is essentially Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. That’s the exact comparison, just 35 years earlier. He’s doing his job, and he understands the guys, and he’s compassionate. But he is trying to bring them back. There are the overeager and unintelligent other cops who he easily outwits — it’s exactly Tommy Lee Jones. That guy who sees the full picture. Very entertaining character who might be the choice in any other year. At this point, I want to consider actually making him the vote, but there’s a clear winner in this category all the way.

The Brothers Karamazov sounds like a circus act, but it’s a Dostoyevsky novel directed by Richard Brooks.

It’s about a man and his sons. Almost a King Lear. He’s trying to name a successor, and the brothers start fighting amongst themselves.

Honestly, I didn’t really like this movie all that much. Thought it was pretty boring. Has great actors in it, but I wasn’t much of a fan. These classy literary adaptations always felt overlong and staid in the 50s. (Look at War and Peace.)

Lee J. Cobb plays the father. From what I remember about the performance is that he comes across like an over-the-top buffoon. I thought he was hamming it up a bit much and didn’t quite understand the nomination outside of a hangover for an unnominated Juror #3 in Twelve Angry Men the year before this. In this category, no small feat, he manages to fall to #5 for me, even behind Gig Young, who is straight comic in his performance, and not wholly memorable in doing so either. I love Lee J. Cobb, but not for this. The movie and the performance are very forgettable for me.

The Big Country is an awesome western. It’s a western that’s trying to be a drama, but it’s ultimately a western.

Gregory Peck comes out west and gets embroiled in a land war between two families. The first half of the film is him learning how to ride a horse and all those things Elizabeth Taylor had to do in Giant. Then he falls in love with Jean Simmons and has to fight Charlton Heston for her. But then it’s all about the land war. And it’s pretty awesome. The land war is between Jean Simmons’ father (Charles Bickford) and Burl Ives. Bickford is the one with all the money and Ives is the one with all the sons and the dirty hands. Sort of like corporation versus mom and pop. Bickford is the one in the suits and the fancy parties, and Ives is the course one who’s always dirty from working all day. Both are wrong and right at the same time, and of course it leads to bloodshed.

Burl Ives is awesome in this movie. He’s definitely a larger than life sort of character. It can be a bit over the top, but in this category, it’s good enough for top two before you even factor in that it’s no even his best performance of the year, but it’s still good enough to contend as top two in this category. And when you factor in his other performance, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he wins this category in a landslide. I’m not even gonna shy away from the fact that he’s my vote. He is the vote here. He’s great in this movie too. This performance is good enough to win on its own. With both, it’s a no-brainer that he won this category.

Some Came Running is a really solid drama with class all over it. Vincente Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Kennedy. Anyone into movies from this era will salivate at that combination. It’s good shit.

Sinatra rolls into his hometown after years away. He’s got Shirley MacLaine, a coarse dame from Chicago with him, who won’t leave him alone. Arthur Kennedy plays Sinatra’s brother, who doesn’t want his wayward brother to come in and fuck up his respectability. And we follow Sinatra as he comes back to the town, trying to write a book, and getting involved with Dean Martin, a dying gambler, Shirley MacLaine’s dangerous ex-boyfriend, and Martha Hyer, a nice schoolteacher who represents a fresh start for him. It’s great stuff.

Dean Martin actually gives an awards-worthy performance here, but they went with Kennedy instead, who by this point was an Academy stalwart in this category. (Though he would never be nominated again after this.

Kennedy is good here, but not special. You know what I mean? He’s solid, and you can see why they nominated him, but if people picked their ballots, he wouldn’t show up on the majority of them, and there’s nothing in the performance that makes you really want to vote for him. The only way he gets major consideration is because he’s Arthur Kennedy and he’s never won. Otherwise… maybe third here, and that’s only because four and five aren’t that great. Most years he’d be a #4. No way he takes down Ives in this one.

Teacher’s Pet is a really amusing romantic comedy. It’s a good film for this list because it gives people something fun to watch. Not the strongest of the nominees, but a fun film.

Clark Gable is a newspaperman who has worked on the job for twenty years. He has no formal training outside of doing it for that long. Doris Day invites him to speak at her journalism class, and he sends back a mean letter to her ridiculing her for even bothering to ask him. Because you can’t teach real journalism. (You get the idea. Street smart vs. book smart.) He’s then forced by his editor to go. So when he gets there, he pretends to be a student, in order to show Day up. And then he finds her cute and enrolls in the class. You know how it goes. It’s a really fun movie.

Gig Young plays a psychiatrist who is Gable’s romantic rival for Day. At least, Gable thinks he is. And you think, “Oh, it’s gonna be the masculine man beating out the intelligent one for the girl.” Because that’s how Gable sees it. But then you realize — oh, he’s gay. They don’t spell it out, but it’s pretty clear that he’s gay based on how they play it. He’s a good foil to Gable. He’s the smart intellectual while Gable’s the direct blue-collar guy.

It’s a nice part. Young is good in it. But it was never going to win. Plus he’d win 11 years after this, so that’s more of a reason for me not to vote for him. Though not the reason I’d not vote for him. Just something that makes me feel better after the fact. He’s definitely a #5 here. Or would be most years if it weren’t for Lee J. Cobb. He’s fifth for the voting and fourth on performance, since I did enjoy his hangover scenes.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Not a whole lot to say here. It’s Burl Ives by a mile. The Big Country and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are too good to ignore. If it were just the one performance, I’d have maybe said you could make a case voting for Theodore Bikel, but not with both. You can’t honestly take Lee J. Cobb despite him being a great actor. You can’t take Gig Young either. That’s too much of a filler performance. Arthur Kennedy is another one — great, but you’ve seen him be better. It’s either Ives or Bikel, and Ives runs away with it by having two win-worthy performances.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Burl Ives, The Big Country
  2. Theodore Bikel, The Defiant Ones
  3. Arthur Kennedy, Some Came Running
  4. Gig Young, Teacher’s Pet
  5. Lee J. Cobb, The Brothers Karamazov

Rankings (films):

  1. The Defiant Ones
  2. The Big Country
  3. Some Came Running
  4. Teacher’s Pet
  5. The Brothers Karamazov

My Vote: Burl Ives, The Big Country

Recommendations:

The Defiant Ones is an essential film. An all-time classic that film fans must see.

The Big Country is a great western. Gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, great cast. Essential for Oscar buffs, solid recommend for all film fans. Burl Ives is the best, guys. You gotta see his movies and realize that.

Some Came Running is great. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine — this isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect out of them, and it’s fantastic. I mark it as close to essential, but just because I think everyone should see it. Not because it’s essential on the level that The Defiant Ones is essential. But still, see this movie, it’s really terrific.

Teacher’s Pet is a nice romantic comedy. Gable, Doris Day. It’s amusing. Not essential but fun. Worth a watch. Good stuff and a high probability you will enjoy this.

The Brothers Karamazov is not my favorite. Well-made, but otherwise I’m not a particularly big fan of it. Can’t recommend it all that highly. Also not essential, so this one’s on you whether or not you want to see it.

The Last Word: It’s Ives all the way. Yes, he clearly won for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but Alicia Vikander clearly won last year for Ex Machina and not The Danish Girl. But that doesn’t discount the Danish Girl performance. The difference here, though, is that Ives is actually good enough to actually win for the performance he was nominated for. The other performance is just icing on the cake. Had he been nominated in a more appropriate category (like, say, with Best Actor winner David Niven, who is part of an ensemble and clearly more supporting than lead), maybe we’d have more to talk about. But he’s easily a #1 here, since his only competition is Theodore Bikel, who really is just a memorable performance in a major movie of the year. Were that a noir or a B movie that didn’t get the acclaim, no one would have looked twice at his performance. He’s still awesome, but there’s no way he takes down Ives for this performance, let alone both performances. It’s Ives, and he holds up fantastically outside of it being for the wrong film.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Keith Kotay

    “Then he falls in love with Jean Simmons and has to fight Charlton Heston for her.” No, he fights Chuck Conners for her…

    August 19, 2016 at 12:33 pm

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