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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1959-1960)

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.

1959

Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur

Arthur O’Connell, Anatomy of a Murder

George C. Scott, Anatomy of a Murder

Robert Vaughn, The Young Philadelphians

Ed Wynn, The Diary of Anne Frank

Analysis:

Ben-Hur is Ben-Hur. I mean, what can you say about it? Charlton Heston, Jew, slave, chariot race, Jesus, four hour movie that’s too big to ignore. That’s it. It’s great, but because it’s such a giant achievement. It’s not really a movie you love, just one you respect.

Hugh Griffith plays a sheik, and he’s basically the comic relief of the film. About the two hour mark, when the film starts to get bogged down from “Jesus, we still have 90 minutes left?” syndrome, he shows up to add some levity to the picture. He’s a gambling man and wagers a shit ton of money on Ben-Hur in the chariot race. That’s pretty much the role. He gets a lot of comic scenes that make him stand out among the otherwise dour revenge plot that’s happening the rest of the time.

He’s really entertaining, and I completely understand how he snuck through and win. Likable character in a film that swept most of the Oscars in a category with controversial nominees, a comedian going dramatic whose nomination is the reward, and someone who stood no chance at all. Completely understand the win.

Now — two problems for me. First, the big one — white guy playing an Arabian sheik. I don’t like that. Second, he’s just likable. He’s not that good in the role, particularly for a win vote. No way can I actually take him. Granted, the category isn’t that strong. But still, I have at least two other choices here besides him, and the brownface aspect is pretty much gonna disqualify him for me.

Oh, also — I feel like I should mention, since this comes up all the time: a lot of people maintain that Stephen Boyd should have been nominated here for playing the villain in this movie. He won the Globe this year, and that’s always their rationale. To me, Stephen Boyd is one of the most wooden actors I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if the quantity of his performance actually translates to quality, and I think he’d have been a horrible winner and a mediocre nominee. But to each his own. Personally, I’ll take Griffith over Boyd. Watching Boyd act for me is a lot like watching Taylor Lautner.

Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best courtroom dramas of all time. Scandalous for its time, because its use of the word rape and matter-of-fact descriptions of panties and sexual assault, but it’s a great, great movie.

Jimmy Stewart is a lawyer defending a soldier who murdered a guy he claimed raped his wife. And we watch as he starts questioning people, building his defense, and then the last half of the film is the trial. It’s perfect.

Arthur O’Connell plays Stewart’s friend, an alcoholic. They pretty much hang out and do nothing all day until Stewart gets the case. Then O’Connell has to give up drinking and help. And he overcomes his addiction to help out and uncover a major piece of evidence.

I remember loving this performance the first time I saw it. I’m sure I voted for him. It makes sense. Watching the film again, I do really like the performance, but I’m not sure he’s automatically the vote. He’s good, but mostly he’s just a likable guy. He sort of disappears during the trial portion, and a lot of that is due to…

George C. Scott. He plays an assistant to the prosecutor, and goddamn, is he great here. The minute he shows up on screen, he dominates the film. A lot of the early trial, he takes a back seat, sitting there quietly, taking everything in and occasionally raising a great point that shows how good of an attorney he is. He’s quietly a big presence during Stewart’s defense, sitting there in the background while Stewart and Brooks West go at it. But as the trial progresses, he becomes more front and center. He’s basically the prosecuting attorney for the last hour.

Scott is really good here. I dare say he’d be the vote for most people picking. Maybe even me. The category is surprisingly weak when you get to the voting stage. No one commands the vote, leaving it open to interpretation. The downside to Scott is that he doesn’t have an arc. It’s all courtroom scenes. But you get a sense of his character through those

The Young Philadelphians is a trial movie. Been completely forgotten now. The title isn’t particularly captivating either. You have no idea what the hell it is based on that title. Paul Newman stars in it. So that should give you some measure of excitement.

Paul Newman is an ambitious aspiring lawyer who falls in love with a rich girl who is meant to marry a rich dude. But of course she really loves Newman, and it’s a point of contention. Her father, in order to keep Newman from marrying his daughter, tells him to put off the wedding to take a job in his law firm. Which he does. And that drives the girl to the rich man. And eventually the whole thing builds to a trial, which we’ll get to in a second. Overall, the movie is fine. More of a melodrama. I didn’t love it, but it’s decent. And trials always make movies more interesting.

Robert Vaughn plays a friend of both Newman’s and the girl’s. The whole time he keeps telling her to not be pressured into marrying a man she doesn’t love. And then, later in the movie, he loses an arm in the Korean War and also ends up being arrested for murder of his uncle, who controls his inheritance. He demands that Newman defend him, since he knows his family only cares about their name and not his fate. He knows Newman will actually try to get him acquitted. And you know, trial.

Vaughn was pretty good in the movie. I haven’t seen it in five years, but I remember him being solid but clearly not someone you vote for. The film is a bit of a melodrama, and he plays the role a bit hammy by today’s standards. I’m more understanding of these types of performances than most, so I thought he was good. I’d probably put him fourth in the category overall, but wouldn’t put him in the conversation for a vote.

The Diary of Anne Frank is surprisingly way better than you’d give it credit for. I mean, you figure how good can a movie about a blind and deaf girl be, right?

I regret nothing.

William Wyler directs an almost three hour movie where the majority of it is spent in an attic. And it’s great. Also, you should know what it’s about, otherwise you condone the Holocaust. Pretty sure that’s how that works. I don’t write the bylines, I just know them.

Ed Wynn plays one of the people in the attic. He shows up about halfway into the movie. He acts as a fresh face to bring in news of the outside, which the family knows nothing of. Much of it is grim, but it’s news. He’s a contentious character in the film because, one, the family has only so much food to go around as it is, and him coming in makes rations even thinner. Not to mention, he’s allergic to Anne’s cat, which is an annoyance to her, but also means that his sneezes mean they can be caught. Overall, he’s a nice man who’s in the same situation as the rest of them, and the film constantly reminds us (and them) of that.

Wynn is good here. He’s clearly a comedian, but he does a fine job in a dramatic part. I don’t think anybody begrudges the nomination, though I think most people can agree that Joseph Schildkraut as Anne’s father probably should have been nominated in this category. That doesn’t have to be in place of Wynn, but I think we can agree that to be true. So, Wynn — fine, decent, but I doubt he rises any higher than fourth for most people in this one.

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The Reconsideration: To begin, this is a category that looks pretty good on paper, but when you get to voting… I have no idea what to do with it.

Ed Wynn got nominated as a comedian going dramatic. Fine. The nomination is the reward though. Plus, Joseph Schildkraut is much better in the film and was unnominated. I won’t hold that against Wynn, but since I’ve already established that I wouldn’t vote for him, it doesn’t exactly help his case.

Then Robert Vaughn. Solid, but nah. Too melodramatic for the worst film in the category. I like him and it’s cool that he was nominated, but this is more of a testing the waters nomination to see if his career would pan out and he’d be here a bunch. He had no shot, nor would anyone really vote for him.

So then you have Hugh Griffith, who won because he’s lively in the biggest film of the year which basically swept the Oscars. Completely get the win, but between him not really having much to do except be funny and being a white actor playing Middle Eastern, I wouldn’t take him. I’m not opposed to him, I just would only take him in extremely dire circumstances, which I don’t have.

To me, the category comes down to the two Anatomy of a Murder nominees. Maybe someone goes and takes Griffith, and I’d be interested to hear the reasoning there, but outside of that, it seems like these two nominees are the two most people are gonna be deciding between in this category.

That said, that makes me assume most people automatically take George C. Scott. Because, you know, Dr. Strangelove and everything. People don’t really know who Arthur O’Connell is anymore. But all that aside —

O’Connell has the type of role that makes sense in the category. Drunken friend who has to sober up and help out in the murder case. Basically Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach. Problem is, he really takes a backseat during the trial and essentially disappears for the last half of the film. Which is when George C. Scott shows up and completely takes over the courtroom. No Scott — he has no character. He’s just an assistant DA who is helping the prosecutor out and ends up basically taking over the cross-examinations. It’s a strong performance that could be overlooked if you’re not paying attention in his early scenes.

I think, honestly, while I do really enjoy the O’Connell character, I think the fact that Scott literally takes over in the latter stages of the film, coupled with the fact that I caught myself seeing Scott add characterization for his character during the trial, makes me take him. Give me a different category and I might not do this, but I think Scott truly did give the best performance in the category. Most people will tell you that. No one has him lower than 2 no matter how you slice this one. He’s gotta be the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. George C. Scott, Anatomy of a Murder
  2. Arthur O’Connell, Anatomy of a Murder
  3. Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur
  4. Robert Vaughn, The Young Philadelphians
  5. Ed Wynn, The Diary of Anne Frank

Rankings (films):

  1. Anatomy of a Murder
  2. The Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Ben-Hur
  4. The Young Philadelphians

My Vote: George C. Scott, Anatomy of a Murder

Recommendations:

Ben-Hur is one of the all-time essential movies. It just is. It’s big, it’s epic, it looks great, and everyone needs to see it, whether they think it’s a masterpiece or not. Must-see for all film buffs.

Anatomy of a Murder is also essential for film buffs. It’s one of the best trial movies ever made, it’s a classic, and it’s got Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott and was directed by Otto Preminger. There’s no reason for any film buff not to see this movie.

The Diary of Anne Frank is life essential. You should see it just because it’s a part of life to experience it. You don’t have to read the book, necessarily, but you should. And the movie is worth it because it makes you a better person. Plus, as far as being a film buff, it’s essential. Oh, and it won an Oscar. So there’s really no person who should ever willingly skip this movie. Essential all around.

The Young Philadelphians is a movie that is worth seeing, because Paul Newman and everything, but it’s not a movie you need to really seek out. If you can see it, you should. It’s good. Very solid. Might even be a hidden gem for you. Overall, not particularly remembered, not really something that’s essential in any way, but it is solid. Look out for it on TCM. You’ll probably like it.

The Last Word: Griffith isn’t the worst winner, and looks fine because he’s in Ben-Hur. But to me this is a minor comic relief role in a giant movie and ultimately a racist character because he’s a white guy. He’s not playing a caricature, but the fact that this sheik wasn’t played by a Middle Eastern (or even remotely ethnic) actor makes the part inherently racist in its foundation. And that’s troubling to me. So I don’t take him, but I can see how he could be taken. That said, the Anatomy of a Murder nominees feel like the class of the category. I also get why they didn’t win, given the controversy surrounding the film. O’Connell had given better performances before this, and Scott would give better performances after this. Completely get them not winning and I’m not sure how either of them would have held up historically. But I think they’re the class of the category and are both worth voting for over Griffith, so take that for what you will.

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1960

Peter Falk, Murder, Inc.

Jack Kruschen, The Apartment

Sal Mineo, Exodus

Peter Ustinov, Spartacus

Chill Wills, The Alamo

Analysis:

Murder, Inc. is a gangster film about a gang that basically ruled Brooklyn in the 30s. They killed a lot of people.

That’s pretty much the film, too. Not much else to say there. It’s actually more gangster movie than noir. The noir genre was basically dead by Touch of Evil in ’58, so now we’re moving more toward straight gangster, with a bit more of location shooting and realism being thrown in. It’s a pretty good film. Not great, but solid.

Peter Falk plays the hitman of the syndicate. He’s a cold-blooded psychopath. And he’s Peter Falk! It’s great. The opening scene is him silently entering an apartment building with his partner, unscrewing the light bulb so nobody sees him and murdering a dude on the stairs. He’s a real piece of work here. He threatens a guy not to talk about a murder, and when the guy is rude to him, he rapes his wife. And then, to make it up to them (and keep them quiet), he gives them an apartment. Which is pretty fucked up, to rape a guy’s wife and then be like, “You know, I like you guys. Here’s a nice place to live.” Eventually he gets arrested and testifies against the entire syndicate in exchange for a deal. And of course they bump him off. And you think that the performance suffers after he gets arrested. But on the contrary, he’s actually really strong when he’s in custody, explaining how murder is nothing to him and giving details of all the different ones he’s committed over the years.

Falk is the best part of the film by far. The film picks up immensely when he’s on screen. He’s actually someone I’d consider voting for, and that’s before I factor in that it’s Peter Falk. I really like this performance a lot. And I know the film isn’t the easiest to find, but it’s really worth seeing. This is not the Peter Falk you’re used to, and he’s awesome in this movie.

The Apartment is a perfect film. To me, Billy Wilder’s greatest achievement. But he’s got about ten greatest achievements.

Jack Lemmon works as a nameless employee in an insurance company. The only reason the higher ups know who he is happens to be because they all use his apartment to sleep with their mistresses. Lemmon has a schedule going whereby he lets them take their girlfriends to his apartment to sleep with them while he goes out and does stuff for the evening. He lives a solitary existence, flirting with Shirley MacLaine, the elevator operator, and waiting TV dinners alone when he does get to be in his apartment. Things change when Fred MacMurray, the big boss of the company, makes him deal to give him a big promotion in exchange for him being the only person who is allowed access to the apartment. If you haven’t seen it, it is seriously a perfect film.

Jack Kruschen plays Lemmon’s neighbor, a doctor. He and his wife think Lemmon is an alcoholic lothario. Since as far as they know, he’s always making all this noise, playing music and sleeping with women practically every night, and he’s always cleaning out bottles of liquor from his apartment. At first he mainly acts as comic relief, but then there’s a turning point midway through the film where his doctoring skills come into play during an emergency. Which allows him to also be a comedic presence, since as far as he knows, this is all Lemmon’s doing. The joke is that he still thinks Lemmon is leading a crazy lifestyle no matter what Lemmon says, but by the end of the ordeal, he at least respects him some more.

It’s a very effective performance, but this is a situation where he clearly came along for the ride with the film. It’s one of those extra nominations a film gets when it’s clear it’s a major player for Best Picture. I love the character, but when it comes down to actually voting for him, it’s hard to make a case for him any higher than third. And even then, most people would have him fourth. This isn’t a performance that wins.

Exodus is a four hour movie about the founding Israel.

Seriously. Very Zionist.

It was an important issue for Hollywood, but the film is overlong and not that great. No real point in getting into the full plot. It’s four hours.

Sal Mineo plays a part of a radical Zionist group. He survived the Holocaust and is haunted by everything that happened there. When he joins the group he’s forced to admit what happened in the concentration camps — he was raped and he was part of the sonderkommando. After that, he joins and becomes a terrorist, helping carry out bombings and prison breaks. He also has a romantic subplot that ends tragically. It’s the type of role that of course was gonna get nominated.

Here’s the thing — this is a divisive film. And by that I mean, most of the time I find that people either really like it, and the performances, or they can’t stand it. It’s too long, it’s too boring, all the performances are over the top, and the idea of watching all four hours of it again is tantamount to being asked to give yourself food poisoning. I’m of the latter camp.

I think Mineo is really theatrical in his performance, and while I thought he was fine. I wouldn’t come close to voting for him. Maybe I give him third here, but even then, a distant third. I don’t care for the film and think the performance is maybe worth a nomination at best. This one isn’t for me.

Spartacus

Wasn’t that a great moment?

It’s Spartacus. What do you need to say about this? It’s Ben-Hur meets Gladiator. Slave starts a revolt. Great shit.

Peter Ustinov plays a gladiator trainer. For those who know Gladiator — which is pretty much everyone within five years +/- of my age — he’s Proximo. That’s exactly what he is. He rounds up slaves, trains them as gladiators and they put on shows at the Colosseum. He’s mostly used for comic relief. The first time we see him, he’s preparing for a senator’s arrival at the school and is like, “Get the best wine. No, second best. Okay, best, but small glasses.” That kind of stuff. And when they want two of his men to fight to the death (which he doesn’t allow there), he tries to give them the smallest ones so they don’t kill any of his good stock. And he’s constantly out to make money for himself.

It’s a great character, and Ustinov is his usual solid self in it. In a different category, he’s not the choice, and he’s probably second. But in this category, I can’t really point to anyone else who should have won over him. Plus, he was also great in The Sundowners. And I’m not against comic performances, so I have no issue with the win. He’s the most entertaining performance in the category. Were Hugh Griffith in this same category, I’d probably put him toward the top too (though Griffith, he’d be competing directly with Kruschen (and the brownface thing would still hurt him). Seems like an easy win for Ustinov for me in a rather uninspiring category. Now, am I gonna take him? It’s close. He’s a good choice. But Peter Falk is still also right there. So we’ll see.

The Alamo is John Wayne’s big budget adaptation of Davy Crockett and the boys’ last stand at the place where there is no basement. This was a Best Picture nominee, owing largely to the Academy’s love of stars directing movies. (Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood). Some are good, some aren’t. This one is okay.

The plot is self-explanatory. The Alamo. They’ve made this movie a couple of times, twice notably. Neither film is particularly great, but at least this one has John Wayne and a bunch of famous actors in it to pass the time.

Chill Wills plays one of Crockett’s men. And he’s colorful. I bet if you watched this movie without knowing who he was, you wouldn’t think, “That guy deserves an Oscar nomination.” The film was gonna get something, because that’s how it works. But in a giant bomb of a film, they chose a pretty forgettable performance for the nomination. Could have been anyone, but they chose wills.

The big historical tidbit about this nomination is the fact that Chill Wills really wanted to win this Oscar. He campaigned like crazy in really disturbing ways. He took out an ad that basically said “the rest of the cast of this movie wants me to win more than the actual participants wanted to win during the battle of the Alamo.” Or something like that.

He’s fifth in the category, no one would take him, and I still say most people wouldn’t really be able to pick him out of the lineup of the film. It’s like the Ian Bannen Flight of the Phoenix nomination. You have no idea who he is in that movie and he barely registers a performance. Very curious nomination.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Not a particularly strong category. Performances are good, but when you get to the voting stage, there’s not a whole lot here. Wills barely rats #5 for me. I have no idea how he got on this list and I’d never vote for him. Mineo — not for me. Don’t see the greatness of the performance. Kruschen is nice, but he’s clearly along for the ride and doesn’t rate anything more than a, “Oh, that’s nice that they nominated him”

To me, it’s either Falk or Ustinov. Ustinov had two solid performances this year, and they nominated him for, what I feel, is the less interesting of the two. He’s nice in Spartacus, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. But, two performances and one that was almost worthy of a win nine years earlier… I get the win. But, I actually prefer the Falk performance, all things considered. So, while I’m totally cool with the Ustinov win, Falk gets my vote. It’s a win-win for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Peter Falk, Murder, Inc.
  2. Peter Ustinov, Spartacus
  3. Jack Kruschen, The Apartment
  4. Sal Mineo, Exodus
  5. Chill Wills, The Alamo

Rankings (films):

  1. The Apartment
  2. Spartacus
  3. The Alamo
  4. Murder, Inc.
  5. Exodus

My Vote: Peter Falk, Murder, Inc.

Recommendations:

The Apartment is an essential film. Best Picture winner, one of Billy Wilder’s three best movies, and, selfishly, one of my five favorite films of all time. That doesn’t make it objectively essential, but it does mean I really get to tell you that you have to see it on top of how objectively essential it is.

Spartacus is also essential. Why? Because it’s Spartacus. The name alone should tell you how essential it is. An all time classic, iconic all around, and it’s Stanley Kubrick. AND it won an Oscar. No reason for any film buff not to see this.

The Alamo is a big budget action movie about a subject we all learn about in history directed by John Wayne and starring a big cast. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not essential at all. As far as historical epics go, it’s just okay. Not good enough for Oscars, but good enough as far as movies go. Check it out but don’t rush to see it.

Exodus — ehh. I don’t love it. But it’s big, it’s classy, Otto Preminger, Paul Newman. Some people love it. I guess see it? Not something I recommend all that highly. But maybe you should see it eventually.

Murder, Inc. is a nice gangster movie. Not great, but solid. And Peter Falk is terrific in it. Check it out if you get the chance. Not essential, but a nice little gem.

The Last Word: Ustinov makes the most sense and holds up the best. That said, I prefer Falk. He’d have also been a decent choice. The others — ehh. I feel like Ustinov is a fine winner and that most people would have him. Mineo is maybe an alternate choice, but he’d have been a divisive winner. Falk would have seemed weak because his film isn’t all that remembered. Like Van Heflin in Johnny Eager. But he’d have looked okay. Ustinov seems like the total package, even if his performance isn’t necessarily that outstanding. They did fine here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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