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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1961-1962)

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.

1961

George Chakiris, West Side Story

Montgomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg

Peter Falk, Pocketful of Miracles

Jackie Gleason, The Hustler

George C. Scott, The Hustler

Analysis:

West Side Story is one of the most important musicals ever made. It also happens to be one of the best musicals ever made. And one of the best films ever made. For those casually into musicals, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics and Leonard Bernstein composing the music is just about the best you could possibly do when putting together a piece of American composition. The story is also one of the most famous ever made, no matter how you slice it.

George Chakiris plays Bernardo. Who is basically the Tybalt of the film. He’s awesome. He’s charismatic, he’s memorable, and he can dance like nobody’s business. And he can act. It’s a complete performance, and this was a well-deserved win. I may not vote for him, but that has absolutely nothing to do with how deserving he is. He’s wonderful here. Definitely top two in the category no matter how you slice it.

Judgment at Nuremberg is about the Nuremberg trials. That’s the film. We follow the trials through the lens of an American judge played by Spencer Tracy. And it’s incredible.

Montgomery Clift plays a man called to the stand to testify that the Nazis castrated those who were thought to be slow. So he’s put on the stand and gets two big scenes. First, to describe how they castrated him, and second, to be cross-examined, and shown to be mentally incompetent by the defense.

The entire scene is an actor’s showcase, and Clift does a great job with it. To me, it’s a little too method-y. A lot of tics and actorly affectations. But regardless it’s very effective. Most years, he’d be top two. This year, he could be as low as fourth because it’s so strong. Either way, 100% is he in consideration for the vote.

Pocketful of Miracles is Frank Capra’s last film. A remake of Lady for a Day.

It’s about a homeless woman who sells apples. Seriously. Apple Annie, they call her. She sells apples and the people in her neighborhood like her, because this is back when you could talk to your homeless people. Glenn Ford is a gangster who thinks her apples bring him luck. Anyway, she gave up her daughter years ago to have a better life overseas. And her daughter has been writing to her all this time, but has never come back. So she’s been telling her daughter about how great her life is, how she has this nice penthouse and all this stuff. Only now the daughter is like, “Guess what? I’m coming back with my fiancé to see you.” And she’s like, “Oh shit, now she’s gonna find out I’m poor and it’s gonna suck.” (This is basically a word for word recitation of the plot.) But then Glenn Ford and everyone, including the cops, because they like her, come together to make her look like a queen for a day. They put her up in a nice apartment and throw this grand party that even the mayor shows up at, and even though it’s all being held together by a thread, they pull it off. The story’s a good one, but Capra never quite cracked this one with two tries.

Peter Falk plays Ford’s right hand man. I’d call him the comic relief, but the whole movie is essentially a comedy. Ford is the white collar gangster and Falk is the muscle. Ford makes the plans and Falk carries them out. Since they’re planning this giant thing at a moment’s notice, he’s the one doing a lot of the work and he gets increasingly exasperated as the film goes on. He’s the one the film goes to for comic reactions. So he comes across best of the cast. But there’s not much here in terms of pure performance. He’s good and he’s funny, but this feels more like them being enamored with him and liking that he’s showing range. He’s fifth in the category. There’s no one I’d rank him over even though I really enjoyed the performance.

The Hustler is a third perfect film in the category. They categorize it as a sports film, but it’s not really a sports film, the way Rocky isn’t really a sports film.

Paul Newman is a pool hustler who, in the opening scene, takes on Minnesota Fats in a game. Which is like starting your movie with Rocky challenging Apollo. Newman is cocky, confident, and good. But he loses. And then, in his arrogance, trying to get a bankroll back, gets his thumbs broken. While he’s healing, he meets Piper Laurie, and the two start a relationship. Meanwhile, a gambler agrees to stake Newman for a percentage of his winnings, and he builds a bankroll back up to take on Fats again. It’s a great, great movie.

Jackie Gleason plays Minnesota Fats. From the start of the film, his character is mythologized to iconic proportions. And when he shows up, he delivers. He’s not flashy, but he’s steady, methodical. There’s something about the way Gleason underplays the character that’s just perfect for the film. He’s that guy who, by doing nothing, does everything. And then in the end

George C. Scott plays the gambler who stakes Newman. He shows up as a side character in the opening pool game and has a big moment where Newman says he won’t stop playing until Gleason says he’s done, and Scott takes a good look at him and says, “Keep playing, he’s a loser.” Which is a great moment. He sees right through the confidence and sees the defeatist streak in Newman. And then later on, he starts staking Newman, showing him how to lose so he can learn how to win. Which involves him being an asshole and committing a despicable act.

Scott is great here and dominates the middle of the film when Gleason isn’t there. He’s for sure good enough to win and I figure most people are deciding between him and Gleason in the category. I put Chakiris up there too, which makes my life all the more difficult. They’re all good enough to win.

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The Reconsideration: This is one of the most difficult categories of all time. I hate having to throw Peter Falk out right off the top, but here, I do. And that leaves four people legitimately worth the vote.

I’m not such a huge Montgomery Clift fan. I think he’s very good in the part, but in this category, he’s behind the other three, so he’s second one off.

Between the two Hustler nominees, I know Scott seems to be the obvious choice, but I have always been much more impressed with Jackie Gleason, which means I’d take him over Scott which means he’s the choice there.

So really, it comes down to whether or not I take Gleason over Chakiris. Chakiris definitely has the singing and the dancing down, which is the majority of the performance. And the acting… he’s fine. Though going back to watch the film, he has less to do than I remembered. So, while I’m very okay with him winning (I think of him, Gleason and Scott as 1, 1a and 1b, all completely worthy), I’m gonna stick with Jackie Gleason. I love that performance so much.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jackie Gleason, The Hustler
  2. George Chakiris, West Side Story
  3. George C. Scott, The Hustler
  4. Montgomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg
  5. Peter Falk, Pocketful of Miracles

Rankings (films):

  1. West Side Story
  2. The Hustler
  3. Judgment at Nuremberg
  4. Pocketful of Miracles

My Vote: Jackie Gleason, The Hustler

Recommendations:

West Side Story, The Hustler and Judgment at Nuremberg are all essential films. For everyone. West Side Story is a movie that I’d be amazed you didn’t see simply as a human being. And if you like movies, it’s top tier, A-one essential. All-time classic, Best Picture winner, one of the best movies ever made, no excuses there. The Hustler is an all-time classic that people get into pretty early because it factors highly into the IMDB list, which means the most people tend to like it which means people just getting into movies see it pretty early on. But in case you’re not at that stage yet, yeah, see it. You’ll like it. And Judgment at Nuremberg is a sort of cross between the two. Close to life essential, close to “you’ll like it” essential, but definitely film buff essential. Won Best Actor, so Oscar buffs need to see it, but just if you like movies you need to see it because it’s great and it’s an all time classic.

Pocketful of Miracles is enjoyable. Not essential in the least. Pretty overlong and bloated. But it is Frank Capra’s last movie (though it’s definitely an example of a director going out with a whimper), and has Bette Davis in it. So there’s that. Not a great movie, but decent. And if you saw Lady for a Day, you can get through this simply because you know the story. So you can take solace in watching other stuff like the performances. I can’t really recommend it that highly, but it’s amusing and has cool people in it, so there’s a place for it. Just don’t concern yourself with rushing out to see it. It’s not that important.

The Last Word: It’s a three-horse race and they’d all be great choices. Chakiris holds up well on performance, but not on his career and stature as an actor. Gleason would have looked good, but I don’t know if he’d hold up any better than Chakiris. Scott — hard to tell. I guess it could be okay too. I think all three would have held up fine and have no gripes at all with the decision. My preference in this category always seems to be Gleason, but honestly you can go almost any way with this one.

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– – – – – – – – – –

1962

Ed Begley, Sweet Bird of Youth

Victor Buono, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Telly Savalas, Birdman of Alcatraz

Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia

Terence Stamp, Billy Budd

Analysis:

Sweet Bird of Youth is based on Tennessee Williams. It’s actually pretty solid, if not remembered as well as the two classic versions of his plays.

Paul Newman left his small town years earlier to make it in Hollywood. He rides back into town with a famous (but aging) movie star and pretending to be the big shit. Of course the reality is he’s basically been hired as her eye candy and has never been in a movie and she’s on a bender because her last movie looks like it’s gonna bomb, but hey. And then he gets embroiled again in the politics of the town, including his ex-girlfriend, whose father runs the town with an iron fist. It’s no Streetcar, and it’s no Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it’s a solid third in terms of Tennessee Williams plays on the screen. (Though after those first two, there’s a small group of ones that are in the same range: Baby Doll, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly Last Summer, Night of the Iguana.)

Ed Begley plays Boss Finley. And any time a guy is named Boss, you know who he is.  He’s kind of a simple villain. Very animated. But he plays it well. I kind of get the win, him being a veteran and all. Not sure I take him, but I’m not outraged that he won like I used to be. Last time, I had him fourth. This time, maybe third seems appropriate. Possibly even second after you factor in an eventual case of category fraud. He’s up there. You can take him. I doubt people necessarily would, but he’s worthy.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is such a perfect entity. It’s in that Rocky Horror vein of “What the fuck is this? But okay it’s good.”

It starts Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two stars known as having hated one another for years. They play sisters. Bette was a child star who’d stopped being famous long ago, and Joan became an actress in her 20s and became super famous, just as Bette’s career was waning. After a car crash where one sister tries to run over the other, Joan ends up paralyzed. Cut to years later, and the two are living in a house together, with Bette caring for Joan. Bette is half-crazy at this point, and has a plan to become a star again. And, she also tortures her sister. It’s fucked up in the campiest possible way.

Victor Buono is the perfect oddity to add to this perfect oddity of a film. He was 6’3” and weighed at least 250 pounds. He plays a pianist who lives at home with his mother (the character is implied to be gay), who answers Bette’s ad in the paper about needing a pianist to continue her show (in which she would sing the songs that made her famous as a child). The whole thing is horrifying, but Buono goes along with it for the money. Until one day he comes across all the fucked up shit Bette is doing to her sister and runs away, terrified.

Buono was nominated because he was a unique looking actor who was utterly believable because no one had seen him before. There are a nice amount of these throughout history, though most of those are due to non-actors being cast in the perfect role. This was more a unique actor being cast in a perfect role that jump-started their career. A good modern example is Barkhad Abdi. Perfectly cast in Captain Phillips but now he’s got a whole career out of it (and he’s a good actor too). The performance here is good, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. The nomination is 100% the reward, and aside from him being more believable than most because you hadn’t seen him before, he doesn’t rate much higher than maybe fourth for me, if not outright fifth. He’s good, but I wouldn’t even think about voting for him here.

Birdman of Alcatraz is an awesome film. If you love prison films (and who doesn’t love prison films?), you’ll really like this.

It’s about Robert Stroud, stuck in solitary confinement in Alcatraz for the rest of his life. He ends up raising birds in his cell. And eventually, over the years, he becomes an expert on birds and even creates remedies to help them live longer. It’s a really terrific film.

Telly Savalas plays another prisoner also in solitary confinement. He’s a men bastard, but Stroud gives him a bird, and he learns to love it. And pretty soon he’s got a bunch of birds as pets as well. It’s a strong performance. Telly Savalas is awesome and he does a great job with it. He was never gonna win here. This is a case where he was singled out for an exemplary performance, but he never stood a chance at winning. Even I wouldn’t put him higher than third here. He’s awesome, but you can’t take him. Or at least, I wouldn’t. Maybe you could make a case for him if you wanted to.

Lawrence of Arabia is an all-time classic and one of the most perfect pieces of cinema ever created.

It’s a biopic of T.E. Lawrence and his experiences in helping to unite all the Arab tribes into a singular nation.

Omar Sharif plays Sheriff Ali, and he has one of the most famous introductions in all of cinema.

This is how we’re introduced to him, coming out of a mirage and then casually murdering Lawrence’s companion because he drank from his well. He then accompanies Lawrence across the Nefud, doubting him the entire time until Lawrence proves himself amongst the Arabs. He also is with Lawrence when he is captured and raped by Turkish soldiers.

Sherif Ali is one of the most iconic characters in cinema, and a lot has to do with his introduction. I don’t know if there’s as much of a character arc here to necessitate a win, but in this category, who else you gonna vote for?

Billy Budd is an awesome film. Directed by Peter Ustinov too. If you really liked Mutiny on the Bounty and The Caine Mutiny, then you’re in luck.

It’s about a young sailor on a ship that one of the officers just loves torturing. He thinks it’ll make him a better sailor, but mostly he just doesn’t like him. And the kid even helps stop a mutiny despite how he’s been treated. But the officer tells the captain the kid planned it, despite everyone on the ship knowing it’s blatantly untrue. And eventually the kid snaps and hits the officer, which leads to the officer’s death. So now, we have a problem on our hands. And the film is about — yes, the kid if responsible for the guy’s death, but also, the guy really fucked with him. So who’s to blame, and can they really hang this kid? It’s a really strong film.

Terence Stamp plays Billy Budd. So yes, another example of a lead being pushed supporting because the Academy doesn’t “know” the actor. It’s not even a question how much of a lead he is. Stamp is great in the film, but this is horrible category fraud. I can’t support this. He’s great, but this is a lead. And he’s not too good to ignore. That happens sometimes, but not here. He ends up as a solid entry who is in the wrong category and gets to represent a really strong film that is otherwise underrepresented and really worth checking out.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Tough category. No one jumps up as the “must take.” I can make cases for three people. Which makes it easy to understand how Begley won.

Buono is a nice nomination, but I can’t take him. And Savalas isn’t strong enough to vote for. Stamp is the unquestioned lead of the film, and while I’d really try to make a case for him were he not, I can’t support this blatant a case of category fraud. So while his performance is top two for me, I can’t vote for him.

So right there, it’s Sharif or Begley. And clearly, I’m taking Sharif. I can’t ignore Sherif Ali. No one even remembers Begley’s performance. Everyone remembers Sherif Ali. You could argue that Begley is ultimately better than Sharif, but still, I’m taking Sharif. He’s awesome here and it’s well worth a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia
  2. Terence Stamp, Billy Budd
  3. Ed Begley, Sweet Bird of Youth
  4. Telly Savalas, Birdman of Alcatraz
  5. Victor Buono, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Rankings (films):

  1. Lawrence of Arabia
  2. Birdman of Alcatraz
  3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
  4. Sweet Bird of Youth
  5. Billy Budd

My Vote: Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia

Recommendations:

Lawrence of Arabia is probably one of the ten most essential films of all time if you’re a film buff. I think that’s about all that needs to be said there.

Birdman of Alcatraz is an essential movie. Not like Lawrence of Arabia, but for me. I say it’s essential because I know that if 100 people see this on my saying it’s essential, 90-95 of them are going to really like it. This is one of those movies that people who love movies like. Especially if you like the standard types of movies. You know what I mean. The IMDB ones. If you love all the films on the 250 list over there, you will really like this movie. Do you like Shawshank? Of course. Everybody does. You’ll like this. Same thing. That’s why it’s essential.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is awesome. But mostly because it’s so batshit crazy. A cult film that’s become an actual classic for so many reasons, it’s essential by my count just because people really need to experience this movie. If you like film and you like Old Hollywood then it’ll be even better for you, knowing the Davis/Crawford history. But outside of that, it’s worth it as a weird classic with quotable lines and so you can go, “How could the dude who made The Dirty Dozen also make this?” Because Robert Aldrich made some really bipolar choices during his career, which is awesome, but also incomprehensible.

Sweet Bird of Youth is Tennessee Williams. And a big cast of actors led by Paul Newman. So that’s cool. It’s a solid movie too. And it won an Oscar so it’s Oscar buff essential. I’d say, historically — Oscar buff essential, film buff high recommend, casual film buff “check it out because you might like it, but it’s not something you need to see.” Not really essential, but worth it because there’s a good chance you’ll like it.

Billy Budd is a solid film. Definite recommend here. Not essential in the least, but definitely something you should check out. Put it in the Netflix Queue and watch it when it shows up. It’s that kind of movie. Great shit and a nice gem from the 60s that’s underappreciated nowadays. If it’s on TCM, do take the time to watch it. If you like Mutiny on the Bounty, you’ll like this.

The Last Word: Begley is a good performance but doesn’t hold up. Sharif would have been the optimal choice here. Stamp, I guess maybe could have been okay, but even so, Sharif is the one that holds up the best here. Not a bad choice they made, but not the best one either.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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