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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1963-1964)

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.

1963

Nick Adams, Twilight of Honor

Bobby Darin, Captain Newman, M.D.

Melvyn Douglas, Hud

Hugh Griffith, Tom Jones

John Huston, The Cardinal

Analysis:

Twilight of Honor was actually one of the last films I saw on this Quest because it was so hard to find. It’s actually kind of a B(+) movie version of Anatomy of a Murder. The Crossfire version of it, if you will. Part noir, part trial movie.

It’s about a lawyer charged to defend a guy who murdered a judge. It’s thought to be an unwinnable case. Everyone wants this guy dead and the trial is basically going to be a show just to hang this guy. The guy is put on the case and begs to not be given it. But, relenting, he enlists his mentor, now retired, to help him out. And of course he falls in love with the guy’s daughter too. And then they work on it and realize the guy is actually innocent, so now they have to win an unwinnable trial.

Nick Adams plays the defendant. He’s a simple man who just can’t grasp the severity of his situation. You find out that his wife is basically a whore, and the judge was having an affair with her. And, as he testifies, we flash back to the night in question and actually see the scenes play out. So you get a sense of this guy both before and after the events.

Adams does a great job with it. I feel like he’s in over his head with the category, but he’s solid in the part. Thoguh I also can’t help but wish Claude Rains got some love for this movie too. He plays the mentor in what I think was his second to last film, and he’s awesome too. That’s not to say he was any more deserving than Adams, it just would have been easier for me to make a case for Rains than it is to make a case for Adams. This is a category with a definitive winner, and no one really seems to be coming close to it.

Captain Newman, M.D. is an awesome film. I really loved it. Especially considering it’s not really all that remembered today.

Gregory Peck works at an army psychiatric hospital, a place that no one wants to work. He’s constantly understaffed. And we watch him as he tries to treat all the men on the ward, who are all dealing with various levels of PTSD. It’s terrific. It really is.

Bobby Darin is an Air Force pilot who has PTSD, but is pretending he doesn’t. So on the surface, he’s fine. He’s charismatic and likable. Not overly suffering like some of the men are. And of course Peck peels back the layers to get to what’s really going on.

Darin is really great in the role, though it’s — when you watch it, this is complete Oscar bait. Even the performance. Darin is ACTING here. He plays it to the hilt, and even his big “scene” where he, under medication, reenacts what happened, goes on for crazy long. But that said, he’s still really good in the part and after a while you forget that, “Oh, this is the dude who sang ‘Mack the Knife’.” He’s just really good in the role. It’s tough to actually take him because of the nest performance, but man, does he contend in this one.

Hud is a great film. A real classic and an acting clinic put on by Paul Newman and Melvyn Douglas. It’s a small film in terms of scope, but it’s terrific.

Melvyn Douglas runs a cattle farm with his two sons. The youngest one, played by Brandon de Wilde, idolizes his older brother, played by Newman. Though Newman is a ne’er-do-well who really wants nothing to do with running the farm. He goes around, sleeps with married women and drinks a bunch. He also flirts shamelessly with the family’s housekeeper, a middle-aged divorcée. Eventually the farm’s cattle start dying, and the family worries it might consume the entire stock, which is tough because money is already hard to come by and they’re not doing so well financially. And the film is mostly about the familial relationships and conflict between father and son as much as it is about the main story.

Douglas is terrific here, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he should have won this Oscar. As good as some of the other performances are in this category, Douglas is really something else. He’s an old-fashioned, moral man who believes his son should be the same way. So there’s a grace with which he plays this man, where its’ clear he still loves his son but is deeply disappointed in him at the same time. His performance makes the final scenes work as well as they do, when Newman finally breaks down. He earned this, plain and simple.

Tom Jones is a fun comedy, but a really weak Best Picture winner. It doesn’t hold up at all. But hey, shit happens.

It’s based on Henry Fielding’s novel about a man who goes out looking for his true parentage so he could marry a woman of status. He’s also a rake who sleeps with women and gets himself into trouble at basically every turn. And we see him on his adventures until the point where he’s seconds away from being hanged.

Hugh Griffith plays Squire Western, the father of the girl he wants to marry. In the early stages, he wants no part of Jones marrying his daughter. But of course, in the end, he’s the one who finds out that Jones is of noble birth and rushes to save him from the hangman’s noose at the last minute. He’s amusing. Comic relief again. He’d have won this if he hadn’t already won for Ben-Hur. I’m sure of it. They were just looking to get him an Oscar, and he managed to turn in these charming comedic performances in Best Picture winners. In terms of the category, even if he hadn’t won for Ben-Hur, he wouldn’t be any higher than third for me. I could even make a case for him as fourth.

The Cardinal is an important film for film history, but not really all taht remembered. At the time, it was important for dealing with big topics like abortion, mixed marriage and the rise of Nazism, but now, people barely remember it.

Tom Tyron is a priest, and we follow him throughout the years as he deals with a bunch of big issues. It’s like if Forrest Gump entered the priesthood. Loads of famous people in the film, and it’s actually quite good. Doesn’t hold up as well as it could have, but still, solid.

John Huston plays the archbishop, in what is basically an extended cameo. He was already a famous director and had won Oscars for writing and directing, and this was his first acting role. And boy, does the Academy love when directors act. (Though apparently not in Chinatown.) Fortunately, John Huston is a really good actor, so he takes what could be a thankless role and makes it memorable. There’s no denying this performance is way more interesting to viewers because it’s John Huston playing the part. That said, the role eventually requires a lot of finesse, and Huston doesn’t really have it. So he’s good, and brings an energy to the part, but really doesn’t get all that deep with it. It feels closer to stunt casting than inspired casting, but for me as a viewer, I’m totally on board with him in the role and like the nomination, even though I wouldn’t vote for him at all.

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The Reconsideration: Surprisingly solid category, in what is, to me, a very weak Academy year. Strong performances in strong films by actors we like, or performances too good to ignore.

Adams is the weakest actor and the weakest film. That said, the film is still really solid and he’s really solid in it, but when it comes down to it, I’d vote for every other actor in the category over him. I may consider taking him over Griffith simply because Griffith already won when I didn’t want him to, but in the end, Griffith still gives a better performance.

Then, dealing with Griffith, he is solid, and I would take him on pure performance over Adams for sure. After that, he’s in that middle realm with John Huston. Griffith’s performance is better, but Huston I like more. But still, I’d take the other two over them, so the flip flop doesn’t matter.

The best two performances in the category are Melvyn Douglas and Bobby Darin. And when you see that, it’s immediately Melvyn Douglas’ category. It just is. Darin is really strong to even get to #2. But nobody beats Douglas here.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Melvyn Douglas, Hud
  2. Bobby Darin, Captain Newman, M.D.
  3. Hugh Griffith, Tom Jones
  4. John Huston, The Cardinal
  5. Nick Adams, Twilight of Honor

My Vote: Melvyn Douglas, Hud

Recommendations:

Tom Jones is a Best Picture winner. Which makes it mostly essential. Plus it’s a solid comedy. In terms of all the Best Picture winners, it’s one of the least essential, but it should probably be seen by film buffs.

Hud is the most essential film on this list. Won two acting Oscars, a great film with a great Paul Newman performance. Not 100% essential, but a very high recommend and near essential. You should see it if you love film.

Captain Newman, M.D. is one of my favorite underseen films of the 60s. I really loved this. Because it has that feel of all those great comedies like Mr. Roberts and Operation Petticoat, but also is a really solid drama. Big, big fan of this movie. Highly recommended.

The Cardinal is probably not essential, but I always say it is because of where it fits into film history. I think people ought to see it because it’s a nice transitional film in what I think is one of the transitional years for cinema. This is the year the big studio films really started looking old and tired, and that started the shift toward 1967. I think this film, thematically, is an important part of that and should be seen. Even if, objectively, it’s not as essential as I’d claim.

Twilight of Honor is a relatively hard film to find, but very much worth it. All trial films are worth seeing, and this is a good one. It’s no Anatomy of a Murder, but it’s real solid. Definite recommend if you can find it.

The Last Word: Douglas gives the best performance in the category and he’s the best choice historically. They did right here. Not much else to add. Darin is much stronger than you’d think, Huston is nice to see, Griffith is highly amusing, and Adams is good, though most would prefer to see Claude Rains here from the same film. Still, this is Douglas’s category.

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1964

John Gielgud, Becket

Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady

Edmond O’Brien, Seven Days in May

Lee Tracy, The Best Man

Peter Ustinov, Topkapi

Analysis:

Becket is one of those big fancy costume dramas of the 60s. They loved these. And by and large they’re all really solid, owing to some great actors filling out the roles. The big ones are this, The Lion in Winter and Anne of the Thousand Days. And of course A Man for All Seasons. They’re all terrific. This one, I feel, is the weakest of the four, but it features the best actor pairing of the four.

It’s about the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Beckett. They were friends and drinking buddies in their youth, but now Henry is king. And he wants a friend close to him, so he appoints Becket as Lord Chancellor. He figures it’s some bullshit title, but Becket starts to take it seriously. To the point where he starts making decisions that go against Henry’s wishes. The film is strong because Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton play the leads and are great in it.

John Gielgud plays the scheming king of France. He loves fucking with the English, and he sees the rift between Henry and Thomas as an opportunity to stick it to them just a little bit. So he hides Becket in France while Henry looks for him, Gielgud and his perfect diction have so much fun with this role. He’s got that air of superiority about him like George Sanders and Peter Ustinov. And he’s such a prick in this role that it’s so entertaining.

The role is basically a cameo, he only has one scene, but Gielgud is delightful in it. He’s a stage actor (it shows, but his skills translate well to film) who avoided films for a long time. He appeared occasionally in Shakespeare films (the Brando/Burton Julius Caesar being the big one), but really, to most of Hollywood, this was his first main film. And they couldn’t wait to nominate him. I’m not quite sure that he’s someone you take based on how little he is in the film, but he does make an impact. So we’ll see how the rest of this shakes out before we make any decisions.

My Fair Lady is an all-time classic. Everyone knows the story of Pygmalion, and this is the stage version of it. The songs here are classics, and the film is the most famous version of the story.

Stanley Holloway plays Alfred Dolittle, Eliza’s father. he’s a lower class man who loves being lower class. He drinks, shirks responsibility, and he loves it. He willingly sells his daughter to Henry Higgins. When he finds out Higgins is putting Eliza up at his house so he could study her diction, he pretends to be outraged on moral grounds, but it’s only so he could try to get some money out of Higgins. And then when Higgins pays him, he actually climbs in social status a bit. He gets a woman, and now has to have responsibility, and he hates it.

The character is a solid one. Mainly comic relief, but also very well drawn. Holloway plays him well, but there’s not a whole lot here to rally around for an actual vote. His memorable song is “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and he does a good job there. I think you can maybe make a case for him, even though he wouldn’t have held up at all. Let’s keep him in the conversation to until the end.

Seven Days in May is a political thriller about an attempted coup of the government. The president has signed a treaty with the Soviet Union for nuclear disarmament, and some higher ups in the military decide to try to take over the government. We watch as an army officer figures out the plot and starts going around to uncover those behind it before they can put the plan in action (and get enough evidence to punish all of them so they don’t get away clean).

Edmond O’Brien plays an alcoholic senator who is a close advisor to the president. The group knows they have to get him out of the way in order to pull off their coup, so they capture him in a secret base and keep him drunk so he doesn’t muck up the works. And of course, since he’s drunk, no one believes him when he tells them the truth, though eventually he convinces one of the men under the command of the traitors to help him escape so he can call the president and tell him what’s going on.

O’Brien is good in the role, but that’s because he’s Edmond O’Brien. This nomination feels like one of those where — they were gonna nominate somebody from the film, and he was the lucky choice. He’s a respected actor, a previous winner, and a veteran. He’s also solid in the part. I completely get teh nomination, but no way is this anything other than a nice veteran nod. Even in this category I wouldn’t take him.

The Best Man is one of my favorite underrated films of the 60s. It’s about a Democratic National Convention where two candidates are vying for the nomination and looking for the support of a former president. And the film takes place over the convention, basically a single day, as the two men, locked in a dead heat, resort to looking for dirt on the other and losing their morals in order to win. It’s great.

Lee Tracy plays the former president, who has been keeping his endorsement close to the vest. He’s a popular president and isn’t keen on making a decision until he finds out who (insert title here) is. He’s also dying. A lot of his scenes are him not letting either candidate know his true thoughts, which makes them think he’s siding with the other one. Which in turn leads to them doing all this crazy shit in order to smear the other one. But really, the whole time, Tracy is doing all this stuff to see which one holds up under pressure.

I really liked this performance a lot. He gets to play knowingly obtuse the whole time. He’s friends with Fonda’s character and doesn’t fully trust the Robertson character, yet you see how he doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way of what’s best for his party. And while he does get to be funny and political, there’s also a poignancy to the performance, with him dealing with the fact that he’s dying.

This performance is definitely near the top for me, and I may even vote for it. The category doesn’t really have a definitive number one. This might be it.

Topkapi is a pretty good heist film. Not exactly a classic, but really solid and unique to its era.

Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell are trying to steal an egg from a palace. And we watch as they plan the heist gather help, and then execute it. It’s funny more than anything. It’s a comic heist. They have the mechanical guy, the strong guy, the acrobatic guy, and then the idiot. That’s where Peter Ustinov comes in.

Ustinov plays a half-British, half-Egyptian hustler who scams tourist out of money. They hire him to unknowingly drive a car with explosives for the heist across the border. He gets caught, naturally, but they let him go on the condition that he helps catch the others. So Ustinov goes back and makes himself part of the team. Though of course they don’t tell him anything, so anything he tells the cops is useless. And eventually they do need to make him part of the heist, at which point one bit of information he has actually does manage to inform the cops what’s going on. But he doesn’t know the cops really know anything, so he lies to them and ends up just as guilty as everyone else.

The way he plays the guy is great because he’s so stupid. But he’s a smooth talker and not overtly dumb, it’s just that everything he does happens to be the exact wrong thing at the wrong time. Which is what makes him so amusing.

Some people could consider him a borderline lead, but I don’t. He’s actively part of the team. He’s also definitely good enough to have won here, and honestly, looking at the category, I get it. Not sure I take him, but I totally get the win.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This was always a tough category for me.

O’Brien is nice, but isn’t anything more than a #5 for me. Holloway also doesn’t really rate all that highly. Some people might put him as high as 3, but I don’t think I go that high. I like him, but it just feels okay and not great. Gielgud is real good (tagline), but he literally only has one scene, so really it’s just a matter of how cool he is than anything. I can’t take him.

So it’s either Ustinov or Lee Tracy. And on that account, totally get the Ustinov win. I’m torn between the two. But this time, I’m really liking the Tracy role, so I think I’ll take him. It’s a win-win for me. I’m cool with either, and on another day, Ustinov would be the vote. But today, I’m thinking it’s Tracy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Lee Tracy, The Best Man
  2. Peter Ustinov, Topkapi
  3. John Gielgud, Becket
  4. Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady
  5. Edmond O’Brien, Seven Days in May

Rankings (films):

  1. My Fair Lady
  2. The Best Man
  3. Becket
  4. Seven Days in May
  5. Topkapi

My Vote: Lee Tracy, The Best Man

Recommendations:

My Fair Lady is an all-time classic and an essential film. Best Picture, Director and Actor winner, the story is iconic, and all film fans need to see this version of it. The original Pygmalion version is negotiable, but this one isn’t.

Becket is a great 60s costume drama. Film buffs should see it, but don’t need to. Put it this way — if the idea of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton doesn’t appeal to you, then I don’t know what to tell you. Solid recommend.

The Best Man is a hidden gem of the 60s. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s great. These political movies of the 60s are all really good. It’s nearly forgotten nowadays, but I think you ought to see it because it’s terrific.

Seven Days in May is a great political thriller with an all-star cast. Very much worth seeing. Not essential, but a high recommend. The cast ensures most film buffs will get to it, but in case you don’t want to wait that long, it’s very good.

Topkapi is a fun heist movie. It’s dated, very 60s, but fun. Worth a watch. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win, but otherwise just a solid recommend for those into heist films.

The Last Word: The two choices that would hold up well are Ustinov and Tracy. Ustinov holds up okay in a relatively weak year. Tracy is good enough to have won and be fine. Gielgud doesn’t have enough screen time, O’Brien is just okay and Holloway might look okay, but with two acting wins it might look like My Fair Lady overkill. Ustinov having two Oscars looks good, so he was probably the choice. But I think I might prefer Tracy just because of the nature of the role. Still, they did okay.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Ed

    Your input on Lee Tracy’s performance is missing

    July 19, 2016 at 5:29 am

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