The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1965-1966)
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.
Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns
Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix
Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago
Michael Dunn, Ship of Fools
Frank Finlay, Othello
A Thousand Clowns is a movie I loved when I saw it. It’s such a strange movie.
Jason Robards is a willingly unemployed former TV writer who lives with his nephew. He treats the kid like an apprentice, taking him to see all the “schmoes” going off to work every morning and giving him lectures about how dumb they are. Meanwhile, Social Services shows up to investigate whether Robards is a capable guardian, and the rub ends up being, in order to keep the kid, he has to get a job. So he struggles with keeping his best friend around versus becoming one of the suckers he hates. It’s theatrical. The whole film is based on a play and it shows. But I like it.
Martin Balsam plays Robards’ brother. He’s an agent who… wants his brother to go back to work. He also loves his brother. It’s the kind of role where he’s like, “Why the hell didn’t you do the responsible thing?” And then Robards tells him, and it’s something funny, and despite him not wanting to, he laughs. He isn’t in the film all that much and has little to do. His big scene is where he gives a monologue telling his brother to get his shit together. He also admits that he sucked everything up and goes to work every day, and isn’t ashamed of that. It’s this monologue that won him the Oscar.
He’s fine, but in almost any other year he’d be a #4. Crazy to think that here, he’s probably top two. But that’s this category. He’s easily top two for me. There’s not much else to choose from in this category.
The Flight of the Phoenix is a classic. A great film with a great premise.
A plane goes down in the middle of the desert. And the passengers need to fix it before they die. So they have to work together. Simple as that. Good stuff.
Ian Bannen plays a Scottish dude who’s there with the others. I’ve always been real curious how this nomination happened. Ignore the fact that there were other performances from the year they could have chosen. Okay, fine. They wanted to choose something from this movie. And they chose Bannen? How do you single him out? I was over an hour into the film the first time I watched it and realized I had no idea who he was even playing. The only explanation I could come up with was that they nominated him for the higher profile film even though The Hill was the performance they wanted to nominate him for. Kind of like how Dennis Hopper got the Hoosiers nomination instead of Blue Velvet. But at least there, he was great in both films.
Honestly, even when you watch this movie for Bannen, you still barely clock him. They just kind of cut to him occasionally in the scenes and he says something sardonic. It’s almost comical how on the nose the performance is. He is absolutely the #5 here, and, were I making a list of the least comprehensible nominees (since I don’t want to say undeserving or worst), this would be in the top ten or fifteen on that list. Do not understand this at all.
Doctor Zhivago is David Lean. I always (and you’ve probably head me say this a dozen times, but I’ll keep saying it because I think it’s true) discuss his trilogy of Oscar films thusly: Bridge on the River Kwai is amazing and nears perfection but doesn’t quite reach it. Then Lawrence of Arabia is a perfect film, through and through. And then Zhivago passes the point of perfection to the point of being just a bit too much. It feels too long, it feels too well-made and it just feels like they could have pulled it in just a bit to make a movie truly worthy of being called near-perfect. But it’s still great and a classic.
The best historical dramas are structured around historical events. This one is set against WWI and the Russian Revolution. Zhivago is a doctor and a poet, and he falls in love with Lara. Both of them are married. And we follow them throughout all these events and a life of unrequited and tragic love. It’s a great film.
Tom Courtenay plays Pasha, Lara’s husband. He ends up getting stabbed by some Cossacks and becomes a radical. Eventually he joins the army and goes missing in action and is presumed dead. He later shows up as a famous commander notorious for having people killed. The arc of the character is one of idealistic student turning into hardened leader. It’s a good arc. The performance is just okay. He doesn’t have enough screen time for me to really want to get behind the performance for a vote. But the way the category is, I might have to anyway.
Ship of Fools is a big budget drama with a lot of storylines and really only two that are any interesting.
It’s about a bunch of people on a ship from Mexico to Germany. The idea is they’re traveling to the emerging fascism. It’s not subtly handled. We follow each of the stories, but since our nominee isn’t really in any of them, I won’t get into them. The film, I felt, is pretty unwieldy, overlong, and really only has two stories of interest, one of which is only of interest to me because I love the actress in the part. Pretty much outside of Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret, this movie isn’t all that interesting.
Michael Dunn is a dwarf actor who plays a dwarf. He literally talks to the audience at the beginning of the film and then is a character throughout. He doesn’t really have much to do in the film. He dines with another character and they talk about how they’re outcasts, and he pops up occasionally, but otherwise has almost nothing to do.
The character serves little purpose than as a narrator and they really only nominated him because he’s a dwarf and because the film was clearly going to get nominated in this category. I’m not opposed to them nominating him, but I wouldn’t at all think to vote for him here.
Othello is Laurence Olivier doing Shakespeare. In blackface.
It’s Othello, so I don’t need to get into the story. It’s famous. Read a book (or I guess, a play) if you don’t know.
Frank Finlay plays Iago. If you ever see someone nominated for Supporting Actor for Othello, they’re playing Iago. Or they’re a really convincing Desdemona.
Iago is a classic character and Finlay does a great job with it. But I’m against this performance for one reason: it’s 1965. These Shakespeare movies at the Oscars — I can’t take them after 1945. Olivier slipped one past in 1948, but after that… no. We’re past that. This is too theatrical and just not the kind of acting we vote for at this point. I mean, sure, to each his own, and if you truly thought he gave the best performance, be my guest. But I can’t vote for these Shakespeare performances this late in the game. So, while he may end up fourth or even third for me in this category on performance, I will not vote for him. I can’t do it. It’s a personal thing I have. We all have a few. This is one of mine.
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The Reconsideration: This is, if not the single weakest Best Supporting Actor category of all time, one of the five weakest. It’s so weak it makes me want to look at what else could possibly have been nominated here instead. Because there’s no way the year could be this weak.
Oh, well one comes to me right off the top. Oskar Werner in Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Rod Steiger in Zhivago could be okay. But not sure they’d go for the double nomination for either. Technically Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou could belong here. Ian Hendry is great in The Hill (as is Ian Bannen, which we mentioned). But we’re not here for this. I was just curious more than anything. We have a category and that’s all we’re gonna deal with.
This category, straight from the top — don’t get why Bannen is here and he’s off right off the top. I won’t vote for Finlay for reasons mentioned above. That’s a personal choice. And Dunn — absolutely not. Finlay manages to rise to third for me, which is insane. And on pure performance he might even be second.
So all I’m left with is Balsam and Courtenay, two performances I don’t much love for a vote. Just looking at the two, I already know I have to take Courtenay by default. It’s literally a process of elimination. I don’t have much to say here except, he’s the least bad choice. It’s either him or Balsam, and while Balsam would typically be a 4 for me, Courtenay might be a 3 for me in the right circumstances, so, here we are.
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- Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago
- Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns
- Frank Finlay, Othello
- Michael Dunn, Ship of Fools
- Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix
- Doctor Zhivago
- The Flight of the Phoenix
- A Thousand Clowns
- Ship of Fools
My Vote: Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago
Doctor Zhivago is an all time classic that should be seen by film buffs. Essential, but if someone heard you hadn’t seen it yet, you wouldn’t seem like a crazy person. Everyone always has one of these (I find it tends to be Gone With the Wind, for some reason), so it’s not the worst, but as long as it’s “I haven’t seen it yet,” you’re okay. You still need to see it as a film buff.
The Flight of the Phoenix is a classic. Which is weird because it didn’t do well when it came out. But it’s a classic and should definitely be seen by film buffs because it’s awesome. Oh, and if you’ve only seen the 2005 remake version with Dennis Quaid and Tyrese, then this you really need to see this version.
A Thousand Clowns is not essential, but awesome. Essential for Oscar buffs, highly recommended for everyone else. Great shit, lot of fun. Jason Robards is the man.
Ship of Fools is solid. Big cast. Boat movie. Not my favorite, but worth a watch if you think you’ll be interested. I’m a huge Vivien Leigh fan, so I saw it based solely on that. And… you know… the whole Oscar nominations of it all. It’s pretty good. Not essential, but worth it if you think you’ll like it.
Othello — ehh. Olivier. If that appeals to you, go for it. Or, you know, The Bard. Otherwise, it’s Olivier in blackface. Not my favorite movie. Not something anyone ever really needs to see.
The Last Word: This might be the single weakest Supporting Actor category of all time, so I have to play by slightly different rules here. Courtenay is the only actor in here who has had any longevity, and he’s in the biggest film. Plus his arc is one that fits the category. So on that, he seems like he might have been the best choice. But, Balsam has always been a solid character actor, which cannot be discounted. Finlay, ehh. Dunn, ehh, and Bannen, seriously I had no idea which character he was in that movie twice over. So, really… Balsam, fine, Courtenay, maybe slightly better, but this is still probably the weakest category in history and the result is irrelevant no matter what you do.
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Mako, The Sand Pebbles
James Mason, Georgy Girl
Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
George Segal, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Robert Shaw, A Man for All Seasons
The Sand Pebbles is a big, epic film about American soldiers in China during a revolution.
Steve McQueen is a Navy engineer on a boat who is more interested in the machines than the men. The men hate him because of this. The men hire a bunch of peasant laborers to work on the ship, and McQueen takes a liking to one of them. That’s our nominee, so we’ll only deal with his segment of the story. The overall film is pretty good and actually quite watchable. A bit overlong, but solid.
Mako plays one of the laborers hired by McQueen, with whom he becomes friends. The men on the ship don’t like the “coolies,” as they call them, and especially this one. Eventually, one of the bullies ends up in a boxing match with Mako, and of course Mako ends up winning. This doesn’t help relations between the sides. Eventually Mako is deliberately sent to shore during a real tense moment where the locals are rioting and the men are told not to shoot at them no matter what they do, and Mako is chased down and tortured by the mob. And McQueen, to end his mercy, kills him.
I get the nomination. Completely understand it and support it. Mako is totally fine in the movie. That said, when I watched the movie I was less interested in his arc as I was in Richard Attenborough’s arc. He plays one of the sailors who is in love with a girl on shore in a bar (who he saves from prostitution). And it’s a whole doomed love story where he tries to leave the ship to be with her and ends up dying of hypothermia because he does it at night. But hey, Mako is fine too. Nice to see a Japanese guy get nominated. Though, him playing Chinese — is that the same as blackface/white people playing Mexican or no? Hard to tell. Doesn’t really matter, since he’s my number five in the category whichever way you slice it. Don’t particularly love the performance outside of an intellectual, “Yes I understand why this would be nominated,” aspect.
Georgy Girl is the epitome of a swingin’ 60s film.
Lynn Redgrave plays a relentlessly upbeat and optimistic woman who is slightly chubby, slightly plain, and very naive. She’s the kind of woman that is clearly meant to be teaching a kindergarten class. Think Zooey Deschanel if she were really hyper and taught kids.
And we see her living with her roommate, who is almost the polar opposite of her — beautiful but shallow — who gets pregnant by her boyfriend (for the third time) and is planning an abortion. But then she decides to have the baby, and then Redgrave and the boyfriend start an affair, and then there’s an older man who’s been a second father to her who now wants her to be his mistress — it’s a movie that on the surface is very hip and fun, but actually is about some real dramatic subject matter. It’s pretty good, all said.
James Mason plays the older man. He’s been married for years but there are no kids and the two barely speak to one another. And he’s helped pay for Redgrave’s education and has always been a father to her… only now she’s 22. She’s an adult. And now he wants to fuck. So he offers her a proposition — he’ll buy her a house, clothes, everything, as long as he agrees to be her mistress. But he’s painfully unable to tell her how he really feels, so she avoids giving him a straight answer, knowing he won’t push the subject. Though eventually she ends up deciding to adopt her roommate’s baby, and in order to be able to raise it, she agrees to marry him (after his wife has died). Of course the tragedy of him is that she’s not interested in him at all and only cares about the child. So he doesn’t really get what he wants.
Mason is good, as he usually is. In another category I might put him as high as 3, maybe 2. Here, he might only be a 4. There’s no way he wins this pretty much any way you slice it. I love James Mason, and I’d love to see him have an Oscar, but this isn’t the role I can vote for. And I won’t vote for him simply because he’s James Mason and because he won’t get nominated again for another 16 years. He doesn’t crack the top two (or maybe even 3, we’ll see) of my favorite performances in this category, so I can’t take him.
The Fortune Cookie is Billy Wilder’s last really good movie. You can see the times starting to pass him by in this. But he holds it together for the most part. After this, it’s a steady decline in his films. But this one — it works.
Jack Lemmon is a cameraman for the NFL. One day, the biggest running back (Jim Brown, essentially) bowls him over after a play. He’s fine, other than some stiffness. But then, at the hospital, when they give him a mandatory checkup, his shyster lawyer brother shows up and says, “Pretend you’ve got back problems and I’ll make you a lot of money in a settlement.” So he does. And comedy ensues. He’s gotta keep up the charade so the insurance company doesn’t catch him, meanwhile the football player can’t play because he’s feeling so guilty, and his ex-wife shows up, looking to get a cut of the money, pretending she’s still in love with him (as he is with her).
Walter Matthau plays the lawyer brother, and holy fuck is he incredible in this movie. You see it in his first scene — he’s not playing this movie as if it’s a comedy. He’s playing it as if he’s a noir detective or something. And it works perfectly. He plays this as straight as Leslie Nielsen played The Naked Gun and Airplane. And man, does it work. He’s so fucking good here. I saw this and said, “Please, take the award.” This is comedy gold. And in this category, there’s not a whole lot of competition for him, so he does hold up as a winner.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a masterpiece. The play won the Pulitzer, so that should tell you something. And the film is also perfect. Mike Nichols, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor. Perfection.
It’s about a professor and his wife who invite another couple back to their house after a faculty party, and they drink and we see the state of their lives over the course of the night. It’s incredible. Even if it’s practically a play, it still is a perfect film. The way Streetcar is.
George Segal plays the husband of the other couple. Over the course of the night we find out that he only married his wife for her money and not because he loves her, and even then only because he thought she was pregnant. He then openly flirts with Taylor and even goes to sleep with her, but is unable to get it up. Mostly he acts as audience to the sick games Burton and Taylor play with one another.
Segal is great here. The entire cast is great. All worthy of Oscars. Between the four, I feel he’s the weakest performance of the group. Dennis seems like the weakest, but it’s really Segal. That’s not to say he isn’t worth a vote as much as they are. It’s tough, simultaneously wanting to take all four because they’re all so good, but also realizing — I still kinda like Matthau better than him. I’m not opposed to him winning, but I like Matthau better, so I already know I’m gonna take him over Segal.
A Man for All Seasons is a great, great film. The best of the costume dramas of the 60s, hence the Best Picture win.
It’s about Sir Thomas More, who refuses to grant Henry VIII a divorce from his wife, even though not doing so means certain death. That’s it. That’s the film. It’s one of the best written films of all time and is superbly acted by all the cast.
Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII, and man, is he awesome here. He comes across as almost too much, and slightly over the top, so I get him not winning, but there’s no denying that he makes an impression when he’s on screen. He plays Henry full of energy and very volatile. He packs a lot into his few scenes. When Shaw shows up, things pick up.
I love Robert Shaw and I love this performance. Some may consider him to be hamming it up, and I understand that. Even without me thinking that, I still am not sure I put him higher than second, and even then I’d be stretching, since I still think Segal and Matthau did better jobs. You take any one of those three and put them a year before this, they walk away with it. Goes to show you what happens when categories are too strong for their own good. You want to vote for everyone, and you can’t.
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The Reconsideration: It’s always been Matthau for me. He’s so fucking good here. I can see taking Segal for the Virginia Woolf sweep (though I’d wager he’d be the least likely person taken from that film), and I can also see taking Shaw. I can also see people strongly against Shaw here. It comes down to your personal preferences. For me, it’s Matthau, all day, every day.
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- Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
- George Segal, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Robert Shaw, A Man for All Seasons
- Mako, The Sand Pebbles
- James Mason, Georgy Girl
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- The Fortune Cookie
- A Man for All Seasons
- The Sand Pebbles
- Georgy Girl
My Vote: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an all-time classic and an all-time essential film. Must be seen by anyone remotely into film.
A Man for All Seasons is an essential film. Film buffs need to see it. Best Picture winner, classic, great acting — must see.
The Fortune Cookie is Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I can’t help you. It’s also hysterical as shit. This is as clear a case of “come on, buddy” as I’ve ever seen.
The Sand Pebbles is a solid film. Not an essential, but worth it. Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination. Definitely recommended for film buffs or people who love Steve McQueen.
Georgy Girl is solid and a good example of the changing of the times in the 60s. Great theme song too. Worth seeing, but not essential.
The Last Word: I think you have three major choices. Not sure anyone really takes Mason here, since the character comes off more as creepy than anything nowadays. And Mako — do people really find that he makes a strong impression on the film? I’ve really always felt Attenborough was the better part. But again, to each his own. I think Matthau or Segal would probably be the majority choices here, and they’re both completely worthy of the win. And I think Shaw is also worthy as well, though some might disagree there. Clearly, Matthau and Shaw would have help up best, owing to their careers, though Segal has also had a long and pretty dignified career, just at a lesser level than those other two. Mason would have been fine as a winner, but not in this year for this performance. I think Matthau was the best choice and is the best performance in the category so it’s great all around.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)