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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1971-1972)

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.

1971

Jeff Bridges, The Last Picture Show

Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof

Richard Jaeckel, Sometimes a Great Notion

Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show

Roy Scheider, The French Connection

Analysis:

The Last Picture Show is a real classic of the 70s. Strong film. I’m never quite sure what it’s about, but I sure think it’s real good.

It’s about a bunch of characters in a small Texas town in the… I wanna say 40s or 50s. Probably 50s. And we just kinda watch them as they live their lives. That’s really it. The only way to talk about this movie is to get into the specific stories. And we have two here, so let’s just do that.

Jeff Bridges plays a kid on the football team, dating the hottest girl in school, etc. His whole thing is he seems to want more than life in this town, but isn’t sure what else there is. Eventually he fights with his best friend over the girl, who plays pretty much every guy in town as she sees fit, and eventually he joins the army. It doesn’t feel like he has an arc, but Bridges is strong in the role and does a good job with it. I’d consider him top two or three in the category. Not sure I vote for him, but he definitely is solid and worthy of consideration. And the main reason I can’t take him is because…

Ben Johnson plays Sam the Lion, the guy who basically runs the small town. He owns everything worth owning, and everyone looks up to him. He berates Bridges and Timothy Bottoms after they embarrass one of their friends, a mentally challenged boy, and bars them from going to any of his places. Of course he can’t stay mad at them and when he sees that they’re genuinely sorry. He ends up taking the boys fishing and reminiscing about his younger days, and even gives them some money when they take a trip to Mexico. Though when they get back, they find out he died. Which comes very suddenly and is a shock to everyone in the film.

Johnson — I gotta say it — I used to be shocked that he won this. I had no idea what the hell he was doing as a winner. And yet, Bogdanovich, when he cast Johnson, Johnson said he didn’t want to do it because there were so many words in the script, and he was used to doing cowboy movies where he didn’t have to say much. And Bogdanovich said, “Do this part, it’ll win you the Oscar.” So apparently they knew. Took me four watches to really see what it was in this performance that was so good. And I’m gonna be honest… in this category, I completely see the win, and I may even vote for him. He’s quietly really strong, and I almost wish he had more screen time. Though I also understand why he doesn’t. The scene where he forgives Bottoms in the diner is great, great acting. He’s definitely top two in the category and may still be the vote. Which is a huge turnaround for me from five years ago.

Fiddler on the Roof is Fiddler on the Roof. I mean, what else do you need to say?

Everybody knows all about this movie. I don’t need to explain it to you.

Leonard Frey plays the childhood sweetheart of Tevye’s daughter. He wants her to marry a richer guy, but she’s in love with Frey. He realizes they love each other and lets them marry. They get married and his whole thing is saving up to buy a sewing machine (he’s a tailor), which he finally is able to do, and then he also ends up becoming real close with his father-in-law, even though his father-in-law always thought of him as a schmuck beforehand.

Generally I feel this is thought of as either a makeup nominee or an empty nominee, where no one thought he really should be nominated or win for this, but he came along with the film and it was a way to nominate him for something. He’s perfectly fine in the film, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do and is pretty overshadowed much of the time. It’s fine, but I wouldn’t put him higher than a fourth choice here, if that.

Sometimes a Great Notion is one of the more obscure nominated films in the acting categories. No one even knows this movie. And even less people know that Paul Newman directed it.

It’s about a family of loggers up in the Pacific Northwest. Newman and Henry Fonda star, and it’s about the family who refuses to support a strike and are ostracized by their town. It’s the union versus the big company, and they’re independent of the whole thing, so they don’t give a shit.

Richard Jaeckel plays one of the brothers of the family, and he’s just an utterly likable guy. Big personality, the kind of guy who’ll give you a bear hug when he sees you with a big smile on his face. There’s not a whole lot to the performance except a death scene he has. That’s the highlight of the film and the only reason he was nominated. He gets pinned under a tree they cut down, and he’s stuck half under water, barely staying above, and they’re trying to cut the tree to let him out without it moving. Because if it moves, he’s pulled underwater and drowns. Jaeckel and Newman are great in it and the performance there is the reason he got nominated. Now, that’s not good enough to vote for him, but that’s why he got nominated. He’s a fourth choice for me. No vote, but good on them for singling him out, even if no one ever remembers the film or the performance.

The French Connection is one of the greatest action movies of all time. Perfectly shot, edited, the whole thing.

Cops are trying to catch a drug dealer bringing in a shitload of heroin into the country. That’s all you need to know, and chances are you’ve seen this movie.

Roy Scheider plays Gene Hackman’s partner, and he’s pretty much just with him for most of the scenes. The thing about Scheider in this movie is — he’s not showy. Hackman dominates all the scenes. But Scheider is the very definition of this category. He’s there to support Hackman, and he does a great job with it. The performance itself might not look like something you vote for, but he’s actually really good in it and does exactly what he’s supposed to do, which is make a character seem memorable and help his acting partners look good. I think he’s top two in the category, personally, and even if it might not seem like an obvious choice, the film being such a classic only helps his case. I definitely think you can make the argument for him here (and I have).

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The Reconsideration: To me, there are really only two choices in the category. Frey is a filler nominee who doesn’t really seem to need to be there based on performance alone. Jaeckel has a nice death scene but not much else. Jeff Bridges is great, but he straddles the line between lead and supporting, and in all I actually liked Johnson better than him.

To me, the category is either Ben Johnson or Roy Scheider. You may say Bridges is in there too, and I will not argue that point. But to me, it’s Johnson and Scheider. And there, I understand why Johnson won this. And, being perfectly honest… no. I can’t. Can I? I’m torn…

I think Ben Johnson probably did give the best performance in the category, but I love Roy Scheider. And I know a lot of that is me picking this today and not 1971, knowing how much I’m gonna love Roy Scheider in All That Jazz and how I won’t be able to take him then because of Dustin Hoffman and Peter Sellers. But yeah, fuck it. I’ll take Scheider. But I want to make it clear that Ben Johnson should have won this award and I fully support him winning. But, if I can help Scheider, I will. So that’s how I’m voting.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show
  2. Roy Scheider, The French Connection
  3. Jeff Bridges, The Last Picture Show
  4. Richard Jaeckel, Sometimes a Great Notion
  5. Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof

Rankings (films):

  1. The French Connection
  2. The Last Picture Show
  3. Fiddler on the Roof
  4. Sometimes a Great Notion

My Vote: Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show

Recommendations:

The French Connection is an all-time essential film. Even without the Best Picture win it would be all time essential. That only cements it. This is one of the greatest American films ever made. Completely must-see for anyone into movies.

The Last Picture Show is an essential film for film buffs. It’s almost like homework. Not everyone will love this movie, but it’s great, and you’ll understand why you need to see it. But you do need to see it. All walks of film buffs need to see this regardless of their tastes.

Fiddler on the Roof — I mean sure, it’s famous, but you don’t need to see it. It’s probably worth seeing, but there are a lot of reasons for not seeing it. Meaning, if you haven’t seen it, you’re not gonna get laughed it. You need to be at a certain depth of film buff-dom to really have this as a requirement. Otherwise, it’s just amusing and a pretty good movie. My one big note is — don’t see this and expect it to be a tutorial for how Jewish people behave. That’s not how it works, turns out.

Sometimes a Great Notion is a decent movie. Paul Newman directed and Henry Fonda is in it. How bad can that be? Otherwise it’s basically forgotten and is not essential for anyone, but the tree scene with Jaeckel is really good and that makes the whole thing worthwhile. You know, aside from PAUL NEWMAN and HENRY FONDA. If that doesn’t interest you, then you don’t ever need to see this movie.

The Last Word: Ben Johnson is the choice and they made the right one here. Scheider is my favorite in the category and I take him just because it’s a win-win for me. Bridges is also worthy of a vote and may have been okay as a winner, but I struggle with him being a borderline lead. But he’s also worth taking. Those are the three options here, and I think history has shown that they made the right choice with it.

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1972

Eddie Albert, The Heartbreak Kid

James Caan, The Godfather

Robert Duvall, The Godfather

Joel Grey, Cabaret

Al Pacino, The Godfather

The Heartbreak Kid is a comedy that no one remembers at all. Except as a shitty remake with Ben Stiller. Yeesh.

It’s about a guy who marries a girl and immediately regrets his decision as soon as they get on the honeymoon. His wife is annoying and doesn’t want to do anything and then she gets sunburnt so she can’t go out, and then he meets a beautiful woman there and starts flirting with her. Eventually he leaves his wife for the girl on a whim.

Eddie Albert plays the new girl’s father, who immediately hates him and wants nothing to with him marrying his daughter. He comically underplays the whole thing the way Robert De Niro plays a lot of his comedies. He looks stern and a lot of the comedy comes from that look that you know just means, “You fucking putz.” I think at one point he tells him he’ll cut his dick off if he doesn’t stay away from his daughter.” There’s a scene where he openly offers the guy like twenty grand just to leave his daughter and never speak to her again.

Albert is really entertaining in the role. The performance isn’t great great, but it’s amusing. I get the nomination with him being a veteran. But he’s clearly fifth in the category and stands less than zero shot at anyone voting for him in this one. But hey, lovely to see him here. He’s hilarious in this movie.

The Godfather is a movie you may have heard of.

James Caan plays Sonny Corleone. He’s very good.

Robert Duvall plays Tom Hagen. He’s very good.

Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone. He’s very good.

I mean, do I need to break down these performances? You can practically replay them all in your head from memory. I could fill out all five of these nominees with people from this film. Though I’d only go four. Clemenza would be the other one. Three is fine, though.

All three are worthy of the vote, and we’ll figure it out when we get to the bottom. What more needs to be said with these?

Cabaret is one of the five best musicals ever made. It’s perfect.

It’s about the decadence and carefree attitudes of people in pre-Nazi Germany. Mainly with Michael York and Liza Minnelli, who start a weird relationship/friendship thing. The film is perfect. It really is. People wonder how it could have won some awards over The Godfather, but I totally get it. It clearly hasn’t held up as well, but it’s held up. It’s fucking great.

Joel Grey plays the Master of Ceremonies, whose main characteristic is androgyny. You never see him outside the club, and mostly he has musical numbers with Liza Minnelli. Having seen this performance a number of times, I can’t say I disagree with him winning. But I can say — while this performance is great and would be worth an Oscar most years… this year has The Godfather in it. And we all remember at least two of those other three performances more than we remember this one. That doesn’t discount him from winning, that just tells you that I won’t take him anyway, no matter how good he is. Sometimes that’s just the reality.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Joel Grey is perfectly worthy of the award. Him not having the career of some of these actors hurts him in the long run, but I get the win and it’s totally deserved.

Now that’s out of the way, I’m not taking him. I will put him above Robert Duvall for a vote, but I still won’t put him above the other two Godfather nominees, who I think are clearly the class of the category.

Two issues here, and I’d wager some of them might have had to do with the outcomes — first, Pacino’s kind of the lead. Along with Brando. But he’s also a lead. But a lot of the film, specifically the last half, is all about Pacino. So I have a hard time accepting that, even though the performance — there’s no denying that performance. And I dare say he might be too good to pass up.

The second issue — well I guess the third, since the second is, there are three people from the same film who are all great, which split the vote and helped Grey win — James Caan is fucking fantastic here, but I’m wondering how much of that is him just being explosive and not much else. You know what I mean? Pacino is explosive, but also gets quiet moments to act subtly. The restaurant scene is a masterclass in acting. Shit, he was almost gonna be fired until the studio watched the dailies from that scene. Caan — there’s not a lot of nuance in his performance. So I don’t know.

I love Sonny and my instinct is to want to take him. He’s also the real supporting part of the film. But… Pacino is too good. I gotta take Al. Caan is a very close second, but Pacino is too good whether he’s lead or supporting.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Al Pacino, The Godfather
  2. James Caan, The Godfather
  3. Joel Grey, Cabaret
  4. Robert Duvall, The Godfather
  5. Eddie Albert, The Heartbreak Kid

Rankings (films):

  1. The Godfather
  2. Cabaret
  3. The Heartbreak Kid

My Vote: Al Pacino, The Godfather

Recommendations: Al Pacino, The Godfather

The Godfather is one of the five most essential films of all time. Come on, buddy.

Cabaret is very essential to all film buffs. Not just Oscar buffs, not just people who like musicals. ALL film buffs. If you like movies and are into movies, you need to see this one.

The Heartbreak Kid is a solid comedy and worth seeing. Not essential, but definitely worth a watch if you like comedies, especially 70s comedies. I definitely recommend this one.

The Last Word: Four good winners here. Duvall wins and the only thing people say is, “Wow, he beat the other two.” Caan wins and you go, “Wow, he beat Pacino, but I get it.” Pacino wins and no one bats an eyelash. He’s a lead, but of course the bigger performance is gonna win out. And Grey — totally worth it, and the only thing you can say against him is, “The Godfather performances were better remembered and have become more iconic.” Understandable. Doesn’t make him less worthy, just means history may not look as fondly on the choice as it seemed at the time. Sure, there were better options, but they didn’t make a bad one. Pacino’s performance is clearly the best, but I think that James Caan winning might have been the overall best option here. (Though in my world, Pacino rightly wins for Godfather II, so I don’t know how much I’d listen to me.)

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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