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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1973-1974)

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.

1973

Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly

John Houseman, The Paper Chase

Jack Gilford, Save the Tiger

Jason Miller, The Exorcist

Randy Quaid, The Last Detail

Analysis:

Bang the Drum Slowly is Brian’s Song but with baseball players. (Spoiler alert.)

Two ballplayers, pitcher and a catcher, are great friends. De Niro is the catcher. He’s okay, and the pitcher is great. The team’s ready to let him go. The pitcher is holding out for a bigger contract. It’s gonna get ugly. But out of nowhere he agrees to a contract under one condition: De Niro is his personal catcher. If they get rid of De Niro, they get rid of him. And you find out later it’s because De Niro is dying. It’s a really strong movie. I love it.

Vincent Gardenia plays the team’s manager. He’s dry and sarcastic as fuck. He’s the funniest thing in the movie, and this nomination is an appreciation of that. Is the performance the best? No. But man, is he entertaining as shit. Complete scene stealer. He sees De Niro and the pitcher traveling together and spending all their time together, and he goes up to them like, “I don’t know if you two are a couple of fags or whatever, but whatever it is you’re doing, you better not start playing like shit.” He’s the tough manager with an unorthodox style who can’t understand what’s going on with these two players. But he does get a really great scene when he finds out De Niro is dying.

This character isn’t particularly complex. He’s one of those characters who is exactly the same throughout 90% of the film and gets his one big emotional scene that shows you he’s more complex than you’d think. It’s a stock character that Gardenia squeezes every ounce of life out of and really makes a winning role. The nomination is clearly because he gets more out of it than it deserves. Not someone who needs to win, but someone you might want to take because he’s so entertaining. Especially in a category like this.

The Paper Chase is one of the most forgotten Oscar-winning films (for acting) there is. No one knows this movie.

It’s about a first year law student at Harvard dealing with the difficulty of law school. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and he’s sleeping with his professor’s daughter. As you do.

John Houseman plays one of the most famous professors on campus. The kind of guy whose class is the most difficult, but is the one everyone wants to take, because they feel it’ll be the most rewarding. He’s that professor who doesn’t give a fuck about the rules. He expects you to be prepared and be ready to answer. Even if it’s a question six chapters ahead of where you are. And if not, he’s gonna shit all over you. The kind of professor everyone hates, but prepares them most for being an actual lawyer.

A lot of this performance — honestly, most of this performance is the same throughout the film. The character never changes and you never get a real arc for him, and all of his scenes are at the same register. He doesn’t get to play different levels of this guy. He’s the same sort of smug, condescending guy throughout. He’s basically John Gielgud. Like, in Arthur. But without the fun, sarcasm and undercurrent of actual emotion. So, while I think he’s good in the movie, I don’t know if I really would vote for him.

I feel like a lot of why he won is because he was a respected actor who never acted on film. And this was his first real performance, so they jumped at the chance to give him an Oscar, especially in a weaker year. So I get the win. Don’t know if I’d take him. Then again, not sure if there’s anyone I love enough to really run with yet.

Save the Tiger is a movie that I cannot but help misspell every time I go to type it. I type so fast and my fingers for whatever reason want to immediately go to R after The, so I always end up typing Save the Riger. And I have no fucking clue why. I’m sure if I thought about it I’d figure out what words I type a lot that end in -er and its all muscle memory, but man, do I do that shit all the time.

Oh, but yeah, we’re here to talk about the movie.

The film is about a man lost. Jack Lemmon plays a guy who grew up in a simpler time. Now the world is so complicated and he doesn’t understand it. He runs a clothing company that is about to go under. He decides to set fire to the whole thing to collect the insurance money. And the whole time, he tries to keep everything afloat, but the world seems to be moving too fast for him and he just doesn’t get it anymore.

Jack Gilford plays Lemmon’s partner, who is the stable one. He’s there, working away, while Lemmon is losing his shit, drinking, etc. The idea is that while Lemmon can’t cope with anything, Gilford is doing just fine with it all. What makes him good is the fact that he gives you the sense that this is a guy who’s been with Lemmon for years and knows him well. They have a comfortable shorthand, and Gilford never overplays it, even when he thinks Lemmon is starting to go nuts. He’s very much in support of Lemmon, and it’s a solid nomination. This is the kind of nomination an actor like Lemmon would get, bringing the person who is solid but underappreciated along with him. That said, no way Gilford is anything but fifth in the category. Maybe you like him enough for fourth, but no way do you take him.

The Exorcist is a film you should probably know.

This film is simultaneously both not as exciting as you remember but also better than you remember. Friedkin really does a great job directing it.

Jason Miller plays Father Karras, who is almost the lead of the film, but I can accept him going supporting. We first see him struggling with dealing with his the fact that his mother is dying as well as a loss of faith. But he’s gotta go and help this little girl, who despite his disbelief in possession, is possessed. So his personal journey perfectly dovetails with the plot, as his lack of faith and his personal struggles must be overcome, especially since the demon directly confronts him with all of these facts. Because, as we know, his mother sucks cocks in hell.

Miller is really strong in the film. He adds a perfect weariness to the character and underplays a lot of his scenes to give them the full effect. In a category like this, it’s hard not to consider him if not #1 then definitely #2. He’s really strong here.

The Last Detail is a great, great great film.

Two sailors are escorting another to prison. They pick him up and have three days to bring him in. So they decide to let the kid have some time to enjoy himself before he goes away. So they go drink, get women, all that good stuff. Nicholson plays this one to the hilt, and he’s awesome in it.

Randy Quaid plays the prisoner. He’s a simple kid who for the first half of the movie it seems, is shy as hell. Nicholson is the one screaming and picking fights, and Quaid is sitting there quietly, speaking when spoken to, otherwise minding his own business. We slowly learn more about him over the course of the film, and he slowly opens up more, although he’s still gonna end up in prison regardless when it’s all over.

It’s a very strong performance out of Quaid. He had to play it quiet to counteract Nicholson, and he does a fine job with it. Of course, Nicholson overtakes him a bunch, which can’t really be helped. I think Quaid is solid and this the type of performance that is solid and can contend, but ultimately doesn’t get vote for. Because, while he is very solid, I feel like you could have swapped him out with a handful of other actors and they’d all have been nominated with this part. Quaid’s still very good in it, but I don’t know if I love him enough to take him. But here, he definitely contends. We’ll see.

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The Reconsideration: My favorite performance is Gardenia. No denying that. But there’s really no question that the most layered, complex, complete performance is by Jason Miller. I don’t really see anyone that even competes with him. Randy Quaid is solid, and intellectually would seem to fit, but I think Miller accomplishes so much more with his part than Quaid does. Houseman and Gardenia are similar in terms of having fairly one-note characters who don’t change, so they could be the vote on pure entertainment value, I guess. But to me (and I imagine, to most people), Miller is the winner here. He gave the most artistically rich performance in a really memorable film.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Jason Miller, The Exorcist
  2. Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly
  3. Randy Quaid, The Last Detail
  4. John Houseman, The Paper Chase
  5. Jack Gilford, Save the Tiger

Rankings (films):

  1. The Exorcist
  2. The Last Detail
  3. Bang the Drum Slowly
  4. Save the Tiger
  5. The Paper Chase

My Vote: Jason Miller, The Exorcist

Recommendations:

It’s The Exorcist. Who either hasn’t or doesn’t know they need to see that movie? The only excuse for liking movies and not seeing it is, “I feel like it’ll scare the shit out of me.” In which case I can understand the hesitation but also say, “Just fucking watch it. That’s the point.” This is a film buff’s wet dream as far as horror movies go. The techniques here for building and paying off scares are great. Must, must see.

The Last Detail is Robert Towne writing and Nicholson going full Nicholson for the first time. This is the Nicholson you know. “I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL, MOTHERFUCKER!” Essential film for film buffs and a very high recommend for all time. It’s a 70s classic, a near all-time classic, with great performances and one that will be liked by at least 80% of viewers. So if you’re a film buff, this is essential. Because it’s great.

Bang the Drum Slowly is a really awesome baseball movie. And sports movies are always good. You can’t beat a great sports movie. And this is actually pretty underseen, as far as those go. I recommend this one real highly. It’s essential in the genre, and just very worth seeing otherwise. Put it on your list. You won’t be disappointed.

Save the Tiger is worth it because it’s Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-winning performance, and it’s a strong film. Not essential outside of him and the win, but definitely something I recommend. No one can go wrong watching Jack Lemmon. Especially a performance good enough to win an Oscar. So I recommend this one pretty strongly even though, all-time, it’s not very essential and really is only a movie that becomes even moderately essential when you focus solely on the 70s as a decade. And even then it’s more of a high recommend in that case than anything.

The Paper Chase is a completely forgotten film. They even made a TV show out of this that ran for four seasons and people still have no idea what it is. It’s a decent film, but no, nobody except Oscar buffs need to see this one. It’s just an obscure 70s movie that maybe you get around to, maybe you don’t, but it is essential in no way and is not great enough for me to recommend it as anything more than an amusing movie to check out if it’s on and you’ve got the time.

The Last Word: I can see how Houseman won, and I’m not totally opposed to it, but his performance isn’t all that memorable or really all that great. To me, it would be the same as Gardenia winning. And while I love the Gardenia performance, that wouldn’t have held up either. Gilford is a blank in the category. Miller and Quaid are the two performances that are best and would hold up. And I think, after seeing them all, Miller was really the right choice here and would have held up perfectly, much more so than Houseman. Quaid could have also worked. I think they made an understandable, but not great choice, that hasn’t held up, and I think we can agree that Father Karras was really the one to go with in this category.

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1974

Fred Astaire, The Towering Inferno

Jeff Bridges, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Robert De Niro, The Godfather Part II

Michael V. Gazzo, The Godfather Part II

Lee Strasberg, The Godfather Part II

Analysis:

The Towering Inferno is, along with Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, the father of modern disaster movies. The premise of this is so great, too. They build a giant office building, and on the night of the opening celebration when it opens, a fire breaks out and traps everyone on the upper floors. So you have firefighters trying to keep the fire from spreading and get everyone out, and you have the individual stories of everyone inside. Cool shit.

Great cast, too: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner.

Fred Astaire plays a con man wooing Jennifer Jones. The idea is, he goes to these parties, woos old ladies, and gets money out of them. You know the drill. Only she pretty much knows it and he confesses what’s really going on. Which adds some depth to the part. And then they have a nice little romance going on, though in the end he survives and she doesn’t. Which is sad. But then O.J. gives him her cat, which is always a nice consolation prize.

This is a tough one for me, because I love Fred Astaire. One of my favorite actors of all time. And to seem him nominated for this is kind of insulting to him. One of the greatest screen dancers of all time and they nominate him for an extended cameo in a disaster movie with an all-star cast. But on the other hand, you want Fred Astaire to have an Oscar, which is how he came so goddamn close to winning. But also — in this movie, he is one of the few actually legitimately interesting parts, aside from the spectacle. He has a sweet little romantic subplot that’s quite endearing. But the film has more important things to show us and then throws Jennifer Jones down an elevator shaft.

Astaire is more solid than he should be, given the film and the material, but in the end, the only reason I’d vote for him here is because of his career and not this specific performance. Which isn’t what I’m doing here. Though I will say… weaker year, I take him no questions asked. Put him in 1973, he’s John Houseman. Here, he’s buoyed by his reputation which far supercedes the actual performance. The performance is fifth, and he probably ends up as high as third for the vote just because he is one of those actors I do really want to see have an Oscar.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a pretty awesome movie. It’s part buddy movie and part heist movie.

Eastwood is a bank robber who goes around pretending to be a preacher. He hooks up with Bridges, a car thief, and they go to recover some stolen money that Eastwood hid in a schoolhouse. Only now that schoolhouse is a police station. So now they have to break in. It’s a really terrific movie.

Bridges plays the cocky young sidekick who is real excited to be teaming up with Eastwood. He’s that overeager young buck who just wants to make good and be of use. You’ve seen this in westerns. The young gunslinger who really wants to be like the seasoned one. And without getting into specifics, there are a couple of tricky scenes Bridges has that he plays really well.

This is the kind of nomination where, in the right year, he’d really contend. But here, he’s basically an afterthought. The performance might be as good as third, but I probably put it fourth, just because of how iconic the Godfather nominees are. He never stood a chance here, but this is a surprisingly very strong nominee that really holds up.

The Godfather Part II. Haven’t seen it. Heard it was good.

Robert De Niro plays young Marlon Brando. As if just being Robert De Niro in a Godfather movie weren’t enough.

Michael V. Gazzo plays Frank Pentangeli. He’s definitely one of the more memorable roles in the film. I can’t help but feel — and of course just adding him to the category would be better, but if we’re dealing with a zero-sum game — John Cazale as Fredo was better than Gazzo was, but I also feel like we should have had four nominees from this movie on here. And I’d have John Huston in Chinatown as the fifth nominee. And then think about that fucking category.

But anyway, Gazzo is great, but to me he’s the weakest of the Godfather nominees, which makes him #1 in many other years, #2 in some, and #3 here. Which sucks, because he’s fucking great. The nomination also came out of nowhere, too. No prior nominations anywhere.

He also, just FYI, wrote the play A Hatful of Rain, which got Anthony Franciosa a Best Actor nomination in 1957. So that’s worth noting in that empty space of your brain that holds trivia.

Lee Strasberg plays Hymen Roth. And I think I can just leave that one there. Because if you saw this movie, you remember Hymen Roth. Honestly, if De Niro weren’t so good, Strasberg would be the vote. He still might be the vote, he’s that good. Plus he’s Lee Strasberg, which is a big deal in acting. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if he had won. But as it stands, I still prefer De Niro.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s De Niro. And if it’s not De Niro, it’s Strasberg. They’re the two. I love Fred Astaire, but he’s a veteran nomination and nothing more. You vote for him because you want him to win an Oscar, not because the performance was great. Bridges is great, but he didn’t deserve this one. It’s clearly De Niro or Strasberg, and I take De Niro. And rather than waste time thinking about the obvious, I think about what I’d have done if the category were De Niro, Strasberg, Cazale, John Huston and whoever the hell you want as #5. Astaire, Gazzo, Bridges, literally anybody. That’s way more interesting than what is essentially an embarrassment of riches with your top nominees.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Robert De Niro, The Godfather Part II
  2. Lee Strasberg, The Godfather Part II
  3. Michael V. Gazzo, The Godfather Part II
  4. Jeff Bridges, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
  5. Fred Astaire, The Towering Inferno

Rankings (films):

  1. The Godfather Part II
  2. The Towering Inferno
  3. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

My Vote: Robert De Niro, The Godfather Part II

Recommendations:

The Godfather Part II. I mean seriously, now.

The Towering Inferno is an essential movie. It just is. In the way that Independence Day and Armageddon are essential. It’s the 70s version of those movies. They’re big, they made a lot of money, and culturally, you should see them. The Towering Inferno seems classier than those others because, at the time, only big name actors would be in these movies. So you have a fucking crazy cast on this that you can simply not pass up. If you look at this cast and skip this movie, you’re an insane person who doesn’t love movies. This is essential for all film buffs because no self-respecting film buff would pass up this movie. Plus, just look at the title. If you sort of are into movies, you know this title and know you should probably see it. And then when you look at the cast, that gives you everything you need to know.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a great movie. Michael Cimino, the film that got him enough clout to make Deer Hunter, and Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges as car thieves. What more could you want? Highly recommended, awesome 70s movie, and a real hidden gem of the decade. Definitely check this one out, you will not be disappointed.

The Last Word: De Niro makes the most sense. Strasberg also would have been okay. Gazzo wasn’t the strongest of the three and wouldn’t have held up. Astaire winning would have looked like a blatant veteran Oscar, which they’ve done before and done since, so it wouldn’t have been the worst decision, but it certainly would have looked a lot like Joel Grey in ’72 without the performance to back it up. And Bridges wouldn’t have looked good historically but the performance is good enough to make it almost seem okay (after you’ve seen it). This is De Niro and they made the right choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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