The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1975-1976)
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.
George Burns, The Sunshine Boys
Brad Dourif, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Burgess Meredith, The Day of the Locust
Chris Sarandon, Dog Day Afternoon
Jack Warden, Shampoo
The Sunshine Boys is an absolutely hilarious film. Perhaps Neil Simon’s best, alongside The Odd Couple.
Walter Matthau and George Burns were a famous vaudeville act in the 30s but had a falling out and haven’t spoken since. Matthau’s nephew is trying to get him work (including a hilariously failed commercial audition) and finds out about a vaudeville TV special celebrating its history. So he makes plans to have Matthau and Burns reunite to do their famous ‘doctor’ sketch. Only to do so means they have to agree to work together and start speaking once again, which is easier said than done. It’s hysterical.
George Burns plays Al Lewis, who has gracefully retired and lives at his daughter’s house in New Jersey. He’s been out of show business for years and is happy. But he agrees and travels to meet Matthau, who of course is hostile toward him and wants nothing to do with him. And their attempts to rehearse and stage the sketch one more time go hilariously wrong.
Burns is pretty funny here. He’s half-senile at the beginning, but mostly plays the role completely deadpan, which works perfectly opposite Matthau’s mania. The entire role is that of an old man who just wants to hang out with his grandkids. He doesn’t need this. And he plays it really well.
Now, some might thing the performance is one note and doesn’t do all that much. I get that notion. And of course, he hadn’t been in a film since 1939 until this (except for narrating one) so a lot of people will see this as a veteran being nominated because they could (like John Houseman). Not to mention the fact that he could be considered a co-lead. But I think, in this category, he is well worth a vote. I don’t see a whole lot else going on here to necessitate someone else having won. But we’ll see.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an American classic. What else needs to be said?
Jack Nicholson is a convict who has chosen time in the psych ward over prison time. He figures it’ll be easy. Though when he gets to the ward, he sees how fucked up it is and how the head nurse rules it with an iron fist, basically manipulating all the patients and playing their illnesses against them so as to almost play god. But Nicholson’s a born rebel, and does everything he can to fuck with authority. It’s a great film.
Brad Dourif plays Billy Bibbit, which is just the perfect name for someone with a stutter. He’s a nervous kid who has issues, but in reality, there’s nothing wrong with him that some confidence wouldn’t cure. He’s a really likable kid, and it becomes clear how much Nurse Ratched is manipulating him for her own ends, using what his mother “would think” over his head to keep him essentially powerless to stand up for himself.
It’s a role all wrapped up in Oscar bait. And Dourif plays it well. He’s believable, you feel for him, and it’s heartbreaking when the inevitable happens. Though arguably I’d say that his performance only serves to strengthen Louise Fletcher’s character more than anything else.
He’s very, very good here, and well worth taking. I’m not sure he rates higher than second here for me, though. Dourif creates a complete character here, but so much of it feels like actorly tics and stuff, and that turns me off from necessarily wanting to vote for it. You could very easily though. I’m just not sure if I would.
The Day of the Locust is based on the Nathanael West novel, and it’s fucking weird. It’s a satire on Hollywood, and the whole thing is taken to such strange levels. There are cockfights, the whole thing ends with a giant brawl and fire. Very odd.
It’s about a bunch of people in Hollywood in the 30s. An artist working as a set designer falls in love with an actress, and there are all these other characters — mainly it’s about people on the fringe who are alienated and isolated from the world around them. The book is good, the movie is very strange. I don’t think it fully succeeds, but it’s definitely interesting.
Burgess Meredith plays a former vaudeville actor (second in the category), who is now poor, alcoholic, and going door to door to sell cheesy magic tricks. Which allows him to do a sort of vaudeville type act (though of course that doesn’t go very well, as you can imagine). The idea of the character is that he’s “always on,” always putting on an act, despite the state of his life. Even as he’s sick and dying, he’s playing it off as a joke.
There’s definitely a certain sadness to the character, and Meredith gets a lot out of it. I feel like the film and source material are very surrealistic, which doesn’t really allow the characters to feel real or three-dimensional, and the film overall is underwhelming, so that hinders what Meredith can do with the part. Not to mention he doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time with which to work. At best this is just a nice veteran nomination that may seem curious but is actually well-earned. But I still feel Burns is the veteran to take between the two. This is just a solid veteran nomination that’s better than it might seem at first glance.
Dog Day Afternoon is an all-time crime film. Everybody knows this one.
On a hot summer day in 1972, three men walk up to a bank to rob it. One runs away before they can get inside, and the other two go in. This soon tuns into a standoff between the men and the cops, with bank tellers and customers inside as hostages. And we watch the situation play out over the course of the rest of the day. It’s an incredible film.
Chris Sarandon plays Leon, who is revealed about midway through to be the reason Al Pacino is robbing the bank. Leon’s his wife, and Pacino is trying to get the money in order to pay for Leon’s surgery to fully become a woman. She has a few brief scenes where she explains the situation to the cops, and we find out she actually just came from the psych ward because she tried to kill herself. The majority of the performance is a phone call scene with Pacino, that is the emotional backbone of the entire film. That’s the reason Sarandon is here.
Without this moment, the movie doesn’t work. And Sarandon has to make the entire thing believable, and he does. He really does. I don’t know if there’s enough of the performance to actually take it, but he definitely creates a complete character here that really fits the picture well and makes everything around him better. I don’t see what else one needs to consider him highly in this category. This is a really memorable character.
Shampoo is a 70s sex comedy, and has become a classic for a lot of reasons. I don’t know if it totally holds up, but it’s definitely an interesting film to watch.
It’s about Warren Beatty as a hairdresser who is not very bright and mostly just sleeps with all his female clients as he tries to open his own salon. This all takes place on the eve of the election where Nixon won, which marked the end of that carefree 60s era of free love and all that.
Jack Warden plays a senator whose wife Beatty is sleeping with. The purpose of the character is that he’s blind to the fact that Beatty is sleeping with his wife (and mistress) because he thinks Beatty is gay (because he’s a hairdresser). So he keeps confiding in him about all this stuff, and has no idea Beatty is playing him for a fool. That’s pretty much the role. He’s there to look like an idiot. His big moment is, at a swingers party late in the film, he happens upon Beatty fucking his mistress in the kitchen and goes, “Now that’s what I call fucking!” And then he’s finally able to see who it is, and feels like a fucking moron.
Warden plays it well. He’s very funny in the part. I don’t think he’s good enough to vote for, but he’s definitely funny enough to warrant a nomination here. In terms of comic performances, Burns is much better than Warden, so that basically eliminates him for me. But he definitely belongs here.
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The Reconsideration: I don’t love this category, but it’s decently strong.
Working my way backwards…
Warden is fifth for a vote, though I might put him fourth for a performance. I like Burgess Meredith and think he’s really good in the role, but I feel like there’s too little of him and I just don’t get the performance to rate him anything higher than fifth. Maybe I’ll see something in this next time. Plus, between the two veterans, I take Burns.
Burns is consistently solid and funny, and while he doesn’t have to do a whole lot of “acting,” he definitely holds his own. He may be a co-lead, but he also doesn’t show up until the second act. A case can be made for supporting, but it’s closer to lead than not.
Sarandon is really great, but also only has about two or three scenes. Though, those scenes are really powerful and memorable. So the length shouldn’t disqualify him.
And then, Dourif — I think he’s really solid, but something about this just feels like him being supported by the film rather than the other way around. I just don’t see enough here to make me want to take him. I have him a solid third, but I really just don’t feel like this character wowed me enough to actually take him.
To me, it’s between Burns and Sarandon. Burns has a little too much performance for the category and Sarandon has slightly too few. Sarandon does more pure acting, and Burns is a veteran who is just hysterical. It’s a coin flip for me. But honestly, since Sarandon has so little screen time, I think that tips the scales for me. I love Burns in the film anyway, so it’s not like I’m compromising. I just wish Sarandon had a little more to do, because then I’d be voting entirely for that performance.
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- George Burns, The Sunshine Boys
- Chris Sarandon, Dog Day Afternoon
- Brad Dourif, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Jack Warden, Shampoo
- Burgess Meredith, The Day of the Locust
- The Sunshine Boys
- Dog Day Afternoon
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The Day of the Locust
My Vote: George Burns, The Sunshine Boys
Dog Day Afternoon is an all-time essential film. Very much one of those where, if you haven’t seen it, you’re really not a full-fledged film buff yet. You gotta get to this one pretty early. Very much a prerequisite for film buff-dom. Also a fucking perfect movie too. You gotta see this.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an all-time essential film. Same as Dog Day. Name alone tells you how essential this is. Any film fan must see this, and it’s debatable how early you need to see it. This might be a film where, if you haven’t seen it before you start talking to people about movies, you might look bad. It’s really up there.
The Sunshine Boys is an essential film and an all-time comedy. It’s definitely the latter. It might not objectively be the former, but I’m saying it is because goddamn is this movie funny. Matthau and Burns are perfect, and I laugh my ass off every time I watch it. You must see this if you love movies because you’ll love it.
Shampoo is an essential film. Essential 70s film, essential comedy, great film, great cast. Must be seen by film buffs. Not everyone will love it, but it is an essential film.
The Day of the Locust is an okay film based on an interesting novel. Not essential, not even something I really recommend unless you find the novel interesting or think you’ll like it. I appreciate this movie, but I don’t think it’s all that good.
The Last Word: I think you have some choices here. I don’t think anyone in this category would have held up any better than anyone else. Meredith would have looked okay because it’s Burgess Meredith, but the film wouldn’t have looked all that great over time. Warden probably wouldn’t have worked, but he’s a good actor in a classic film. So it would have looked okay. Dourif would have worked given the film and the role, though his career certainly hasn’t panned out from the promise of this performance. Burns looks good because he’s funny and the film’s great. And Sarandon would have held up on role and film despite the lack of screen time. I think you can take probably any of the five if you wanted. But I think they made a fine choice. I can’t see an out and out better one here.
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Ned Beatty, Network
Burgess Meredith, Rocky
Laurence Olivier, Marathon Man
Jason Robards, All the President’s Men
Burt Young, Rocky
Network is an all-time film that predicted the downfall of the culture through television forty years ago.
Howard Beale is a network newsman who is gonna be fired because his ratings are low. This causes him to have a mental breakdown, and he announces, live on the air, that in two weeks, on the air, he’s going to kill himself. This causes ratings to go up. So the network leaves him on the air. And he starts going further down into his breakdown and going off on all these crazy rants on the air, even against the people employing him. Which the people love. And eventually the network realizes they have to get rid of him, and… well, it’s great. We’ll leave it at that.
Ned Beatty plays the chairman of the board of the TV network Beale works for. He has one minor scene earlier in the film, but his main scene is a single, five-minute scene where he yells at Beale and tells him how things “really” work. He’s basically telling him to get with the fucking program an start spouting things the corporation wants to hear. And he does it in such a way that will get through to a man in the middle of a nervous breakdown. (It’s similar to the “Electric Jesus” in The Ruling Class. Which is a reference no one will get. But that came first.
Beatty is good here. He yells and he’s commanding of the screen for his one scene. It’s an extra nomination for the film, and he’s certainly memorable in it. But in this category, he doesn’t rate as anything more than fifth. His one scene is very good, but he doesn’t layer a performance like the rest of these actors do.
Rocky is an iconic, all-time film, and there’s no way you made it to this article without having seen it.
Burgess Meredith plays Mick, Rocky’s trainer. At first he wants nothing to do with him, thinking he’s a “bum.” But then he comes to apologize to Rocky once he gets the title fight and basically beg to be his trainer but in not so many words. The crux of the performance is the scene in Rocky’s apartment where he delivers this touching monologue that really gets to the heart of the character. Outside of that he’s funny and amusing and is the perfect grizzled boxing trainer stereotype.
Burt Young, meanwhile, plays Paulie, Adrian’s brother. He’s a drunk and is basically a sadder version of Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man. She sits home and takes care of him and because of that has never had any sort of real relationship. And now here comes Rocky, and he’s friends with Paulie, but now Paulie feels threatened by the relationship. Mostly he’s a sad, drunk asshole for much of the movie and he gets one big emotional scene that’s really well done. I always thought he was much more impressive than Burgess Meredith, even though Meredith’s performance is much more in line with what would win here.
Marathon Man is one of the great thrillers of all time. The 70s were the decade for many of the great thrillers of all time. Which is why I’m so nostalgic for that era of filmmaking to come back.
Dustin Hoffman is a student who gets caught up in a Nazi conspiracy to sell diamonds smuggled out of Germany during World War II. It’s fucking great.
Olivier plays a sadistic Nazi dentist. One of the more unique character descriptions in film history. One only matched by Judi Dench. He’s the guy behind the diamond smuggling, and has to come into the country to get some diamonds hidden in a safety deposit box. He thinks Hoffman might be involved in some way and tortures him in a very famous scene (“Is it safe?”). And he becomes a menacing villain from there.
The performance is really strong. He’s a memorable villain and gives a very measured performance that never goes over the top despite many opportunities to do so. At this point, this is Olivier playing against type and playing a complete villain, which was automatic for a nomination. Plus, he’s so good here, his villain actually becomes one of the more memorable of all time. So I totally get it. I don’t think he rates a vote, but he’s definitely more solid than he should be. I’d say he’s probably third in terms of pure performance, but probably fourth for my vote, just because I don’t think this is something I like enough to want to take.
All the President’s Men is another all-timer. This entire category is all-time films. 1976 is just one of those great years.
It’s about Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate and leading the investigation that brought down Nixon. It’s perfect.
Jason Robards plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the paper they work for. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time or stuff to do on the surface. A lot of his scenes are him sitting there, listening to other people argue and he chimes in once in a while. But it’s a really strong performance. He’s the guy that needs to make sure they’re buttoned up on all their information and sources. He’s also backing his boys, because he believes there’s something important in the story, and he wants them to do it right. He’s really great in the role, but I keep struggling with whether or not he has enough screen time. Still, the performance puts him top two and firmly in contention, so I’ll struggle with the screen time part when I’m actually doing the voting.
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The Reconsideration: Tough category. Good films, good performances.
I can’t take Beatty. Too little screen time, too much overshadowing by the other performances.
Olivier is really solid, and I think his performance is great, but there are at least two other performances I take over him.
Between the two Rocky performances, I take Meredith over Young, even though I do gravitate more toward Young’s performance. I still think Meredith was better.
The category, for me, comes down to either Burgess Meredith or Jason Robards. They’re both great, but in different ways. Robards is playing a real guy, while Meredith is playing a stock character. Both make their roles memorable.
To me, while I love Jason Robards, I really struggle with how little he has to do in the film and how he doesn’t get too many big moments. And Burgess Meredith… he’s big and loud but also really quiet and dramatic. I’m okay with either winner. But honestly, every time I watch All the President’s Men, I’m so blown away by how much I love Jason Robards. He’s my winner. I want to vote Burgess Meredith every time and I tell myself, “This is is, this is the one.” And then I watch All the President’s Men again and I have to vote Robards. I fucking love him in that movie.
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- Jason Robards, All the President’s Men
- Burgess Meredith, Rocky
- Burt Young, Rocky
- Laurence Olivier, Marathon Man
- Ned Beatty, Network
- All the President’s Men
- Marathon Man
My Vote: Jason Robards, All the President’s Men
All the President’s Men, Rocky and Network are unequivocally essential films. Rocky is a film where, if you haven’t seen it by college, you might be doing life wrong. And then, if you’re a film buff, All the President’s Men and Network are must-sees of the first order. Like, baseline essential movies that you need to get to pronto before anyone can start taking your opinions seriously. Movies 101 right here.
Marathon Man is essential, but not on the level those other ones are essential. This is just a great 70s thriller that everyone likes that’s really memorable and features iconic scenes and characters. So you need to see it as a film buff, but not as quickly as you see those other three. This one can wait until that next stretch. You’ve seen your must-sees, and now it’s, “Oh, now I’m gonna watch Marathon Man.” Not having seen those other three is, “Oh, you need to see those right now.” Not seeing this is, “Oh man, you’re gonna love it, that movie’s great.” That’s the kind of essential this is.
The Last Word: Strong category in films, strong category for performances. Not as strong as you’d think, but still strong. I think… Robards holds up, Meredith would have held up. Young wouldn’t have held up over Meredith, Beatty wouldn’t have held up at all with such little screen time (though the film winning all four acting categories would have been a first), and Olivier might have held up, but I’m not sure. I think they made a good choice here with Robards, and Meredith would have been a good, alternate choice that would have been just as fine.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)