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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1977-1978)

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.

1977

Mikhail Baryshnikov, The Turning Point

Peter Firth, Equus

Alec Guinness, Star Wars

Jason Robards, Julia

Maximilian Schell, Julia

Analysis:

The Turning Point is a film about ballerinas. And it’s surprisingly solid. Maybe not as solid as, “Favorite to win Best Picture going into the Oscars,” but solid like, “This holds up pretty well for a film nobody remembers anymore.”

Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft are ballerinas. MacLaine leaves to start a family and Bancroft becomes prima ballerina. Cut to twenty years later, MacLaine wishes she had Bancroft’s career and Bancroft wishes she had a family like MacLaine. And now MacLaine’s daughter is training to be a ballerina and Bancroft invites her to join the company. So that brings all the feelings between the two bubbling to the surface.

Mikhail Baryshnikov plays a dancer in the company who sleeps with all the women in the company. He of course starts sleeping with MacLaine’s daughter and quickly drops her for someone else. And in the end they agree to be friends.

There’s not a whole lot here in the way of character or performance. Baryshnikov was one of the most famous dancers in the world, and they nominated him purely for his dancing skills in this movie, which he shows on numerous occasions. They’ve done this before, nominated someone for skills other than acting (see: Jennifer Hudson), and I’m not always opposed to it. But I think it should be pointed out that Baryshnikov is not here for his performance and you wouldn’t take him for his performance. You want to take him for the dancing, I can’t argue. Not sure you should, but that’s your prerogative. To me, fourth in the category, purely on the dancing. Nothing more.

Equus is a film about a guy that fucks horses.

I got that right, didn’t I?

A psychiatrist studies the case of a boy who blinded a bunch of horses. That’s the film.

Peter Firth plays the boy. It’s the role of the film and the one so clearly that would be nominated. I think he’s very good in the role, and might be second on pure performance. But I don’t think it’s all there for me. It’s good, but it’s not win good. He’s just solid. Maybe it’s the film, maybe it’s just him, I don’t know. I don’t love the performance and would much rather take at least two performances over him, despite him being very good.

Star Wars. You may have seen it once or twice.

Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Here’s the thing, and I think this needs to be said: this is one of the most iconic film characters of all time. That’s the reason you take this. And nothing else. NO ONE can truly say that Alec Guinness did any kind of acting in this part. He just says his lines and looks wise because he’s Alec fucking Guinness. Don’t make the mistake of taking this on performance. Because there isn’t a performance here. If there were, he would have won.

Julia is a cool little film. It’s more drama than anything, but I like the latter stages of it.

It’s about Lillian Hellman and her friend Julia. They grew up together and were best friends, and eventually Julia went off to Europe and got involved with anti-Nazi groups and disappeared for a while. Meanwhile, Hellman became a playwright and lived her own life. Eventually Julia writes her and asks her to help smuggle some money into Nazi Germany for her, which she does. It’s quite a solid film, even if it’s based on what’s pretty much a made up story.

Jason Robards plays Dashiell Hammett, who Hellmann is living with and who encourages her to write. He’s a steady presence in the first half of the film, telling her she can write better and pushing her to write what eventually becomes a classic play (The Children’s Hour, which was made twice into Oscar-nominated films). He’s quietly very good in the role, and I can see why they gave it to him. Robards was a great actor. I’m not sure the part means much of anything though. He’s very good in it, but when the film gets back to Julia, Robards leaves for the better part of an hour, only to return in the end. He’s good and you want to see more of him, which hurts the performance, since it seems as though the film doesn’t really care about him. That hurts when you get to the voting stages, but otherwise he’s clearly near the top of this category.

Maximilian Schell plays one of Julia’s friends who comes to Hellman with the proposition of smuggling the money. He gets one scene with her on a bench where he explains the situation and says she can either show up to a train station and signal that she’s going to help, or not, and they go their separate ways and everything’s fine. And then she shows up and gives the signal and that’s it. Schell is really only there for the two scenes and is effective in them, but otherwise has nothing to do and it’s basically a cameo in a pivotal moment. He’s a distant second to Robards in this film and it feels more like a veteran nomination and him coming along with the film more than anything. It actually weakens the category, him being here with so little to do.

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The Reconsideration: Here’s how this one works — Schell is clearly second to Robards and only has two small scenes. No way he’s the choice. Baryshnikov can’t really act all that well and can only dance. Can’t take him either. The character’s not compelling enough alongside the dancing. Firth is solid, but I don’t really like him or the film all that much. I don’t think there’s enough there to hold up at all as a winner.

Your two choices, as it would be for 98% of people picking this category: Jason Robards, Alec Guinness. And here’s the rub — Robards is better. He does a better job and gives a better performance. But his character is pretty meaningless to the film and is literally dropped for a good 45 minutes. And on the other hand, Alec Guinness is barely trying in his movie. But… it’s Obi Wan Kenobi, one of the most famous characters in all of cinema.

It’s a coin flip. I’m closer to taking Robards than I’ve ever been. But… and here’s where I think I feel okay doing what I’m about to do — I think the fact that Julia literally abandons Robards for so much of the film makes it okay for me to take what I feel is a lesser performance in Alec Guinness. The fact that Obi Wan is so goddamn iconic makes up for the performance. I think it’s close, but I think, weighing the pros and the cons, Obi Wan is my choice.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Jason Robards, Julia
  2. Alec Guinness, Star Wars
  3. Peter Firth, Equus
  4. Mikhail Baryshnikov, The Turning Point
  5. Maximilian Schell, Julia

Rankings (films):

  1. Star Wars
  2. Julia
  3. The Turning Point
  4. Equus

My Vote: Alec Guinness, Star Wars

Recommendations:

Star Wars. You’re probably okay without it. I don’t think anyone’s gonna remember this one in ten years.

Julia is a great film. Maybe not Best Picture winner great (it didn’t win), but it’s a solid film all around. A little uneven, but both haves are interesting in their own ways, and I think it’s worth seeing. Plus it’s essential for Oscar buffs because of the win. I think this is a helpful film for film buffs to see.

The Turning Point is solid but not necessary. Helpful if you want to discuss this year at the Oscars. Otherwise, just pretty good. A drama with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft. That’s the selling point of The Turning Point. I recommend it, but you’re totally fine without it.

Equus — I don’t love it. But it’s a famous play and it was directed by Sidney Lumet. And it was Richard Burton’s last nominated performance. So it has its reasons to be seen. But you’re totally fine without it if you’re not interested.

The Last Word: It’s Obi Wan. He really is probably the choice here. Alec Guinness winning for this performance would have held up just fine and been pretty good all around, since Guinness was well worth two Oscars for his career. Robards winning back to backs is fine. He’s the other solid choice in the category. The thing that hurts Robards is history. In analyzing the category, he’s a perfectly good winner. It’s when you look at how history has treated both films and performances that he looks a bit weak. So, really, while Guinness would have held up better, I think Robards is a fine choice. Still — I think Guinness winning probably would have been the better choice.

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1978

Bruce Dern, Coming Home

Richard Farnsworth, Comes a Horseman

John Hurt, Midnight Express

Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter

Jack Warden, Heaven Can Wait

Analysis:

Coming Home is a film about Vietnam. They made a lot of these in the late 70s.

Jon Voight comes home from the war without legs. Bruce Dern comes back with horrible PTSD. Jane Fonda is a nurse at a VA hospital in love with both men. That’s pretty much it. It’s really good, and might be Hal Ashby’s best film.

Dern plays a soldier who, in the opening scenes, sweeps Jane Fonda off her feet and marries her. And then he goes off to war and is gone for much of the film, during which time Fonda meets and falls for Jon Voight. And then Dern comes back irrevocably changed by the war. He’s less charming, he’s more tense, he’ll have outbursts where he freaks out and is violent, the whole thing. And then he finds out about the affair, too. Which causes him to explode into a rage and almost kill Voight.

It’s a strong performance. Very strong. Honestly, between him and Walken, you have a winner here. It all comes down to which one you liked better. Dern is worth a win, as is Walken, and there’s not a whole lot else to add.

Comes a Horseman is a dramatic western. Not a western western. Since that genre was pretty much abandoned by this point.

Jane Fonda runs a cattle farm that’s not doing so well. Jason Robards is a land baron who used to date her who wants to buy her out. He wants to buy everyone out. She says no, and teams up with James Caan to save the farm. (This is a plot we’re gonna see a bunch in the 80s, with Places in the Heart, Country, The River, etc.)

Richard Farnsworth plays a ranch hand who’s been working on Fonda’s land for years. You know, the guy who worked for her father and has basically seen her grow up and has an unwavering loyalty to her. He’s got such a nice, easy presence about him that he feels authentic. He was originally a stuntman who had exactly one credited role before this that wasn’t “outlaw/sheriff/cowboy/etc.”

Him in this film is exactly the same as Ben Johnson in Last Picture Show. All the backstory of the character is in his face, and he’s mostly just a nice presence throughout the film until he gets his one big monologue and then dies shortly after.

underlying within entire film just by simple having Dodger be an old past himself. When Farnsworth talks about the old times and the long troubles around the land he is able to convey it a lived in history that Dodger went through.

Farnsworth is always a simple delight in any film and his presence is always welcome in every scene he appears in the film. He turns Dodger into a warm very likable old hand that we can’t help but sympathize for. My only real problem with the character of Dodger is just how little he is used in the film. One would think he would appear in more scenes with Caan and Fonda but he instead he only comes in from time to time almost like the film did not have the budget for him to be there all the time even though it would make sense for him to be. Farnsworth though is a delight every moment he does appear, only ever making me want more of him actually.

Farnsworth though does have a pivotal scene after Dodger is injured from falling off his horse and no longer can be of help anymore. Farnsworth is completely heartbreaking in the scene as he shows the quiet pain Dodger is going through over no longer being able to do what he can, but Farnsworth never makes it a depressive moment though as his warmth still pulls through. He leaves with encouraging words to both Caan’s and Fonda’s characters that are genuinely moving as Farnsworth only every brings honest emotion to the scene. It is a terrific final scene as he he leaves on a very sad but also heartwarming moment that could not have been performed better. My only wish though was Farnsworth had been less wasted in the film which never spent enough time with him.

Midnight Express is quite the film.

An American tries to smuggle some has out of Turkey and gets arrested and thrown in prison for an unusually harsh sentence. And the film is about his time inside the prison and it’s awful conditions.

John Hurt plays one of the prisoners, who is also a heroin addict. You get the sense that he’s been in the prison for way longer than anyone should be and has gone slightly crazy from it. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, but he’s a good presence. A lot of what he does is sit around in group scenes and chime in with his knowledge of the place from being there so long.

It’s a solid performance, but the film offers him so little time to shine. I wish I could say he’s higher than a third or fourth choice, but he isn’t. He needed more to really contend here. At best he’s just a solid performance that can’t be voted for.

The Deer Hunter is a fucking treasure. I love this movie so much. It was also one of the very first 20 or 30 films I saw when I was just getting into film. I think it’s like that for most of us.

Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage are all going off to war. We see them as steel workers and good friends on the eve of Savage’s wedding, and then as they ship off to war and see the horrors of Vietnam, and return home (or don’t) changed from it.

Walken plays Nick, who seemingly has it second best of the group. Savage is married and happy, and Walken is dating Meryl Streep, and proposes to her during the wedding. Then the three get captured during the war and end up having to play Russian Roulette against each other. Afterwards, when they get rescued, Walken is the one who doesn’t return home. He stays in country, completely broken from the experience. He wanders into a backroom where they play Russian Roulette for money and starts playing for real, no longer fearing death. And we catch up with him at the end of the film when De Niro goes back to find him, ending up in a tragic game against his friend.

Walken is sublime here. He deserved this. I know now, Walken having an Oscar seems ridiculous to some who know him now, with all his mannerisms and what not. But trust me, he deserved this one, and no one would say otherwise.

Heaven Can Wait is Warren Beatty’s version of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. This movie’s all over these categories, so you’ve heard of it at least twice by now.

Football player, dies in a freak accident before the Super Bowl, gets up to heaven and says it’s not his time yet. They realize they made a mistake and he’s not supposed to die, so they look to get him another body, since his was cremated. And they temporarily put him in the body of a millionaire, in which he trains to play in the big game like he was supposed to and also falls in love with a woman. Great story.

Jack Warden plays Max Corkle, Beatty’s friend and trainer. He seeks him out when he’s in the millionaire’s body to help him train for the game. He becomes the only one who knows that he’s still alive, if in another body. And he’s mostly played for laughs. The scene where he is convinced Beatty is still alive is complete comedy. And later, after the millionaire is killed and Beatty is without a body, he communicates to Corkle so he can tell the cops what happened, which is also a humorous scene. It’s a nice role, because it’s funny and he knows the whole thing is nuts, but he knows his friend, so he’s doing what his friend wants.

It’s not a performance you vote for, but it’s much more complex than you’d think it is based on the film. Warden is one of those actors who is always very solid, and I love it that they nominated him, because he was a great actor whose work always seemed so seamless. He’s probably bottom of the pack, but I do really like his work here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s a solid category. Warden comes up short once again, unfortunately. Farnsworth feels like Ben Johnson lite. He’s good and you might consider him, but I don’t put him any higher than a solid nominee whose nomination is the reward. Maybe third at best. Hurt has so little to do that I can’t vote for him even though the performance is solid and stands out in the film.

This is really between Walken and Dern, and they’re the two worth taking. They’re also the two who’d hold up best in this category (Hurt too) simply because they’ve had such long and varied careers as character actors. I see Walken as a clear winner over Dern, but some might see it closer than I do. I wouldn’t begrudge a Dern vote. But for me, it’s all Walken, all day.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter
  2. Bruce Dern, Coming Home
  3. John Hurt, Midnight Express
  4. Richard Farnsworth, Comes a Horseman
  5. Jack Warden, Heaven Can Wait

Rankings (films):

  1. The Deer Hunter
  2. Midnight Express
  3. Heaven Can Wait
  4. Coming Home
  5. Comes a Horseman

My Vote: Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter

Recommendations:

The Deer Hunter is an all-time essential film. Most film buffs see this in that first grouping of films when the get started. And there’s a reason for that. Every film buff needs to see this movie.

Midnight Express is an essential film. Not quite all-time essential, but close enough. It gets referenced enough to warrant being up there for film buffs. Hell, see the movie alone just to understand that Airplane reference up there.

Heaven Can Wait is a film that’s not essential, but should be seen because it’s so awesome. The story is essential, be it Mr. Jordan or this or even Down to Earth (though don’t just see that one and think it’s okay). This one is probably the most entertaining version for most people, so it’s probably the one to see. But they’re all great. It’s a highly recommended at worst, and at best it’s essential. So just see it.

Coming Home is highly recommended, close to essential, but not 100% essential. For our purposes here, let’s call it essential for film buffs. Because it has big stars, won major Oscars, is a classic movie, and is something that will come up and cross list a lot on lists when you start getting into movies. Especially if you get to Deer Hunter. So just see it. It’s great and it’s worth seeing.

Comes a Horseman is certainly a film worth seeing. You might not have heard of it, but the people involved make it at least something worth looking into. Alan Pakula directs, Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jason Robards star. If that doesn’t interest you, then you’re perfectly okay to skip it. It’s all about the cast and director. It’s not essential. So either you’re interested in them or you can skip it and move along.

The Last Word: Oh, this is Walken all the way. You might say Bruce Dern, and he’s really the only other choice. Hurt is solid but needed more screen time. Farnsworth is a solid nominee in a forgotten movie. And Warden is great but doesn’t come close to being as good as your top contenders. I think they made a great choice here and it holds up as one of the better decisions of all time.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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