The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1979-1980)
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.
Melvyn Douglas, Being There
Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now
Frederic Forrest, The Rose
Justin Henry, Kramer vs. Kramer
Mickey Rooney, The Black Stallion
Being There is a great film that serves as a beautiful swan song for Peter Sellers.
Chance the gardener works at the house of a dying man. He’s worked there for years. He’s a simple man who likes to garden and watches TV all day. The man dies, leaving him homeless and jobless. So he sets out on the streets. Eventually he gets hit by the car of Shirley MacLaine, the wife of a much older businessman. She takes him to the house to recoup, and while there, he befriends her husband, who is a close friend and advisor to the president. And Chance, merely spouting off things he heard on TV or random statements about gardening, makes them think he’s a brilliant strategist and they start to actually listen to him. Eventually he become a media sensation and no one seems to realize he has no idea what he’s talking about.
Melvyn Douglas plays the businessman, who is dying. He likes Chance, because he thinks he talks plainly, whereas everyone else around him is a yes man. He also knows he’s dying and likes having Chane around, because he feels as though it’s making the whole thing easier on him.
Douglas is quite good in the role, and I understand why they gave him this Oscar — the Academy loves a veteran after all — but there’s no way you take him over Duvall. Come on, now.
Apocalypse Now is a movie you should be able to quote from start to finish by the time you’re reading this article. This movie is perfect and is one of the 50 most essential movies ever made.
Robert Duvall, as we all know, plays Colonel Kilgore. One of the strangest, boldest, most memorable characters ever put to screen. His idea is going in and wiping out the enemy with tons of firepower so he and his men can go surfing on the beach the rest of the day.
From the minute he steps on screen he commands the film until he goes away. The only thing that would make me hesitant to vote for him in this category is if Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper (or someone else) were in this category too. Barring that, this is a runaway.
Guy gives one of the most famous speeches in all of cinema; “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” There is no way he isn’t the vote here.
The Rose is Bette Midler essentially playing Janis Joplin.
She’s a rock star who drinks too much and does too many drugs. She’s been on tour for forever and wants to take a break, but her manager won’t let her. And the movie is mostly about her being self-destructive and making bad choices. A showcase for her as a singer and actress.
Frederic Forrest plays a limo driver she runs off with. They start sleeping together. He’s AWOL from the military and is really not someone who can handle the entire package that is her. Eventually he gets fed up with her behavior and leaves her.
Forrest is actually really good here. And this performance, coupled with playing Chef in Apocalypse Now, makes him a solid entrant in this category. Still can’t consider him worthy of the vote though. No one beats Duvall. Very fine job though out of Forrest.
Kramer vs. Kramer is one of the most honest movies about divorce ever made. It still holds up, going on 40 years later.
The film opens with Meryl Streep leaving Dustin Hoffman, her husband. He’s a workaholic, and she wants to take time to work on herself and live a little. She leaves him to care for their son alone. And it’s a steep adjustment for Hoffman, who grows into the role and learns to be a better father. And just when he’s got things all figured out, Meryl comes back, looking for custody of their son. Which he won’t have. Thus ensues a nasty custody battle, which might even be too nasty for the two of them. The movie is great. It really is.
Justin Henry plays the son of the family. And before you think this is some bullshit “kid” role, like the kid from Shane or something, think again. This is actually a legitimate performance. The kid really creates a believable child out of this character. This is a child torn by a divorce. He used to be closer to his mother because his father was never around, and now he hates his father because he thinks he made Mom leave. But then they grow to love one another. The kid is really good. He’s at worst a third choice in the category and might even be second. He’s terrific here. One of the better child actor performances you’ll see at the Oscars.
The Black Stallion is a very unique and interesting film. One I didn’t fully appreciate five years ago.
A kid is traveling on a ship with his father and becomes fascinated by (insert title here) that’s also on board. The ship sinks and the kid ends up on a desert island with the horse, which he befriends. Eventually they’re rescued and he returns to begin training the horse for racing. And then it becomes National Velvet.
Mickey Rooney plays exactly the same role he played in National Velvet, which is what makes this a fitting nomination. He trains the horse and teaches the kid how to be a jockey. It’s your standard trainer/coach type role. You’ve seen this a bunch here. Rooney is great in the role and it’s a nice veteran nomination. He’s no more than fifth in the category, but it’s nice to see him here. This is actually a much better movie than I gave it credit for too.
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That’s this category. Duvall stands tall by a fucking MILE. The fact that he didn’t win this is, to me, the biggest travesty in the history of this category. Nothing against Melvyn Douglas, but man, is Duvall just so good and so iconic that he makes this decision look horrible. He’s the only choice here.
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- Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now
- Justin Henry, Kramer vs. Kramer
- Melvyn Douglas, Being There
- Frederic Forrest, The Rose
- Mickey Rooney, The Black Stallion
- Apocalypse Now
- Being There
- Kramer vs. Kramer
- The Rose
- The Black Stallion
My Vote: Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is one of the 25-50 most essential movies of all time. This is beyond prerequisite. You don’t even get in the room without having seen this.
Kramer vs. Kramer is an essential film for about a hundred reasons. It won Best Picture, it’s great, the performances are perfect — but also… if you want to complain about it winning Best Picture over Apocalypse Now, you need to have seen it. Nothing negates an argument faster than, “Well no, I haven’t seen it, but…” This movie is also wonderful on its own and makes itself essential by being so good.
Being There is an essential film. Peter Sellers makes it essential. Not on the level of Apocalypse Now and maybe not even on the level of Kramer vs. Kramer, but if you’re a film buff, you need to see this movie because it’s wonderful, it’s memorable, and it’s become iconic, especially its lead character and final image. Must be seen because the majority of you will love it.
The Rose is a good movie. Not essential. But Bette Midler is awesome in it. It hasn’t really held up over time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. There are few really good movies about musicians out there, and this is one of the more solid ones. I think it’s worth a watch, especially for her performance.
The Black Stallion is worth seeing. If you like National Velvet, this is much of the same. Just with Cast Away in the first half instead of Lassie. Worth a watch, but not essential at all.
The Last Word: It’s Duvall. Who are we kidding? Duvall, then everyone else. Douglas doesn’t hold up at all, because everyone looks at this category and goes, “How did Robert Duvall not win?” Some people might think Douglas is worth winning, and that’s fine, but he’s not the best choice. Duvall delivers one of the most iconic performances of all time, and I bet if you took the entire list of supporting actor nominees for all time and ranked, Duvall ends up in the top twenty. That might be an overstatement, given the sheer volume of nominees (which might be at 400 right now), but it’s not that far off. Duvall is the only one who should have won this category.
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Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People
Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
Michael O’Keefe, The Great Santini
Joe Pesci, Raging Bull
Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard
Ordinary People is the film that beat Raging Bull for Best Picture. And that’s how people know it. Which is a shame. Because it’s better than that. Put this in 1981 and no one questions it winning Best Picture.
It’s about a family dealing with the accidental death of its oldest son. The younger brother, who was with him when he died, tries to commit suicide and has to be institutionalized and see a psychiatrist, and the mother becomes utterly cold toward him and tries to pretend like everything’s okay, while the father quietly tries to keep the family together.
Two nominees here:
Timothy Hutton plays the younger brother. He is unquestioningly the lead of the film. Donald Sutherland was billed as the lead, but at best he’s a co-lead. This is Hutton’s film, and when you start watching it, you’ll see what I mean. He’s the lead. He’s great, but he’s the lead. Which makes him winning here a bit of a cop out, because he so dominates the category with his screen time it was a foregone conclusion that he was gonna win. He gives the best performance, but I don’t know if I can vote for him on principle. Though he’s also so good this might be one of the rare occurrences I break principle just to honor a great performance. We’ll see.
Judd Hirsch plays Hutton’s psychiatrist. And he’s your typical psychiatrist character. He’s trying to get to the bottom of the problem, but also doesn’t have time for the main character’s bullshit. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, even Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech, to an extent. That’s the character. Hutton doesn’t want to talk, so Hirsch is like, “Go ahead, don’t talk. I don’t give a fuck.” And then he talks, and he becomes an advisor and a friend. That’s the role.
Hirsch is the one that’s the true supporting performance of the film. And were it just him, he’d have contended for this. But with Hutton in the category, he becomes an afterthought. He’s really solid, but he stood zero chance the minute the lead of the film was nominated with him in the category.
The Great Santini is a great movie about a generational gap.
Robert Duvall is an Air Force pilot who is the ultimate military man. He makes the family wake up at 6 and do drills with him. He’s stern to his kids, the whole deal. And the film is about his relationship with his son, who he expects is going to join the army like he did. And the son wants no part of that, which causes major tension between them. It’s a strong film, anchored by two great lead performances.
Michael O’Keefe plays the son, and he’s basically the co-lead of the film. Duvall is terrific, and O’Keefe matches him nearly every step of the way. (He was also in Caddyshack this same year too. Danny Noonan, in case you don’t recognize the name.) The scene I always remember is when they play basketball. Duvall always wins and never lets the kid win, even from childhood. And it becomes super competitive, and the kid actually beats him. And you’d think Duvall is gonna go, “Oh, great job, you finally did it,” but no. He gets mad. He taunts him and he keeps berating him because he can’t stand losing, even to his own son.
O’Keefe and Duvall are both great, and the only problem with him is — Timothy Hutton is better. That’s just how it is. O’Keefe merits maybe third choice on the voting, maybe second if you think he’s that strong. I still say Hutton is better. And you can’t even take him on a category fraud deal, because he’s also a case of category fraud. Just maybe not as extreme as Hutton’s.
Raging Bull is perfection. You’ve seen this, so I don’t need to waste time talking about the plot.
Joe Pesci plays Joey LaMotta, Jake’s brother. And he is the yin to De Niro’s yang. Sure, De Niro is the hurricane force of the film, but Pesci’s right there with him for most of it. The very definition of supporting.
My thought is, De Niro works as well as he does with Pesci, and it’s almost a package deal to take them both. And if Hutton rightly went lead, that’s probably what would have happened. But since he didn’t, that’s complicating this whole business. Easily top two in the category, though. Pesci is incredible here.
Melvin and Howard is a bizarre movie, but it’s also quite good.
A guy is driving alone in the desert when he encounters a stranger in a tattered suit who crashed a motorbike. He gives the stranger a ride back to Vegas. And they have this bizarre conversation that involves singing and everything. The whole deal. And then he drops the man off and goes about his way. We later find out that man was Howard Hughes. And then we follow the guy’s life for a bit, until eventually Hughes dies and he gets a paper in the mail that says Hughes left him a bunch of money in his will. Which of course the Hughes estate debunks as fraudulent.
Jason Robards plays Howard Hughes. He’s only in the film for the first fifteen minutes, but man, is he great. This might be my favorite of all his nominated performances. If he hadn’t won twice and there weren’t two clear winners, he might have won this. He’s really good in the part. But this isn’t something you take in this category. Not with Pesci and Hutton. He’s a third choice at best.
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The Reconsideration: This is a tough category because it’s strong, but two of the nominees are blatantly either leads or co-leads. But they’re also strong enough to take despite that.
Hirsch is the first one you take off, because Hutton is markedly better, and he just doesn’t hold up amongst the rest of the category. I’d rather see a lead win because he’s great than Hirsch win simply because he was lesser but actually fits the category better. So he’s out.
Robards is second off for me. I love him and I love the performance, but there’s not enough of him and he’s won twice already. In a close call, that matters to me. I don’t like it enough to take even without the two wins, but knowing he won twice makes it easier for me to take him off.
And between the two leads, Hutton is better, so O’Keefe is out. Solid third (maybe second) choice for me, but Hutton is better so no O’Keefe vote.
It’s either vote for the lead in Hutton or vote for Joe Pesci. Pesci is great and I think the pair of him and De Niro winning would have made a lot of sense. But honestly, Hutton is so good that I think I’m gonna take him. I know it’s blatant category fraud, but I also have the benefit of knowing that Pesci would win this category ten years from now. And I want people to know how good Hutton actually is here, since a lot of newbies to film would automatically take Joe Pesci here because it’s Raging Bull and ignore Hutton. So, while Pesci is great, Hutton actually is the best performance in the category. Not to mention… if I’m presented with category fraud in real time, but the performance is great, a lot of the time I will end up taking that performance just because it’s so good. I did it this past year, and I’ve done it before. So the category fraud excuse only goes so far for me. I think Hutton deserved this, and I’m not faulting him because they put him in the wrong category.
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- Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
- Joe Pesci, Raging Bull
- Jason Robards, Melvin and Howard
- Michael O’Keefe, The Great Santini
- Judd Hirsch, Ordinary People
- Raging Bull
- Ordinary People
- The Great Santini
- Melvin and Howard
My Vote: Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
Raging Bull. Did you guys hear? Larry’s mother is an animal.
Ordinary People is an essential film. Mostly for two reasons. The first being that it won Best Picture. The second being — and I said this up there with Kramer vs. Kramer — if you want to complain that it won Best Picture over Raging Bull, you need to have seen it. And I guarantee, when you see it, you’re gonna go, “Oh, this is actually a really good movie.” Which is the point. You can still feel like it shouldn’t have won, but you should see it to appreciate how good of a film it is.
The Great Santini is awesome. A great Robert Duvall performance and a really solid film. High recommend, even if not essential.
Melvin and Howard is a fun movie. It starts off with a bang, and the opening twenty minutes are the best minutes in the film. The rest of it is just an amusing oddball comedy. Essential because of the Oscar win, otherwise just something I recommend because it’s such a weird story. This is the Elvis and Nixon of the 80s. So weird that you should see it just for the experience.
The Last Word: Hutton holds up as a winner because the performance is so good. The category fraud looks bad, but the thing he has going for him — O’Keefe never really panned out as an actor. No one really knows what he’s done the past thirty years. Robards had won twice and didn’t need a third, and the film is the least known in the category, despite Steenburgen winning Supporting Actress for it. Pesci would win later for a better and more memorable performance, and Hirsch was clearly inferior to Hutton and wouldn’t have held up as a winner among the competition. So Hutton holds up just fine and the only bad thing about it is the fact that he’s the lead. And I can live with that. I think they made a fine decision that they were forced into the minute the studio put him in this category.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)