The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1983-1984)
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.
Charles Durning, To Be Or Not to Be
John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
Rip Torn, Cross Creek
To Be Or Not to Be. That is the question.
I mean, how could I have written anything else there?
This is a remake of the Carole Lombard movie from 1942. Same plot, just different actors. Namely Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. In a lot of ways, I almost prefer this version to the other version. Not because it’s better, but because I love Mel Brooks so much.
A Jewish theater troupe during the Holocaust has its own issues, and stumble upon a soldier wanted by the Nazis. So they hide him and have to figure out a plan to get him to safety. It’s fucking hilarious, the entire movie, and what I’m saying doesn’t do it justice. I don’t even want to get into specifics of the plot to ruin it. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen. Mel Brooks is a comedy genius.
Charles Durning plays a Nazi officer. The crux of the film is that they discover a professor is a spy and is gonna rat them out to an officer, Durning. So Mel Brooks pretends to be the officer when the professor rats them out. But then complications ensue and the professor dies. So Brooks has to pretend to be the professor when Durning shows up. The whole thing is screwball and Durning plays his part perfectly. I love that they nominate him for these great performances that would normally get no love whatsoever. No way this ever wins or I’d ever vote for it, but he’s awesome in the movie and I love that he was nominated.
Terms of Endearment is the ultimate tearjerker movie. I went into this going, “Oh, god, this movie. The one that all women like because it makes them cry. I bet it’ll just be okay.” And then I saw it, and I wept. And I loved it. I’ve watched it a few times since then. I don’t think I’ve liked it as much as that initial watch, but I still really like the movie and think it’s well made. And it does hit you in the gut in the end.
It’s about a mother/daughter relationship. Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. And we follow them pretty much from birth to death. It’s solid. Hard to really get into since it’s not a film with a direct plot.
Two nominees here.
John Lithgow plays a man Winger has an affair with. His wife is disabled and he hasn’t made love with her for years. And Winger’s husband cheats on her constantly. So they find solace in one another. He’s a really nice man and he gives a sweet and tender performance, but ultimately he has little to do and it feels more like a holdover of his previous nomination than anything else. Between the two nominees, Lithgow is the lesser of the two, simply because his character has so little to do and is almost forgettable compared to everyone else. Not his fault, btu also not something I’d vote for.
Jack Nicholson plays Shirley MacLaine’s neighbor. He’s a retired astronaut who goes out and parties like he’s still in his 20s. (Real stretch for Nicholson.) She sees him coming home drunk with two women, crashing his car into her fence. And she thinks he’s disgusting but is also fascinated by him. And he starts flirting with her and they begin dating.
Honestly, he’s good, because he’s Nicholson and he’s always good, but so much of this feels like Jack doing Jack. You know? I feel him doing the Nicholson we all know and I don’t think he’s really bringing all that much to the role except star power. I can see why he won this category, but I don’t necessarily think he’s the best performance in the category. He probably rises to second on sheer category weakness, but I’m still not sure I take him.
The Right Stuff is about the first astronauts. And it’s fucking perfect. I love this movie.
The part we’re focused on is Chuck Yeager. That’s who Sam Shepard plays. He is primarily the beginning and end of the film. We first see him hanging out in a bar, as another pilot turns down the chance to try to break the sound barrier. The guy demands money, so they go to Shepard. But before he has a chance to fly, he breaks his ribs. Which would prevent him from flying, since he’d be unable to reach over and lock the door to the plane. But he uses a broken broom as a handle and goes and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier… with broken fucking ribs. And then later on, he’s still a pilot when they start figuring out who the first astronauts are going to be, but he ends up disqualified because he’s not educated enough. And the whole movie is about proving you have (insert title here). Which Yeager, despite not being able to go to space, proves in the end when he tries to set an altitude record and almost dies, but still manages to walk away from it, because he’s a fucking badass.
That’s what this character is — a badass. He’s cool, he’s a great pilot, and Shepard plays him wonderfully. Most years, he might be a #3 or a #2, but here, he contends for #1. Because honestly, who else is there really to vote for?
Cross Creek is about the woman who wrote the Yearling and how she came about to write it. That’s pretty much the movie. I don’t love it all that much.
If you know The Yearling, you know it’s about a backwoods kind of family who takes in a pet deer. And the kid loves the deer until it gets too big and starts to become a nuisance. And because it’s not fit to be in the wild, they have to shoot it. And it’s sad.
Rip Torn plays the backwoods counterpart that became the character Gregory Peck played in the film. He’s gruff and stern but has a heart underneath. I like Rip Torn and I think he did fine in the part, but at best I consider him a third choice in the category. I don’t think this film is all that good and I think that keeps me from liking the performance enough to consider it strongly for a vote. Third choice for me at best even though some people might consider him higher.
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The Reconsideration: This one’s always been easy for me. Lithgow is overshadowed by Nicholson, so he’s never an option. Durning is hilarious but doesn’t really have a performance I can vote for. Torn is good, but his film is weak and I wouldn’t vote for it unless I absolutely had to. Nicholson is fine, but it’s too much of Nicholson doing Nicholson. And Sam Shepard is such a badass, he’s immediately my choice even if I wouldn’t take him most other years. Here, Yeager is clearly the vote for me. I get Nicholson winning and don’t have a huge problem with it, but I wouldn’t vote for him over Shepard at all.
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- Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
- Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
- Rip Torn, Cross Creek
- Charles Durning, To Be Or Not to Be
- John Lithgow, Terms of Endearment
- The Right Stuff
- Terms of Endearment
- To Be Or Not to Be
- Cross Creek
My Vote: Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff
Terms of Endearment is an essential film. The title is one of the most recognized film titles out there, it won Best Picture, culturally it’s referenced a lot in movies, and it’s always thought of as the quintessential tearjerker movie. And it’s great. Plus with the people involved, there’s really no reason for any film buff not to see this. It’s not so essential that you’ll be ridiculed if you haven’t seen it, but it’s a weird film to not have seen if you’re heavy into film.
The Right Stuff is probably essential. If not it’s about as high a recommend as I can give. It’s a badass movie about the space program. If you like Apollo 13, there’s no way you’re not gonna like this. I’m not sure I can really claim it to be all-time essential. It might be film buff essential, but even if it’s not that, just see this, because it’s awesome.
To Be Or Not to Be is one of the great comedy premises of all time. The original is full stop essential. This one is not really that essential (hell, it isn’t even all that remembered), but if I told you there’s a comedy movie where Mel Brooks plays an actor who pretends to be Hitler, would you really not want to see that?
Cross Creek is meh. I don’t love it. I like The Yearling, but this is just kind of Lifetime for me. Not essential for anyone, and not something I like enough to really recommend. Some people will like it though.
The Last Word: Nicholson holds up okay, because the category isn’t overly strong, but for me, Shepard is the vote. He’d have held up okay, but not particularly any better or worse than Nicholson has. Jack has the stature to seem okay even if his character isn’t all that deep or layered. I think either is an okay choice. But all things being equal — Yeager, man. How awesome is he?
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Adolph Caesar, A Soldier’s Story
John Malkovich, Places in the Heart
Pat Morita, The Karate Kid
Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
Ralph Richardson, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
A Soldier’s Story is a movie more people need to know about, because it’s pretty great.
The film deals with the murder of a black officer being investigated by another black officer. The white officers don’t see this as a big deal and are not particularly interested in an investigation, so the officer only has a weekend to figure out who did it. And on top of that, the white soldiers don’t think the black soldier is smart enough to figure it out. Not to mention, a black officer isn’t exactly a common thing, so most of the men don’t trust him anyway, thinking he basically kissed all the white officers’ asses to get that status. And we watch as the officer questions all the men to see who might have done it, and in doing so we learn more about the soldier and his relationship with his men — mostly, they fucking hated him. It’s a really good movie and is basically forgotten nowadays.
Adolph Caesar plays the officer who is killed. Aside from the opening scene, his entire role happens in flashbacks. He’s beyond strict, almost sadistically so. He’d run hot and cold, basically because he’s living two lives. He’s a black man like the rest of his men, but he’s also an officer, who seemingly has to be strict in order to impress the white officers and separate himself from “the coloreds.” There’s a certain amount of self-loathing to the character, and he’s just so fucking unlikable. This, to me, was the most memorable character in the category. I understand why he didn’t win, all things considered, but damn if you tell me he isn’t at the very worst a second choice.
Places in the Heart is a film that I always feel is synonymous with “Oscar picture.” It’s big, it’s classy, it was nominated a bunch, but that’s pretty much it. It’s fine, but it’s not great. But the Academy slurps that shit all up.
Sally Field plays a woman whose husband is killed in a freak accident. She now has to save the family farm or else the bank is gonna get it. She has to plant a season’s worth of cotton and harvest it at a fair price, or else all is lost. So she gets a ragtag group of people including a former slave, etc. etc, and of course they pull it off. Because this is a movie.
John Malkovich plays the nephew of the man at the bank. He’s blind. The guy puts him there to both “help out” and also to keep tabs on what he assumes is going to become his property. But Malkovich likes Field and not so much his uncle, so he decides to pitch in and help out. Mostly he’s the gruff blind guy who is softened by the kids and the nice folks. Then he gets to help out by picking cotton and also protecting them when he needs to. His big scene is when some Klan members come to hang Danny Glover and he uses sounds to shoot at their feet, and also his knowledge of who they are to scare them off.
It’s a good performance. Malkovich is solid, but mostly he came along with the film. He’s a #4 here. This performance feels like a #4. Solid, but you can’t vote for it, and maybe he’s a third if it’s not that strong, but ultimately it’s just there and a solid nominee and nothing more.
The Karate Kid is one of the most famous films of all time. Everybody knows the plot.
Pat Morita plays Mr. Miyagi.
Isn’t it nice when I don’t have to say anything besides a character’s name?
It’s not so much that he acts here, but he’s so good in the part that there’s no way you can imagine anyone else playing it. That’s the key to a great character. So of course he contends here. Does he win? Not necessarily. But he’s top three for sure and you have to put him in the running.
The Killing Fields is about the Cambodian genocide. Which means that it was a hot button issue of the 80s, was a big, classy film from the 80s, is thought of nicely, but isn’t really all that remembered among casual film buffs today at all. Such is life.
It’s about journalist Sydney Schanberg covering the Cambodian Civil War with Dith Phran, his photographer. Once everyone starts evacuating, Schanberg stays, and Pran stays with him. Then the Khmer Rouge come in and everyone thinks it means peace… except the Americans. And pretty soon they start capturing all Cambodian citizens to either kill them or put them in work camps. Which is what happens to Pran. And the rest of the film is about Schanberg trying to find Pran and get him out and Pran doing forced labor and coming across the infamous “killing fields,” piled high with bodies from the genocide.
Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran. And before we get into the performance, you guys should know — Ngor himself was a doctor in Cambodia and actually did end up in a labor camp. The only reason he wasn’t killed was because he pretended he was uneducated. He actually had to watch his wife die when she went into labor and he couldn’t help her because then they’d know he was intelligent and kill them both. And that’s just the preamble. That’s what this guy lived. Oh, and he was also murdered in his garage in South Central LA like ten years after this, which also sucks.
Now, in the part, he’s really good. Honestly, he wins this category ten times out of ten. The performance isn’t perfect, but the role and what he went through put him over the top. Adolph Caesar gives the best performance, but Ngor lived his. They’re the two here, and objectively, Ngor was the choice for them.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is Tarzan. Simple as that.
Tarzan. Jungle. Apes. The English come. Jane. They bring Tarzan back to England and he becomes a gentleman. It doesn’t take. That’s it. The film’s not bad. As far as Tarzan movies go, solid one that fits within the proper canon.
Ralph Richardson plays Tarzan’s grandfather. You know how in the story, the parents are killed and the apes find the baby? Well, his grandfather’s still in England. He finds out his grandson was found and is ecstatic to have him back. He’s sad about his son and his wife, but he loves that his grandson is back. A lesser Melvyn Douglas in Being There, a dying man getting some life in him before he goes.
He’s… pretty much there. He doesn’t have much to do except be old and die. But it’s Ralph Richardson, and he died before the film came out. Add to that a pretty weak year overall for cinema and the nomination feels inevitable. That said, the performance is easily fifth in the category. He has so little to do that you can’t even really rate this as a performance.
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The Reconsideration: This is one of those categories where there’s only one choice. Ralph Richardson got a posthumous career nomination and nothing more. Malkovich came along with his film (and he was also in The Killing Fields, which helped, I’m sure), and was solid but never had a chance. Morita was one of those where the character was so good and iconic they nominated it but it never stood a chance at winning. Think of Downey in Tropic Thunder. One of those nominees. You could take him, and I might consider it, but not against the other two choices.
Caesar and Ngor are the two here. I really want to take Caesar here, because that performance was my favorite, but honestly, all things considered, you have to take Ngor. You really do. His performance is actually quite great. He deserved this completely. I wanted to do the thing where I said, “Ngor deserved this, but Caesar was my favorite, so I’ll take him and it’ll be a win-win,” but honestly, after seeing Ngor’s performance again, it’s totally his. This is his category. No argument whatsoever.
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- Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
- Adolph Caesar, A Soldier’s Story
- Pat Morita, The Karate Kid
- John Malkovich, Places in the Heart
- Ralph Richardson, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
- The Karate Kid
- The Killing Fields
- Places in the Heart
- A Soldier’s Story
- Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
My Vote: Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
The Karate Kid is probably an essential film. I mean, don’t we all know it? Wax on, wax off? Miyagi alone is so referenced culturally that it basically necessitates that you’ve seen it in order to properly reference it. So consider it essential. Because if you like movies, you need to see the ones like this. It’s the sister argument to, “If you want to complain that it won, you need to see it.” If you want to reference a movie that’s quoted often, you need to see it.
The Killing Fields is not essential unless you’re an Oscar buff. It’s just a high recommend if you love film. Solid film, well made, but if I found out a film buff didn’t see this, I wouldn’t be remotely upset or think they’re missing some essential part of the canon. I’d probably just say, “It’s pretty good, you should check it out if you like those sorts of movies.” And then, depending on what I know they’ve seen, I could gauge how much they’d need to see it. Like, if you’re still on the Cool Hand Lukes and Dirty Dozens of the world, you don’t need to see this just yet. But if you’re pretty deep into movies and go on the level of stuff like Midnight Express and Coming Home and things in that second/third tier, this is probably something you should look into coming up. This is around that tier.
Places in the Heart is not essential and is just a decent recommend with a moderate essential rating for Oscar buffs since Sally Field won. It was a big movie for 1984, so if you’re big into film history and context, maybe you’ll need to see this, but otherwise it’s just a movie that’s pretty good and is an easy watch. I’d recommend it, but you don’t need to go out of your way at all for this one. Put it deep in the queue and get to it whenever you cycle through the 270 movies above it (and that includes ones that immediately jump to the top of the queue randomly as you go).
A Soldier’s Story is good. Adolph Caesar is great and you get Denzel’s first or second major role. Which is nice. Just a solid recommend, but not essential at all.
Greystoke is not essential at all. Unless you’re really into Tarzan. Honestly, pretty much no Tarzan movie is really essential except maybe the Disney one. You can see it, you can skip it. Either way. It’s just decent.
The Last Word: For me, Ngor and Caesar are the only two anyone should ever be taking here. Morita is a different case, and I think that’s okay as long as you recognize that you’re taking it more for the character resonance than the actual performance. But outside of that, it’s Caesar and Ngor. Ngor, having lived what he lived and giving a strong performance on top of that, he’s objectively the best choice here. I think Caesar’s performance is strong enough to have held up almost as well as Ngor’s. Those two are the ones. Either is a good choice, though they probably made the best one here.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)