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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1987-1988)

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.

1987

Albert Brooks, Broadcast News

Sean Connery, The Untouchables

Morgan Freeman, Street Smart

Vincent Gardenia, Moonstruck

Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom

Analysis:

Broadcast News is a masterpiece. In its own way. But it is a masterpiece.

It’s about three people in the news. Holly Hunter is a producer who is a workaholic and is a mess. Albert Brooks is a great journalist but terrible on camera. He’s also been in love with Hunter forever. And then there’s William Hurt, who is a great news anchor but knows nothing about the news. He’s just amenable and good at delivering it. And a love triangle ensues. Great, great stuff.

Albert Brooks is absolutely fantastic here. He’s in love with Hunter and really good at his job and desperate to be on camera, only when he takes a chance at both things, it goes horribly for him. His most memorable scene is when he gets to anchor his own show, and ends up sweating profusely and bombing terribly. It’s the kind of scene he plays so well that you can’t help but feel awful for him.

Honestly, in this category, I’m torn as to whether I take Brooks over Morgan Freeman. I think he’s good enough to actually be considered for the vote here. Will I take him? Absolutely not. But that’s because this is one of those categories where I’m completely in line with the veteran in the most enjoyable movie. But you know, for what it’s worth, Brooks is fantastic here and is worth a vote.

The Untouchables is a film that you have undoubtedly seen by now, because that’s like, film buff 101, so I don’t need to get too deep into it.

Eliot Ness, Al Capone, Chicago, we’ve all seen it. Now’s not the time to admit you haven’t.

Sean Connery plays Jim Malone, an Irish beat cop (love that he refused to give up the Scottish accent, because he’s fucking Sean Connery, he can do what he wants) who joins Ness because he’s one of the few honest cops in the city. Everybody remembers this character. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the fuckin’ morgue! THAT’S the Chicago way!” He’s fucking great here.

Is this objectively the best performance in the category? No. But who cares? It’s Sean Connery, and he has an Oscar. No one’s gonna vehemently argue against this.

 

Street Smart is a film that just reeks of the 80s, and I love it.

Christopher Reeve is a journalist who makes up a fake story so as to not get fired. He writes a story about a pimp and makes it up as he goes along. Only problem, Morgan Freeman is an actual pimp who fits much of the description of that character. He’s also on trial for murder. So the both Freeman and the prosecution are interested in Reeve. The prosecution wants him to reveal his source, thinking it’s Freeman, so they can convict him. And Freeman wants him to say he made it up so he can walk. And a lot of the last half of the film is a back and forth between Reeve and Freeman, as Freeman tries to show him the “real” him, which is great because you see him trying to curb his violent instincts and manipulate Reeve into doing what he wants him to do. It’s good, until the end, when they completely cop out in order to give it one of those Hollywood endings.

Freeman is the one reason to see this movie. He stands out. This is a starmaking performance, and it’s one of those where, going into this Quest, I heard that many people considered him someone who should have won this. And after I saw it, I agreed. He’s that good. He’s in a really tough category, and his film isn’t the strongest, which hurts him, but he’s definitely right up there in this category.

Moonstruck is a great comedy with great performances. Really 80s too.

Cher is a widowed accountant in Brooklyn who is going to be remarried to a boring guy who will treat her right. But then she falls in love with his estranged brother, which complicates things. It’s really good.

Vincent Gardenia plays Cher’s father, who has been cheating on his wife for a while. It’s one of those midlife crisis things, where he’s seeing a younger woman because it makes him feel young again. And the big comedic moment is when he and his date run into Cher and her date (not her fiancé) at the opera, and they both have that moment of, “We’re both caught, so let’s just pretend like this never happened and go on our ways.” It’s very much a grounded comic performance, and the heart of it is in the later scenes when he’s confronted by his wife and tells him to end the affair which he does. And the way he plays it is so simple and effective that he really deserved this nomination. Only problem? Category’s too strong for him. He falls immediately to the back of the pack. Unfortunate, but it happens. Great nomination, no chance at a vote.

Cry Freedom is an Apartheid drama. Solid all around, but mostly forgotten, as many of these political films of the 80s are.

Kevin Kline is a journalist and Denzel Washington is an activist. He’s caused so much trouble that the government has basically put him under house arrest. And all he really wants is for blacks to have the same opportunities as whites. Kline originally thinks he’s too radical, but then he meets him and starts to like him. Eventually Denzel is arrested and beaten to death by the cops, but the whole thing is covered up, so Kline has to uncover the whole thing to tell people what happened. Which of course puts him in line to receive similar treatment from the corrupt government.

The part of the film I’ve always remembered is the very end when they put up a list of all the activists who were killed by the government and all the bullshit reasons they listed for their deaths. That was just as powerful as anything in the film itself.

Denzel is really strong in the film, even though he’s basically a co-lead until he’s killed. It’s debatable whether he belongs in this category, but him dying does relegate him to “supporting,” in terms of screen time… I guess.

Either way, he’s very strong and does a terrific job. This is one of those performances that, in another year, would win. Definitely would win. And I feel like his win two years after this has a lot to do with his performance here. I don’t think I’d take him, since I did like Freeman and Connery more, but he does compete with Brooks for that third spot for me. Which tells you how strong the category is overall. One of the stronger categories in history, that’s for sure.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Connery for me, and it’ll always be Connery for me. I love him, I love The Untouchables, I love him in The Untouchables. Is it a nuanced performance? No. Do I care? No.

Morgan Freeman and Albert Brooks are both worth votes as well and theoretically should be taken over Connery on pure performance. Go right ahead. I won’t do it. But you can. This is one of those situations where personal preference coincides with the veteran vote. I’m not complaining.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sean Connery, The Untouchables
  2. Morgan Freeman, Street Smart
  3. Albert Brooks, Broadcast News
  4. Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom
  5. Vincent Gardenia, Moonstruck

Rankings (films):

  1. The Untouchables
  2. Broadcast News
  3. Moonstruck
  4. Street Smart
  5. Cry Freedom

My Vote: Sean Connery, The Untouchables

Recommendations:

The Untouchables is level 1 essential. This is a movie you’ve seen before you get here, and if not, hurry up because if other film buffs found out you haven’t seen this yet they’re gonna think less of you. This is pre-entry level stuff.

Broadcast News is essential. James L. Brooks made six movies. Three of them are essential. The other three are forgettable. This is one of the essential ones. 80s essential, all time very high recommend and close to essential. You need to see it as a film buff because it’s great.

Moonstruck is probably essential. Not all-time essential, but it’s a great comedy, won Best Actress, is a big 80s film and is also really good. Plus Nicolas Cage. So let’s call it essential for film buffs. You can wait a while before you see it, but there will be a point where you need to see this because it’ll be too big to ignore. So just consider it essential and get to it when you can.

Cry Freedom is worth seeing. Richard Attenborough directs. Kevin Kline, Denzel. Really solid film, worth a watch. Not essential, but recommended.

Street Smart is a very dated, very 80s movie that’s pretty good and sort of falls apart in the end. The only real reason to see it is Morgan Freeman’s performance. He’s terrific here, and in terms of his performances, this is an essential one. As a film, just a solid recommend. Not essential at all. If you want to talk this specific category it’s essential. As far as Oscars in general go, also just a recommend, but not an essential. I’d say it’s worth checking out, but really for the performance and not much else.

The Last Word: Yes, Connery won because he’s Sean Connery and this was their only real chance to reward him. I don’t care. Sure, Morgan Freeman was also great, but Morgan Freeman would go on to win one later and give other wonderful performances. Not his fault he won for a lesser one, but what can you do? And Albert Brooks, absolutely worth a vote and absolutely could have won this. Between the three, I feel like Connery holds up great, Freeman would have held up pretty well on his status as an actor and the performance, but it would have been looked at as, “What the hell film did he win for?” Which happens a bunch in this category. Brooks would have held up on film but I’m not sure the performance holds up as a winner over the other two. So I think they made a good choice here. We can argue whether it was the best, but I think it was the best. But I’m also biased.

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1988

Alec Guinness, Little Dorrit

Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda

Martin Landau, Tucker: The Man and His Dream

River Phoenix, Running on Empty

Dean Stockwell, Married to the Mob

Analysis:

Little Dorrit is a six hour movie adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. It was the last film I watched on the Oscar Quest proper (which means before the last 30 or so movies I couldn’t find and watched over the months after I was basically done with everything). It was actually about a month after I moved to LA too. I remember it pretty vividly.

Anyway, yeah, it’s six hours so no one’s really gonna see it. The only part that really matters here is Guinness’s performance, so let’s focus on that.

He plays the main character’s father, who is in debtors prison who has been there for a long time. Debtors prison is basically a tenement neighborhood that he’s confined to. He’s basically a guy who has been screwed by the system. He amassed these debts he couldn’t pay and then they threw him in prison without ever really giving him a chance. So he’s a broken man. Mostly he sits in his room, having given up. He’s pretty much incapable of doing anything and is completely ashamed that he has to raise a family in such a state. But then at one point he comes into some money and goes right back to having the air of a man with money.

It’s a fine performance. Mostly a veteran nomination for Guinness and not a whole lot more. He’s solid, but no one actually takes him here. This is basically a BBC miniseries played out over a single film. He’s good, but he’s been better. This is a performance that wins an Emmy, not an Oscar.

A Fish Called Wanda is a great, great comedy.

It’s a caper movie. Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Tom Georgeson are planning a heist. They steal a bunch of jewels. And the rest of the film is about them trying to cover their tracks and fuck each other out of all the money. It’s great. I can’t even explain it except to say it’s one of the great comedies of all time.

Kevin Kline plays Otto, a weapons man who pretends to be Jamie Lee Curtis’s brother, though he’s really sleeping with her. And he’s just a fucking loud, coarse nutjob. The whole performance is completely over the top and it works to perfection. It’s just a pure comic performance and it works. I don’t know how else to explain it, because how can you explain comedy? If you’ve seen the movie, then you know.

In this category, Kline sets the pace and it’s up to everyone else to try to take him down. I don’t know if anyone can, but we’ll see. Gonna be hard to top this performance.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a great and underappreciated movie.

This is one of those movies that marks Francis Ford Coppola’s move to director for hire. Still in the era when he was experimenting a bit, but definitely marking that transition. He’d been wanting to make this movie for over a decade, but he wanted to make it much different than it turned out.

It’s about Preston Tucker, who makes the perfect car — a car that never breaks down and never needs to really be fixed. Which puts him at odds with the auto manufacturers, who make their money by people having to constantly fix their cars and go in and get new ones. They do everything they can to discredit him, and bring him to court, leading to one of the best courtroom speeches I’ve ever seen on film.

Martin Landau plays a businessman who helps bankroll Tucker. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do here, mostly just discuss technical specs with Jeff Bridges and react to some of the things he does. The real work comes in his later scenes when Tucker is being brought to court, and Landau, having been convicted of a similar charge in the past, has to recuse himself and resign so as not to make things harder for Tucker to win. Though in doing so he tells him that he truly believes in him, which brings all the added weight of an actor who has been around for a long time and seen it all. That’s this character. He’s been through a lot and this is the first time he’s really felt real emotion and believed in something. Which is nice.

Landau is really terrific here, even if the role is somewhat limited. I’d say most years he’d be a #4 or a #3. Here he might end up as #2 just because the category is so weak. He’d give better work in the future, but focusing solely on this category, he contends a little bit.

Running on Empty is a solid film. Definitely forgotten, but solid nonetheless.

Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti are two former radicals from the 60s who bombed a place to protest the war and have been on the run ever since. Their children have been raised in this manner, constantly leaving and changing their names, never being able to settle down and live a normal life.

The film mostly deals with their oldest son, played by River Phoenix, who finally has reached the age where he can decide for himself what he wants. And now he wants to settle down and live like a human being. And it’s about him discovering a talent for music, getting a girlfriend, etc etc, and struggling with the fact that he’ll eventually have to give it all up and leave eventually.

Phoenix is, as you can imagine, the lead of the film. It’s not even subtle. He is the lead. He’s good in the role, but he’s such a lead that I can’t even really consider him. Plus, the performance is just okay. He’s one of those actors who clearly wanted to be James Dean. Johnny Depp was the same way for a while. He’s good here, but the performance isn’t particularly outstanding enough to overcome the fact that he’s in the wrong category. At best I’d consider him a third choice. And maybe even fourth for a vote because of him being a lead. No way would I take him here.

Married to the Mob is a mob comedy. Very 80s. Holy shit.

Michelle Pfeiffer is married to Alec Baldwin. He’s working his way up the mafia, only to be killed when he’s caught sleeping with the boss’s mistress. Now she wants to get away from the whole thing, but of course they don’t let her. The boss starts trying to sleep with her, the boss’s wife keeps threatening her because she thinks she’s gonna break up her marriage, and now the FBI is after her too. And the rest of the film is about her starting a relationship with Matthew Modine, who is the FBI agent sent to surveil her. It’s… amusing. Very 80s, like I said. Good cast though.

Dean Stockwell plays the mob boss. He’s basically a caricature. But he plays it well. The nomination is fine, though there’s not a chance I’d ever vote for this. There’s only one comic performance worth voting for in this category, and it’s Kevin Kline. That makes Stockwell an afterthought. I won’t begrudge the nomination, but he’s an easy #5 in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Kevin Kline all the way. He’s the most memorable character in the category and he’s absolutely hilarious in the role. Who else is there? Landau is terrific, but doesn’t really have enough going on to rate an actual vote. Phoenix is the lead. Guinness is Guinness, but I refuse to believe more than 10% of people actually even saw this movie and liked the performance enough to vote for him. And Stockwell is a caricature who is clearly nowhere near Kline’s level in terms of a comic performance. This is an easy win for Kevin Kline and while you may not think the performance is worth an Oscar on its own, the category dictates that it is. So there.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda
  2. Martin Landau, Tucker: The Man and His Dream
  3. River Phoenix, Running on Empty
  4. Alec Guinness, Little Dorrit
  5. Dean Stockwell, Married to the Mob

Rankings (films):

  1. A Fish Called Wanda
  2. Tucker: The Man and His Dream
  3. Married to the Mob
  4. Running on Empty
  5. Little Dorrit

My Vote: Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda

Recommendations:

A Fish Called Wanda is an all-time comedy and essential as far as comedies go. Very, very high recommend as a film and probably essential for film buffs just because it’s so good most people have already seen it and love it. So you should at the very least see it. It’s really entertaining. Plus it won an Oscar, so there’s that too. If I were a film buff, I’d consider it essential just to not have this as a hole on my resume.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a film I recommend pretty highly. Not essential and something you will never really need to see, but it’s Coppola, Jeff Bridges and Martin Landau and it ends in a trial and a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington type monologue. I like it because it’s so unabashedly optimistic. It’s an uneven film but I love it and I think people ought to see it. I’d rate this as a high recommend and more of a hidden gem than anything.

Married to the Mob is fun. An amusing little film. Worth a watch, but nowhere near essential. Light recommend because of the cast and because it’s so 80s and because it’s just fun. This is one of those, throw it deep in the Queue and when it makes its way from 390 to 1 then see it. Otherwise you’re fine without it.

Running on Empty is fine. Underappreciated, but I don’t like it enough to push that strongly to get more people to see it. The premise is good. The film is okay. 80s, decent. Moderate thumbs up but no real recommendation here.

Little Dorrit — if I had to think of the ten leas essential films on the entire Oscar Quest, this would be in the top five. Maybe even number one. It’s six hours long, and is basically a miniseries. If it were a miniseries, I could understand that. It’s not. It’s a film. No need to see this other than to really talk in depth about this category.

The Last Word: Oh, this is one great decision. The performance is great, and while it’s not Shakespeare, he is effectively hilarious and memorable, and in such a weak category not only runs away with it but also holds up because he’s such a great actor. Landau would win one later (and be better the year after this in a much more substantial role), Guinness had one and his film is one of the least seen films on the entire Oscar Quest, Phoenix is so clearly a lead and also doesn’t do much to stand out other than being just solid, and Stockwell doesn’t hold a candle to Kline. And you have to compare the two because they’re out and out comic performances. So this is Kline’s category all the way and he’s really the only one who would have held up. Great choice all around. He saves a weak category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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