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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1991-1992)

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.

1991

Tommy Lee Jones, JFK

Harvey Keitel, Bugsy

Ben Kingsley, Bugsy

Michael Lerner, Barton Fink

Jack Palance, City Slickers

Analysis:

JFK is JFK. I mean, everyone knows this movie. Oliver Stone’s inquiry into the murder of our 35th President. It’s one of the most well put-together films in history, brilliantly edited and constructed, and whether or not you agree with the theories put forth, you can certainly find yourself thoroughly engaged by the way he tells them.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Clay Shaw, a businessman who is the one indicted and sent to trial for his involvement in the conspiracy to murder the president. He is a gay New Orleans businessman who hired a male prostitute, who claims he witnessed them talking about the assassination.

Jones is definitely good in the role, as is most of the cast, but this is a situation where the film needed to get an acting nomination, and he was at that stage (seemingly. This is before my time, so I’m extrapolating) where he was well-respected, on the cusp of Academy embrace (they gave him an Oscar two years after this for what might be considered a “lesser” performance), and possibly (though I’m not sure) getting recognition for Lonesome Dove two years prior. It’s clear someone was gonna get the nomination, and the wheel fell on Jones. No issue with that, though he doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time or much to do. He feels like a fourth choice. Good, memorable, but not strong enough to really want to take.

Bugsy is Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson making a biopic about the man who founded Las Vegas.

Bugsy Siegel is a gangster who gets the idea to take some barren land in the desert and make it a hub for gambling. And he spends millions of dollars of mob money and no one can see what he sees. It’s pretty great.

Harvey Keitel plays Mickey Cohen, a gangster who brazenly robs from an LA gangster that Bugsy is trying to beat out. So he figures he should get in business with Cohen, rather than the guy who was robbed. At first he’s loud and brash, but then he works for Bugsy and he’s basically the muscle. He’s there with Bugsy in scenes and occasionally gets some moments to shine. It’s a fine performance. Somewhat over the top, but mostly he has too little to do to contend. It feels like he was nominated because he was respected and in a big film that was gonna get a lot of nominations. He might make second for me just because of the category, but I wouldn’t vote for him.

Ben Kingsley plays Meyer Lansky. He’s calm and collected, and a businessman. He bankrolls Bugsy with his plan to start Vegas. Mostly he’s there to say, “I don’t care what you do, just make sure the books balance.” He’s only interested in what’s good for business. He’s the conscience of the film. Mostly he’s serviceable. Not particularly memorable. He has slightly more to do than Keitel but doesn’t make as much of a splash. Both of these nominations are yawners. They look good on paper, but do little to improve the strength of the category. No one takes either of these actors.

Barton Fink is the Coen brothers’… I wanna say masterpiece, but how many of those do they have? It’s not even their first masterpiece. Jesus.

John Turturro is a New York playwright who is brought out to Hollywood to write a screenplay. In his mind, this is a high artistic achievement. In the studio’s mind, it’s a B movie “wrestling picture” for Wallace Beery. And we watch Turturro, holed up in his hotel (which may or may not be Purgatory), struggling with writer’s block and all the weird characters around him.

Before we get into Michael Lerner — yeah, probably John Goodman should also have been nominated here, but it is what it is. We analyze what’s nominated, not what should be nominated.

Michael Lerner plays the head of the studio that hires Turturro. And he’s everything you expect a stdio executive on film to be. Especially in a comedy. He’s hilarious. He talks fast, says whatever he thinks the writer wants to hear, makes him think he’s the biggest thing going, and in reality he “forgot about you the minute your ass left the seat.” He says he wants art, he gets art, and he goes, “What the fuck is this?” I love how he plays this part, and in this category, he’s tops for me. Sure, he only has three or four scenes, but he stands out in them, and it feels like he has more to do than he does. And in this category, where no one really has a whole lot to do, that’s fine by me.

City Slickers is a nice western comedy. Very 90s.

Three yuppie city guys decide for fun to go out on an authentic western experience, where they go out on an authentic cattle herd. Of course they think it’s all pretend, only they end up forced to actually be cowboys for real.

Jack Palance plays Curly, the trail boss, who is old and grizzled and a true cowboy. And he’s basically there to humiliate Billy Crystal. He’s the old school cowboy who thinks these guys are a bunch of sissies. And he’s tough on them because he wants them to become men. But clearly there’s a softie under that tough exterior. You know the drill. He gets deadpan jokes like “I crap bigger than you,” and then he gets to sing a song, give a deep monologue and then die.

It’s a fun role and it works within the context of the film, but there’s no way you can tell me this performance deserved an Oscar. They gave it to him because he’s a veteran and because the category is what it is. I get it. Still, maybe he makes third for me in the category. No way I vote for it even though this isn’t as egregious a win as some would say. The category doesn’t have a clear alternative that he beat to make it look as bad as it could have been.

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The Reconsideration: Weak category. The two Bugsy nominations feel like filler. Tommy Lee Jones is one of a handful of people who could have gotten the JFK nomination. I’d have loved to see Oldman here, just like I’d have loved to see John Goodman here too instead of or alongside Lerner. Palance is amusing but really shouldn’t rate higher than fourth. I get the veteran win given the category, but I can’t take this performance. Give me Lerner any day over this bunch, because at least I came out of that film remembering his character and what he did. The others just feel like they’re there. Palance is legitimately the only other one who makes any kind of an impact. I completely understand why they went the way they did.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Michael Lerner, Barton Fink
  2. Harvey Keitel, Bugsy
  3. Tommy Lee Jones, JFK
  4. Jack Palance, City Slickers
  5. Ben Kingsley, Bugsy

Rankings (films):

  1. Barton Fink
  2. JFK
  3. Bugsy
  4. City Slickers

My Vote: Michael Lerner, Barton Fink

Recommendations:

Barton Fink, JFK and Bugsy are essential films.

Barton Fink is the Coens, and they are essential. You’re allowed to skip The Ladykillers, you’re allowed to skip Hudsucker Proxy (though why would you?) and you’re allowed to skip Intolerable Cruelty (but you shouldn’t, because it’s hilarious). Outside of that, 100% essential all around. (Oh, and I guess Hail Caesar theoretically could be skipped as well.) This is one of their five most essential films. Though honestly that five is probably ten.

JFK is an all-time essential film, as much if not more so than Barton Fink. Every film buff must see this, and no one would ever debate that.

Bugsy is essential just because of the star power, the amount of awards and acclaim, and because it’s awesome. Any film buff will find there way to this pretty early on based on the cast and the director. It’s worthwhile, and you should consider it essential, because why would you ever skip a movie with this cast and this story?

City Slickers is fun but only essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise it’s just a solid 90s comedy and a throwback to the western genre. Mostly a comedy, slightly a western, solid movie, has a nice amount of laughs. But really is only required for those talking about this category.

The Last Word: Palance holds up just because no one else is strong enough to warrant the win on their own. Keitel didn’t need the win, Kingsley is fine without it. He had one and would be better in supporting later on. Jones would win in two years for a more memorable performance. And Lerner is awesome, but him winning wouldn’t look any stronger than Palance does. The performance just seems better, is all. Honestly, Palance actually was the best choice here. MAYBE Tommy Lee Jones could have held up as well, but honestly, in such a category, Palance makes the most sense.

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1992

Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game

Gene Hackman, Unforgiven

Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross

David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night

Analysis:

The Crying Game is a movie that’s difficult to talk about because there’s a big thing that happens in the middle of it that either you know going in, or you definitely don’t, and I don’t want to spoil it if you don’t. Though for some reason, it feels like, while this was such a huge cultural reference for a while, now people don’t really know or remember this movie. Which might make it work well. Kind of like how, potentially in another ten years, people might not automatically know what happens in The Sixth Sense.

Anywho, the film is about a British soldier kidnapped by IRA members. Forest Whitaker is the soldier and Stephen Rea is one of the IRA members. They hold him and say they’re gonna kill him if the Brits don’t release some of their imprisoned friends. So Rea is left to watch him for long stretches of time, and during that, he becomes friendly with him. And after Whitaker dies (don’t worry, it happens early), he disappears and goes to London, where he meets Whitaker’s girlfriend by chance. And he gets to know her, and becomes close to her, and even falls in love with her, though he doesn’t tell her about his knowledge of Whitaker. And… that’s where things get complicated.

The thing is — Jaye Davidson… plays the girlfriend. It’s hard not to spoil the movie when talking about this nominee. But yes, Davidson is playing the girlfriend, and it’s a very effective role. It’s one of those deals where this one of those “unique character best suited to the actor” situations, like Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips or Michael Dunn in Ship of Fools. On top of that, Davidson is actually very good in the

Unforgiven is the last great western. This basically put the genre to bed. After this, it’s just a genre exercise when you make one. Eastwood basically ended the western era with Josey Wales, and now he’s eulogizing it with this.

Eastwood plays William Munny, a notorious gunfighter who found a woman and moved off on a farm to live happily ever after. Now she’s dead and he’s trying to keep a farm going and raise two kids. And he’s not cut out to do this. But he also doesn’t want to go back to his old ways. A hotshot wannabe gunfighter shows up to tell him about a bounty some prostitutes have placed on a guy who cut up one of their own real bad, and Eastwood is coerced into coming out of retirement to take it. And the rest of the film is about him going to do this, clashing with Gene Hackman, who is the town sheriff who is trying to keep his town clean of violence, often in the most sadistic ways.

Hackman, as I said, plays Little Bill Daggett, town sheriff, who will keep his town safe and peaceful, even if it means forcibly torturing all the gunfighters who show up, even if they have no intention of killing anybody. It’s a wonderfully complex performance by Hackman, and he never lets Bill become a straight up villain. One could even argue that Eastwood is as much a villain as Hackman is. Hackman is terrific here, and for sure deserved to win. This category is gonna come down to whether or not you take him or you take Nicholson. That’s always how this one goes.

A Few Good Men is one of the most memorable films of all time. Probably because it was written by Aaron Sorkin, who is just a god among men in terms of screenwriting. Everyone’s seen this and everyone knows the story.

A marine is killed during a “code red” drill, which is basically when he fucks up and his fellow marines torture him to get him to stop fucking up. The base then covers up that the incident happened and pins it on two of the men, saying they took matters into their own hands. The case is given to Tom Cruise, a navy lawyer who is very good at making plea deals but never actually going to trial. But he’s coerced into actually taking the case and now must go to court with two men’s lives at stake.

Jack Nicholson plays Col. Jessup, the head of the base who ordered the “code read” be performed on the marine. He’s a man who lives by a code of rules and believes in getting the job done no matter what. So while the other officers say they need to get this marine out of there, he basically says, “To do that would be to admit defeat in the entire conflict,” and has them try to whip the kid up into shape, which leads to the death. His most memorable moments are, first, when Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollack go down to see him and he’s basically rubbing it in their faces that he doesn’t respect them and doesn’t think they have shit on him, and then also in the trial scenes, where he delivers one of the most famous speeches in all of cinema, the “You can’t handle the truth” speech.

The character is one of the most memorable ever put to screen, the monologue is one of the best ever put to screen, and Nicholson does what I feel is his best supporting work in all his nominated performances. Some might say this is Nicholson doing Nicholson, but I think he walks a fine line that manages to nicely blend the two. To me, this isn’t as overt as Pacino in Scent of a Woman (or even Nicholson in The Departed), though I can see where you might come down that way.

I think this category is easily between Nicholson and Hackman, and at that point, you’re just picking between the two and we don’t need to do that here.

Glengarry Glen Ross is another movie everyone pretty much sees before they get to me. Because it’s loaded with a cast, one of the best written films of all time, and is just awesome.

A bunch of real estate men are gathered in the office one night and basically told — you guys are doing shitty jobs and you’re all gonna get fired except for the two that make the most sales. So the rest of the movie is the men dealing with this. You can’t really explain it as much as to say, this movie is perfect. The script is perfect, the movie is just very, very good. The play won the Pulitzer. That’s the star here.

Al Pacino plays Ricky Roma, the hotshot salesman of the office. He’s the only one who doesn’t hang around with the rest of the men. He’s not even in the office during the Alec Baldwin bit. We see him at a bar, trying to close a deal on Jonathan Pryce, which basically involves spinning enough bullshit to make him want to sign on the dotted line. He then makes his sale, only to see the whole thing unravel the next day.

It’s a fine performance. The entire film is filled with great acting. To me, and to most people, the two standouts here are Alec Baldwin and Jack Lemmon. Spacey is great too, as are Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. You can make a case for any or all of them to be nominated. The best work is probably Jack Lemmon, but either way, Pacino is here, and he’s the one we’re dealing with.

I’d say Pacino is somewhere between third and fourth here. I think I lean toward Jaye Davidson as third just because of how well he constructs the performance, to make the reveal both a huge reveal in terms of “wow, did not know that,” but also not that big a deal because, she’s still a person. Pacino might technically give the better performance, but with him clearly gonna win for Scent of a Woman and this looking too much like Pacino lapsing into “full Pacino” (you know, Heat mode), I’ll put him fourth. He still wouldn’t contend for me regardless, but he is very solid.

Mr. Saturday Night is Billy Crystal’s The Day the Clown Cried.

Okay, that’s a bit much, but that’s how people treat this. It’s Crystal writing, directing and starring in his first feature, and a foray into drama. (Kind of.)

The film is about a comedian who becomes a big star but alienates everyone around him. Usually you see that in noirs. Like Champion with Kirk Douglas. Usually it’s a boxer or something. But he tried it with a comedian. It’s fine. Not great, just okay. Mostly uneven. Pretty forgotten nowadays too.

David Paymer plays Crystal’s brother. He’s the constantly put-upon brother who is loyal to a fault, even when it’s been proven that his brother is an asshole. He’s the character who stays until the bitter end, and when he finally leaves, you know it’s over.

Paymer has a history of being very solid in all these different character roles. At the time, I don’t think he was all that known as such. I think this movie gave him the stature to become that person. Here, he’s the MVP of the film, and they rightly gave him a nomination for a performance that holds the film together. It’s not a great film, and that hurts him in the end, but this is a very solid nomination. He’s clearly fifth, but he’s very solid and I like that they gave him a mention.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is the supporting performance Jack Nicholson should have won for. I’m convinced the fact that he won for Terms of Endearment is the reason he lost this. Col. Nathan Jessup is one of the great characters of all time, given one of the great film monologues of all time. This is Nicholson’s best supporting work of his career, and he’s my choice.

Hackman is a close, close second. Jaye Davidson is an effective third. Pacino is a good fourth, even though I’d have gone with other actors from the film in his spot. And Paymer gets a solid “good on ya” nomination but unfortunately has to settle for fifth.

To me, Hackman’s performance is a bit more layered and technically impressive, but Nicholson’s is just so much more memorable. I’m not gonna take away the fact that he’s doing basically what Pacino is doing in Scent of a Woman, giving into his later career repetitiveness. But I’d argue that Hackman is doing the same, even if a potentially one-note villain is made much more complex in his hands. I think it’s a tossup between the two, and this time, I lean toward Nicholson only owing to how magnetic he is in this role and the brilliance with which he speaks Sorkin’s dialogue. Ask me after I see Unforgiven again and I might take Hackman.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
  2. Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
  3. Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
  4. Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
  5. David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night

Rankings (films):

  1. Unforgiven
  2. A Few Good Men
  3. Glengarry Glen Ross
  4. The Crying Game
  5. Mr. Saturday Night

My Vote: Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

Recommendations:

Unforgiven and A Few Good Men are Film 101 essentials. You gotta see them both.

Glengarry Glen Ross is not as essential as the other two, but it’s also essential, and is one of those movies you see as early as you see those other two. So it’s basically the same thing. In the first 150 movies you see as a film buff, these three will be on there. You’ll probably see at least one of them earlier, as one of the ones that gets you into film. That’s just how it goes.

The Crying Game used to be very essential, but now I think it’s just a high recommend. It’s a very good movie, but I don’t think film buffs are required to see it. I just think they should because it’s so interesting. It’s one of the more unique movies out there, and it was all over the Oscars that year and was culturally huge for the following decade. So you should see it, but now, you probably don’t need to.

Mr. Saturday Night is an okay movie. Most people think it’s terrible. I think it’s fair. I can’t recommend it all that much, and it’s definitely not essential. See it, don’t see it, you’re fine either way. If you think you’ll like it, go for it. Otherwise, you’re fine without it.

The Last Word: On pure performance, it’s Nicholson and Hackman. You can make a case for both, and on pure performance, they both hold up. Just pure performance, both are great choices both in the category and historically. When you factor in everything else, Nicholson had two already, Hackman had one, logistically you’d maybe lean toward Hackman a bit. But I’m not here for that. I’m just here to talk about who should have won. And both of them would have been equally great choices. No one else would have held up here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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