Monday, January 26, 2009

Right Movie, Wrong Nominee

It's that time of year again. Nominations for the 2008 Oscars were announced last week, and as usual a lot has been written and said about performers who were unexpectedly nominated or who were overlooked. The Academy Awards seem to be full of anomalies, especially in the acting awards: great performers who never won (Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole, Greta Garbo, Deborah Kerr) or were never even nominated (Joel McCrea, Marilyn Monroe), seemingly sure-fire winners who lost to long shots (Bette Davis for All About Eve to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker to Lee Marvin for The Ballad of Cat Ballou), lead performances nominated in the supporting category (Al Pacino for The Godfather, Jake Gyllenhall for Brokeback Mountain, Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal) and supporting performances nominated in the lead category (Patricia Neal for Hud, Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada), performers overlooked for a signature performance who then later won for a lesser performance (Bette Davis for Dangerous, not Of Human Bondage; James Stewart for The Philadelphia Story, not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), performers who won not for one of their greatest performances but as a sort of career achievement award (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Al Pacino). Tom Dirks's contains a whole section of "mistakes and omissions" in the acting awards.

In looking over the nominations over the years, I was struck by a particular pattern in the supporting actor and actress categories: one person nominated when another performance in the same movie should have been. Indeed, this pattern began in 1936, the very first year that the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards were given. My Man Godfrey received nominations in all four acting categories, but one nomination struck me as clearly misguided. William Powell was nominated for Best Actor, Carole Lombard for Best Actress, Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress; all of these nominations were well-deserved.

But who in this movie was nominated as Best Supporting Actor? To me the obvious choice was the great character actor Eugene Pallette as the irascible head of the eccentric Bullock family. Instead it was Mischa Auer in an admittedly entertaining but much smaller and more one-note performance. That same year Maria Ouspeskaya was nominated for a tiny role in William Wylers's great Dodsworth that frankly didn't make much of an impression on me, whereas Mary Astor, whose role was much more significant and who gave one of the best and most sympathetic performances of her long career, was not. Over the years, this same thing has happened numerous times:

•1936, My Man Godfrey
Was nominated: Mischa Auer
Should have been nominated: Eugene Pallette
• 1940, Foreign Correspondent
Was nominated: Albert Basserman
Should have been nominated: Herbert Marshall
• 1952, The Quiet Man
Was nominated: Victor McLaglen
Should have been nominated: Barry Fitzgerald
• 1958, Some Came Running
Was nominated: Arthur Kennedy (one of his rare bad performances)
Should have been nominated: Dean Martin
• 1960, The Apartment
Was nominated: Jack Kruschen
Should have been nominated: Fred MacMurray
• 1964, Becket
Was nominated: John Gielgud
Should have been nominated: Donald Wolfit
• 1965, Flight of the Phoenix
Was nominated: Ian Bannen
Should have been nominated: Richard Attenborough
• 1976, Network
Was nominated: Ned Beatty
Should have been nominated: Robert Duvall
• 1986, A Room with a View
Was nominated: Denholm Elliott
Should have been nominated: Daniel Day-Lewis
• 1991, Barton Fink
Was nominated: Michael Lerner
Should have been nominated: John Goodman
• 1994, Quiz Show
Was Nominated: Paul Scofield
Should have been nominated: John Turturro
• 1996, Fargo
Was nominated: William H. Macy
Should have been nominated: Steve Buscemi
• 2006, The Departed
Was nominated: Mark Wahlberg
Should have been nominated: Jack Nicholson

• 1936, Dodsworth
Was nominated: Maria Ouspenskaya
Should have been nominated: Mary Astor
• 1958, Some Came Running
Was nominated: Martha Hyer
Should have been nominated: Connie Gilchrist
• 1960, Sons and Lovers
Was nominated: Mary Ure
Should have been nominated: Wendy Hiller
• 1969, Midnight Cowboy
Was nominated: Sylvia Miles
Should have been nominated: Brenda Vaccaro
• 1978, Interiors
Was nominated: Maureen Stapleton
Should have been nominated: Mary Beth Hurt
• 1979, Starting Over
Was nominated: Candace Bergen
Should have been nominated: Mary Kay Place
• 1993, The Age of Innocence
Was nominated: Winona Ryder
Should have been nominated: Miriam Margolyes

The truth is that most of these nominations were not inappropriate. In reality both the nominee and the non-nominee could justifiably have been cited, and in many years more than one supporting performer from the same film has received a nomination. Several times three supporting performers from the same movie have been nominated: in 1954 for On the Waterfront, in 1963 for Tom Jones, in 1972 for The Godfather, and in 1974 for The Godfather, Part II. My point is that if only one person was to be nominated, to me it should have been the one overlooked.

It is possible that in some years the person nominated diverted enough votes from the other performer in the same movie to knock that person out of the running. This seems especially true when one performer was much better known or of greater repute than the other. Maureen Stapleton, John Gielgud, and Paul Scofield were stage actors who were more highly regarded professionally than the less well-known alternatives I suggested. Yet those alternatives were the ones who made the greater impression on me.

I'm sure that in some cases publicity campaigns by the actors and their agents were largely responsible for the nomination. After all, in Hollywood a lot has to do with publicity. In some cases it's likely that the overlooked person I suggested had a role that was considered either too major (Fred MacMurray, Wendy Hiller, or Jack Nicholson) or too minor (Mary Kay Place or Miriam Margolyes). In other cases the overlooked performer was just too obscure (Donald Wolfit or Connie Gilchrist) or not taken seriously enough in the profession (Dean Martin). In still other cases, the curse of the unsympathetic role was almost certainly responsible for the failure to get a nomination (Herbert Marshall, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi).

Whatever the reason, the wrong supporting performance from the right picture being nominated has happened often enough, and recently enough, that I am prepared to call it a regular occurrence.


C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Interesting list and I concur with most of what you write. However, I have to strenuously disagree with the inclusion of Mischa Auer as being a "wrong" nominee. I thought the same thing as you did the first time I saw "My Man Godfrey", but now I enjoy his role as Carlo for its absurdity, and its a brilliant comic performance. I can't think of a single performance from the 1930s (outside of the Marx Brothers) that has amused me as much and it's positively insane! (Maybe I'm just easily amused). The "One note performance" tag is unfair, as it's always applied to comic performances, yet never to dramatic performances. Comedy always gets the critical shaft.

A well-written post, R.D, and I'm looking forward to what's next...

John said...

You mention quite a few wonderful performances that were overlooked but I will limit my discussion to just two. 1) Fred MacMurray – I grew up associating MacMurray with “My Three Sons” and a slew of Disney movies, so my thought process for a long time was... there is not too much to talk about. Then I saw “Double Indemnity”, “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Apartment.” Not to take anything away from Jack Kruschen but MacMurray was just so perfect an SOB in “The Apartment” that I found it unbelievable he was not nominated. Having worked in an office environment my whole life I have run across people like MacMurray’s character many times. He captured it perfectly. I also liked MacMurray in “Pushover”, a Richard Quine film that mirrored in spots both “Rear Window” and “Double Indemnity.” The film is certainly not in the same league as those two but it is interesting and Kim Novak gives a low-key sensual performance that should not be missed. 2) Dean Martin – I’m pretty sure Martin was just not taken seriously enough at this time in his career, just a few years after the breakup of Martin and Lewis. It is a wonderful performance that should have been recognized. Martin always made everything look easy and maybe that was part of the problem.

R. D. Finch said...

C.K., thanks for your comments. In the case of Auer, I wouldn't call him the wrong nominee so much as my less preferred nominee. This was the case with most of the others too, although a few (like Kennedy and Hyer) were to me actually undeserving.

John, thanks for your response. About MacMurray in "The Apartment." When Shirley MacLaine was interviewed on TCM, she said that Paul Douglas was originally going to play this role but died before filming started, so MacMurray was really a last-minute replacement. But he sure was perfect in the role, outwardly all laid-back and nice and inwardly selfish and manipulative.

I read many years ago that he was talked into taking the role by Wilder and later regretted it because it was the first time he played a real heel and got tons of negative fan-mail about it. After that he vowed never again to play an unsympathetic role and it was one of the things that decided him to do "My Three Sons."

He balked at doing a weekly TV series, but the producers promised him that the scripts for the entire season would be written in advance and he could film all his scenes in a few weeks. That probably explains why he wore the same outfits week after week (remember those cardigans?), was usually filmed in close-up, and seemed to have such an even-keeled personality.

Poor Dean Marin. Not only did he miss out getting nominated for "Some Came Running," but also the next year for an equally good performance in "Rio Bravo." He managed to steal scenes from Walter Brennan, and that's something!

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Another name for consideration would be Virginia Weidler over Ruth Hussey in "The Philadelphia Story." Hussey barely registers among that cast, but Weidler sparkles, amuses, and gets a hilarious spotlight when she sings and plays "Lydia" on piano.