January 26, 2009

0 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 Filmsite.org 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.


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