Like Best Picture, this is probably one of the most solid lineups in the history of the field. Trust me: I've been playing close attention since 2005, and including my two retrospectives, this is the strongest field I've seen. Also, while I've still got to see Hester Street, this is the best slate of acting nominees Oscar's class of 1975 offers. We've got two veterans, of course, but these are more than mere career nominations: Burns steals the film from the rest of his co-stars, while Meredith exits his early and haunts throughout. We've also got the two newcomers: Dourif, giving surprising nuance to a role that could have just been a collection of mannerisms, and Sarandon, whose tiny appearance changes our perception of the protagonist and conveys both humanity and incredulity. And then there's Warden, in the first of two nominations for his Warren Beatty collaborations.
Recommended viewing for all, of course. And now, the nominees for Best Supporting Actor:
Burns rarely changes up his line-readings, delivering most of his performance in a solid deadpan. It's brilliant, and makes his Al Lewis both hilarious and realistic: you believe that this simple old guy just wanted to settle down and be a grandpa. His masterful simmering is a great counterpoint to Matthau's histrionics, giving him the comic edge in each of their scenes. He's the one you remember at movie's end.
Dourif plays Billy Bibbitt, the sweet stuttering kid who doubts himself, hero-worships McMurphy, and is the most under the thumb of Nurse Ratched, who is friends with his mother. Dourif doesn't just lean on the tics, and his Billy is always watching, lapping up the events around him with all the excitement of...well, of a teenager. That last scene, defiant and embarrassed and mortified, surprises with the easy shift between emotions, and it is this Billy that invites us to share the same loyalty and rage McMurphy feels. Pretty good stuff.
A member of Locust's parade of grotesques, Meredith's vaudeville clown turned door-to-door salesman is a haunting, unsightly thing. Contorting his face and body to further the humiliation endured by this has-been, Meredith ably conveys the desperate sadness behind the cackling mask. His self-deprecating monologue, in which he declares his undying love for his cheating ex-wife, is haunting. Brief yet memorable.
Sarandon gets two scenes to convey the dizzying cocktail depression, naivete, paranoia, selfishness, affection, familiarity and weariness felt by Leon, the "wife" of our protagonist. He nails it.
A simple role, that of the cuckold, himself unfaithful, who wanders about oblivious to what's going on between Warren Beatty's hairdresser and the rest of the female ensemble. An impossible role, that of the cuckold who discovers betrayal and handles it like a gentleman because, eh, what a world, you know what I mean? Well, Warden knocks it out of the park, crafting one of the more memorable performances of this year. His Lester can be vulgar, but you see the warmth that could draw a woman to him (it's more than money, surely). You actually seem him putting the puzzle pieces together in his mind, then purposely scattering them about so as to keep all unpleasantness at arm's length. It's a funny performance, never false, immediately magnetic.
Oscar awarded the scene-stealing Burns, but I've got a soft spot for the bald spot, and award the Oscar to...
you're not such a miserable human being after all!