Thursday, November 14, 2019

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Day Eight: Best Supporting Actor, 1954

And then there were three...nominees from a single movie, that is! On the Waterfront holds the distinction of being the first film to take up 60% of the Best Supporting Actor category. A rare enough feat that it only happened again twice: for 1972's The Godfather (Caan, Duvall, Pacino) and 1974's The Godfather Part II (De Niro, Gazzo, Strasberg). Please note all the overlap: the Best Actor winner for both 1954 and 1972 was Marlon Brando, for On the Waterfront and The Godfather, respectively; Michael V. Gazzo made his film debut in a bit part in On the WaterfrontLee Strasberg was director of the Actors Studio from 1951-1982, an organization co-founded by Waterfront director Elia Kazan that boasted among its alumnae...basically everyone I just named. 

As I say, On the Waterfront was the first and The Godfather Part II was the last to go for three-for-five in Best Supporting Actor. But it did happen once before in the Best Leading Actor category. In 1935, all three male leads for Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty were nominated: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone. The next year, separate categories for supporting players were introduced. Oh, and in 1963, Best Picture winner Tom Jones got three supporting actress nominations: Diane Cilento, Dame Edith Evans, and Joyce Redman.

This much we can take to the bank: three acting nods in one category means your movie's winning Best Picture. But it also means one of the other two nominees is going home with the Oscar. Only once has a nominee from the threesome won, and that was Robert De Niro speaking Italian while "doing" Marlon Brando. In 1954, the honor went to Edmond O'Brien of The Barefoot Contessa - the only nominee from a film not up for Best Picture:

The nominees are:
Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly
On the Waterfront
first of two nominations

Great as the film's heavy, the corrupt waterfront boss who loves flaunting his power, but is quick to fly off the handle when it's threatened. It's a switch exemplified by the courtroom scene - he quietly threatens Terry on his way to the dock, but his fury gets the best of him and he lunges. Cobb's ability to coil his entire face and body before springing them all into action is effective.

Karl Malden as Father Barry
On the Waterfront
past winner, second and final nomination

The film's conscience, pleading for justice and sanity even as he's threatened, pelted with food and beer - or worse, met with silence. Malden convincingly plays righteous fury - you know this is a priest who can hold his own in a fight. His sermon over Dugan's body is moving, not because it's solemn, but because he says every word like a smack to the face, a shake of the shoulders - wake up!

Edmond O'Brien as Oscar Muldoon
The Barefoot Contessa
first of two nominations; Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor; NYFCC Awards second runner-up for Best Actor

Livens up a very self-serious film with a take on PR people that every voter probably found amusing - that is to say, as a sweaty tap-dancer more desperate for praise than the showbiz folks he represents. O'Brien plays it to the hilt, unabashedly pathetic in his worminess. And he makes the purple prose sing.

Rod Steiger as Charlie "The Gent" Malloy
On the Waterfront
first of three nominations

For me, the movie's MVP, even as he's charged with handing his scenes to his co-stars - Cobb, Brando. But that's Charlie, a smart guy who keeps his head down, who's found a way to survive. Torn between loyalty to his brother and his benefactor, you can see Steiger watching, weighing everything. When the big brother side of him comes through, it's genuinely surprising, moving - human.

Tom Tully as Cmdr. De Vriess
The Caine Mutiny
first and only nomination

The best part of the movie! Showing up briefly at the beginning, he proves to be the most natural of the performers, his line readings as casually tossed off as his character's uniform. Yet he never loses the air of being the captain of his vessel, the man clearly in control, running the show. It may not be ship-shape, but it's in the shape he prefers. Like his crew, we miss him when he's gone.


O'Brien won. I wouldn't vote that way. Mine goes to...


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Actress: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), and Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession).

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