Wednesday, July 19, 2023

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1948: Best Supporting Actor

The moment The Treasure of the Sierra Madre opened back in January 1948, critics had been talking up Walter Huston's performance as a shoo-in for the Oscars. For the usual Awards Season reasons, of course: veteran actor, frequently nominated but never won, deglam...oh, and his acting's great, too! All true, but there's one more thing: who could resist the narrative of Legacy? Not only was Huston giving the performance of his life, he was doing so in a film written and directed by his own son, John. Upon winning the Oscar (oh, yes, you saw that coming if you didn't already know), Huston said, "I said to him, 'Son, if you ever become a writer, try to write a good part for your old man some time.' Well, by cracky, that's what he did!"

They were the first parent-child pair to win Academy Awards in the same ceremony, a feat later repeated by Francis Ford Coppola (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay) and his father Carmine Coppola (Original Score) for 1974's The Godfather: Part II.

But, while Huston's win may have been a cakewalk, he was up against what I consider one of this category's strongest lineups. If you please:

Charles Bickford as "Black" MacDonald
Johnny Belinda
third and final nomination

The dismissive father of Belinda, he calls her Dummy and lets her run wild. Tough and gruff performance from Bickford. And then comes The Moment - not the fight on the cliff with his daughter's attacker, no, but the tender moment. The moment when, having learned sign language after a lifetime of silence, she "speaks" to him. "Is that father? It's the first time she ever called me that. My daughter." That one moment earns him this spot!

José Ferrer as The Dauphin, later King Charles VII of France
Joan of Arc
first of three nominations

His first film and already a master - of course, the man had already spent twelve years on Broadway and won his Tony Award for Cyrano. So, no, it's not a shock that Ferrer commands the screen so easily, so economically and winningly does he play a prince without a kingdom, a man who needs the Maid of Orleans. He seems not just genuinely impressed but connected to her in a way that surprises himself. It's compelling work.

Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris Halvorsen
I Remember Mama
only nomination

Uncle Chris - we hear about him first, this fearsome tyrant, the patriarch of the Norwegian clan arrived in San Francisco. When we meet him we find a man of short temper and loud pronouncements - and a surprising pussycatness! He's malleable to a degree, if only because he doesn't want to bother with trifles, but is also practical and protective about family. Homolka arrives on scene - in each scene - with straight-ahead authority, making cries of surprise ("Her dowry?! What dowry, she is 42 years old!") and proclamations of superiority ("I am a better physician than most doctors!") hit for full comic effect...and believability. He's boisterous and hilarious, but he's genuine.

Walter Huston as Howard
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
fourth and final nomination; Golden Globes winner for Best Supporting Actor, National Board of Review's Best Actor of 1948; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actor

I can see an argument for Huston, Bogart, and Tim Holt as co-leads, honestly, but I think the timing of his entrance into the narrative and overall function qualifies him for this category. Anyway, it's a great performance, the old-timer who's been around and seen it all, who knows the pitfalls of gold-hunting but can't help himself. Enough street smarts to survive, not enough good judgment to keep out of trouble. And he knows it, and, hell, that's his life, baby. Huston conveys so much with a tilt of the head or a well-timed grin. You never doubt this man's history.

Cecil Kellaway as Horace
The Luck of the Irish
first of two nominations

What a scamp, this oversized leprechaun! In the great tradition of leprechauns, he's mischievous and cheeky, Kellaway's visage a perfect canvas for faux innocence and rascally joy. What makes it hit, of course, is how effective he is in quieter, serious moments. "I offered you gold. 'Tis not my fault you prefer a pebble." Just levels me, that line reading.


Huston won the Oscar, as I said. And I gave him the full five stars! And I award my personal vote to: 


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Score: HamletJoan of Arc, Johnny BelindaThe Red Shoes, and The Snake Pit.

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