History was made at the 57th Academy Awards when Dr. Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor:
Not because Ngor was a non-actor: Harold Russell already accomplished that at the 19th Academy Awards. But here, Ngor became the first East Asian performer to win a Supporting Actor Oscar, in a lineup where, for the first time in any acting category, non-white performers made up the majority. In addition to Ngor, John Malkovich, and Sir Ralph Richardson (posthumously nominated for a Tarzan film), the Academy nominated Adolph Caesar, a longtime theatre performer and the voice of a generation of Blaxploitation trailers, repeating a stage triumph in a Best Picture nominee, and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, nominated for his performance in the fifth-biggest money-maker of the year, The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid is the only film nominated nowhere else, not even Best Original Song, despite being both a hit and a genuine, honest-to-God, holy cow great movie! Everything about it crackles: the acting, the editing, the score, the cinematography, the finale! Gosh, what a film!
OK, so Morita was in a great movie, and he and Caesar and Ngor were part of history. How are their performances? Let's see:
Adolph Caesar as Sgt. Waters
A Soldier's Story
only nomination; LAFCA Award winner for Best Supporting Actor; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actor
I'm not sure how it plays on stage, but as the central figure of the film - an officer on a Black army base in 1940s Louisiana whose murder begins the show - you could argue that he is the co-lead alongside Howard E. Rollins, Jr.'s investigator. It's not just because he appears throughout in flashbacks, not just because he is the subject of the investigation, but because Caesar is so commanding on screen, his presence lingers even when he's absent. He walks with a self-conscious nobility, his lip curling at the "wrong" kinds of Blacks in his regiment, his eyes full of bitterness and hatred - against himself, against his race, against the whites, against the world. I hope the clip I've posted above never gets taken down because it is the crux of this performance (indeed, of the movie), a chilling, angry monologue that sees no good in anyone. Caesar needs no edits, no coverage from multiple angles to sell it. He gets it all in one - and he is unforgettable.
John Malkovich as Mr. Will
Places in the Heart
first of two nominations; National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actor of 1984; LAFCA Awards runner-up for Best Supporting Actor, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Supporting Actor
He's a blind intellectual who hates people in general and children in particular. No wonder he winds up a No wonder he winds up befriending everyone and becoming a nanny to the children. You already know - if you know Malkovich, that is - that he does the Mr. Belvedere act pretty well. He's genuinely tender, though, too, such natural repartee with the kids, such nervous command in his scene where he confronts the Klansmen set against Danny Glover (where's his nod?).
Noriyuki "Pat" Morita as Mr. Miyagi
The Karate Kid
only nomination; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actor
Pat Morita was a comedian when he got the role of handyman and karate master Mr. Miyagi. That background gives his approach to Mr. Miyagi some spice - there's a wryness to his line readings, perfectly timed double takes, a mischievous bent to his presence that comes that certain bounce Morita gives him. More than that, though, you just believe this man. This is not Morita, this is Miyagi. He's great when he fights the bullies, great when he finally shows Daniel what all the "chores" have been training him to do, great in his scene where he remembers his wife and child, great in every moment, whether he's given a line, a piece of action, or just...reacting. He is why this is a franchise still going strong after almost forty years: everyone's trying to capture that Morita Magic.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran
The Killing Fields
only nomination; BAFTA Award winner for Best Actor, Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor
The co-lead of his film - it may begin with Sam Waterston, but it also gives equal time (according to Screen Time Central, ten more minutes, actually) to Ngor. His awards season narrative is a good one, a non-actor but a genuine refugee of the Khmer Rouge prison camps portrayed in the films. His performance, thankfully, is a good one, too. The ingenuousness of a first-time actor who doesn't know the tricks? Maybe, but he still had to pull it all off each take, give a coherent arc, play the determination and will to live. Wrong category, but a performance steeped in truth.
Sir Ralph Richardson as 6th Earl of Greystoke
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
second and final nomination (thanks to Norm for the correction - oy vey!); NYFCC Awards winner for Best Supporting Actor; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor
Every year, some nomination is dismissed as a "career" one - "We never honored this legend before, he'll be dead soon, might as well honor him now." In this case, Richardson was already dead before his movie came out in March of '84, capping a 50-year career. I think dismissing someone's nomination as a "career" one, especially a rare posthumous one, is disrespectful, but I'm willing to make an exception in this case. He is ~OK~ in his brief bit as Tarzan's grandfather suffering from senility, a manor-born lord who welcomes in his last living heir before taking a tumble that will parallel the untimely demise of Tarzan's adopted ape parents. This is one of the most undeserved nominations I've seen.
Tough choice, wish it were possible to do a tie between Caesar and Morita. But if I were to vote, I'd have to pick one or risk my ballot being tossed out. So today, my vote goes to:
NORIYUKI "PAT" MORITA
THE KARATE KID
Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Director: Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose), Robert Benton (Places in the Heart), Miloš Forman (Amadeus), Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields), and David Lean (A Passage to India).