Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Oscar 1940: Best Supporting Actor

What makes a performance a supporting one? The answer may seem obvious - a supporting performer is not the lead - but as longtime Oscare observers know, such is not really the case. Back then the categories were specifically made to honor character actors, and while some could grow into stars, often a character actor was a character actor was a character actor. We've talked about it before with both of Edmund Gwenn's nominations and we'll talk about it again next month for 1941 for Charles Coburn in The Devil and Miss Jones. But here is a lineup where fully 3/5 could be argued as Leading Men. 

One of those was Walter Brennan, the only nominee here who'd been here before and the only one who would return. Brennan's two previous nominations resulted in wins. So did this, the first actor to win three.

It was figured this was due to the Extras Guild, who had voting power in the Academy at the time and who counted Brennan as one of their own, a man who went from extra to featured extra to bit player and on and on until...well, here he is! Anyway, they were stripped of voting privileges after this.

But Extras Guild or not, was that win deserved? Let's talk: 

Albert Bassermann as Van Meer
Foreign Correspondent
only nomination

Bassermann plays a Dutch statesman who is, apparently, the key to world peace; he is kidnapped and a public assassination of him is faked, but of course, he lives, albeit drugged. A great presence has Bassermann, an expert veteran of German theatre and film, a very alive and present participant. But I don't think there's that much to play here, and I certainly don't think he's more than solid, not for a nomination.

Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean
The Westerner
past two-time winner, third of four nominations

His corrupt, somewhat stupid, somewhat canny Judge Roy Bean starts the movie, ends the movie, and is the subject of every conversation he's not in: how is this not the lead, or at least the co-lead (in a Bill the Butcher sense, at least)? It would be a great Oscar win in either category: Brennan is so ridiculous in his broadness, he makes Bean's sudden turns to brutality even more intimidating. He establishes a real bonhomie with all the men (I theorize this Bean, whether Brennan knows it or not, loves Lilly Langtry in the same way some of my friends love Lady Gaga), his declarations of trust and friendship ring sincere with their intensity. His performance earns that complex ending: this man deserves to die, for the sake of everyone around him, but he also deserves a little dignity, a real win, not the kind of wins he's been manufacturing his whole life. What a performance! A lead performance!

William Gargan as Joe
They Knew What They Wanted
only nomination

Joe wants to drift, staying on as foreman of a vineyard seemingly reluctantly but, come on, he stays because he has some affection for the old man he works for. That all gets complicated when the old man brings home a bride, a much younger, very beautiful woman...the kind of woman Joe could go for. Gargan is pretty good, actually, I find the way he plays the tortured conflict between loyalty to a father figure and his own independence credible, his scenes with Carole Lombard are full of the tension of suppressed carnality, and his last scenes with Harry Carey are just...bummers, there's no getting out of this. Nothing against the performance. He's a lead, though. He's another lead. It's about him and Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton, and Laughton is even absent for chunks to build up Gargan and Lombard.

Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni of Bacteria
The Great Dictator
only nomination

Comedy legend Oakie is terrific in films like Million Dollar Legs, even in films like Tin Pan Alley. Do his status in the industry and mastery of comedy really warrant an acting nomination for playing a parody of Mussolini? Oh, yes! Oakie is a seasoned scene-stealer, and The Great Dictator is no exception: he meets Chaplin's physical challenges from the approachable seating arrangements of their first official meeting all the way to the food fight resulting from their treaty negotiations. He's as big and broad as these dictators should be, emphasizing that there's nothing more dangerous than a buffoon with power.

James Stephenson as Howard Joyce
The Letter
only nomination; National Board of Review honoree for Best Acting; NYFCC Awards second runner-up for Best Actor

When the wife of a rubber plantation owner says she was protecting herself from the man she gunned down, her husband's lawyer Howard Joyce takes the case - and also does some investigating to see how best he can defend and protect her. And for much of the film, he's the protagonist. He's the one following threads, soldiering confidently into the case with the clear intention of proving Mrs. Crosbie's innocence. It's his arc that drives the story, and oh, Stephenson plays it masterfully - you see his attraction to Mrs. Crosbie (important, honestly), his devoted friendship to her husband, his comfort in his role as expat, his "friendly" condescension to the "natives" and Chinese. But the more he investigates, the more he frowns - the more he realizes it is not so clear-cut. A very strong portrayal of stiff-upper-lipped creeping doubt. He's gone from the last twenty minutes, which makes his "supporting" status a little more defensible, but come on... 


The three best performances in this category are leading performances. Full stop. I cannot see them any other way. Brennan gives the best performance in this lineup. But the supporting award should go to a supporting role. And the best supporting performance in this specific lineup is:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Actress: Bette Davis (The Letter), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), Katharine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle), and Martha Scott (Our Town).

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