Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Oscars 1941: Best Supporting Actor

The Supporting Acting categories began in 1936, making this the sixth ceremony to award them. This was also only the third time someone other than Walter Brennan won - in this case, Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley:

Two things you undoubtedly noticed. Both Crisp and presenter James Stewart are in their military uniforms - the War had finally come to the United States, and Hollywood stars were doing their part same as any American citizen (except John Wayne). The other thing: Crisp is holding a plaque with a miniature Oscar as part of it. Yes, though good enough for an award, the character actors nominated in Supporting did not initially receive Oscar statuettes, but rather this more cradleable honor. It wasn’t until two years later, at the ceremony honoring the films of 1943, that the Academy would put everyone on an equal winning field.

These were the performers competing for the plaque:

Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile
Sergeant York
past three-time winner, fourth and final nomination

Brennan's folksy preacher has a real hands-in-his-pockets gentility about him. After three Oscars, Brennan's all instinct, he can deliver a great performance without breaking a sweat. This is a solid one, often reassuring, sometimes frustrated with the flock, but overall gives a sense that he is not just preacher, he's also cop, mayor, lawyer, and father to the whole community. The only bits that ring somewhat false are the sermons (they're a little overwritten), but Brennan's delivering what and how he's supposed to. He's a pro.

Charles Coburn as John P. Merrick
The Devil and Miss Jones

Coburn is excellent as a business magnate so out of touch, his subordinates specially prepare his breakfast for him. His gradual reform makes sense, though, because even if he is out of touch, Coburn allows you to see how a man can be instinctively kind and considerate but just so removed from the hardships of his past - and the manners and mores of the present - that he takes his privileges for granted, finds the new culture a little harder to navigate than he thought. But here we have a perfect example of a character actor getting put in this category because he's not a star: Coburn's arc is the one we follow, he is in all but one scene. He is the lead.

Donald Crisp as Gwilym Morgan
How Green Was My Valley
only nomination; National Board of Review's Best Acting of 1941

Every time I think about the look on his face when young Roddy McDowall volunteers to join the mines, the simultaneous understanding and dashed hopes - every time I think of this performance and why it hits, I think of that look. That and the confusion and anger at the perceived rebellion of his older sons, who do not suffer in silence but go on strike or leave the country, leaving Morgan to sit in silence and sorrow, alone but for his youngest, his youngest who, he does not yet know, will soon join what his brothers left: "Yes, my son, I know you are there." And the sincerity with which he mutters, "There is a good old man, you are," as Huw embraces him in the mines. Crisp just...gets it. (Like Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath, a borderline case, to me: neither category is fraudulent, I can see arguments for either)

James Gleason as Max Corkle
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
only nomination; National Board of Review's Best Acting of 1941 (also for Meet John Doe)

A scene-stealing comic performance. As the manager to boxer Joe Pendleton, Gleason gets the most unexpectedly fun comic moments as Pendleton (who, you may recall, is in the body of a much older man) must convince his old friend that he has been reincarnated. His double-takes are perfectly executed, his disbelief - heck, his disbelief at his own belief - rendered hysterically and, yes, realistically. Expert work.

Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman
The Maltese Falcon
only nomination

In his film debut, Greenstreet looks like he's having a blast. Indeed, the team of he and Peter Lorre are so frequently hilarious, they further demonstrate how shortsighted the parody Satan Met a Lady was: they're already funny, you don't need to make them funny. The charm, the stage Britishness of the "egad, sir," exclamations, only make his moments where "the heavy" comes out that much scarier - you don't doubt for a minute the very real threat this gentleman crook poses.


Two five-star performances, but to me, there really is no question as to the true winner:


Now, I know I'm a day behind, so I'm gonna suspend Best Original Song for this one time. Instead, tomorrow we're going straight to Best Actor: Gary Cooper (Sergeant York), Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy), Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane).

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