Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Supporting Actor

The films represented by the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees for 1969 run the gamut from an old-line, conventional Hollywood costume pageant to a low-budget, experimental counter-culture juggernaut.  The nominations in this category were a decidedly mixed bag of mostly solid  supporting roles. A couple run-of-the-mill nods competed with some now-classic performances.

Elliott Gould, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Elliott Gould was one of the biggest stars of the early 1970's.  Known at the time as Barbra Streisand's husband while starring in minor comedies like "The Night They Raided Minsky's", Gould soon became one of the counterculture's most recognized and sought-after anti-heroes in films like "M*A*S*H" and "Getting Straight". Even director Ingmar Bergman used him in "The Touch". It was in his role as Ted, Alice's hapless husband in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" that Gould established himself as a viable star.  His character Ted is seduced by the newfound moral and sexual freedom of his friends, and Gould perfectly captures the amusing uncertainty of a man with one foot in a garden of delights and another in the secure home he shares with his loving but skeptical wife.  In the comic centerpiece of the film, Gould and Cannon discover Bob's infidelity and Carol's acceptance of it, and engage in a lively, lengthy and hilarious bedroom conversation.  Ted, amorous, nervous, and siding with Bob against Alice's disapproval, nails every subtle nuance of this wonderfully-written scene.  It stands alone like a good one-act play.  Gould gives an entertaining performance and reminds us of the reasons he had such a huge following.  It is not a role of high emotions, but Gould created a very real character, perfectly likeable and hilariously complex, and one we easliy identify with.

Rupert Crosse, "The Reivers"
Rupert Crosse's story is at least as interesting as his appearance in the film adaptation of William Faulkner's novel, "The Reivers".  Cross was the first black actor to be nominated in this category.  After working at New York's Bloomfield College as a counselor, he studied acting under John Cassavetes, winning a Venice Film Festival Award in Cassavetes' film "Shadows" (1959).  "The Reivers" is a pleasant film, an episodic, turn-of-the-century coming-of-age tale.  Crosse shines as sidekick (and very distant cousin) to Steve McQueen, as they and their adolescent protagonist (Mitch Vogel) steal (or, "rieve") a car for a road trip to Memphis, having adventures that take them from a brothel to a race track and everywhere in between.  The film was well-crafted and proved a modest success.  Crosse is very good and provides great support to the leads. Still, it is a relatively minor role, and he had no real chance of winning this Oscar.  Soon, his film career was cut short.  Originally set to co-star with Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail", Crosse died of lung cancer, just four years after his Oscar nomination.  He was only 46 years old.

Anthony Quayle, "Anne of the Thousand Days"
Incredibly, "Anne of the Thousand Days" was one of only two of the Best Picture nominees to receive nominations in acting categories (the other one was "Midnight Cowboy".)  Anthony Quayle (shown here in one of the costumes that earned "Anne" it's only victory) turns in fine work as Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII in the King's bid to secure a divorce, in this epic tale of Anne Boleyn's tempestuous days as Queen.  In addition to being recognized for this performance, Quayle was an already established veteran, directing the Royal Shakespeare Company, and co-starring in films such as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Guns of Navarone".  Quayle's best moments in "Anne of the Thousand Days" occur in his banishment from court.  His look of pain and his slow, resigned walk never fail to elicit viewer sympathy.  Apparently Academy voters agreed enough to cite him in this category, but even the studio junkets, complete with champagne and filet mignon for Academy voters after every screening, were not enough to put Quayle in the winner's circle.

Jack Nicholson, "Easy Rider"
Jack Nicholson's 30-years-plus relationship with the Academy Awards began here in 1969.  He had worked with Roger Corman in low-budget horror and exploitation films in the early '60's, and teamed with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in psychedelic youth-films prior to this breakthrough.  "Easy Rider" was one of the most cinematically unusual and exciting films of the year, and had a huge influence on the film industry at that time.  Made with a small budget and reaping millions in profit, it touched the zeitgeist and connected with millions of disaffected youth, opening the floodgates for young fimmakers to create personal, anti-establishment pictures with studio backing. (None were ever as successful as this.) The story of two "outlaws" who score a big drug sale and ride their motorcycles across the Southwest to New Orleans and Mardi Gras (in a reverse of westward expansion) was haunting, troubling, lyrical and shocking, and moved to the music and attitudes of the times.  It was described in ads with phrases like: "A man went looking forAmerica.  And couldn't find it anywhere."  and "Go. Think about it. Squirm."  Director Hopper (Billy) and co-star and writer Fonda (Wyatt) presented an iconic image to America's youth, although the restrictive R-rating drew their confused, alarmed parents as well. 
Nicholson appears mid-way as George, an alcoholic Southern lawyer who helps Wyatt and Billy out of jail and agrees to join them in their odyssey, encountering free love, mysticism, and prejudice in horrifying measure.  Jack Nicholson became an instant star with his joyful, playfully ironic and tragic turn as an innocent who articulated the fears of a generation.  His famous monologue, ruminating on what happened to "a hell of a good country" and why the freedom Billy and Wyatt represent make them dangerous to the status quo, is oddly relevant today.  This speech helped earn "Easy Rider" its only other nomination, for Screenplay.  The tragic fates of each character left audiences speechless and riveted to their seats after the credits rolled and the lights came up.  Nicholson's playful, thoughtful performance was a promise of the great film roles yet to come his way.

Gig Young, "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"--Oscar Winner
"Yowseh! Yowseh! Yowseh!"
It's good to have another opportunity to look again at this amazing film.  Gig Young's victory as Rocky, the cynical and slimy Emcee of a Depression-era dance marathon, was the only Oscar win for "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  This was one of the most thought-provoking, performance-rich films of the year.  Young capped a long career in light comedy with his startlingly manipulative and fatalistic turn here.  Pitching the competition to stir up his dancers and spectators alike, working the ballroom to a frenzy, he nevertheless is a man of dark demons. In a powerful speech, Rocky describes how he worked as a shill for a medicine salesman, in order to give people hope, pretending to be a crippled boy who could walk.  Sleep-addled, sweat-soaked and alcohol ridden, he puts himself together for another public show, knowing that he is all the hope the "kids" out there have.  Young's constant patter is unforgettable, and works on us like a hypnotic salesman, urging his dancers to keep striving, to give the crowds something to believe in, "because that's the American way", as the dancers, hoping to win the prize money, demean themselves, go without adequate food or sleep, and push themselves to extreme limits just to survive.  An elimimation round, The Derby, a heel-toe track race that builds to incredible suspense, is still one of the most powerful and exciting pieces of filmmaking I can remember.  Young keeps the energy of the film high.  His seduction scene with Jane Fonda, and his gentle coaxing of the broken-down Susannah York, are legendary.    This is a classic performance in a challenging, somber, yet artistically exciting film that takes chances and almost always succeeds.                                                                                   


  1. Guess I am showing my age. Oh well. I saw Easy Rider when it first came out in Hollywood. When we walked out of the theater all we could say was "WOW".

  2. Steve McQueen, Elliot Gould, Jack Nicholson, Richard Burton, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. These guys, for me, really represent some of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced. Few actors can be said to be masters of their craft, but I believe these guys fit that description. To the award-show watching public at that time I can hardly imagine a more difficult task than deciding whom was the better.