Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Supporting Actor

Fathers, sons, a "grandfather", and a wordless wanderer:  the 1970 Supporting Actor race was as notable for its broad variety of roles as for the diversity of the actors who inhabited them.  Two nominees, each playing lovable fathers, one comic, one tragic, would team up two years later in "The Godfather" as decidedly sinister men.  One nominee, portraying a regretful son, would know Oscar glory one year later as a hot-headed cop breaking up "The French Connection".  Liberal righteousness helped recognize the first Native American nominee for a worthy performance.  And a seasoned British veteran, whose daughter was even more popular to American audiences, silently captured Academy hearts..and votes.

"Lovers and Other Strangers" was a delightful comedy of manners, a gentle social comment on romance, marriage, and divorce in that transitional year of 1970.  With an all-star cast that included past-and future-Oscar winners Diane Keaton, Gig Young and Cloris Leachman, well-loved comic actors like Anne Meara, Bea Arthur, and Harry Guardino, and  hot contemporary performers like Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Brandon, and Marian Hailey, it was a wonderful coup for character actor Richard Castellano to emerge as the film's sole acting nominee.  While Castellano will be forever remembered as Clemenza, the cannoli-loving gangster in "The Godfather", I prefer his performance as Frank Vecchio, the world-weary working-class father of  two sons, one a groom, one a divorcee. Playing off of Bea Arthur as his ever-cooking, always-serving wife Beatrice, Castellano's portrayal of a perplexed Italian patriarch is as true and funny a portrait I've seen on film (until "Moonstruck" 18 years later).  I loved his banter with Arthur in which they proudly proclaim that they're not happy--they're content.  Castellano finds so many nuances in his constant question, "So, what's the story?" that the line feels legendary.  His unassuming simplicity finds full impact in his centerpiece monologue, when he tries with inarticulate charm to explain how "we're all strangers", and that after years of marriage two people become "deeper strangers, which is a kind of love."  Critics raved about Castellano, and it seemed that this could be the favorite to win.  It ranks as my favorite among the five nominees.

"Love Story" had the most acting nominations (3) of any film in 1970.  One of these, John Marley, had a small role in this film, but was so essential to the emotional arc of the story, and so beautifully played, that the Academy could not ignore him.  (Two years later, Marley would wake up to a nasty surprise in "The Godfather"s most notorious scene.)  Marley is Phil Cavalleri, a modest Italian baker and loving father to Radcliffe co-ed Jennifer (Ali McGraw).  Has there ever been a more loving and agreeable dad in the history of movies?  Indulgent to a fault, and willing to do anything for his daughter, he drops the formality of their relationship, and allows Jennifer to call him by his first name. He accepts her relationship with Oliver (Ryan O'Neal), and tries his best to understand all of its modern permutations.  Marley is especially effective in a controversial scene in which Oliver and Jennifer inform Phil, a devout Catholic, that they don't believe in God and that they will not be married in a church.  Without histrionics, Marley registers unshakable disappointment, then resignation and even support. I held my breath the whole time.  "Love Story" tells of a marriage doomed by Jennifer's untimely death.  It wasn't the deathbed scene as much as Marley's regret that he "promised to be strong" that got millions of tear ducts flowing in theaters the world over. 

"I Never Sang for My Father" is playwright Robert Anderson's autobiographical memoir of his final days with his contentious, aging father, and his struggle to make sense of the pain of that relationship. Gene Hackman continued his rise to fame which began with "Bonnie and Clyde" with this, his second Oscar nomination.  This is probably the biggest role of the five nominees, and occupied enough screen time to have been considered a lead.  The film is not screened much (and is not yet available on DVD).  While the movie is stage-bound and subject to the cinematic cliches of that period, the writing is excellent.  Hackman is perfect as a retired professor who regresses back to old ways of feeling and relating to his demanding yet vulnerable father. He projects the frustration of a mature man at a crossroads, delaying his own happiness out of a sense of obligation.  Hackman's bland, everyman persona allows viewers to project themselves into this story and identify with Hackman's character.  There is not an easy resolution here, but the satisfaction that one is not alone in a world where children, even in 1970, have become caretakers.  While Hackman's role may have been too low-profile to be favored for a win (and overshadowed by the power of Melvyn Douglas) it was a worthy nomination.

Director Arthur Penn continued his string of successful social comment, after "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Alice's Restaurant", with "Little Big Man", a tall tale told by Jack Crabb, a 125-year-old survivor of Custer's Last Stand (Dustin Hoffman in great makeup and Dorothy Michaels' phrasing).  Among the cast was an elderly Native American actor with authentic presence and an amusing deadpan delivery named Chief Dan George, who was himself an author, poet, and chief of a tribe in Vancouver.  He played Old Lodge Skins, the kindly leader of a Cheyenne tribal village, who takes in the young Crabb and becomes his "grandfather".  Chief Dan George mesmerized audiences with his unique brand of wisdom and subtle humor, and was a shoo-in for a nomination; many thought that he would be a favorite to win.  "Little Big Man" is a big, episodic, humorous epic that successfully, I think, tells an honest story of the Native American experience and fight for independence.  Penn gave play to the exaggerations and pomposity of his narrator, but did an admirable job offering a more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans than had been attempted before.  The renewed interest in battles like Little Big Horn may have been a result of American involvement in Vietnam.  By masking the horrors of Southeast Asia in tales of the American West,  Hollywood, which was not prepared to deal with these events directly, could allude to tragedies like the My Lai massacre.  Young people who were attuned to mind-altering experiences turned to Native American mysticism and fashion (and drugs).  In this atmosphere, a film like "Little Big Man" was very successful.  The appearance of Chief Dan George, with his wonderful portrayal, gave the film the credibility to be taken seriously.

John Mills' victory for his portrayal of Michael, the unfortunate brain-damaged mute inhabiting a WWI Irish coastal town in "Ryan's Daughter", was somewhat of a surprise.  Other nominees had more critical support in high-profile, even leading, roles.  And David Lean's film, although admired for its brilliant photography and technical achievement, was not a critical success.  In retrospect, however, Mills' win makes sense.  He was a long-time film veteran, appearing in scores of British and American productions; Hayley Mills, his daughter, was an extremely popular child-actor in the 1960's; and Oscar had a penchant for rewarding mute and disabled characters (Jane Wyman for "Johnny Belinda" in 1948, and later Marlee Matlin for "Children of a Lesser God" (1986), Daniel Day-Lewis for "My Left Foot" (1989) Holly Hunter for "The Piano" (1993) come to mind).   This was also a departure for Mills, who played against type and was nearly unrecognizable as the "village idiot", whose simple love for the newlywed schoolteacher (Sarah Miles) proved the catalyst for her downfall and the town's political upheaval. Mills effectively used his entire body to suggest a misshapen misfit, and even under heavy makeup, drooling and with a perpetual grin, he communicated enormous longing with his eyes, and conveyed the innocence of a prince trapped inside a broken body.  It is the showiest performance of all 20  acting nominees in 1970. Mills had the respect of his fellows in the Academy, and they recognized the gruelling physicality and level of difficulty he endured to pull the role off.  Even though my personal preference would be for Richard Castellano, Mills created an unforgettable character, and the award here was well-deserved.


  1. Nice piece! I haven't seen any of these all the way through.

  2. The only one of these I've seen is Castellano's performance. Frequently I've used the line, "So, what's the story?" with my friends and family, hoping they'll catch it. Few people do. A winning performance in an underappreciated movie.

  3. Just watched Little Big Man on TCM. Great! I didn't expect such an amusing and moving film, a movie that I see as a precursor to Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button. Chief Dan George was great, a presence that could easily be taken for granted (and thank goodness it wasn't!). Thanks for the recommendation, Tom; you led me to a new experience, one I especially appreciated!

  4. Thank you for the comments, guys. I love that we have this way to communicate about shared interests!

    Walter, your second comment is especially meaningful. I write about my beloved old movies as a hobby, and as a way to record my long-standing views. I always hoped that someone would be inspired to check out an old favorite based on one of my pieces. Your support and comments make my efforts worthwhile.
    Thank you...