Monday, January 24, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Supporting Actress

The race for Supporting Actress in 1970 contained two classic characterizations, one solid performance, one old veteran playing "cute" (irresistible to Academy voters then),  and a well-known actress in an all-but-forgotten oddity.  This category perfectly encapsulated the schism in Hollywood as reflected in the Oscar race: established actresses in conventional roles nominated alongside risky, cutting edge work in more ambitious, relevant films.

Maureen Stapleton received her second* Academy Award nomination playing Inez Guerrero, the worried wife of a disturbed man (Van Heflin) in "Airport".  Inez comforts her struggling-businessman husband as he departs for Rome, and anxiously awaits news of the flight as it is revealed that a bomb has exploded in the cabin. Stapleton is so believable as an ordinary working woman and loving wife, masterfully modulating her reactions, as Inez slowly realizes that her husband may be responsible for the disaster.  Later, desperate and alone, she earns our sympathy in her final stages of collapse, pleading for forgiveness of the passengers disembarking into the terminal. Stapleton's nomination was doomed from the start.  First, she shared the category with her co-star Helen Hayes, which usually results in votes cancelling each other out.  Second, in this case, Hayes played a more endearing character,and was herself a popular and sentimental favorite. Even with a strong performance, it would have been nearly impossible for Stapleton to win the category. I think Stapleton gave the best performance of the whole cast of "Airport".  It was a relatively brief appearance that nonetheless lent the film a modicum of real emotion, a supporting performance in the best sense.  

Sally Kellerman was responsible for some of the most notorious and well-loved classic sequences in "M*A*S*H".  Her statuesque embodiment of a sincere military professional, undone by the outrageous antics of a group of irreverent doctors in a Korean War    M(obile) A(rmy) S(urgical) H(ospital) unit, is still one of my all-time favorite movie characters.  Months before I was finally able to convince my parents to take me to this, my first R-rated film, word-of-mouth spread about the character of Margaret Houlihan, and how she came by her nickname Hot Lips.  This is not the cute TV-sitcom Hot Lips, but a full-blooded no-nonsense nurse who is a victim of unmerciful, politically incorrect pranksters driven by equal parts bloodshed and boredom.  After a primal and wickedly funny breakdown in Colonel Blake's tent, she comes around to the madness, chucks her hypocrisy, leads a football cheerleading squad, and connects in a tender way with her fellow surgeons.  No longer a "regular Army clown", she proudly bears her nickname in the spirit of blessed insanity.  Kellerman perfectly balances a self-righteous smirk with a healthy and explosive sexuality, and delivers her lines with a throaty, sensual strength. I suppose if I had a ballot I would have voted here, for the sheer pleasure this role gave me in my overall love for this film.  

   But then, there is Karen Black's terrific portrayal of Rayette, the working-class waitress-girlfriend of Jack Nicholson in one of 1970's very best films, "Five Easy Pieces".  Black was an interesting presence in the cutting-edge and quirky films of the 1970's, and "Five Easy Pieces" was a perfect showcase for her unique talents.  She would go on to do interesting work in unusual films like "Day of the Locust" and "Nashville".  After the debacle that was "Airport 1975", her star fell a little, and with few exceptions, it never again shone as brightly.  Her Rayette was a woman of simple pleasures, unsophisticated and good-hearted, with an almost childish demand for love from her brooding partner Bobby, (a triumphant role for Jack Nicholson). It's soon apparent that Bobby has surprising layers of complexity, and may regard Rayette as a symbol of his rejection of a privileged upbringing.  Black knows this character perfectly, and loves her.  She understands the wounds that manifest themselves in annoying behavior, and the deep need to be good to her lover.  Her best scene occurs when Rayette crashes Bobby's childhood home and shakes up the pseudo-intellectuals gathered there.  In this category, Black would be Kellerman's most serious competitor.  My heart would go with Hot Lips, but my vote might go to Rayette.

"The Landlord" was a modest critical success, and found a cultish audience, but it seems to have evaporated from movie-buffs' consciousness. The nomination for Lee Grant in this category might have been a welcome-back-to-the fold after her 1950's era blacklisting for refusing to testify against alleged Communists; or maybe it was a result of few good supporting roles for women in 1970. The film was the directorial debut for Hal Ashby, who would helm "Shampoo" five years later and nab Lee an Oscar.  "The Landlord" examines racial tensions between blacks and whites, as well as within the black community, of a neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Beau Bridges is a trust-fund kid who buys a tenement to overhaul and gentrify, but winds up befriending and caring for the tenants he set out to evict.  Grant plays his flighty, incredulous mother, who disapproves of her rich son's behavior, but winds up playing a marvelous drunk scene with Pearl Bailey. The film, and this nomination, remain intriguing curiosities.  It is a credit to the Oscar that a nomination like this in a major category will save an unusual, quality film from permanent obscurity. Still, Grant had no chance to win here. 

The victory for Helen Hayes as Best Supporting Actress in 1970's "Airport" was a foregone conclusion.  The 70-year old veteran of stage and screen had won her first Oscar for Best Actress in 1932 for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet". She became the first performer to win a Supporting Oscar after a Lead Acting victory; and her 38-year gap between wins still holds a record, over Katharine Hepburn's 24 and Gene Hackman's 21.  Beloved by the entire industry, Academy voters and the general public enjoyed watching Hayes have a grand time playing airport stowaway Ada Quonset.  On the lam from airline officials, she is finally recruited to clandestinely assist in the apprehension of a desperate bomber.  This was clearly a sentimental award; the "cute old lady" role was nowhere near Oscar-calibre, and is never mentioned among lists of greatest Oscar performances.  Still, Hayes was fun to watch, and voters responded to her being such a good sport. 

*I originally indicated her first nom, until astute reader Eric Arvin kindly noted the error...

Next: Best Supporting Actor


  1. I haven't seen any of the Airport movies, though I just got the full collection; nor have I seen Five Easy Pieces. I have, however, seen and loved both MASH and The Landlord, and between those two...I'd give the win to Lee Grant. One of the best movies I've seen, it's downright criminal that it's yet to receive a proper DVD release!

  2. Good piece! Though, actually, Stapleton had been nom'd before, in 1958 for "Lonelyhearts."

  3. Walter--I hope you will see "Five Easy Pieces"...I have a feeling you will like it a lot. Thanks for following my series, and looking forward to your thoughts on upcoming posts.

    Eric--Thank you for pointing out my error...which merited special mention. Wonder if you are a fan of any of these films?

  4. I adore MASH, and of the others I've only seen Airport. I don't remember too much of it.