Monday, February 19, 2007

The Oscars - A 70th Anniversary Tribute

Happy 70th Anniversary to the Oscars - A Tribute and Brief History of the Supporting Actor & Actress Categories!

Through the years, awards have mushroomed as after a cloudburst, but there is only one Oscar. Belittle, scoff at or denigrate him as you will, when your name comes bounding out of that microphone I defy adrenal glands of marble not to quiver.” – Anne Baxter, Best Supporting Actress winner for “The Razor’s Edge”, 1946

Seventy? What the hell do you mean seventy? It’s the seventy-ninth Oscar ceremonies that will be held this Sunday. Well, yes. It certainly is, but when the nominations were announced and we posted our reactions to them, we ended by noting that this year marked a very special anniversary for Oscar, and so it does. We even teased you with a photograph of this lovely lady to help spark your memory.

Remember her? No? Well, that dear readers is none other than the beautiful and talented Gale Sondergaard, the first recipient of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the period epic, “Anthony Adverse” in 1936. While Miss Sondergaard would go on to receive an additional nomination for “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1944, her career would be derailed for twenty years during the McCarthy witch hunts for refusing to testify. But she would bravely return in character roles and continue to act until two years prior to her death in 1983!

Her co-nominees that inaugural year were: Beulah Bondi, the maven of all motherly roles in the historical sudster “The Gorgeous Hussy”. Alice Brady as the matriarch to the wildly dysfunctional clan in “My Man Godfrey” – one of the best screwball comedies.

Bonita Granville, the first of many child actresses to earn an Oscar nomination, for her malicious little gossip in “These Three” the de-gayed version of Lillian Hellman’s groundbreaking play “The Children’s Hour”. And the grand old dame Maria Ouspenskaya, for her divine turn in the masterful “Dodsworth”.

The first Best Supporting Actor Oscar went to that great character actor, Walter Brennan for “Come and Get It”. It would be the first of his three record setting wins in that category! (Greedy bastard.)

His co-nominees were: Mischa Auer, as a slightly unhinged layabout in “My Man Godfrey”.

Stuart Erwin, erroneously categorized (see below) in the musical comedy “Pigskin Parade”. The dashing Basil Rathbone for his fiery Tybalt in the deluxe MGM version of “Romeo and Juliet”.

And that chubby scene stealer nonpareil, Akim Tamiroff for his turn in “The General Died at Dawn”.

While the Oscars may be seventy nine years in the running, they only deemed it right to start honoring supporting or featured players in their ninth year. (Handing out plaques, in lieu of actual statuettes, even! The Supporting Acting Winners would have to wait until 1943 before they started receiving the full Oscars.)

Let’s back up a bit and give you some history. When the Oscars began in 1929, they were still a semi-informal industry affair that was selected by a small group of studio honchos, honoring the magic of movies in twelve separate categories. As the Academy grew over the years, many categories changed or morphed and would continue to do so even to the present day.

As we noted in our Brief History of the Academy Awards . . . sigh, you did read it, didn’t you? NO? Well read it! There. Great stuff, wasn’t it? Anyway, as we were saying, the Academy began as a way to help the industry build up its artistic reputations and more importantly, to help mediate any contract disputes between the many unions that were springing up willy nilly. What with the Screen Actor’s, Writer’s and Director’s Guild all taking shape around them, the Academy considered itself the ultimate arbitrator when it came to smoothing out any problems. Well, they were wrong. The unions became incensed with the Academy’s lack of bi-partisanship and quickly threatened to remove any support of their by now famous Academy Awards celebrations.

By 1935, the situation had reached a critical mass. The guilds had successfully boycotted the Oscar ceremonies, sending a shiver up the spine of the Academy’s then president, noted film director Frank Capra. By the following year, he had worked out a plan to ensure their participation and support. Hand out more acting awards! And you know what? It worked. Imagine, actors falling prey to praise. Who knew?

Prior to 1936, a few supporting performances had managed to creep into the official nominations. Lewis Stone in “The Patriot” – 1928/29, Frank Morgan in “The Affairs of Cellini” – 1934 and Franchot Tone in “Mutiny on the Bounty” – 1935, all received Best Actor nominations for what was clearly fine work in the as yet to be created supporting category. They all lost. Which is no surprise, considering the imbalance between the categories (one would think, but just you wait!). Another actor, Adolphe Menjou received a Best Actor nomination for his role in “The Front Page” in 1930/31, a role that could be considered supporting or lead depending on your viewpoint. And here we come to the great debate concerning the supporting acting categories. What constitutes a “supporting” performance?

When the inaugural categories were announced in 1936, they still managed to mix up a few names. Stuart Erwin who was the top billed leading actor in “Pigskin Parade” was up for Supporting Actor, and second lead Spencer Tracy was nominated for Best Actor for “San Francisco”. One of the most controversial choices for Best Actress would be Luise Rainer whose career erupted with two Oscar wins in consecutive years and then faded into obscurity. Her first Best Actress Oscar was won for her supporting role in MGM’s opulent biography of “The Great Ziegfeld”.

It would be a pattern that would continue throughout the years, reaching their zenith in 1944 when Barry Fitzgerald managed something that no other actor has before or since. He was nominated for “Going My Way” – in BOTH categories! Prior to this major snafu, the Academy had no rules on categorization, permitting the final vote tallies to decide. After this major embarrassment, and after awarding Mr. Fitzgerald a Best Supporting Actor statuette, thank you very much, they changed the rules.

And still they managed to fuck it up. Over the years there have been several discrepancies between what one would consider a true Lead or Supporting performance. This current year brings two further controversial nominations. Meryl Streep has scored a ridiculous fourteenth nomination for her supporting turn in the slight comedy “The Devil Wears Prada”, a nomination that is insulting on its own without the added stigma of clearly being a supporting role. Harumph. The lovely and talented Cate Blanchett received her third nomination for “Notes on a Scandal” in the supporting category, but we happen to think that her role is as important to the storyline of the material as her co-star and co-billed Judi Dench who scored a Best Actress nod.

And so the question remains how to make a differentiation between the two categories? You can take into account: star billing, length of role, whether the story revolves around that particular character or they are ancillary . . . all of which can be chucked out the limo window come Oscar night. Just consider such leading roles as: Walter Matthau for “The Fortune Cookie”, Terence Stamp for “Billy Budd” . . .

Timothy Hutton for “Ordinary People”, Jamie Foxx for “Collateral" . . .

Jake Gyllenhaal for “Brokeback Mountain” . . .

And Geena Davis for “The Accidental Tourist" . . . all of whom played either the lead or co-lead in their films and yet were nominated or in the cases of Walter, Timothy and Geena, actually won the coveted prize.

But in our expert opinion, the most egregious errors have been in awarding the Lead Acting Oscars to performances that were clearly supporting in nature. For example: Patricia Neal’s wonderful turn in “Hud”, Louise Fletcher’s incarnation of benevolent evil in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and in the Academy’s worst example of overachieving, the Best Actor winner of 1991Anthony Hopkins for “The Silence of the Lambs”. Yes, we know. His performance has become the stuff of legends. But if you would be so kind as to go back and actually watch the movie, you would realize that he is barely in it! His total screen time is less than eighteen minutes. By no stretch of the imagination should that be considered a leading actor role. And yet, as happens in so many years: sentimentality or worse, a lack of good roles leads the Academy to mis-categorize the nominees.

Still, despite the mix-ups, we are thrilled that the Academy decided seventy years ago to acquiesce to the demands of needy actors and instate two additional acting categories. For in the past seventy years, we have seen some of our favorite screen performances enter the hallowed ranks of winners, losers and yes, even the overlooked come Oscar night; with this year being no exception. In the next few days we will be taking a closer look at our favorites in the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, and hope you will join us in celebrating the birth of some stars, the crowning glory of some veterans and the inevitable moment that comes with looking back at Oscar history – the “who the hell was that” moment? For now, let’s take another glance at the first winners in the category and raise a glass in their honor. Thanks to Gale and Walter, who started it all! Bless you all!



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