Friday, February 6, 2015
Oscar Blogathon--Neglected Supporting Actor Performances of 1975
This is my entry into the 31 days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. This week focuses on Oscar Snubs. For forty years I have been stewing on this injustice and I am thankful to have an opportunity to vent. Please be sure to check out the other posts on this project at the sites listed above. I have also included links to relevant posts of my own in this entry.
I have always maintained that 1975 was one of the great years in American movie history. Along with 1939 and 1982, this year from the middle of the last golden age of cinema had a plethora of worthy films. I would never denigrate "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", or "Dog Day Afternoon". "Barry Lyndon" is lovely but I despise "Nashville". The picture that deserved to win the big award is featured on the masthead of this blog so it is no secret that I harbor an admiration for Steven Spielberg's "Jaws". It was an oversight to neglect that movie but it was understandable given the fine work done by all in the eventual winner.
What I do find unforgivable however is the negligence of the Academy's Actor's branch to include two performances from that year in the supporting actor category. Not only were the two performances I want to highlight for you ignored, they were far more deserving than any of the roles that did receive nominations. Just to refresh your memory, in case you don't carry that sort of trivia around in your head for just such a discussion, the nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category were, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener in "Day of the Locust", Chris Sarandon as Leon in "Dog Day Afternoon" and Jack Warden as Lester Karpf in "Shampoo". The eventual winner was sentimental favorite, comedian, vaudevillian, and TV personality George Burns, as Al Lewis in "the Sunshine Boys". All of these men did fine work, and no one should be embarrassed to have been included, but the five selected did not include career defining work from two other well known and worthy actors.
Let me start with the performance that is least likely to be remembered by today's movie goers. Brian Keith was maybe best known as a Television actor. He starred in two separate successful series, one in the 1960s, "Family Affair" where he played Uncle Bill, the bachelor guardian to his brother's orphaned children. In the 80's he costarred in Hardcastle and McCormick, he had two or three other series that did not last more than a season or two as well. He made an appearance in many films since he started in the business but worked most consistently in TV. In 1975 he showed up and off in the John Milius written and directed "The Wind and the Lion".
Keith played President Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most accomplished man we ever had in the job of President of the U.S.. It is also a role that is parodied in films, depicting Roosevelt as a reckless headstrong cowboy, whose bellicose manner was defined as the "Big Stick" policy. What may not be said as frequently is the first part of the policy, "speak Softly". Keith manages to to convey this dual nature of Roosevelt in this adventure film inspired by a real historic incident.
In the story, Sean Connery is a Berber brigand who has taken an American woman hostage for political purposes in Morocco. As he is preparing to run for the office he inherited, Roosevelt seizes upon the event as a potential campaign issue. Keith never raises his voice or shouts. His whole performance is level but with a lot of vocal nuance. Keith had a naturally gruff voice that fits with our image of the Rough Rider Teddy. He uses tone and pacing to emphasize some deep philosophical ideas well at the same time laughing at himself for taking things so seriously.
Keith has a bit of an advantage in his performance by playing opposite Director/Actor John Huston who plays Secretary of State John Hay. Huston had another one of those great voices and the two of them crossing swords in the White House or out on the shooting range made for some wonderful scenes in the movie that contrasted nicely with the action adventure scenes set in Northern Africa. Keith gets some nice moments of power conveying the certainty of his foreign policy. Roosevelt was know as a man of action and that's exactly how he is represented here. Not by having him run around in circles crying Bully every five minutes but by speaking forcefully and decisively. His actions are not shown to be short sighted or politically motivated but rather, that he understood the political advantage his manner and policies provided him.
The closest the film comes to mocking Roosevelt is in a scene where he tries to describe to a man from the Smithsonian, how he wants the grizzly bear he shot to be displayed. He poses with hands up and growls, and encouraged by his daughter, repeats the pose and growl on a table. Part of it is political theater, but mostly it comes across as the enthusiasm of a man who knows what he wants. Keith's jovial nature in the scene contrasts effectively with an earlier scene in the wilderness with an entourage in tow as he speaks about the taking of the bear with a magnificent vista behind him. He is proud of the accomplishment but also sad. He expresses an admiration for the grizzly that seems heart felt and warm, again mostly because of the vocal variety he uses. He smiles with his voice and speaks wistfully about America's place in the world.
Connery and Keith never shared any scenes in this film. Their characters are an ocean apart but very similar in nature. In the closing of the movie is the closest we come to an interaction as Roosevelt, suffering from blindness in one eye, sits at the foot of his bear and reads a note from the Rasuli, describing their places in the world. The two actors would share the screen a few years later in the execrable "Meteor" but nothing there matches the power of Connery's voice over narration as Keith sits in silence and acts with just his shoulders and hands in the scene.
While Brian Keith being ignored is a disappointment since he never had another part equal to that role, the second actor ignored is a crime beyond my comprehension. If you were to ask almost anybody in the movie business, what are the most culturally influential films of the 1970s, there are really two main answers. "Star Wars" is a juggernaut that turned the geek audience into the main driving force of popular culture today. All the comic book movies that dominate the screen these days are descended from that George Lucas film in 1977. Yet it was two years earlier that the ground began to shift, the blockbuster mentality began to rule, and the talent of Steven Spielberg was recognized by the world. The failure to nominate Steven Spielberg for the best film he ever made is probably a result of jealousy by other Academy members and hubris by Spielberg himself. The failure of the actors branch to mention Robert Shaw is inexplicable.
"Jaws" is a film that everyone who watches movies knows about, and anyone who loves movies cherishes. The story behind the making of the film has been told before. So has the story of the impact of the film. This is not the first time I have complained about the neglect of Robert Shaw either. As a vocal advocate of this movie I will freely admit that this is not an unbiased opinion. I consider it a duty to remind the world on a regular basis of the greatness of this film, and this post gives me the opportunity to do so through the means of promoting a great screen performance.
I have done maybe a dozen posts over the years on some aspect of this film. It is a film I know I can say I have literally seen at least a hundred times because every year since it has been available to rent or or buy on VHS, watch on cable or on laser disc or DVD, or Blu ray, I have done so approximately four times a year. It is downloaded on my Kindle right now, waiting for an opportunity during a long wait in line or a medical appointment that is taking too long to get to. One of the reasons that it is so repeatable is the performance of the aforementioned Mr. Shaw. It is a part that is fascinating every time I watch it and there is always something new and amazing to discover.
To begin with, the character of "Quint", although introduced in the first act of the film, doesn't reappear in the story until halfway though the movie. That first introduction is incredibly memorable, with Shaw scraping the chalkboard and chewing his food during the town council meeting. He condescends to everyone in attendance and then walks out of the scene. The force of his personality lingers over the meeting and the rest of the film. We know this smug, superior fisherman in the ancient sweater jacket and muttonchops is going to return and be a pivotal player in the story.
While he does pop up in one brief moment, chuckling to himself over the amateurs who think they can bring in the shark, his return to the story takes place on his ground. The business he runs is filled with stewing cauldrons of shark cartilage and homemade liquor. His self assurance is spat out at the way he mocks Richard Dreyfuss's characters attempt to provide some credentials by mentioning the America's Cup. Shaw's English background helped make the flinty New England accent more realistic. His devil may care costuming impresses us with his working class manner of thinking. He is a man who knows his place in the world and is completely confident in it up to the end. Look at the body language as he surveys the equipment that Hooper is bringing aboard, he might just as well have spit.
The on set legend is that Shaw disliked Dreyfuss and that dislike carried over to his performance. Shaw was also an alcoholic who needed just one drink to turn mean. It sounds like he was the perfect fit for the role. I recently saw "The Godfather" and Sterling Hayden who played Captain McClusky in that film was originally supposed to take the role of Quint, but tax complications kept him out and fortuitously put Shaw in. I can imagine Hayden fitting the part with his haggard look and somewhat raspy voice, but the character would have played very differently. I think he would have come off as an old man set in his ways and believing in them. Shaw provides some of that, but he also manages to suggest that he is just a little off hinged.
For example, the Limerick he recites as Mrs. Brody is dropping off her city slicker husband to go on the shark hunt, sounds so much more snarky and odd coming from a younger man and one who is taking such glee in sharing it out of nowhere. Quint projects it across the sounds of the Orca being loaded and he smiles knowingly as he gets to the somewhat dirty payoff. Shaw almost puts a chuckle in his voice but stops just short of being cloying. Shaw plays Quint as if he is tickled at the chance to show up all these land lubbers. Of course he is also the master of his own boat and while Brody does complain back at one point, Shaw makes it clear in near silhouette and with a frozen posture, that he is having none of it.
Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, exists in a friendly but condescending universe.
The three leads are all well cast and well played, but it is the prickly off-kilter Quint who gets the best scene and makes the most memorable impression. Robert Shaw played a series of tough guy roles over the years. Some of them steely like Red Grant in "From Russia With Love", or Doyle Lonnegan in "The Sting". Others were playful and heroic like the pirate in "Swashbuckler". "Quint encapsulates both spirits and puts a haunting backstory in the mouth of a master actor. It's nice that George Burns got an Oscar and a new career from his role in "The Sunshine Boys", but history shows that the Academy can make a mistake in the interests of sentimentality. It is my opinion that they did so in 1975.