Thursday, February 18, 2010

Five great supporting performances that didn't win an Oscar: Male Division

Danny Peary's book "Alternate Oscars: One Critic's Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress -- From 1927 to the Present" is well worth a read, particularly for us movie buffs who spend a good bit of time shaking our heads at the Academy's choices. (Coming Soon: Least Deserving Oscar-winning Performances.) However, the book omits alternative choices for two of my favorite categories, Supporting Actor and Actress. I don't mean to take credit away from leading men and women, but the Supporting categories offer a chance for top-notch character actors to get the recognition they deserve. Often, the quality of performances in the Supporting categories is so strong that we can't help wishing for a five-way tie. It's just as well Peary doesn't cover it; that leaves room for me.

Because there simply isn't enough Oscar to go around, I want to salute five outstanding performances that failed to win, male and female. This week, it's the men's turn.

1. Claude Rains, "Casablanca."
As charismatic as Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine is, and as many sparks as he strikes with leading lady Ingrid Bergman, I assert that Rains's Captain Louis Renault is the main reason this film retains its classic status to this day. All the best lines are his: "I'm surprised at you, throwing women away like that; someday they may be scarce"; "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects"; on being told a pistol is pointed straight at his heart, "That is my least vulnerable spot!" Then we have my personal favorite, "I am shocked -- shocked! to find that gambling is going on in here!" (Afterward, he's handed his winnings.) Rains delivers this and all his other dialogue with perfect timing and panache. Renault may be corrupt and underhanded, but we love him anyway, thanks to the wit and class Rains brings to the role. It's darn near a leading performance, since he gets nearly as much screen time as Bogart himself, and Renault's moral decision at the film's end matters as much as Rick's. Without him, or with a lesser actor in the role, the movie wouldn't even be worth watching.

2. Claude Rains, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
Rains gave strong supporting performances in film after film, yet the Big Prize eluded him. I love almost all his performances, but next to "Casablanca" and "The Invisible Man," this is his best. Like Renault, his character here, Senator Joseph Paine, is corrupt but not-quite-evil; also like Renault, he makes a crucial moral decision in the end which, in the hands of another actor, might seem to come totally out of left field. Even more than in "Casablanca," Rains brings subtle shading to his role; note how carefully he uses his face and changes vocal inflections. Rather than hamming (which Rains could do delectably on occasion), he underplays, at least until the film's final scene. It's hard for me to imagine any other actor making this character work.

3. Thomas Mitchell, "It's a Wonderful Life"
Mitchell did manage to snag an Oscar during his long and impressive career (for "Stagecoach"), but his performance as Uncle Billy in the holiday classic failed even to be nominated. As anyone who has seen "It's a Wonderful Life" multiple times knows, next to George Bailey himself, Uncle Billy is the most complex character in the film, alternately lovable and infuriating. Uncle Billy's carelessness almost results in George's ruin, but while George is caught in his revelatory nightmare, Uncle Billy gets up off his knees and gets to work helping George's wife Mary save the day. Mitchell gives careful attention to all this character's sides: his humor ("Breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner..."), his warmth, his anxiety, his despair (all we hear is a name, and only once in the film, but that's enough to reveal the tragedy in Billy's past), and, in the end, his courage. Just as the classic status of "Casablanca" owes nearly everything to Rains, this movie's standing as a holiday favorite owes quite a bit to Mitchell.

4. Bela Lugosi, "Son of Frankenstein"
Horror movie actors have never gotten much love from the Academy; despite his brilliant work in many an above-par picture, the great Boris Karloff never garnered so much as a nomination. Lugosi lacks Karloff's range, and his career took a noticeable nose-dive after the 1930s (ending with his collaboration with worst-director-of-all-time Ed Wood), but he deserves praise for his portrayal of broken-necked shepherd Igor in this film, the last of Universal's '30s horror classics. What makes his performance remarkable is that he plays the role perfectly straight, going for chills rather than laughs; though not known for subtlety, he brings some ghoulish shadings to this role, which could have become a caricature so easily. He didn't have much luck afterwards; he was very likely his own worst enemy; but even after the Ed Wood debacles, this fine performance still remains.

5. Peter Ustinov, "Quo Vadis"
These days, this movie is usually dismissed by the cynics as a corny, overblown sword-and-sandal epic, smothered in religiosity. For me, however, two things make it worth watching: Miklos Rosza's outstanding musical score and Ustinov's sublimely hammy portrayal of Nero. In certain scenes he's appropriately ridiculous, while in others we can feel the terror his wild unpredictability inspires. My favorite moment comes when Nero is told that his disgraced counselor Petronius (Leo Genn, also very good) has committed suicide "without my permission!" He has "the weeping vase" brought to him and seals his tears inside it. Then, after reading the parting note which levels insults at Nero's musical/poetic efforts, he shifts into rage on a dime -- one moment silly, the next moment terrifying.

Honorable Mentions:
Henry Daniell, "The Body Snatcher"; Leo Genn, "Quo Vadis"; Jack Hawkins, "The Bridge on the River Kwai"; Robert Morley, "Marie Antoinette"; Sydney Greenstreet, "The Maltese Falcon"; Walter Huston, "Yankee Doodle Dandy"; Clifton Webb, "Laura"; Claude Rains (again), "Notorious"; Robert Ryan, "Crossfire"; Charles Bickford, "Johnny Belinda"; Erich von Stroheim, "Sunset Boulevard"; Barry Fitzgerald, "The Quiet Man"

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