Project: Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners
[Post updated 2/24/20]
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR WINNERS
Walter Brennan, Come and Get It (1936, William Wyler & Howard Hawks) [cap]
Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Dieterle)
Walter Brennan, Kentucky (1938, David Butler) [cap]
Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
Walter Brennan, The Westerner (1940, William Wyler) [cap]
Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
Van Heflin, Johnny Eager (1941, Mervyn LeRoy) [cap]
Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens) [cap]
Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945, Elia Kazan) [cap]
Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street (1947, George Seaton)
Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
Dean Jagger, Twelve O’Clock High (1949, Henry King) [cap]
George Sanders, All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata! (1952, Elia Kazan) [cap]
Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
Edmond O’Brien, The Barefoot Contessa (1954, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [cap]
Jack Lemmon, Mister Roberts (1955, John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy) [cap]
Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life (1956, Vincente Minnelli) [cap]
Red Buttons, Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan) [cap]
Burl Ives, The Big Country (1958, William Wyler) [cap]
Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
Peter Ustinov, Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick)
George Chakiris, West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Ed Begley, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Richard Brooks) [cap]
Melvyn Douglas, Hud (1963, Martin Ritt) [cap]
Peter Ustinov, Topkapi (1964, Jules Dassin) [cap]
Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns (1965, Fred Coe) [cap]
Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie (1966, Billy Wilder) [cap]
George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
Jack Albertson, The Subject Was Roses (1968, Ulu Grosbard) [cap]
Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969, Sydney Pollack) [cap]
John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter (1970, David Lean) [cap]
Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Joel Grey, Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
John Houseman, The Paper Chase (1973, James Bridges) [cap]
Robert De Niro, The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
George Burns, The Sunshine Boys (1975, Herbert Ross) [cap]
Jason Robards, All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula)
Jason Robards, Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
Melvyn Douglas, Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)
Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)
John Gielgud, Arthur (1981, Steve Gordon) [cap]
Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982, Taylor Hackford) [cap]
Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields (1984, Roland Joffe) [cap]
Don Ameche, Cocoon (1985, Ron Howard) [cap]
Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
Sean Connery, The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma) [cap]
Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton) [cap]
Denzel Washington, Glory (1989, Edward Zwick) [cap]
Joe Pesci, Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
Jack Palance, City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood) [cap]
Gene Hackman, Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis) [cap]
Martin Landau, Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)
Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire (1996, Cameron Crowe) [cap]
Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting (1997, Gus van Sant) [cap]
James Coburn, Affliction (1997, Paul Schrader) [cap]
Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules (1999, Lasse Hallstrom) [cap]
Benicio del Toro, Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
Jim Broadbent, Iris (2001, Richard Eyre) [cap]
Chris Cooper, Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)
Tim Robbins, Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood) [cap]
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
George Clooney, Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan) [cap]
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
Christian Bale, The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell) [cap]
Christopher Plummer, Beginners (2011, Mike Mills)
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarant-ino)
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallee)
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) [cap]
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg) [cap]
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) [cap]
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh) [cap]
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly) [cap]
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino) [cap]
Not content to just have opinions about the winners of the Big Five Academy Awards through the years, this obnoxious blog has to also weigh in on the other acting categories (though we’ll stop short of watching every movie nominated for its editing… for now). I started the Oscars project more out of a curiosity to structure and make sense of the supposed top strata of American cinema than of a feeling that I would discover a great number of movies that would mean a lot to me… which is probably for the best, as by this point we’re running a bit low on revelations. (I suspect the nominees in the seven examined categories will prove more intriguing.) True to form, with a couple of happy exceptions I honestly didn’t see much in this round that’s likely to become a big part of my life.
But it did give us another interesting glimpse into the inconsistent, occasionally infuriating ways that the Academy as a broad entity looks at acting, and moreover at what constitutes a lead or a supporting performance. Needless to say, there’s little rhyme or reason to the difference, though this is in general a more interesting and mildly eccentric list of actors than we saw pick up statues in the male lead category. In the ranked performance listing below I’ll point out the moments when the decision was especially befuddling or unjust because you know I like nothing better than to whine about such petty things.
First some housekeeping — I like to state for the record when these projects began and ended even if it’s of no interest to anyone else. I started this one with Twelve O’Clock High on September 4, 2016 and finished (one presidential administration later, sadly) on January 31, 2017 with Affliction. Eighty performances have been rewarded in the category but slightly more than half of them had been reviewed here previously, either because they won in one of the Big Five categories or because they were part of some other project (or I saw them when they were new). So in the end I watched 39 movies for this project, including 29 that I’d never seen. That doesn’t include a few already covered in this blog I revisited or still plan to revisit sometime in the coming months; I do that more for fun — and for my Letterboxd account — than for the blog.
I normally include here a section called “Notes on Availability” telling you how to find some of the more elusive titles taken on in the project at hand, but happily all of these films are relatively easy to find, buy, check out or rent, though five of them are currently only available from Burn on Demand services. Those are Come and Get It (previously in print not once but twice, from HBO then MGM, as a standard DVD; it’s actually easier and cheaper to get a used copy of either edition than to get the Warner Archive DVD-R), Johnny Eager, The Subject Was Roses (both from Warner Archive), Kentucky (from 20th Century Fox’s Cinema Archives line) and A Thousand Clowns (from MGM’s MOD division). After the silent canon project, it’s nice to have a far less complicated report to make here.
FIRST-TIME VIEWINGS RANKED
As is tradition here, this is a ranking of everything I watched specifically and for the first time ever for the Best Supporting Actor runthrough. (It doesn’t include films that won after I originally completed the project and it doesn’t encompass stuff like No Country for Old Men and Cocoon that I originally saw years ago. Arbitrary, maybe, but what do you want! This is mostly a good way for me to track discoveries and remind myself this is worth doing — though in this particular case it may hurt rather than help my case! Disclaimer: this is a ranking of the relevant films, not the performances in them that received Oscars.
01 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
02 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
03 The Barefoot Contessa
04 Johnny Eager
05 The More the Merrier
06 The Westerner
08 Twelve O’Clock High
09 The Fortune Cookie
10 Mister Roberts
11 Bridge of Spies
13 The Killing Fields
14 The Subject Was Roses
15 An Officer and a Gentleman
16 Sweet Bird of Youth
17 Lust for Life
19 The Big Country
20 A Thousand Clowns
21 Come and Get It
23 The Fighter
26 Viva Zapata!
27 Ryan’s Daughter
28 The Paper Chase
29 The Sunshine Boys
THE PERFORMANCES, RANKED
The Supporting Actor and Actress Academy Awards were added to the roster of competitive categories starting with the ninth ceremony in 1937. As mentioned above, the dividing line between a leading and supporting performance has never been precisely defined or clear. Javier Bardem’s role in No Country for Old Men is no more a supporting character than Anthony Hopkins’ in The Silence of the Lambs. What defines Walter Matthau and not Jack Lemmon as the support in The Fortune Cookie? And on and on.
For each of the acting categories I’ve made a point of writing up and briefly addressing the performances themselves, and ranking them, because I have problems. As I think is befitting the nature of the support categories, these comments are likely to be a bit shorter and more flippant than in the two projects like this I’ve already completed. Here goes nothing.
1. George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
The perfect example of an excellent character actor matched with an exquisitely written part and an extraordinary film. It’s impossible to imagine Addison played by anyone but Sanders, and impossible to imagine the multiple Oscar-winning Eve without him. Sanders was routinely the highlight of the movies that found room for him, from his two Hitchcock parts to Disney’s The Jungle Book. Now if only Thelma Ritter had netted one of these.
2. Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Not quite the most sensitive, bracing performance in this film — that would be Cloris Leachman’s — but near enough. He won and completely deserved it just for staring off in the distance remembering the greatest love of his life.
3. Chris Cooper as John Laroche in Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)
As touched on when reviewing the film recently, Cooper and Jonze could easily have rendered Laroche as the stereotype that Susan Orlean’s elitist friends trade barbs about, or they could easily have made him some romanticized outlaw. Instead he never once plays the part cheaply, even after the film turns into a satire of action conventions. Cooper has been a welcome presence in films for decades now; see him in the Cuaron Great Expectations and Billy Ray’s Breach if you’ve not.
4. Walter Huston as Howard in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
My favorite Huston performance is in Dodsworth; here he’s directed by his own son and is nearly unrecognizable, great and memorable in a completely different sense as a drifting former prospector who comes to be seen by two other men as their potential savior for a lifetime of financial security. All three of the central actors (Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) would merit recognition but Huston’s philosophical distance and rugged enthusiasm, even in defeat, mark him initially as the most outrageous of the trio and eventually the healthiest.
5. Harold Russell as Homer in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
Just forget for a moment that Russell is a nonprofessional actor or any of the story elements that give everyone in this movie a chance to make you wonder why Hollywood films of its realism and sensitivity are so rare, and watch the scene in which Homer lets his fiancee help him get undressed. Just that scene alone — the way the two actors play it, feel it, more than anything — merits every conceivable award.
6. Christopher Plummer as Hal in Beginners (2010, Mike Mills)
I don’t rate this film as highly as most, but the work of art embedded into it is this stunning performance by Plummer as a gay man who unclosets himself at a very late stage in his life. His description of house music after hearing it for the first time is enough to make you love him forever.
7. Kevin Kline as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton)
Kline’s given many great performances in a variety of genres but he was never more impressive than when lighting an unhinged fire under this still-hilarious caper. I think he won for the sex scene myself.
8. Karl Malden as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Streetcar is a fascinating study in juxtaposed acting styles; Vivien Leigh’s arm-waving theatricality clashes with Marlon Brando’s Method excess, while all the while supporting players like Malden and Kim Hunter run circles around them. Mitch’s sensitivity and buried nastiness are among the most believable elements of the play, and Malden fills this out flawlessly.
9. Javier Bardem as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Not much to say that you don’t already know. Seeing this in the theater in 2007 it was instantly apparent we’d be discussing this performance for the rest of our lives. Even having read the book, I felt that Bardem essentially created this character.
10. Peter Ustinov as Batiatus in Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick)
Ustinov stands out here among a lot of pretend-sophistication, not to mention the occasionally ridiculous Hollywood machismo Douglas emits in the title role; thanks to his inherent humanity and absence of self-seriousness, Ustinov is a joy to watch here and his scenes are frequently among the highlights of a very good film.
11. Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947, George Seaton)
Gwenn was an impressive actor with more range than is now remembered (catch him as a hitman as Foreign Correspondent), and this film doesn’t mean to me what it did when I was a child, but who can resist his Santa Claus? It’s second only to Art Carney’s Twilight Zone Santa.
12. Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula)
Of course this masterpiece embodies two powerhouse leads, yet there are moments when I’d swear Robards exudes so much confidence and hardened flavor from his office chair that he outruns both Redford and Hoffman for sheer presence.
13. Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)
This could have been the sort of gimmickry I can’t stand and that the Academy loves to prop up: a prosthetic-centered imitation of another actor, that being the, well, inimitable Bela Lugosi. This film’s excellent, loving script is a big help, but there’s just so much heart and depth in what Landau brings here. It’s also wonderful that this genuinely great movie got recognized for something in the year of the execrable Forrest Gump.
14. Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
Ali only appears in the first act of this film but his warmth and patience resonate over the life of its sullen hero Chiron for the rest of his life; the actor himself does a major share of the work of defining how much a figure like Juan could make a permanent mark on not only one’s future but on the way one approaches all human relationships. Additionally, Juan’s hazily remembered influence is a monument to a new, progressive masculinity that we can only hope will defeat the toxicity and hatred of old, but Ali doesn’t need to consciously provide such a mythical context, he just needs to deliver Juan as a compassionate and caring person. It feels like you know him.
15. Jack Nicholson as Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
Not a lot of iconic performances on this list, but this would clearly be the biggest exception after Bardem. As usual, most of the complaints about Terms come from people who’ve never bothered to watch it: Breedlove is a well-written, detailed and enormously funny character who injects incredible life into the film during his scattered presence.
16. Michael Caine as Elliott in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
“God, she’s beautiful.” From the first line of Hannah and Her Sisters the first time I saw it, I was swept up in its ceaselessly romantic vision of people fucking up their lives all but involuntarily. Like most of Allen’s films, it’s really a critique of the things it superficially seems to celebrate: Elliott is an oaf and his pursuit of his sister-in-law is completely wrongheaded, but the journey for them and for all of the other characters here has such a palpable sense of warmth and of some invisible thing binding everyone it touches. His is the rare swooning performance, the rare total cad, that manages to ring recognizably true.
17. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
Pitt may or may not be a particularly terrific actor (prior to this, he only really stands out to me in 12 Monkeys and Se7en, both in the distant past), and rewarding one of the most famous people in the world as “Best Supporting Actor” has strange Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting vibes, but his charisma is impossible to deny, and his charisma is what carries him through the bulk of Tarantino’s charming fantasy about humdrum daily life for a couple of has-beens in 1969 Los Angeles who happen upon an alternate-reality Manson Family murder that becomes cover for Tarantino to perform his own In the Aeroplane Over the Sea elegy for Sharon Tate and her friends. Pitt’s energy is the film’s, he gets it and is one with it, and he’s really rather wonderful in the part.
18. Peter Ustinov as Arthur Simpson in Topkapi (1964, Jules Dassin)
Wouldn’t put this up as a noteworthy film… were it not for Ustinov, whose work here as a bumbling, gullible everyman getting wrapped up in a jewel heist is on a higher plane than anything else happening. It also shows Ustinov’s considerable range, being so far from his well-cultivated, erudite persona (seen in Spartacus above).
19. Walter Matthau as Willie in The Fortune Cookie (1966, Billy Wilder)
Grateful to this project for making me realize how remarkable a performer Matthau could be, even though I hated his performance in The Sunshine Boys a decade later; in this film he upstages virtually everyone — it’s really a lead performance, but there seems to be a reluctance to celebrate “the bad guy” in that category — with his every tic, odd mannerism and gleeful expression of nefarious salesmanship funny and convincing. It’s a brilliant fleshing out of a character who might not have made much sense on the page. This isn’t down to Matthau really, but even his office is funny.
20. Alan Arkin as Edwin in Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
I actively cheered when this Oscar was won; Arkin’s been putting the work in his whole life and to receive recognition for such an abrasive part says a lot about how naturally magnetic he is. Meanwhile, this film is one of the most glaring examples of Oscar backlash being incredibly wrongheaded: we spend years complaining about the Academy ignoring comedies, they choose a genuinely funny and fresh one to put on a pedestal, and all we do is yell that it’s too slight. That’s why Eddie Redmayne and shit, people.
21. Denzel Washington as Pvt. Trip in Glory (1989, Edward Zwick)
Washington puts in a lot of work toward keeping Glory from falling into empty prestige, by using his character to growl skeptically about the action playing out and perform as the pissed-off voice of reason and consciousness. And of course he’s one of the most charismatic actors ever to work in film.
22. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
One of two Tarantino films I can tolerate (the other is Jackie Brown), and a major reason for that is Waltz’s nuanced and genuinely frightening performance here; he fleshes out the sort of villain Hitchcock loved to toss into movies like Saboteur and The 39 Steps, the icily charming but immaculately controlled sociopath.
23. Van Heflin as Jeff Hartnett in Johnny Eager (1941, Mervyn LeRoy)
Spotted a few people annoyed that Heflin was too “actorly” here, playing a theatrical drunk who loves to wax poetic, dropped in the middle of a hard-boiled gangster movie. I personally loved every minute he was onscreen and found that he made an already enjoyable film much more distinctive in tone.
24. Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly)
A better performance than this movie deserves, with Ali very believably embodying the master pianist and the attitude of a tentatively praised artist in a hostile world along with insecurities that may have been fictitious. It was a curious project for Ali in some ways (I mean, Peter Farrelly for fuck’s sake?) but he’s quite thrilling to watch here even if it would’ve been nice to hear Richard E. Grant’s acceptance speech.
25. Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)
Maybe it’s not fashionable to still have a lot of sentimental attachment toward Spacey’s career-defining roles in the mid-’90s but he was such an undeniable presence back then, and up to the time of his second Oscar for American Beauty he still seemed to be exercising almost exclusively great quality control on the roles he picked. This is the ideal Supporting Actor or Actress winner — it’s very much not a leading part (this film is too much of an ensemble piece to have one) but the movie simply wouldn’t be what it is without Spacey playing it.
26. Jack Lemmon as Frank Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955, John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy)
I could really take or leave most things about this war comedy, but looking at it as a chance to hang out with some of the best actors of the later classic Hollywood era makes it essential, and it’s an absolute joy to watch Lemmon at his sprightliest and most elastic; it’s a strange thing to consider about an actor my generation knows all but exclusively as an aging grouch (a role he was already transitioning toward by the early ’70s, cemented in Costa-Gavras’ Missing) but his youthful energy is infectious.
27. James Dunn as Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945, Elia Kazan)
Dunn is just one element of what makes this such a sob-inducing entry in the coming of age genre, but it’s hard to imagine its last cathartic scenes having such an impact had he not represented himself earlier as such a lovable screwup.
28. Jack Albertson as John Cleary in The Subject Was Roses (1968, Ulu Grosbard)
Gene Wilder deserved an Oscar for something, The Producers as good a choice as any; interestingly he lost that year to his future costar in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, who was playing alongside Roald Dahl’s wife at the time, Patricia Neal. Albertson is very good in the film, though it’s hard to see it as a support part.
29. George Clooney as Barnes in Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan)
Despite his reputation as a sort of modern Clark Gable, Clooney is best in dour mode, and this low-key entry is a good rehearsal for what’s probably his best performance, in The American. Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain was equally worthy.
30. George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
The Academy’s tendency to favor showy or physically demanding performances doesn’t necessarily extend to actors dancing for some reason, but this is a welcome exception.
31. Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Boone in Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
While Mitchell is memorable in Stagecoach, this should mostly be taken as a reward for a career of excellent supporting performances, including several from this year alone (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, this).
32. Morgan Freeman as Scrap-Iron Dupris in Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
I don’t like this movie one bit, but I’ll fight anyone with a single objection to Freeman winning an Oscar, which was long overdue.
33. Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
Grey is undeniably the best part of Cabaret, and certainly stands as the film’s prime icon. Decades of controversy over the Oscars this film received instead of The Godfather make me reluctant to say out loud that I might actually prefer Robert Duvall as the winner; in a film with so many hammy performances, his is by a longshot the most respectable.
34. Melvyn Douglas as Benjamin Rand in Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)
It’s a bit strange that Douglas and not Peter Sellers received an Academy honor for Being There… but his character and performance are a great expression of Ashby’s humanism: he’s the picture of ruthlessness and cold-hearted wealth yet he becomes warm to us, placed into solidarity by looming death. There’s a lot of tonal trickery going on in the film, which hides the sharpness of its satire with graceful, realistic characterizations. Douglas’ work here, taken on its own, is integral despite operating mostly outside of the film’s more cutting, demanding qualities.
35. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984, Roland Joffe)
Ngor is the second non-pro actor on the list after Harold Russell, and his performance as journalist Pran is harrowing in its unfiltered realism, much like the film it serves.
36. Joe Pesci as Tommy in Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
Pesci gets parked in movies that are full of the kind of macho aggressiveness I find annoying and boring, and his parts in this, Casino and Raging Bull seem always to correspond with their most tiresome scenes… but it can’t be denied he’s a hell of a good actor, believable and incredibly funny and charismatic, not to mention scary.
37. Sean Connery as Jim Malone in The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)
It’s hard to understand how Connery has managed to retain a “brand” of sorts representing classy, upscale sex appeal given that he’s almost never made any movies that aren’t embarrassing popcorn fluff. This is almost without a doubt his best performance, and he robs his classic persona of the empty machismo by playing a much more frail and awkward character, as he would in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and this plays to his hidden strengths. Still, this was one of the Academy’s most infamous upsets, and with good reason, as the gulf of quality between this and Albert Brooks’ stunning, galvanizing performance in Broadcast News is massive indeed.
38. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (1996, Cameron Crowe)
Gooding basically rescues this film from the absolute dregs, lifting it up to a mediocrity worth seeing to witness his incredible charisma. Half the commentary I can now find complains that Gooding is too short and thin to be a football player, but I suppose my complete ignorance about sports served me well. We also should celebrate each and every time the Academy deigns to give an honor to a non-white actor… but nevertheless, the superior nominated performance (more than marginally, I’d say) was William H. Macy in Fargo.
39. Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz in Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)
It’s consistently worth sitting through some horrendous nonsense to get to Waltz; he infuses Tarantino’s work with seriousness it doesn’t necessarily deserve. This, by the way, was the year in which every nominated actor in this category had already received an Oscar in the past. Still, it already seems like madness that both Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln lost to this.
40. Walter Brennan as Peter Goodwin in Kentucky (1938, David Butler)
Brennan is actually the lead actor in this film if anyone is; certainly the story hangs on him. He’s appealing as an aging rodeo expert, playing a character considerably older than he actually was at the time. It still seems odd that this is the actor Hollywood used to represent an entire world of non-star performers, but he had his moments.
41. Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)
Only the second person ever rewarded for acting in a Steven Spielberg film. Rylance earns it mostly by remaining stoic and never overreaching; it’s an overused sentiment perhaps, but the dignity he presents is inspiring.
42. Melvyn Douglas as Homer Bannon in Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)
The performances are universally the reason to keep this movie in the time capsule; Douglas is easily overlooked in favor of Patricia Neal and Paul Newman in this forerunner to The Last Picture Show, but both of his awards were well deserved.
43. John Gielgud as Hobson in Arthur (1981, Steve Gordon)
It’s strange that an accomplished, theatrically trained actor like Gielgud added an Oscar to his shelf on behalf of such a benign part, but Hobson will charm any viewer, and it’s impressive how well he knows how to make a good joke land.
44. Louis Gossett Jr. as Sgt. Foley in An Offier and a Gentleman (1982, Taylor Hackford)
This semi-clone of Sayonara has a few engrossing elements, one being Gossett’s hotheaded drill sergeant, the most terrifying such role this side of R. Lee Ermey.
45. Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Maybe it’s problematic, for both trans-sympathetic viewers and for those who hate spoilers, that Jaye Davidson was nominated in this category, but he’s easily my choice. I love Hackman — my #1 all-time pick in the lead actor category — but he does little new or challenging in this film.
46. Frank Sinatra as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
I love Sinatra’s music and can take or leave him as an actor, but there are some flashes of naturalism in his role here; but meanwhile Eddie Albert’s Roman Holiday part was nominated, and its physical immediacy and sensuality are vastly more inspiring of awe rather than respect.
47. Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
A much subtler performance than Marlon Brando’s as the same man in The Godfather; Coppola constructs the part via negative acting, and De Niro has that weird smirk on his face almost all of the time, but his strange, weighty, often nearly silent presence in the film hangs unmistakably over it to its finl benefit.
48. Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner (1940, William Wyler)
It’s odd to watch Brennan play something resembling a real-life character, but he commits and delivers, falling right in line with Wyler’s agile action-comedy hybrid.
49. Jim Broadbent as John Bayley in Iris (2001, Richard Eyre)
Broadbent’s a wonderful actor who’s probably made a hundred movies better than this, and fond memories of them are presumably how he walked off with this one.
50. George Kennedy as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
Kennedy’s got such a distinctive voice and physique and if anything he makes a stronger instant impression than Paul Newman’s waifish, somewhat unbelievably principled felon in the title. But who are the clowns who voted for him and not Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde?
51. Burl Ives as Hannassey in The Big Country (1958, William Wyler)
The Academy’s committee voting can reward some decidedly superficial work, as we’ve seen in all or nearly all of the other categories. There’s a common theme to many winning performances on this list that starts to emerge around this point: Oscar loves cartoons. Not real cartoons — they’d rather animation didn’t exist, honestly — but the kind of stereotyped, blown-up characters that get people fired up and tend to seem like they’re constructed just to instill a very easy animosity, cheating its way to an unwarranted payoff. Still, these performances get awards because they’re often extremely fun to watch. Ives is a hoot here as the cranky, vengeful patriarch of a wealthy family. He luvs 2 crash parties. The movie is much more entertaining when he’s in it than when he’s not, and maybe that’s what this award is really about.
52. Gig Young as Rocky Graver in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969, Sydney Pollack)
This was my favorite film I first saw for this project; it’s truly extraordinary, heartbreaking, almost unfathomably bleak. But its most serviceable, ordinary performance received the Academy Award; playing the master of ceremonies, Young does a good job but doesn’t go terribly deep with it. Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson is unpredictable, original and vivid in a film I absolutely hate, Easy Rider. Tough call.
53. Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez in Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
A good actor doing good work in a movie that feels like a show on the USA network. It’s not del Toro’s fault the part is underwritten, but it’s still underwritten. He deserves lots of credit for not coming off as ridiculously in this as Michael Douglas does.
54. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
Nobody should dispute that Ledger was on his way to a long life impressing and throttling moviegoers, but this overly literal expression of a broadly unhinged classic character just isn’t any technical great shakes beyond the obvious humor and charisma. Of course, there’s no possible way it could have been anyone else’s year; but watch Josh Brolin as another kind of villain in Milk — watch him carefully — and tell me which is the more impressive feat of acting.
55. Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Dieterle)
The reenactment of the Dreyfus affair is the best sequence of this Warner Bros. historical drama. Schildkraut doesn’t have enough screen time to make a huge impression, though. Meanwhile, Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth is funny, self-deprecating, impeccably timed and a key part of a film that’s aged far more gracefully than the winner.
56. J.K. Simmons as Fletcher in Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Simmons is a well-controlled and charismatic character actor of a caliber rarely seen in modern filmmaking; Chazelle has him do the sort of thing he can probably throw out in his sleep, just livening up what’s essentially a very entertaining and not a little frightening cartoon character. He is the most fun part of this by a longshot, it’s just not the world’s most jarring or unpredictable role and Simmons is playing underneath his abilities in it.
57. Dean Jagger as Major Stovall in Twelve O’Clock High (1949, Henry King)
Probably the most egregious “lead performance rewarded as supporting performance” in the category’s history, most likely because bigger stars were present in the cast. It’s not a surprising or unconventional war film, nor is Jagger’s acting in it surprising or unconventional, but it works well enough.
58. James Coburn as Glen Whitehouse in Affliction (1997, Paul Schrader)
Another cartoon. Coburn seems fully committed to making us hate this abusive, gross old misogynist, but it’s theatrical, mawkish and obvious — in ways probably called for by the very odd screenplay (and presumably the novel that inspired it).
59. Edmond O’Brien as Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa (1954, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
A fine film, a decent performance among many; several actors in this movie deserved reward and this wasn’t one of them.
60. Red Buttons as Joe Kelly in Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Stunt casting approached ably enough, but the movie’s silliness makes him look flatter than even a traditional straight-man part should, and the character’s demise isn’t easily reconciliable with the characterization Buttons has given us.
61. Donald Crisp as Gwilym Morgan in How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
A basically nondescript performance in a film I find very hard to sit through. Three-time winner Walter Brennan didn’t need another Academy Award by any means but he’s great in Sergeant York, and Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon would have been a great unorthodox choice.
62. Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallee)
Technically a not-bad turn from the former My So-Called Life heartthrob turned bottom-tier rock star turned pretentious interview subject, but trans advocacy groups objecting to a cisgendered man in the part clearly had a point, especially in an era when it’s still so difficult for trans men and women to get good acting jobs. At the time I was rooting for Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips.
63. Charles Coburn as Benjamin Dingle in The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens)
This is an enjoyable, funny, even sexy latter-day screwball comedy… but Coburn’s persona is irritating enough to make it a harder sell than it should be; this is one of the few performances on this list that actually brings the accompanying movie down a notch or two. I want Claude Rains to have an Oscar and Casablanca would have been as good a moment as any. (His best performance is in Notorious but I can’t deny Harold Russell as most deserving.)
64. Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
Fitzgerald figures in the only moments of this film that are remotely tolerable or affecting, but I did say “remotely.”
65. Ed Begley as Boss Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Richard Brooks)
A neither here nor there over-the-top Thomas Nast-sized performance.
66. Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956, Vincente Minnelli)
Improbably, Quinn chews the scenery in this film more than Kirk Douglas does as Vincent Van Gogh!
67. John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase (1973, James Bridges)
Houseman’s another cartoon here — not bad, just phoning it in. Also note that, while I’d agree this is a supporting role, it’s no smaller a part and no different in its narrative purpose than, say, Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Peter Finch in Network, both Best Actor winners. This may sound strange if you’ve never seen The Last Detail but Randy Quaid deserved this.
68. Robin Williams as Dr. Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997, Gus van Sant)
Either Robert Forster for Jackie Brown or Greg Kinnear for As Good as It Gets would have been better choices; Williams likely won on the assumption that it would thrill the crowd — as I recall, it did. This is no different to any of the other dramatic-ish performances the same actor turned in. I don’t like to harp on how much Williams’ schtik never worked for me, especially now, so let’s move on.
69. Tommy Lee Jones as Marshal Gerard in The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis)
Jones is a fine actor done in by a desperately dumb script here, and he was apparently directed to fill in every cop show stereotype ever conceived. Jones is so phenomenal in the following year’s Blue Sky it’s difficult to fathom that it’s the same actor with the same skill set. Also, whatever you think about Schindler’s List, it seems pretty inexcusable that Ralph Fiennes lost to this.
70. Jack Palance as Curly in City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood)
Palance began his career as a menacing character actor, memorable in Shane and brilliant in Panic in the Streets, and developed into sort of a road company Clint Eastwood with a better developed sense of the absurd. He’s not in this movie nearly as much as you remember, and he mostly just exudes empty charisma like an aged-out Elvis when he shows up. To see what Palance could really do in his later years, watch Bagdad Cafe.
71. Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)
I support an Oscar for someone as gifted and multifaceted as Rockwell but this is the most rote, one-dimensional performance I’ve ever seen from him; of course, it would be hard to wring much else out of McDonagh’s infantile script, but then again Rockwell did agree to be in this piece of garbage and it’s hard to forgive that lapse in taste.
72. Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
Bale has some merit as an actor and you can probably make a strong case for this part if you’re someone who can hear past the accent, and the generally annoying context of the film. Why go for a performance with so many caveats over John Hawkes in the excellent Winter’s Bone or the excellent Mark Ruffalo in the mediocre The Kids Are All Right?
73. Walter Brennan as Swan in Come and Get It (1936, Howard Hawks & William Wyler)
The first performance to receive the Supporting Actor Oscar does at least fit in some understandable guideline of distinction between the two tiers of acting awards. (Initially the winners weren’t given the usual Oscar statues but metal plaques, later replaced by the Academy.) What’s unclear is why anyone found Brennan’s work in this film impressive — he’s meant to provide marginal comic relief but the character is a walking stereotype. It’s the first of an incredible three wins for Brennan and undoubtedly the most puzzling.
74. Martin Balsam as Arnold in A Thousand Clowns (1965, Fred Coe)
One of the more irritating moments of Academy forced contrarianism, in that I love this actor but this role barely exists, and doesn’t have a place in the story the film is (awkwardly) telling. I assume this Oscar was really for Balsam’s full and illustrious body of work; he’s one of my favorite character actors. Or maybe it was just a weak field this year.
75. Christopher Walken as Nick in The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
I will always be in the minority on Walken and I accept it. I have more trouble accepting that more people don’t find The Deer Hunter morally reprehensible, but what can you do.
76. George Burns as Al Lewis in The Sunshine Boys (1975, Herbert Ross)
Growing up I knew Burns just as the go-to old guy in ’90s commercials and talk shows, up to his death at 100 in 1996; it wasn’t until much later that I appreciated his past with Gracie Allen as a vaudevillian. This movie won’t help you understand his legacy much — he plays the doormat straight man in it to Walter Matthau’s ferociously annoying loudmouth. Worse yet this was in a year with at least two wonderful performances nominated, the most obvious being Brad Dourif’s lovelorn mental patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… but my choice is Chris Sarandon playing Al Pacino’s transgender husband in Dog Day Afternoon, a sensitive effort far ahead of its time.
77. Timothy Hutton as Conrad in Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)
Not a supporting performance: Conrad is the protagonist of Ordinary People, not that you remember since it’s not exactly the most absorbing movie in history. Melvin and Howard is one of my favorite movies of this era so I sort of want to back Jason Robards from this slate, though his Howard Hughes isn’t inherently all that significant. I find Joe Pesci in Raging Bull sort of repugnant and annoying, but I must admit he’s probably the most deserving from the field in this year.
78. Don Ameche as Arthur in Cocoon (1985, Ron Howard)
“Supporting actor” as code for “indistinct small portion of an ensemble cast in an awful movie.”
79. Michael Caine as Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules (1999, Lasse Hallstrom)
Caine is one of two actors who have the distinction of appearing in both the upper and lower reaches of this list; really he’s the sort of actor who’s impossible not to like even when he’s sleeping through his parts on the basis of his ever-reliable persona. His work in this forgettable prestige drama is indistinguishable from what he does in any given part of his since 1990 or so. Conversely, Tom Cruise — an actor I generally can’t stand — did a fine, unorthodox job this year in Magnolia, playing to his strengths for once (he should only ever play villains and fools).
80. Anthony Quinn as Eufemio Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952, Elia Kazan)
Despite decent politics, this movie fizzles out on the basis of mediocre performances, including Quinn’s, plus the outright bad one at the center of it by Marlon Brando.
81. Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle in Mystic River (2003, Clint Eastwood)
No one acquits themselves from the whininess of this inept crime drama; Robbins, who’s not a bad actor normally, isn’t as horrible in this as Sean Penn is but he’s close. Both won Oscars, somehow. Looking over the other nominees I notice Djimon Hounsou in In America; I last saw that film nearly a decade ago and remember little about it except that I adored it, so I’m voting for him.
82. Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett in Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Robards is the second actor to appear both near the top and the bottom of this list, with the added bonus of receiving his two awards in consecutive years. There might be no one more capable of unpredictable greatness and awfulness even in his prime than Robards, who’s so often a pleasure to watch but also gave one of the worst, most zombielike and phoned-in performances I’ve ever seen in a motion picture as Brutus in Julius Caesar. This awful film gives him far less to work with, but it’s such a wan and formless characterization of such an interesting person it’s hard not to be bothered by it. I can’t believe I’m saying this but Alec Guinness was up for Star Wars and it should’ve been his Oscar, even though that’s an exceedingly silly performance (even Guinness thought so), just because Guinness deserved a second Oscar strictly for having genuine class.
83. Hugh Griffith as Seik Ilderim in Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
Brownface performance offensive for obvious reasons, but without the emotional or technical intelligence of, say, Jean Simmons in Black Narcissus to even slightly redeem it; it’s just completely forgettable apart from its racism. Both Arthur O’Connell and George C. Scott were nominated for Anatomy of a Murder and would have been much better choices.
84. John Mills as Michael in Ryan’s Daughter (1970, David Lean)
Michael is a “village idiot” character, a developmentally disabled wanderer whose purpose in the narrative doesn’t warrant such an obviously offensive and wrongheaded role and performance. It’s more bloat for a film that’s already much too overblown for its trite, wafer-thin story. It’s interesting that Lean, an overrated director even at his best, couldn’t sneeze for years without getting an Oscar, then when this critically drubbed effort came out it was deservedly ignored… except for its absolute worst element (and the cinematography, which is admittedly spectacular).
Running behind a little — I’ll have the January post queued up to post early in the work week (I don’t want to post it right away because I want this one to have some time at the top). Around the same time I will switch the Projects page to the last of our first sequence of Oscars projects, Best Supporting Actress. Also the illustrated Letterboxd version of this ranked list should be up shortly. Thanks again for following along.