Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oscar and Horror - The Supporting Actors

(First of a Series of Four)

In these successive posts, I'm going to take a look at those performers who managed to elude the Oscar Horror jinx, and either secure a nomination for their devilishly diabolical work, or, in very rare cases, actually win what Jim Carrey once referred to as The Lord of All Knick-Knacks. We'll start with the Supporting Actor category. Don't worry - in this post, we shan't be here long...

Horror fans had to wait until 1963 for the very first Supporting Actor nominee from a genre film, the last of the four major acting categories to give up that honor. At first, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? star Bette Davis objected to the casting of 23-year old Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, the unsettling and unctuous accompanist hired by Baby Jane Hudson to help craft her deluded dreams of a comeback. Buono had made numerous television appearances prior to Baby Jane, almost always being asked to play older than his years due to his weight. Davis wanted someone with greater cinematic heft, but eventually relented. The lurid chiller was one of 1962's biggest-grossing pics, and wound up with five Oscar nominations, including one for Buono. Although he lost out to Sweet Bird of Youth's Ed Begley, Buono was able to parlay the nomination into a career of twisted, eccentric characters, and is fondly remembered for his role as King Tut in ABC's campy Batman series. He died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of only 43.

When The Exorcist rolled up
a mighty ten nominations in 1974, one of them belonged to the actor and playwright who made Father Damien Karras an indelible figure of compassion and archetypal Catholic guilt - Jason Miller. In fact, 1973 was a banner year for Miller, as his play That Championship Season was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Going into Oscar night, Miller was seen as a strong contender for a number of reasons: 1) His role was really the male lead, and the Academy has a fondness for awarding gold to so-called "supporting" performances; 2) Many felt that Miller's co-star Max Von Sydow also deserved a nod, and perhaps those voters would throw their support in solidarity behind Miller; 3) Predictions were already in the air that The Exorcist would not take Best Picture, so a trophy for Miller could be a consolation; 4) He played a man of the cloth, always Oscar catnip. Unfortunately, none of those reasons resulted in a win, which went instead to John Houseman, The Paper Chase's fearsome Professor Kingsfield.

Although not technically Horror, it would be peevish to exclude Martin Landau's remarkable work as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's valentine to a bygone, innocent time of Grade-Z filmmaking, Ed Wood. Landau had, by most observers, come within a hair's breath of winning the Supporting award in both 1988 for Tucker: The Man and His Dream and 1989 for Crimes and Misdemeanors. No one was taking any chances to let the charm-filled third time slip away in 1994, as Landau vacuumed up virtually every award that any organization was willing to give for his Hungarian (and double-jointed) recreation. (Those who are viewing the inevitability of Christoph Waltz's Oscar for Inglourious Basterds saw a similar trajectory fifteen years ago.) Landau won and instantly became one of Hollywood's most in-demand character actors.

The year 1999 was a stellar one for genre films, exemplified in the inclusion of two of them among the five Best Picture nominees. And each of
those films produced a Supporting Actor nominee - who could not be more different from each other. All 6'5" and 315 lbs. of Michael Clarke Duncan were nominated for the Frank Darabont-directed adaptation of Stephen Kings "serial novel," The Green Mile, and Darabont has frequently commented that, until Duncan walked in the door, he didn't have a picture. He arrived on the recommendation of Bruce Willis, who had just shared the screen with Duncan in 1998's Armageddon. The hulking actor had spent much of his time as a bodyguard for celebrities, but from within such a tough exterior, he was able to find the gentle giant that was John Coffey, the Death Row inmate blessed with the gift of supernatural healing.

By the time he was nominated for the role of Cole Sear, ten-year old Haley Joel Osment was a six-year veteran of the industry, so he had the dramatic chops to pull off the challenging part of a child cursed with the ability to see the revenant dead; he had to be a child, yet one mature well beyond his years, and do so without falling prey to playing "Hollywood precocious." Again, it's an example of being the true lead, but Buena Vista pushed him for Supporting, feeling that he had the better chance to take that category. It was his performance that made The Sixth Sense an unexpected August 1999 smash, logging week after week in the #1 box office slot and grossing just under $300 million in the US alone, and making M. Night Shyamalan a household name, if not necessarily one that was easy to spell.

The Supporting race in 2000 was largely seen as being between Osment and The Cider House Rules' Michael Caine. When the Brit came out on top for his second Supporting Actor Oscar, he established the gracious precedent of paying tribute to each of his fellow nominees at the podium.

The last nomination in Horror to date came just one year
later, with a role and a performance that clearly tickled every Academy member who wrote it on their nomination ballot. Willem Dafoe was virtually unrecognizable in full Nosferatu regalia as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. The fictionalized account of F.W Murnau's silent classic asked; Was Schreck the object of - gulp - typecasting? Was he genuinely a member of the bloodsucking undead? Dafoe's total immersion in the part couldn't conceal the obvious glee he took in playing such an outre character, and the Academy loves to honor actors playing actors. Dafoe achieved the near-impossible - he was able to upstage John Malkovich, but he wasn't able to claim the award, which went to Benicio del Toro for Traffic (who, ironically, is currently in theaters as a werewolf, just as Dafoe was exiting theaters as an ex-vampire in Daybreakers. Ain't life strange?)

And there you have it - in 82 years of Oscar history, only a half-dozen Supporting Actor nods for Horror and Dark Fantasy (and we're really kind of cheating with Landau), and none since 2000. The ladies will fare somewhat better, so stay tuned...

1 comment:

Jeff Allard said...

Another well-researched post, Senski - thanks for digging through Oscar (and horror) history on this! Among the many great performances listed here, I've always thought that Jason Miller, in particular, was robbed of a deserving honor. His performance in The Exorcist remains one of my favorites either in or out of the genre. It's a shame that Miller never went on post-Exorcist to find another success to match his talent.