This summer, the blog The Film Experience published retrospective articles on all the performances nominated in the Best Supporting Actress lineups in 1995 and 1954. To better follow those discussions, I watched all of these films. The project led me to hone in on performances that I otherwise might have paid little attention to. When watching 1954’s Executive Suite, I lasered in on Nina Foch’s nominated work as a fiercely loyal, unyieldingly competent secretary to a deceased CEO. Trying to ascertain what made it stand out to voters over the film’s far flashier performances by far larger stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck and Shelley Winters, made me scrutinize Foch far more carefully than I would have otherwise. Accordingly, I noted how she used idiosyncrasies – like clutching a pen necklace as a reminder of her late, revered boss – to convey her character’s specific emotional state and something larger about her role in the company. Without her performance being singled out, I would have missed such subtleties in light of the pyrotechnics of the rest of the cast.
Another issue that this viewing brought up was one of categorization. Many of the nominated performances fell in a gray area between leading and supporting. This division has been abused in recent years as studios shuffle their contenders into whichever category grants them the best chances, but the question remains a fascinating one. Does Eva Marie Saint have a leading role in On the Waterfront by virtue of being onscreen 40% of the time? The consensus among the panelists, and among myself, seemed to be no. The picture and narrative are structured and focused so carefully on Marlon Brando’s Terry that all other characters are considered in relation to his character’s arc. The question became murkier with Ang Lee’s version of Sense and Sensibility. Both Dashwood sisters, played with period-appropriate wit by Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, have parallel romantic and financial troubles. Each, at times, considers her own predicament in relation to how the other is handling hers. Each is in over half the movie’s running time. Trying to figure out whether one sister was motivating the story more than the other (I’m not convinced one is) was an endeavor that led me to more thoroughly scrutinize how their respective trajectories fit into the film as a whole.
When explaining this project to those of my friends with the snootiest tastes, I often feel sheepish. For many true movie lovers, especially those who frequent websites dedicated to film criticism, the undue influence the Oscars exercise is a sore subject. Why should the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – a body of around six thousand members from the filmmaking industry, largely Hollywood insiders – get to decide which films become the subject of countless think pieces online and endless speculating in the months preceding Nomination Day and the ceremony itself? To some, by participating in projects like these, I make myself complicit in the enshrinement of an unfairly limited cadre of movies.
While I fully recognize the limits of the Academy’s tastes and also disapprove of the extent to which they dominate public discussions, I think the Oscars offer something tangible to cinephilia. Directing me towards performances like Foch’s and raising interesting questions of categorization are only two of the ways in which these annual awards have enriched my ability to think through a film. Looking back on particular years acts as a helpful Hollywood history lesson. Breaking a film into its various crafts was what first led me to wonder about the difference between sound editing and mixing or how a film could possibly be directed poorly, but edited well. Silly and flawed as these awards may be, their potential to generate crucial conversations about cinema is one no cinephile should readily dismiss.