By Robert Pius
For some unknown reason in recent Oscar history, the judgment on how good or bad a performance an individual actor gave seems to be tied up in the film’s reception as a whole. In the past, it was quite common for an actor (especially in the supporting categories) to give a standout performance in a film that critics found less than stellar and still be able to achieve a nomination based on their work and not the movie as a whole. One could almost say that these performers had more difficult tasks than their peers in highly regarded films. It is likely that when you are acting with a good script, adept direction and added help from all the other below-the-line workers on a strong production, it is probably easier to do your best work. But what about those people who found themselves with rotten material or in films that were ripped apart to no one’s liking in the editing room, but yet one actor somehow managed to rise above the problem and do outstanding work? Now that’s a real achievement when you have to hold it together while everything else is falling apart around you.
The recent release of “Hillbilly Elegy” has brought this topic to mind. Reviewers have been surprisingly hard on this film. While some esteemed critics like Janet Maslin and Richard Roeper have praised the film, others have seemed to delight in tearing it apart. Speculation has been that the film’s malice comes more from a political bent than the actual film’s quality. Director Ron Howard recently addressed this in an interview, saying because the film tells the story of a kid who grew up to be a political conservative, reviewers have disregarded the story of family dynamics he has presented and instead judged the film as if they were in the voting booth on November 3rd again. Glenn Close was thought to be a strong frontrunner to win an Oscar for her work here finally. Still, the negative reviews have sent her plummeting on prognosticators charts even though some of her reviews have been excellent. Even some of the film’s most vitriolic reviews have begrudgingly admitted that her performance is quite good. Her poor early showing (or lack thereof) at the critic’s groups has also brought about more doubt towards her awards campaign.
So I ask you, “why has the academy adopted this all or nothing approach to acting nominations?” How many times have we heard the idea that someone just got swept into the nominations because they were in a Best Picture nominee? Did anyone really feel that Rachel McAdams was so outstanding in “Spotlight” that she merited to be one of the five best supporting actresses of that year, or was it just luck that she was the only woman in the Best Picture frontrunner and got swept into the nominations? Some would argue that Kim Basinger (a Best Supporting Actress winner that is often cited as not holding up well over time) got swept all the way to the Oscar podium by being the only woman in a Best Picture contending film in 1997 for “L.A. Confidential.”
I think this is a fascinating subject to ponder since there was a time when doing good work in a mediocre or even lousy film could still get you noticed. Heck, it could even get you a career! Morgan Freeman was a struggling actor for years with moderate success on Broadway and on a children’s T.V. show on PBS called “The Electric Company.” Suddenly, at the age of 50, he was cast in a film called “Street Smart.” It came from a studio known for mostly producing shlock and starred Christopher Reeve, who was struggling to maintain his leading man status a decade after “Superman.” The film came and went, but Freeman was noticed. He swept through the significant critic’s group awards that year and received an Oscar nomination that then lead to steady and acclaimed work in films ever since.
Charles Durning gave acclaimed performances in numerous films such as “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Tootsie,” but his two Oscar nominations came from the mediocrely received Mel Brooks remake of the Jack Benny film “To Be or Not To Be” and most surprisingly for his role in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” That film was based on a hit Broadway musical but was panned by critics who called the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton starring film a big bloated mess. However, Durning had a sensational moment as a singing and dancing politician who struts around with incredible joy and abandon. Seeing the usually serious Durning cut loose like that probably added to the appeal and he was remembered on Oscar morning, something I doubt would happen today.
Best Supporting Actress though, is the category where in the 70s and 80s, it was almost the norm for someone from a less than raved about film to grab a nomination. Interestingly, Glenn Close is the inspiration for this piece. In 1984 three of the five Best Supporting Actress nominees came from films whose receptions ranged from disappointing to being an outright mess and Close herself was one of those nominees! It is also fascinating that “Amadeus,” which swept thru that year’s nominations with eleven and won eight of them, saw its third billed star and key supporting performer, Elizabeth Berridge, surprisingly left out of the Best Supporting Actress category. That would never happen today. A substantial role from a Best Picture nominee would never be blocked by three women whose films made critics wince a bit. Close was nominated for the third year in a row as Best Supporting Actress for a highly anticipated Robert Redford film, “The Natural.” While not exactly a flop or universally panned, the film did not prove to be the awards juggernaut people thought it would be and it only received some below-the-line nominations and Close’s nomination. While Close has joked that she was nominated more for how well she was lit, she actually is the heart of the film and gives a lovely and moving performance in an otherwise uneven film.
Also nominated that year was Christine Lahti for “Swing Shift,” which was a bit of a disaster except for her performance. Star Goldie Hawn and director Jonathan Demme disagreed vehemently on the final cut of the film and the version that was finally released (Hawn’s) was pretty much panned. Lahti has said she heard her role would be cut or reduced at various times since she came off better than leading lady Hawn. Despite the turmoil, Lahti still got a nomination, helped by a win at the New York Film Critic’s Circle Awards. The fifth nominee that year was Geraldine Page, for a very brief role in the less than stellar received “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” Page is quite powerful in her brief scenes in an otherwise forgettable film.
The list continues into the 70s. I defy anyone to sit through the Dustin Hoffman film “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me” and not leave feeling overwhelmed by the tedium of it all. Except that the excellent Barbara Harris shows up three-quarters of the way through the film and gives a luminous wry performance. It’s a bit shocking that audiences stayed with the film long enough even to see her late arrival in the movie but this was back in the days before home screeners and academy members had to actually sit through the entire films, thus maybe voting for Harris out of the sheer relief that they hadn’t wasted an entire evening. Nowadays, the screener would have been scrapped twenty minutes in.
Probably the most fascinating Oscar inclusion in this vein is Brenda Vaccaro’s 1975 Best Supporting Actress nomination for “Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough.” The film has a whopping 4.6 rating on IMDB and is a soapy wallow in trash from the author of “Valley of the Dolls.” Critics were not kind at all but Vaccaro is appealing in the film. Due to heavy campaigning, she managed to get herself and Oscar nomination and actually win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, beating out practically the entire acclaimed female ensemble of Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”
So it remains to be seen if the poor reviews for “Hillbilly Elegy” will sink Glenn Close’s chance at a nomination or even an Oscar win. There already seems to be a growing sentiment that the reviews were unnecessarily harsh and based more on anti-Trump feelings than what was actually seen in the film. The audience reaction on Rotten Tomatoes has been quite positive and it should be noted that the film is playing well to many members of the Academy. They are not as plugged into the discourse on social media as we all are. Notably, some of the same sources that raved about the book when it came out (before Donald Trump was elected) are now trashing the same story and even saying it shouldn’t have even been made. It will be interesting to see if, as in days gone by, a performance can rise above the reaction to the film it is in and still earn a nomination just on the actor’s own individual contribution.
Do you think Glenn Close can still get nominated for her performance in “Hillbilly Elegy?” What do you think her chances are of winning now? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertpius_