After a long, punishing Oscar season that started about 50 weeks ago (although we suppose it only really kicked in in August or September), we're now about a week-and-a-half out from the 2013 ceremony. For all of our grumbling, it's always a key fixture in the cinephile calendar, and as such, we're going to be commemorating the approaching ceremony in various ways over the next ten days or so.
To start off, we're looking back. There's a wide range of actors up for nominations, from a nine-year-old newcomer to an 86-year-old veteran (competing against each other no less), but they almost all have something in common — their Oscar nominations are only the most recent in a series of great performances. So, we're going to be looking at the nominees in each category and examining one of the earliest performances that saw them get attention, and in some cases, are overlooked in favor of more recent work.
And so, we're starting off with the Best Supporting Actor nominees. Remarkably, all five have won Oscars before, and four of them in the same category. As such, it's like a sort of best-of-the-best contest, and they've each been doing strong work for years. Check out our picks below of the early highlights, and let us know your own favorite performance of the nominated actors in the comments section. And come back tomorrow for the Best Supporting Actress nominees.
Alan Arkin – "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" (1966)
Though he only won his first Oscar six years back for his supporting turn in "Little Miss Sunshine," Alan Arkin earned his first nomination, for Best Actor, forty years earlier, and forty-six years before this year's ceremony. What's more, it was for the actor's first notable screen appearance, in Norman Jewison's comedy "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" It's a little hard to see these days why the Academy were so enthusiastic about Jewison's charming, but slight comedy about a Soviet submarine that gets lost and causes panic on a New England island, with the nominated for four Oscars altogether, including Best Picture. But it's still an entertaining picture (like a less overblown version of Spielberg's "1941") and Arkin's performance is still a treasure. The actor plays Lt. Yuri Rozanov, the second-command of the stranded Russian sub, who comes ashore with a few men, disguised unconvincingly as Norwegians, to get a boat to get them out of a tight spot. Jewison cast the actor on the basis of his sketch comedy past at Second City, and Arkin's free-wheeling, sharp-on-its-feet comic sensibility still feels fresh today. In fact, you can draw a straight line from this to Sacha Baron Cohen's work, and not just because of the accent and tache.
Robert De Niro – "Bang The Drum Slowly" (1973)
While "Mean Streets" might have been the film that really put Robert De Niro on the map after the likes of "Bloody Mama" and "Hi, Mom!," there was one earlier great performance by the actor, even if it came only two months before Scorsese's film hit theaters. De Niro's first big studio lead came with John D. Hancock's "Bang The Drum Slowly," an adaptation of the beloved baseball novel by Mark Harris (previously filmed for TV, starring Paul Newman). De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a not-especially-talented, but slow-witted catcher for baseball team the New York Mammoths, who at the beginning of the film, is diagnosed with incurable Hodgkin's disease. The film centers on the relationship between him and best friend, pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), who helps to keep his diagnosis secret, and supports him in his final days. The subject matter has the potential to be treacly and manipulative, in a "Brian's Song" manner, but for the most part, Harris' adaptation of his own novel is more concerned with the baseball, and the team morale, than with being a weepie. There's a low-key, melancholy feel to the film, thanks in part to De Niro's turn, which never patronizes his character or begs for sympathy, the actor turning what could have been a stock role into a three-dimensional human being. And he has chemistry in spades with Moriarty, who went on to star in "Law & Order." The film isn't quiet a classic (though it is one of the better baseball movies to this day), but it's notable as the first major indicator that De Niro was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – "Boogie Nights" (1997)
Having graduated from Tisch in 1989, Philip Seymour Hoffman started racking up screen credits pretty quickly, with roles in "Scent of a Woman," "The Getaway" and "Nobody's Fool" among the most notable early on. But after an early blockbuster turn in "Twister," 1997 saw him really start to lift off, with his second collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson (after a small part in "Sydney"/"Hard Eight"). In Anderson's first masterpiece, "Boogie Nights," Hoffman plays Scotty J, the boom operator in the happy film family presided over by director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It's not a huge part by any means, but Hoffman does an awful lot with it, particularly in terms of his unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg's oblivious Dirk Diggler. It reaches a somewhat heartbreaking conclusion in the clip below, Hoffman showing the ridiculous lengths we go to woo the people we love. More prominent (and very different) roles were to follow in the next couple of years in "The Big Lebowski," "Happiness" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" among others, but this was really where it became apparent what a talent Hoffman was.
Tommy Lee Jones – "Rolling Thunder" (1977)
After his screen debut in 1970's "Love Story," Tommy Lee Jones split much of the 1970s between stage roles and a regular part on long-running soap "One Life To Live." After leaving the show, he made a big-screen comeback in the Roger Corman-produced "Jackson County Jail," and played Howard Hughes in a TV movie, but the film that really grabbed the world's attention came in 1977, with "Rolling Thunder." Co-written by a post-"Taxi Driver" Paul Schrader, and a favorite of Quentin Tarantino (he named it in Sight & Sound as one of the ten best of all time, and titled his short-lived Miramax cult films label after it), it's a curious mix of "The Deer Hunter" and "Death Wish." The film toplines William Devane as a Vietnam POW who returns to the U.S. already fairly alienated, but only more so when local outlaws break into his home, looking for the silver dollars he's been given by his town to celebrate his return, killing his wife and son, and mangling his hand in a garbage disposal in the process. Once he recovers, he enlists his stoic army buddy (Jones) to seek revenge. Though not much more than a scuzzy B-movie (test audiences were so horrified that backers 20th Century Fox sold the film off), both Devane and Jones are excellent, the latter bringing a repressed trauma and general badassery to the part that would come to set the pace for much of what was to come in the actor's career.
Christoph Waltz – "The Gravy Train" (1990)
As far as most English-speaking movie fans are concerned, Christoph Waltz burst out fully-formed as Colonel Hans Landa, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, and won. But of course, Waltz has a long career, stretching back thirty years in German film and TV, as well as the occasional English-language excursion (for example, a small role in "Ordinary Decent Criminal," a film notable for featuring Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Waltz, and yet still being virtually unseen by anyone). But his biggest brush with English-language stardom was in "The Gravy Train," a short-lived British-backed TV comedy series that aired on Channel 4 back in 1990. Penned by academic and author Malcolm Bradbury ("The History Man," John Schlesinger's "Cold Comfort Farm"), and co-starring Ian Richardson, Judy Parfitt and Alexei Sayle, the show sees Waltz play another Hans, this time a young aspiring diplomat/politician who heads to the European Economic Commission to take up a junior position, and finds himself rising, and falling, through the ranks. The issue of Europe dominated British discourse at the time, so the series has dated pretty speedily, and the pace is pretty slack in retrospect (the episodes are an hour long when 30 minutes would have done just fine). But there's still some sharp-edged satire to be found, and it's worth watching just for Waltz; it's very much a hint of what's to come, the actor playing a sweetly relatable, if hapless, everyman, and showing off his deft comic chops in a big way. UK viewers can watch the whole thing via 4OD on YouTube.