I strongly suspect that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar race is between Green Book‘s Mahershala Ali and Can You Ever Forgive Me‘s Richard E. Grant, and that Sam Elliott‘s stand-out performance in A Star Is Born…well, he’ll be nominated but that’s all.

Like all Oscar contenders Elliott has of course been getting a lot of media attention with career-highlight articles and whatnot. But his Wiki page pays almost no attention to his first half-decent theatrical feature — Daniel Petrie‘s Lifeguard, a 1976 character-driven story about aging and values — and in which Elliott gave his first semi-sturdy performance.

I saw Lifeguard when it first came out. It was obviously a low-budget beach movie (pre-Baywatch) that was partly green-lighted because of the bikinis, and was saddled with an occasionally clumsy, in-and-out script. But it also had a grounded, this-is-real, emotionally upfront quality, and was about the terror of hitting 30 with no clear idea of what to do with your life.

Elliott played Rick Carlson, a 30-year-old Los Angeles lifeguard (Elliott turned 32 in August ’76) who gets laid a lot. Rick begins to question his life when he reunites with Anne Archer‘s Cathy, an old girlfriend who’s now divorced with a young son. Sensing his beachside ennui, she urges Rick to to take a job as a Porsche salesman, which is being offered to him by another high-school classmate (Stephen Young).

Concurrently Rick is feeling a certain something or other for Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan, 21 at the time), a lonely teenager with a crush on him. Will Rick quit lifeguarding for a Porsche dealership gig? Will he hook up with Archer or relapse with the obviously-too-young Quinlan?

Variety review: “Lifeguard is an unsatisfying film, of uncertain focus on a 30-ish guy who doesn’t yet seem to know what he wants.” HE response: Wrong — it’s fairly satisfying. As for the main character not knowing which way to turn…yes, exactly!

Director David Frankel, writing six years ago in a N.Y. Times essay about Lifeguard:

“I remember Lifeguard all these years later, and that counts for something, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what art is, really? A work that makes you see the world differently, that answers questions you didn’t know you had, that perfectly captures a time and a place, that inspires you?

Lifeguard is about making choices. That’s what the best movies are always about, and that’s what I remember most: the horror of realizing at 30 that your best years may be behind you, and that only drudgery and self-hatred lie ahead.

“Sitting there in my tennis shorts in a multiplex in Poughkeepsie, that sure motivated me. In a strange, popcorny, cliché-ridden, summer-movie kind of way you could say that Lifeguard saved my life.”