The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1955

The great thing about 1955 is, it’s one of those years that’s so bland that it trips you up when you go back to it. It’s not that they made poor choices (far from it, actually), it’s just that it’s one of those years where, when you go back, it’s just a blank. There’s no real excitement or anything to make it stick in your mind. I don’t have enough separation from Oscar years to really know how accurate any example is going to be. But think something like — I don’t know, Super Bowls? One of those boring years, like 2005, when the Steelers beat the Seahawks. I always forget that one. It was boring. You have to think about it for a second (unless you have something that makes the memory catch quicker, like, winning $500 during the game. In which case you know goddamn well who won that game. You did). It’s like that.

Anyway, the reason it’s one of those “dead years” — is because the film that won Best Picture was Marty. Marty is a film that was originally a made for TV movie that they adapted for the screen. It still plays kind of like a play, since it’s mostly two people talking and has about four locations total. And it’s only like 95 minutes, which clocks in as the shortest Best Picture of all time. It does not, however, win for shortest Best Picture title. That goes to Gigi. And, Wings. But, it’s one of those films that, while great, probably would not have won if it were nominated any other year.

Delbert Mann won Best Director for the movie — I guess because it’s one of those, “Well, we’re giving it to one, might as well give it to the other one too,” as most years tend to work. Best Actress went to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo. Who? Exactly. This is why no one remembers this year. Best Supporting Actor went to an actor in one of his first films roles — Jack Lemmon. Best Supporting Actress went to Jo Van Fleet for East of Eden. So it’s one of those years where — nothing makes it stand out from the ones around it. Namely, the year before when On the Waterfront wins and the year after, when Around the World in 80 Days wins.

And, for the most part, it deserves to be. It’s a pretty boring year. A boring year highlighted by this category. One that, until now, I kept delaying my ultimate decision on what I thought about it. So, let’s get a step closer to that and get into the analysis:


And the nominees were…

Ernest Borgnine, Marty

James Cagney, Love Me or Leave Me

James Dean, East of Eden

Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm

Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock

Borgnine — I love Ernest Borgnine. How can you not? The man’s been in so many movies that everyone in the world knows who he is. I’m about to list (and it’ll be long), a shit load of movies he was in. Check this son of a bitch out: From Here to Eternity (as Sgt. Fatso, the guy who torments Sinatra), Johnny Guitar, Vera Cruz (both times playing sadistic henchmen. People in Westerns with me, you’re now about to remember just how many this dude was actually in), Bad Day at Black Rock, The Vikings (in which he plays a Viking king who dies by jumping into a pit of wolves, shouting, “ODIN!!” That’s what’s known as a man’s death), McHale’s Navy (as McHale), The Flight of the Phoenix, The Oscar ( wonderfully tacky movie), The Dirty Dozen (one of the generals that hires them), The Wild Bunch, Willard, The Poseidon Adventure, Emperor of the North, The Devil’s Rain, the Jesus of Nazareth that Zeffirelli did that’s on TV every Easter, The Black Hole, Escape from New York (as Cabbie), Gattaca, BASEketball (as Ted Denslow. A role that he did not understand, yet finds so many people coming up to him and telling him they love him for), Hoover (which is apparently a one-man show where he plays J. Edgar), Spongebob Squarepants (as Mermaid Man), he was in the last episode of ER, and, most recently, in Red. So, I think we can all say that Ernest Borgnine is fucking awesome.

That said — watch this motherfucking movie. This is a role that was made for him. He is incredible in it. If you don’t know Marty — which I think was actually the trailer of the movie. Burt Lancaster was the main producer of the movie and he literally comes out in the trailer like, “You don’t know him, but you will. No, I’m not in the picture, it’s all his.”

But, the movie is — and it’s short, so you almost have no excuse not to see it — about a lonely butcher. He’s 35, and living at home with his mother. And it’s an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx and everyone comes into his shop (as all Italians do), like, “When are you gonna get married, Marty?” and it eats away at him, because no girl has ever wanted him. And he has these fights with his mother, who doesn’t actually want him to get married, because she thinks she’ll be abandoned. So she feeds his loneliness. And then one day his friend takes him to a dance, and there he meets a lonely girl. At first it’s under the cover of, “You go dance with her so I can dance with her hot cousin.” And the two start dancing, and eventually start having a conversation. Which literally then takes up most of the rest of the film. They just walk for about twenty minutes and get to know one another. And we actually see them forming a real bond. And it’s the most touching thing, because, we know how desperate he is for the connection, and, because of how good Betsy Blair is with her character, know she’s just the same. And they come home, and then dear old Mother finds out about it and tries to sabotage it. But that’s not really the focal point. The foal point is the performance of Borgnine and the performance of Blair (which was nominated for Best Supporting Actress even though she’s clearly a lead. But, she could fit in supporting, based on screen time, maybe, and it gave her a better chance to win, so…), and believe me, they are fucking astounding.

Borgnine is so good in this role that, by the time he’s talking to Blair and walking the streets with her, you’re rooting for him so badly that everything that happens is so poignant. This man manages to engage your emotions the way something like — I don’t know, one of those sports movies does. Or whatever a movie is where, by the end, you’re rooting for the protagonists to win. But I mean, something action-oriented. Like, when the team wins the game — or like a boxing movie, and Rocky or Mickey Ward wins the fight, and you’re all energized and happy. This is literally the same thing, but with a dude finding love. It takes a special kind of acting to produce that. So, really, Ernest Borgnine deserved an Oscar 100%, for the performance and for his career. But, my only problem is, there’s one other performance that I put evenly, if not a little higher than his for this same year. Which causes the problem. I’ll get into it in a bit.

Cagney — Jimmy Cagney. This must have been partially a veteran nomination. The great thing about Jimmy Cagney is that all of his nominations have either been for playing gangsters or song-and-dance men. That’s it. Those are the only two. In Angels with Dirty Faces, he’s a gangster. Obviously. Yankee Doodle Dandy, which he won for — well, you get the idea. Here, he plays a gangster, who’s in the song-and-dance business. It’s a fitting final nomination for the man. It would almost be like John Travolta playing a gangster who’s also a dance floor king (Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever. The point was not to guess the movies).

The movie isn’t all that great, and Cagney isn’t over-the-moon great in it. But, he is good, and since I love symmetry, I love that he was nominated for it. He plays a gangster who discovers a singer, played by Doris Day, and discovers she’s got a bit of a mouth on her. No one else would dare talk to him like that. And he ends up marrying her and becoming her manager. And, he kind of becomes like an Ike Turner type. They don’t go full on Ike with it, because it’s 1955, but it’s clear he’s abusive toward her. He’s got a temper, and yells at her a lot. Things like that. And it’s about her building up the courage to — it’s in the fucking title. So he gets to play the angry, abusive husband role, and he’s good in it (if not entirely convincing. But I chalk that up to him getting older. Once actors get older, they lose their passion and tend to not be entirely convincing in their parts. (Looking at you, Bobby D. Jack, you’re all right. You’re clearly still trying. The jury’s still out on Dustin Hoffman.)

So, Cagney’s good. I don’t necessarily recommend you see the part, unless you like Cagney movies or really like Doris Day. I like that he was nominated but, no vote. Not when we already know how good Ernest Borgnine was. (Plus, Cagney has one already. This is not a role that’ll win him another one.)

Dean — Here’s the thing about James Dean. Some people say genius, I see extremist. They say he was great at method acting, but, in his three films, in two of them I saw him either going really low-key, and almost mumbling incoherently, or going histrionic, like — “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART” — which, yes, is where Tommy stole it from. He does remind me of Brando, but, watching him, he seems as though he doesn’t do it nearly as well as Brando did. Dean actually looks like he’s trying to ad-lib his lines on camera. I don’t know, I never really got it. That whole, cult icon thing. I liked his performance in Giant, but the other two, I didn’t really get. But, you know, whatever. I don’t care that he was nominated.

He plays a farmer’s son who desperately wants the approval of his father. The whole movie is about him having an emotional disconnect with his father. It’s a pretty movie to look at, because Kazan shoots the hell out of it, but I never did get the appeal of this movie. I suggest you probably see it just to see Dean acting. I’m curious as to what people’s unfiltered opinions of it are. Because the way it works now is, you hear, “James Dean, James Dean, he was a brilliant actor whose life was cut short,” and you’re inclined to agree with it, because, you’re looking for that. Being purely objective, if that’s possible, I’m curious as to what people would end up thinking about the performance. No vote.

Sinatra — I went into this movie knowing very little about it. I knew that it was a big reason why the production code failed, and I knew (and this part I’d only learned like, the night before I saw it) that it was about drug use. That’s perhaps the best way to go into a movie like this, because, goddamn, it blew me away. If you’d like to go into it unspoiled, don’t read the next paragraph. If you don’t care, read it. I’ll still try not to spoil anything past the set up. Actually, I will end up spoiling on reveal, or two — so as I highly suggest you see this movie — seriously — I highly suggest you don’t read the next paragraph if you’re planning on seeing it. Because when I didn’t know anything about it, both of these reveals (well, one of them I caught) were kind of surprising to me, because I wasn’t expecting them.

The movie is about Sinatra, as a man just getting out of prison. That’s literally how it starts. He gets out, gets off the bus, and is back in his neighborhood. And we find out he’s an ex-heroin addict, who kicked the stuff while in jail. And he gets home, and now, his ex-dealer (played wonderfully slimy by Robert Strauss), tries to get him back on the stuff, knowing which buttons to push to make Sinatra jones for his fix. But, Sinatra tries to star straight. That’s where the godo drama comes in. He wants to start a life. He wants to get a job as a drummer (he learned while in rehab) and make money for him and his wife. His wife — she’s in a wheelchair, and it seems at first like he’s only with her because of her condition. And then we find out — reveal — she’s not actually crippled. She’s just pretending to be so he doesn’t leave her. Problem is, at the beginning, he actually does love her. And her desperation to keep him (along with the whole dishonesty thing) actually drives him away. And so he aspires to go straight. And he meets a woman who flirts with him (Kim Novak, also known as Lila Crane, Marion’s sister — the one in Psycho who lives), who will eventually be his girlfriend once the girlfriend pushes him away. And he has a little Jewish friend, guy — he’s kind of like Igor, in a way. He runs up, like, “Gee, boss, what are we gonna do today, I think we should go up to the park and find us some beautiful ladies,” but he defers to whatever Sinatra wants and does all his errands for him happily. Thing is, though, he’s a great character, the guy. He’s funny, and realyl well done. And, also, the final character here is Darren McGavin, aka The Old Man, from A Christmas Story. He plays a gangster who wants Sinatra to come back working for him. And at first you don’t know exactly what Sintra did, but you assume it was illegal, because — he ended up in jail. But, when Sinatra finally agrees to do it, you realize — reveal — that he was simply a card dealer who dealt cards in those back room, high stakes games, and was really good at it. So good, in fact, they call him, “the man with the golden arm.” Get it? Because up until this point you thought they meant heroin. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking. And then eventually all the stresses os Sinatra’s life boil up to a point, and he goes and gets his fix. And then he ends up back on heroin again. And it’s tragic. And then one thing leads to another, and he goes away for a weekend to his new girlfriend’s apartment to detox. And we actually see — ballsy for 1955 — a lengthy sequence in which he actually detoxes. We see him going through that torture. It’s spellbinding. I won’t ruin the rest of the movie, because it’s all predicated on the situations set up throughout, but needless to say, this is a movie that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Sinatra is fucking brilliant in this movie. It’s astounding what he achieves. Seriously, just watch him. And, this is a movie that I consider one of the best films ever made. I think everyone should see it. To me, this film is one of the top five films about drug use ever made. And Sinatra is so good, I think he might even be more worthy of the Oscar than Ernest Borgnine is. But, the decision doesn’t have to be made until after the final nominee, so there’s still a stay of execution.

Tracy — Here’s another actor I never fully understood the appeal of. Spencer Tracy always seemed like he wasn’t acting. He just sort of acted glumly and was just there. I guess, maybe, dour is the word to describe it. He’s just all stern. Here he literally plays a one-handed stranger, who shows up at a Western town, looking for a Japanese man who’s gone missing. And the rest of the town are clearly trying to cover something up, and he goes around looking for him. And the movie is literally like a small-town mystery, with this stranger figuring out that the people killed him out of racism and hid the body. Because it’s around WWII that this happened. And it’s revealed, naturally, that the dude was a war hero and saved Spencer Tracy’s life. And they don’t care by this point. He knows. We have to get rid of him. That’s the movie. It’s executed well, since it’s a noir western, and that combination is awesome. But Tracy is just kinda there, doing what he does. I just don’t find it interesting at all. There are only a handful of his performances that I can understand, mostly because he injects humor into them. Like Inherit the Wind. Or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But in there, his weariness isn’t because his daughter is marrying a black man, it’s because he’s actually dying. He died ten days after they finished filming. So, no vote. I don’t get Spencer Tracy performances, and very rarely will I be inclined to vote for one.

My Thoughts: When I say it’s almost impossible to choose between Borgnine and Sinatra, I mean it. This is the decision I’ve been putting off for a long time. The two are about as equal as any two performances I’ve ever seen. So, if it came down to it, in a purely objective manner, today, this instant, which could change at any point, I’d say–

My Vote: Sinatra

Should Have Won: Sinatra. Or Borgnine. But if I’m picking one that “should have”, Sinatra.

Is the result acceptable?: The $60 question. I’ve delayed my ultimate decision on this forever. I love Ernest Borgnine, and I love that he has an Oscar, but, Frank Sinatra gave the performance of a lifetime in The Man With the Golden Arm. So, I’ve come up with this rationale for this year. Based solely on the performances, this is not an acceptable outcome. Sinatra’s performance is too good to ignore. Borgnine, however, is a close second to him, which says something. He really is amazing in the role. However — there’s more. In the grand scope of history — both Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine have Oscars. Frank won his Oscar in 1953. It was Supporting, but, an Oscar is an Oscar. So, in the historical sense, this is an acceptable result. I am willing to accept that Borgnine won this race historically because, him and Sinatra both have Oscars. That’s how we’re gonna do it. So, in one sense it’s not acceptable, but in a greater sense, it is. So that allows me to play both sides of the fence and not actually have to make a final decision. I like it.

Performances I suggest you see: Sinatra (Seriously, watch this movie. It’s fucking incredible. It’s like Requiem for a Dream made in the 50s. Which, is great because, they had a production code to get around. And some of the scenes in there are the equivalent of a double-sided dildo for the time period it was in), Borgnine. And, Dean, I guess, if you are one of those people who want to see everything he did.


5) Tracy

4) Cagney

3) Dean

2) Borgnine

1) Sinatra


One response

  1. That’s a hard toss up, Sinatra vs. Borgnine. I think both were absolutely amazing in their respective roles and you’re absolutely right in saying Borgnine was made for the role of Marty. I still think I lean on Borgnine’s side and possibly it’s because I love a good underdog to win, especially when it comes to the Oscars (who seem to have special recipes for how to win). However, even if Sinatra was the better suited person to win the gold, I think politics would have played a huge part in his not winning. 1955 was only two years after he won Best Supporting Actor for “From Here to Eternity” and the Academy is notoriously picky about giving awards to certain individuals for silly political reasons. Then again, Louise Rainer, Tom Hanks, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy have all won consecutively, so who knows.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:26 pm

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