The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1963
I hate having to talk about 1963. This is a year where there were no good nominees for Best Picture, and one of the worst choices among the bad choices won. So you get a year where an undeserving film won, but, because they didn’t nominate any good films, nothing could be done about it.
Not only that, they also seemed to get every single award wrong. Every one. I’m not making that up, either. In all the categories, there was clearly a better choice to be made. Let’s start with this one, because, historically, it’s the one that does work, but, when you isolate it — it was a bad choice.
BEST ACTOR – 1963
And the nominees were…
Albert Finney, Tom Jones
Richard Harris, This Sporting Life
Rex Harrison, Cleopatra
Paul Newman, Hud
Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field
Finney — Albert Finney. This man has been around for a while. This movie was essentially his first major starring role and this was the first of his five Oscar nominations (the others coming for Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser, Under the Volcano and Erin Brockovich). In this movie, he plays a cad, essentially.
The entire movie is about him, kind of a bastard child — born to a man who knocked up a rich woman, and was then thrust out of the house — who is heir to some property (which was all the rage back then. Women fucked you for property and not for money. So, really not much has changed), but doesn’t know it. And instead, he goes around, brazenly fucking women. And he gets in trouble, has to run away, is scheduled to be hanged, continues to run away, gets in adventures, meets all these people who, since it’s a comic novel, come back to help him in the craziest of circumstances. You know how it is. Finney is fine in the role, it’s just, you can’t in good conscience vote for him. You just can’t.
Harris — Richard Harris, aka Dumbledore, for those who aren’t good with anything, is one of those actors — like Oliver Reed — who is very well-known in the 60s and 70s, were in some big British films, and essentially — drank like sailors. Oliver Reed is the one who died while filming Gladiator because, after filming one night, he actually said, in a bar, to a group of sailors, “I can drink you all under the table.” He was half right. He downed three bottles of rum and beat five sailors at arm wrestling, before ending under the table himself.
Richard Harris was a similar case. This is a man who admitted that he once went on Letterman after having downed two bottles of wine in his dressing room before going on — and was totally fine the entire time. This is a man amongst men. It’s a good thing they didn’t out Dumbledore as gay during his life, because — this motherfucker certainly was not equipped to do so.
So, this movie — Harris plays a rugby player who’s like — well, he’s basically the goon of the team. They bring him on because he’s good at beating the shit out of people and taking hits like there’s no tomorrow. The movie’s about them signing him and him not changing his ways and learning how to be a real player instead of a hurt machine. And some other stuff too. He gets in a relationship with a widow, sees her as redemption, that sort of thing. But he drinks like a fish and gets into fights and hurt all the time — severely hindering his on-the-field exploits — and also is such an asshole that he can’t help but fuck up the relationship with the woman, no matter how badly he wants to maintain it.
The reason I think he didn’t win is because the performance is too Stanley Kowalski. The man practically screams Brando during some of his scenes. He’s very brutish, and he’s also the spitting image of Brando in this movie.
It gets to the point where, near the end of the movie, he screams the woman’s name in a doorway, and I swear to god they just stole the “Stella!” scene and said, “let’s do that.”
But, aside from that, it is a great performance. One that, in a category like this, is probably one I’m gonna vote for. I need to check the rest, but, it’s a weak field. So, he looks like the obvious choice.
Though I will say — if Brando didn’t win for Stanley Kowalski, Richard Harris wasn’t winning for this. That, is about 70% of the reason why he didn’t win this Oscar.
Harrison — This role reminds me of a similar role from exactly ten years prior — Richard Burton (funnily enough, his costar in this movie) in The Robe. The problem with The Robe was, it was a big, Cinemascope film, but, the problem with Burton’s performance is, it’s so over-the-top and melodramatic that it’s almost laughable. Rex Harrison, however, has the exact opposite problem.
Cleopatra is a fascinating movie for several reasons. One, you can see the budget on screen. It’s huge. It’s a 4-hour movie. Very little actually happens. The first two hours are literally — Caesar comes to Egypt to settle a dispute between Cleo and her brother. This is after he defeated Pompeii and has been given the honorary title of “dictator for life.” And he’s there, and eventually he starts fucking Cleopatra and has a son. Then, he goes back to Rome, looking to make peace within the empire once and for all, by becoming emperor — a word that sits about as well with the Romans as it would if some dude this year was like, “I want to be the Führer of Germany.” So, they kill him. That’s the first half. The second half is Cleopatra now seducing Mark Antony and fucking him. And they fuck and fuck, and then Octavian declares war against Antony, and they attack, and he dies. Then Cleo kills herself with a snake. That’s four hours. Rex is only in the first two. Which makes this description a lot easier.
The problem with Rex Harrison in this movie is not that he does a bad job. Far from it. The problem is that the movie around him is so big, his subtle performance is almost swallowed up by the movie. What would be a pretty good performance — he plays Caesar as a smart man who is always trying to think two steps ahead of everybody. And instead of being rash, he stops and makes level-headed decisions. Like when the Egyptians set things up to goad the Romans into attack by having everyone about in the marketplace, Caesar is like, “No, we won’t attack. Put down the swords and pull out your gold. We’re going shopping.” He’s smart enough to do the unexpected thing, which is what makes him so good. Plus, they show him as an epileptic, always concerned about the illness. And, we see him as struggling between ambition and the good of Rome. We see him wanting to be emperor, partially because he’s good enough to be, but also because he knows its the right thing to do. And all of this is done in a performance that would be very Oscar-worthy if it was a smaller drama that’s actually about Caesar — in a smaller movie, ends up being a good performance that is just in this very big movie. It becomes a piece rather than a showcase. It’s like putting a great singer in a chorus. The whole chorus gets better and the pleasant sound makes you go, “Yeah, this is a good group of singers,” when, were they singing solo or in a three-person group, they’d clearly be the star.
So, Rex Harrison — good performance, not stand-out enough to really earn a win here. Very nice they took notice though. Plus he’s gonna get his due next year (don’t think he should have, but we’ll get to that another time). But, no vote.
Newman — I think my vote comes down between Richard Harris and Paul Newman. Paul gives a really good performance here, and he’s got the fact that they didn’t give him a statue for almost thirty years going for him retroactively. This is a small drama about a rancher and his good-for-nothing son. This is the kind of role that Paul Newman excels in playing. The good-for-nothing character who is essentially a loser. It takes various forms — Butch Cassidy, Frank Galvin, Luke Jackson — but all his characters are guys who are low in some way. Guys who redeem themselves by doing the right thing. I’m making this up, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Basically, he’s the rancher’s son, and instead of learn how to take care of the farm, he has bigger dreams — he’s going to move into the small town nearby (aka the big city) and get married and whatever. And all he does is go out drinking and screwing broads every night. And his younger brother (the kid from Shane, all growed up) looks up to him and idolizes him, while their father, a moral man — can’t stand it. And all he does is try to get through to Newman, who doesn’t want to hear it (of course, he dies at the end, and that crushes Newman, who finally realizes everything too late). And he has a weird relationship with the housekeeper, whom you think he wants sexually, but doesn’t, but does — he ends up raping her, or almost raping her, which is a very not-Paul Newman thing to do.
Still, it’s a great performance. And the vote comes down to either him or Harris. I’ll decide when I have to.
Poitier — Here’s the thing about Sidney Poitier. He represents great things. Here’s a black actor who came up when there weren’t strong parts for black actors. As such, the burden was on him to create those parts. So, a lot of his roles end up being either the “magical negro” or the “strong black man.” They’re all variations on a theme — which is good, because it establishes the role, and bad, because — well, he’s basically doing the same thing over and over again. Here, he’s the magical negro.
The problem with this role is — all he does is — he’s a drifter, he randomly shows up at a small chapel because his car runs out of gas. In return for helping him, he says he’ll be a handyman for the nuns for a little while. And he stays there, at first expecting to be paid, but after he realizes that ain’t happening, he stays because he starts to respect the women. He starts listening to them quote scripture or whatever, and helps them build this new chapel they’re trying to build. And he stays there for a long time, gets a job at a construction site during the day, and also builds this thing entirely by himself. That’s the thing. He refuses any help. Then people start helping in little ways, like lifting up a pail and shit. And he hates this, because he wants to do it alone. That’s basically the movie. He finishes, and leaves.
So, the movie is essentially this man trying to be Jesus — put in the labor for, presumably his sins. Then, other people start to help a little bit. He doesn’t want that. He does it himself. He does his business and leaves. That’s it. I am not joking. The whole movie, is him basically thinking he’s doing this for himself — spiritually, you know — but really, all he’s doing, is helping white people. The magical negro.
The fact that he won an Oscar for this role is hysterical to me. Because, on one hand, it’s momentous. Only one other black actor had ever won an Oscar, and that was Hattie McDaniel for Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Which is essentially a slave role. Sure, she had a mouth on her, but, still, a slave. Here, he’s the magical negro.
There wouldn’t be another black lead acting winner until Denzel and Halle Berry. Which, we all know how that came about. And the other two lead actors who were black are Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker. Both played real people. And then supporting there was Lou Gossett Jr. (why he won, I don’t know), Denzel in supporting (a slave role again. Though he was a runaway and fought in the all-black regiment. But still), Cuba Gooding, and Morgan Freeman. Oh, and Whoopi Goldberg (who actually is a magical negro in the movie. She actually does have magical powers. Well, it’s Ghost. I consider ESP a magical power), and Jennifer Hudson. Oh, right Mo’Nique too. So you can see, it’s skewed toward supporting. But, in the lead role, no black actor has ever won a statue by really playing a strong black fictional character. And if they did — it was because of loud cries of racism.
My point here is that — even though this performance is wildly unworthy of winning in the subjective sense — try The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and A Patch of Blue for better Sidney Poitier performances within a decade of this one — it’s also not worthy because, even though it’s historical, it’s a slap in the face. “We’re only voting for you because the performance is really about helping the white man.” That’s not right. Basically I’m using this as rationalization (which it’s not so much that as it is a fair point) to not vote for him and get around the standard argument of “well, a black actor winning an Oscar is a big deal.” Yes. But not for this role. He should have won for another role, is what I’m saying. So, absolutely no vote.
My Thoughts: In a very weak category, the choice comes down to either Paul Newman or Richard Harris. I like Newman’s performance, but for some reason the raw nature of Harris’s performance makes me want to vote for him more. So, I’m gonna lean toward that, but also say — catch me on a different day (or another viewing if either film), I might vote for Newman instead.
My Vote: Harris
Should Have Won: Not Poitier. At least, specifically for the role. Historically, he has an Oscar, and that’s what counts. So in that sense, he should have won. And actually, it’s good he won it this year because competition wasn’t strong like it was in other years. But, really, I don’t know if I could pick anyone here that really should have won.
Is the result acceptable?: Historically, yes. It was about time a black actor won a major statue. On the other hand, Poitier’s given much better performances both before and after this, and for him to win it for a magical negro role is such a slap in the face by the Academy. It’s like they said, “We don’t want to give you an award, but, we have to, so we’ll give it to you for playing someone whose only business is helping the whites.” So, really, I say, this is not acceptable, purely for that. Because, really, the man would have gotten one.