The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1959

1959 was Ben-Hur. Game over, man. But that’s just Best Picture and Best Director. The acting categories are fair game. Just because it won two acting awards does not necessarily mean it should have. That’s this category’s major issue. It’s like with Lawrence of Arabia. How much does just simply carrying a film of this scale count toward voting?

I like this. We have a theme. It only really counts for one performance, but fuck it, let’s run with it. As for the rest of the year, as I said, Ben-Hur swept Picture, Director and also Supporting Actor, which went to Hugh Griffith. Best Actress was Simone Signoret for Room at the Top, which I am so not happy about and will get to at some point. And Best Supporting Actress was Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank. This is a deceptively okay year. It seems like the decisions were fine because of the obvious choice in Ben-Hur, but, in actuality, I really don’t agree with any of the acting choices. I’m okay with one, maybe two of them, but, really, I think they could have picked better.


And the nominees were…

Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top

Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur

Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot

Paul Muni, The Last Angry Man

Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder

Harvey — I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated it.  And just so you know how much I hated it — I watched it twice just to be certain.

The movie is about this dude, played by Harvey, who is ambitious and wants to rise socially. It kind of reminded me of A Place in the Sun, a movie I also didn’t like but was much better compared to this. He gets a menial job, then sets his sights on the boss’s daughter. And he starts courting her, not really sincerely, mostly because he knows he’ll get a cushy job as the boss’s son-in-law and be set for life that way. But, along the way, he meets Simone Signoret, a housewife whose husband stopped loving her a long time ago. They’re together but separate. That sort of marriage. And Harvey starts falling for her, despite still courting the boss’s daughter. And he struggles between true love or success. And some shit happens, and he falls in love with one, knocks up the other, ends up with the one he doesn’t want, and the other drinks a lot and dies in a car accident. It’s so boring. It really is. The kind of film that always did really well at the Oscars. The kind of film I hate having to watch.

So, the performance is whatever. I hated the film. You didn’t think I was gonna like the performance, did you? I’m sure it was fine, but, for me — weak link. Never gonna vote for it. Still hate the film. Which is strange for me. Usually with an Oscar film I don’t mind it and just don’t care for it. This one I actively just don’t like. I try not to openly dislike a film, but this one I really just don’t like. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure others will feel differently, but, this one really wasn’t for me. At all. Not even a little bit. No vote.

Heston — This is Chuck Heston in biblical times. Before he went and lived with the apes, ate some Soylent People and bought a bunch of guns, he was in this. Oh, yeah, he was Moses before this, too. It’s weird that he pretty much cornered the market on biblical epics.

You know about some Ben-Hur, right? Jewish prince, betrayed, sold into slavery, ends up working his way back up, Gladiator-style, by saving his “owner”‘s life, gets adopted by Augustus, becomes a charioteer and has that big chariot race at the end? And then Jesus is involved too for some reason? That’s pretty much the movie. They intercut him with clips of Jesus going around, getting killed and such, giving him hope and all. And then the mother and daughter get leprosy — a lot of stuff happens, it’s like a four hour movie.

Here’s our main conundrum. Charlton Heston was not a very good actor. He wasn’t. He was fun to watch, but, he had about the emotional range of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But — here he has to carry a four hour movie, almost by himself, because he’s actually in about 90% of the scenes. So, as a technical performance, it’s not very good at all, at best it’s admirable. But, in terms of scope, he did have to go through a lot to make this movie. So — where you do draw the line on a vote? I don’t know. This same question happened with O’Toole in 1962 (he did not win. But there was a very good reason for that), and Crowe in 2000 (he won, and it’s probably for the same reason Heston did. Maybe a little makeup Oscar thrown in too). I’m sure there were more, but, those were the big two that come to mind.

I think the only way for me to mediate this is to vote what I think is the best performance, while understanding why Heston won and allowing it to be acceptable. I think that’s the fair way to do it. You don’t have to like the performance, but it is understandable why he won. That said — there’s no way I’m voting for this unless I don’t have any choice.

Lemmon — Jack Lemmon. I love this dude. He was so great. This nomination also poses a problem for me. Because at this point, Jack Lemmon didn’t have a Best Actor Oscar to his name (and wouldn’t for another 14 years). He did, however, have a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. However, he also wasn’t the leading man he would become over the next decade. After this he made The Apartment and Days of Wine and Roses, which are two films for which he very well deserved to win Best Actor (and yet, couldn’t, and didn’t, for some very obvious reasons). I feel context is very important to this nomination. I’ll explain why in a second. First —

Some Like it Hot is one of the funniest movies ever made. This is not just me saying this, this is a general consensus by everyone including the American Film Institute, who are known to be pretty good on their decision-making (as long as we go by films they include on their lists and not necessarily the placements of said films). I find I agree with them about 80% of the time. Which is good, since, with most people’s opinions it’s usually closer to 50 or 60%.

The film is about two band members — Lemmon and Tony Curtis (what a perfect pairing that was) — who witness a mob shooting (the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in fact) and are seen. So, knowing they’re in danger of being killed, they need to find a way to lay low and get out of town. How do they do this? They take a job in an all-female band, which requires them to dress like women. So for the rest of the film they have to go around, pretending they’re women, amongst a group of very attractive women, and naturally hilarity ensues. And the main plot lines throughout are, well, one, they’re laying low, and two, Tony Curtis is trying to romance Marilyn Monroe, which takes the form of him meeting her out of costume and pretending he’s a millionaire, and three, Jack Lemmon ends up being courted, as a woman, by an actual millionaire. Which leads to the movie’s classic final line, as Lemmon pulls off the wig and tells the man that he’s not a woman, and the dude shrugs and is like, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Lemmon, as you can imagine, is great in the movie. He plays the standard Jack Lemmon role, which is, Tony Curtis is the dude who doesn’t care so much about the consequences, while Lemmon is always the careful one, yelling about how crazy it all is, and is all stressed out and worried all the time. And he’s the one that really gets into the whole acting as a woman thing, really giving it his all, while Curtis is just sort of going for passable. It’s a great performance and is by far my favorite and #1 in my rankings, but, here’s where the whole issue of context comes in.

The two sides to this context issue are basically one and the same, both having to do with the fact that this is a comic performance. Now, on my end, I don’t necessarily have a problem with comic performances, but, because there’s also a dramatic performance on this list that I really loved, I find myself more inclined to vote for the dramatic performance instead. This has a lot to do with the other side of this coin, which is — the Academy has never really embraced a comic performance, especially when it comes to lead roles. Comic supporting roles have won, but not very many comic lead roles have won. And it’s not that I agree with it, but, it’s kind of, that’s just how things go, and, not that I buy into the whole tradition, it comes down to practical reasons of, if I run into a comic performance that I want to vote for — well first, if there’s a comic performance I really like and there’s no dramatic performance I liked as much, then I’m absolutely gonna vote for it and it’s not a big deal. But, if there’s a comic performance up against a dramatic performance, I always skew toward the dramatic because I always place the comic performance against other comic performances that were overlooked by the Academy. Like The Great Dictator. If Charlie Chaplin hasn’t won for a comedic performance, do I want to vote in something else? I mean, Lemmon in this movie is one of the top comedic performances of all time, but, something lesser but still very good, I’m always like, “Do I want to vote this when I know that Chaplin didn’t win?” This is hypocritical, because I’m sure at some point I voted for a comedic performance, but, this whole paragraph was basically me bullshitting my way into saying, while I love the Lemmon performance the most, I’m not voting for it. And I’m basically trying to work logic around that so it makes sense to everyone who isn’t me.

Muni — The Last Angry Man is a movie I didn’t know about before I started this quest. Well, that’s not entirely true. I heard about it first while watching the amazing Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, the documentary John Landis did about Don Rickles. It’s a great fucking documentary and I really do think everyone should see it, just so they can get a glimpse of one of the funniest comedians to ever grace the stage. Anyway, in that movie, a bunch of other celebrities and comedians talk about Rickles and his act and such. And the gist of the act is that he goes on stage and is mean to everyone. That’s it. Insult comic. Check it out, it’s Watch Instantly, I guarantee you’ll laugh really hard.

Anyway, in there, Billy Crystal makes a joke about how hw’s gonna steal Rickles’ act once he dies, and compares him to Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man. That was my first exposure to the film. Then I saw it was on the list of Oscar movies and knew — I need to watch that one.

The movie’s about Paul Muni — in his last screen role, which, nice piece of trivia on that, Paul Muni is the only man to be nominated for an Oscar for both his first and his last film role. Pretty neat, huh? — and he’s a doctor who lives in Brooklyn, and he’s very poor. Not poor poor, but, he’s struggling to make ends meet. He has for 35 years. And he’s very crusty. He complains about everything. And yet, he’s a great guy at heart. He does most of his work pro bono and takes care of the people that no one else will take care of. He’s like a medical Atticus Finch. And a television producer comes and wants to do a story on him. And the movie’s about the producer trying to convince him to do it and also get the story off the ground. And part of it is that the TV show is sponsored by a drug company and is looking to pay for the doctor to finally get his own house (he’s been living in a cheap apartment all these years). And he objects, because he knows the drug company puts out a shitty product and isn’t looking to help people. Basically — it’s a forerunner to all the shit that modern day pharmaceutical companies do. Only since it’s 1959, it’s a lot more hopeful. But, he refuses to take the house, because he refuses to take anything from anyone, first off, but also because he disapproves of the company and refuses to give them any positive press. It’s a great film.

Muni is fucking great in the movie and is amazing to watch. I can’t quite vote for him, just because he feels a bit, out of his era. It’s not noticeable or anything, but, I’m much happier knowing he was nominated and didn’t win. I don’t know why, but I find myself unable to vote for this performance. But he’s great though, and the film is really great too.

Stewart — Oh man, Anatomy of a Murder. The film so risque for its time that Jimmy Stewart’s own father took out a full page add telling people not to go see it. It’s an Otto Preminger film, and if you know the name you know controversial films are nothing new for him.

It’s a movie about an aging lawyer, Stewart, who doesn’t get clients anymore, so he spends most of his days fishing and drinking with his alcoholic buddy. And one day a woman comes to him (a femme fatale, in a way, but not really…it’s complicated) and says that she wants him to defend her husband, an army officer who killed another man. Now, she says he did it because the man raped her, but other people say that wasn’t the case. And it’s one of those movies, where Stewart is taking on the case, not really sure if his client is innocent or guilty, but also trying to win the case regardless. And the first half of the film is him preparing for the trial, and really, the last hour plus of the film is almost purely courtroom sequences. It’s so fucking engrossing. It’s just back and forth trial, and Stewart is fucking great in the movie because he becomes obsessed about the case and clearing his client and just watching Stewart go is really something to behold. For my money, he’s the best one on here.

My Thoughts: For me, Jimmy Stewart was the best performance here. Chuck Heston was very good and so was Jack Lemmon, but my favorite, voting-wise, is Jimmy Stewart, so he gets my vote.

My Vote: Stewart

Should Have Won: Stewart, Muni, Lemmon. I guess, Heston, too. That’s basically the whole category. Okay, we’ll narrow it down. No, fuck it. They all should have won. Let’s embrace it. We are the world.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Because Heston did have to carry that film on his back with his performance, and even if I didn’t like the performance by itself, that was a hell of an effort. Plus, going macro, Paul Muni had an Oscar, Jimmy Stewart had an Oscar, and Jack Lemmon would get another Oscar. And I like Chuck Heston. So I’m very cool with this one. Still voting Stewart though.

Performances I suggest you see: Ben-Hur is a must-see. I know it’s long, but it’s incredible. Just watching that chariot race and knowing that’ll never happen again because it’ll just be computer-generated. It’s breathtaking. You really do need to see it. It’s jaw-dropping. And Some Like it Hot is also a must-see because it’s honestly one of the funniest movies ever made. I don’t think there’s anyone that would out and out hate this movie. Anyone. And Anatomy of a Murder is a fantastic film. Courtroom film are always fascinating, and this is one of the best ones ever made. It really is worth checking out. I guarantee you you’ll enjoy it, as long as you have the patience to sit through a slower paced film. And The Last Angry Man is also a great film. Not for everyone, but that’s because I assume everyone is closed-minded. This is a fantastic film. My kind of character. Pessimistic old man who hates people. But, this movie is just as important as Network and A Face in the Crowd. It’s not as well-known, but it’s very much in that vein of predicting social trends before they became prevalent.


5) Harvey

4) Heston

3) Muni

2) Stewart

1) Lemmon

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