The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1953

Every time I talk about this year, I say, “I love 1953.” Wanna know why? Because 1953 is a fucking great year. I’ll spare you the list of films that came out this year — those are on the other articles. Just know, this year is great. And this category is great too. So that’s something we have going for us.

Best Picture this year, quite understandably (it’s got “prestige picture” written all over it), was From Here to Eternity. It wins that, along with Best Director for Fred Zinnemann (inevitable, since he didn’t win for High Noon the year before, and everyone acknowledged he should have), Best Supporting Actor for Frank Sinatra (which I talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress for Donna Reed. The other big award was Best Actress, which went to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday, which I talked about here.

That’s really all there is to say. It’s a strong year with a pretty strong set of winners. I wouldn’t necessarily have made all the same choices, but, I agree most of the way with them, and that’s all I need, really. It’s a great year.


And the nominees were…

Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar

Richard Burton, The Robe

Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

William Holden, Stalag 17

Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity

Brando — Julius Caesar. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know exactly what you’re gonna get with this one. I mean, I’m sure some of the dialogue is cut, but, if you’ve read the play, that’s all this is. It’s just the play, done on screen. No changes whatsoever. Which accomplishes two things. One, it makes this the definitive film version for those who enjoy the play or those too lazy to read the play and who want to pass the test on it, and it gives you something to focus on other than the source material. It’s like watching a version of A Star is Born. You’re not watching for the story. You’re watching to see what they do with it. You’re watching the performances. And that’s what you do here — watch the performances. Namely — well, everyone. Brando is Mark Antony, James Mason is Brutus, John Gielgud is Cassius, Louis Calhern is Caesar, Edmond O’Brien is Casca, Greer Garson is Calpurnia, and Deborah Kerr is Portia. You get to see all these great actors go at it. That’s the joy of this film. Plus, you get to pretend like you actually read the play. (I did, though, so, strangely, this isn’t one of those cases for me.)

Of course, as we all know, Caesar, does his thing, is killed, then the big speeches and then Antony wages war on all the douchebags responsible. You know the drill, I don’t need to explain this to you. I just did, because, I know some of you secretly don’t know anything about this play and are pretending like you do. Don’t worry, we all do it.

Anyway, Brando plays Antony, and it’s only natural that he’d get nominated here. This is nomination #3 in a stretch where he was nominated for four consecutive years in this category. First, for Streetcar (which he should have won for), then for Viva Zapata! (which, beats me why he was nominated for it. I guess because he was the hot actor and he was just nominated for everything he did), then for this, and finally for On the Waterfront, which you better damn well know he won for. Then he skipped a year and got nominated for Sayonara (which, also — why?), and that was his last nomination until The Godfather. Anyway, of those nominations he had in the 50s, it’s really clear which two he should have won for. And this one ain’t it. Don’t get me wrong, he’s great in the role and all, but — it’s Julius fucking Caesar. How can you not be good in it. Shakespeare is an actor’s showcase. But, I don’t think anyone’s gonna vote him for this one. Right? I’m certainly not. I didn’t like the performance enough to vote for it, plus it’s Shakespeare, and that’s a no-no for me, and also, he can only win for Streetcar, Waterfront and The Godfather. Outside of that, I draw the line. It’s like Daniel Day-Lewis. You either give it to him for the best ones, or you just give it to him for everything. It’s clear it’s not everything, so, no vote.

Burton — Where to begin with this fucking movie? Actually it’s really good. I just think of it as batshit crazy because Burton’s character goes batshit crazy midway through. I’ll explain. But first, a history lesson:

This film was the first Cinemascope film ever released. Cinemascope, if you don’t know, is an anamorphic lens that projects an image in up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio. Put it this way — full screen is 1.37:1. That’s the square image you see in old movies or that old people like when they go, “What’s with all the lines on the TV?” Widescreen today is usually 2.35:1. That’s what standard letterbox looks like. Academy ratio is now 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. Cinemascope, is just extra wide. Unlike Cinerama, which actually was three separate cameras providing the extra wide image, Cinemascope didn’t require a curved screen.

The best way to describe it is like this. Standard films in the 50s looked like this:

I’m using the wonderfully tutorial opening of The Girl Can’t Help It to illustrate the point. They actually start the film like this. Tom Ewell comes out and says, “This is how films are normally projected. But this — is Cinemascope.” And what he does is, go to the edge of the screen, and push away two large black set pieces that were masking the edges of the image, producing this image:

Ya follow? Oh, and just in case you thought it was in black and white, they assure you it is, in fact, in Technicolor.

Why they did this in 1956, three years after Cinemascope first appeared, I have no idea, but it’s the best and most understandable example anyone’s ever made about aspect ratio. The film’s also really great, I highly recommend it. Basically, what you need to know about Cinemascope — extra wide.  So this movie is there to show off how wide it is.

It’s about a Roman general, played by Burton, who is very successful at what he does. At the beginning, he buys a slave — Victor Mature (ol’ Doc Holliday himself) — who sticks with him for the first half of the film. They travel to Jerusalem for a campaign, and, while there, Mature becomes captivated by some dude called Jesus. Yeah, the movie’s about Jesus. I know, I know. But hear me out. Burton is ordered to have Jesus taken care of (“I want him dead! I want his family dead!”), and he is. After the crucifixion, Mature takes Jesus’s robe, and keeps it as a memory of the dude. And then Burton wins (or loses, whatever it is) the robe in a dice game (seriously, they play dice) and, as he puts it on, he has a seizure and goes crazy. And then he’s kind of batshit for a while, and suddenly converts to Christianity. I know. It’s hysterical. And then he becomes Catholic, and the rest of the film is him being like, “Yo Rome, you’re all fucking heathens!” And then they all ask him to repent, but he’s like, “Bitch naw,” and won’t, so they go kill him. It’s almost exactly the same film as Quo Vadis, except — in Cinemascope. It’s hysterical, especially if you think it’s funny that a dude wins Jesus’s robe in a dice game and it makes him go crazy and convert.

The reason Richard Burton was nominated here was because he actually carries this film. Without his batshit performance, this movie wouldn’t hold together as well as it does. Think of it like Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, only not as good. Which, right there tells you why he didn’t win and why I’m not voting for him. I mean, just watch it. You’ll understand.

Clift — Oh boy, oh boy, a double nominee. I love these.

From Here to Eternity is about (I’ll leave out the Sinatra part. It’s totally irrelevant to these proceedings) a dude who transfers into a military base at Pearl Harbor (which we really only find out about when they attack it at the end). And they discover he’s a good boxer. But, in his last regiment, he accidentally killed a man in the ring, so he left so he didn’t have to box. Unfortunately he transferred into the unit with the most corrupt C.O. in the army. The dude loves his boxing. He also skimps on his work, makes his aide do it and leaves to go sleep with his mistress and get drunk every night. So, upon finding out the dude is a good boxer, he tells him he has plans for him. But when the dude says he won’t fight, the C.O. has everyone make his life a living hell until he agrees to fight. And they put him through such hardships, and he takes them, because he really won’t fight. And then he ends up meeting a whore, and falling in love with her, and they agree to run away together, and he ends up going AWOL for two days because of a whole subplot, but, basically he ends up stabbed and is wounded. Then he goes back and is accidentally shot by a sentry. Very tragic.

Clift plays the soldier. And he’s great in the movie. He gets to display a wide range of emotion, and basically carries the film. It’s kind of an ensemble, but he’s the main actor. I actually think he was good enough for me to vote for him. But we’ll see. It’s murky at the moment.

Holden — This is my favorite film on this list. Seriously, it’s so fucking good. Billy Wilder is my fucking hero.

This film is about a POW camp. A group of men in a particular barracks — kind of like The Great Escape — are always trying to organize an escape. But every time, like clockwork, they’re discovered. So they begin to discover there’s a traitor amongst them. And they immediately begin to suspect the most unlikable man in their barracks — Sgt. J.J. Sefton, played by Holden. He’s a man who is out for himself, and is not nice to anyone except his prison bitch of sorts. He has an assistant who is a little mousy guy and other than him, nobody likes him. He’s also the dude who has everything. He’s got his own razor, bars of soap, even an electric heater and shit like that. Meanwhile the other guys have boots with holes in them. And everyone just hates him. So they all figure, he’s the traitor. He’s selling secrets for all these luxuries. But that’s just the main plot. There are a lot of little vignettes that take place over the course of the film. And of course, the traitor is revealed to the audience, and then a very major player shows up who NEEDS to escape, because he’ll be killed if he stays there (think Victor Lazlo in Casablanca), so they work on getting him out without the traitor knowing. I’m not spoiling anything else, because, the film is just so good, and I want you to experience it.

Holden is really good in the movie. It’s a very unlikable role, which is what makes it really great. He’s unlikable, and yet, you feel for him, because you can understand why he is the way he is, and also you feel for him because of the situation he’s in (it’s pretty clear he’s not the traitor, and you see the way everyone else treats him because of it). It’s a very tricky role, and Holden pulls it off very well. My only gripe with it, which really is the only thing affecting whether I vote for it or not, is that it’s not really a lead role. I mean, it kind of is, but it also isn’t. He’s not in the film that much. There are long stretches where he’s just not on screen and other things are happening. In fact, you almost don’t really meet him until like twenty minutes in. It feels like just a piece of an ensemble. He’s great, but the limited screen time is the only thing that might affect whether I vote for him or not.

Lancaster — Burt Lancaster now, since I talked about the film up there, plays the C.O.’s aide. He’s a very dedicated soldier who resents officers, and never wants to become one. He loves his work, and takes great pride in doing it. Though he does think his C.O. is a schmuck. One day he goes to the C.O.’s house, but ends p talking to his wife. They end up having an affair and fall in love. Which is fair, since the C.O. is fucking women all the time. But, they have an affair, leading to that famous beach image, and end up breaking it off because she wants him to be an officer, but he refuses to. He’s married to his job. That’s basically his story. He’s also very sympathetic to Clift, and the two of them share a great moment where they’re both drunk in the road.

Lancaster is very good in this movie, but I’m not sure if I’ll vote for him, since most of his scenes are him engaged in an affair. He gets to lie on a beach and make out with Deborah Kerr. Not exactly a taxing role. Clift seemed to have the much more strenuous performance (and never won an Oscar), so I lean toward him.

My Thoughts: Okay, we’re gonna have to go from last to first. That’s the only way to pick this one. First off is Richard Burton. I like the performance. I think he was appropriately — big — for a movie of that size, and I think he did an admirable job carrying it. Because without him, the movie wouldn’t work as well. But I can’t vote for this performance. I mean — come on. Second off is Brando. The reason for that is — if he didn’t win for Streetcar, he ain’t winning for this. Waterfront is the only performance worthy of an Oscar that he gave after Streetcar (in the 50s). Now, third — and here’s how Holden ended up winning — you’re looking at a vote split between Lancaster and Clift. Personally, I have Bill Holden third on my list. It’s not that I didn’t love the performance. He’s actually #1 on my rankings. It’s just that, he’s not really the lead of the film. If you watch the movie, you’ll see that it’s actually pretty much of an ensemble. There are long stretches where Holden isn’t even in the movie. I’m not against him winning — I think it’s great, and helps me out for another year I’ll get to eventually — I just can’t vote for him because, it’s not really a lead performance.

For me, this comes down between Clift and Lancaster. And that’s clearly why neither of them won. But, if I had to choose between the two — I think it’s gotta be Clift. Lancaster was good, and he had that great drunk scene toward the end, but, most of his time in the film is him being in love and getting all the romantic scenes. That’s not a role Burt Lancaster should win an Oscar for. Elmer Gantry is a film he should win an Oscar for. The Rainmaker. Sweet Smell of Success. Even Birdman of Alcatraz. Not this. Monty Clift was great in the movie, is the real lead of the film, and gives the best performance in it. He should have won here (even though I get why he didn’t), and he gets my vote.

My Vote: Clift

Should Have Won: Clift. And I guess, Holden too, in a way.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Not so much because Clift never got an Oscar, but because, in my mind, in 1976, William Holden should have won Best Actor for Network, not Peter Finch. Finch was good, but, he was kind of a strong supporting part in that movie. I get why they voted him lead, but, William Holden carries the majority of the scenes in that film, along with Faye Dunaway. And I think, of the two, Holden deserved it more. But since he had one and Finch didn’t, it’s cool. Though, I’ll also say that De Niro and Taxi Driver and Stallone, to a lesser extent, in Rocky also are sentimental favorites for me. But De Niro didn’t really need the win for Taxi Driver, as much as people say he did. Raging Bull was really his masterpiece. Anyway, what I’m saying is, the fact that Bill Holden won here makes it okay for him to have lost in ’76. So, yes, it’s acceptable, even though I’d still have voted for Clift.

Performances I suggest you see: From Here to Eternity is a classic film and probably a must see if you’re a film person. I think of it as, the first wave of essential films are shit like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind (The Thin Man) — you know, classics. Then the next wave is shit like this. This is also very essential, but if you’re the kind of idiot who likes watching shit like Hitch on TBS every weekend, and don’t care about movies, it’s probably not essential for you. But if you like movies, this is a movie you definitely need to see. Ya follow? Next, Stalag 17 is a film you NEED to see. Not for the exact same reasons you need to see From Here to Eternity, but you do NEED to see it. I put need in caps because — it’s so fucking good. This is a movie you hear about from a friend, who says it’s so awesome (the way I found out about it). And you watch it and go, “Holy shit, this is awesome!” It’s Billy Wilder at his best, which, is saying something. I bet you when you watch this film (if you haven’t seen it), you’ll go, “Why the fuck haven’t I seen this before?” It may not be for a certain section of the audience (namely women. For some reason this feels like a guy-centric film. But I mean that section of women that are like, women women. I have a lot of those female friends. Many of them don’t do movies like this, some do but aren’t so interested in them, and then there are the ones who love shit like this, and I’ll be honest, when gauging their tastes, I just treat them like they’re guys (or, are me), so I don’t really count them in the “women” category), but, for most people, this is definitely a film you’re going to enjoy. You’re welcome, if you haven’t seen it.

Julius Caesar, is, exactly what it is. The play on film. It’s a great staging of the play and it’s really well done. It’s just — Julius Caesar. You know what it is when you’re getting into it. It’s really good and I recommend it, but you need to want to watch this movie before watching it. You could watch it for the Brando performance — and the Mason one as well — and still also enjoy it. You know, it is what it is. But it is a good film.

And finally — The Robe. I love big budget studio filmmaking (not so much nowadays, but, still, I can make the blanket statement and it would be applicable), especially in the 50s. I love knowing shit was done on soundstages and on sets. Shit like The Vikings, where you can tell they’re in a water tank and the backdrop behind them is so fake. I can’t get enough of that shit. This film is the first Cinemascope production, which means — they wanted it to be big, and they wanted you to know it. This film is fucking BIG. And you know what? It’s so big, it completely made me indifferent to the fact that the fucking movie is about Jesus. That takes a lot. It’s actually a really great film on top of it. It’s very entertaining. You can watch this as studio filmmaking, and if you’re not a film student or someone who cares for such things, you can watch it for camp. Because this movie is campy as fuck! It’s really great.

So, I recommend them all, and in the order of, Stalag 17, From Here to Eternity, Julius Caesar, The Robe.


5) Burton

4) Brando

3) Lancaster

2) Clift

1) Holden

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