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The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1963

I consider 1963 one of the worst years in Academy history. Or rather, one of the worst years in terms of its Best Picture nominees and its Best Picture choice. This is definitely one of the top five weakest sets of nominees I’ve ever seen. Tom Jones wins Best Picture in a field that includes Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, Lilies of the Field and  America, America. What would you have voted for there? (Personally, I have it down between Cleopatra or America, America. But it’s still a terrible set of five.) There was no good choice here.

Best Actor this year was Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, which I consider a good decision historically, but also kinda racist, which I talked about here. Best Director this year was Tony Richardson for Tom Jones, which makes sense since they went that way for Best Picture. Best Supporting Actor was Melvyn Douglas for Hud, which I actually like as a decision, even though it would have been so much more interesting if they gave it to John Huston. (Right?) And Best Supporting Actress was Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s, which was really the only decision in that category (it had three Tom Jones nominees and a Lilies of the Field nominee).

Now we come down to this one. What the fuck happened here? This is the capper on a terribly bad and uninteresting year. Worst of the 60s, actually. They had the opportunity to give an Oscar to Leslie Caron, Shirley MacLaine (already overdue and once blatantly snubbed), or Natalie Wood (ditto what I said about Shirley MacLaine). And they give it to Patricia Neal? Seriously? What a bad end to a terrible year this was.

BEST ACTRESS – 1963

And the nominees were…

Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room

Shirley MacLaine, Irma La Douce

Patricia Neal, Hud

Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life

Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger

Caron — Leslie Caron is an actress I really didn’t know much about before this Quest. Which is kind of surprising. But also, not really. She really only made around seven movies that I’d have seen. Two of them won Best Picture — An American in Paris and Gigi, so I saw them pretty quickly when I started this whole thing. Actually I’d seen An American in Paris before I started this. But in each one, I never really paid much attention to her. I was like that before I started this. For some reason, actors just wouldn’t register with me until I knew who they were. You know? Like, you see an actor in the movie, register them as the character, and that’s that. But then, when they have an identity to you, it’s, “Wait, they were in that?” That’s what she was for me.

The other films she made that were really noteworthy (at least, the ones I would have had the best opportunity to have seen), were Father Goose, with Cary Grant, which I saw after the fact, and very randomly too. It was expiring from Netflix Instant and I put it on. Very enjoyable film. She also made Daddy Long Legs, which I still haven’t seen. Though that’s interesting because that makes her one of the few actresses to have danced with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. She also made Fanny, which I also saw as part of this Quest. Maybe that’s what it was that got me to notice her. She’s great in that. Actually, I’m in the middle of watching that again now. It’s expiring soon and I’m rewatching it for fun. Albeit very slowly. Like twenty minutes at a time. She also made Lili, which I said already will be the film I rank as the #1 film I’m glad I discovered because of this Quest. But still, I’m not really  sure when it was that I fully realized just how much I loved Leslie Caron. Actually, I think I do. It was this film. By process of elimination, this has to be the film. I must have seen Fanny, took notice of her, and then watched this shortly after to confirm. And boy, did this confirm.

The film is about a young girl who rents an apartment in a cheap boarding house. And it starts very small at first. She’s just in the apartment, there are cockroaches, it’s disgusting. Then we slowly meet all the guests in the building. One by one. And they’re all eccentric characters, they all have their own quirk. And her deal is, she got pregnant and doesn’t want her family to known until after she has the baby. So she goes to this apartment to live for nine months, because she also doesn’t want anything to do with the father. And she gets to know all her fellow tenants, and it becomes sort of an island of misfit toys scenario. They all are outsiders in a way, and all find companionship in each other. It’s a great film. There’s some romance, some music, the big water breaking scene — it’s a really great film. And what makes it so great is how low key it all is, as well as how frankly they deal with the pregnancy. I watched this film, knowing it came just past an era where they couldn’t even mention a woman got pregnant. Remember the joke in Stagecoach? The woman is “sick” for most of the movie, keeps feeling ill during the ride, and then, out of nowhere, she goes into labor, and they come out with a baby, even though she was skinny and never looked pregnant at all. And Andy Devine sees the baby and is like, “Well why didn’t anybody tell me?” That’s what they did back then. And to see the pregnancy discussed so frankly — even abortion gets mentioned — it was really great to see a film like this.

I thought Leslie Caron was incredible in the role. And because I loved her from all the other roles she did, I’m really leaning toward voting for her here. My reasons will be explained at the end, but she is definitely shortlisted for a vote. Some might not agree, but, that’s why this is my Quest. I can vote how I please. And I think Leslie Caron deserved at least consideration for a vote, if not the vote itself.

MacLaine — Shirley MacLaine is one of those actresses who’s just good in everything. She should have won an Oscar in 1960 for The Apartment, but, in her own words, “Elizabeth Taylor had to go and get herself a tracheotomy.” Everyone sort of acknowledges that they gave Liz that Oscar because she almost died. Shirley really should have won it then. But, she didn’t. She would eventually win her Oscar in 1983 for Terms of Endearment, so all turned out okay. So let’s talk about this film.

Irma La Douce is a film I went into, I think, based on Netflix. I had recently really discovered the genius that is Billy Wilder. Originally I’d seen just the noirs, really. Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity were really the only films I’d seen that he’d done. Those and Stalag 17. And I finally ended up seeing The Apartment, and, by that point, I found a personal hero. An idol, even. Someone I really looked up to. Someone with similar sensibilities as I have. (Seriously, if I had to put my writing style — actual writing style, not this bullshit — into words, I’d say it’s a cross between the wit of Wilder and the speed of Hawks. That’s just how I write dialogue. Fast and witty. That’s my thing. So Billy Wilder is one of my personal gods.)

So I knew I loved his stuff, and I looked on Netflix for something of his that I’d like. And this one, of all his films, was the one they suggested I’d like the best. There’s a reason for that.

The film is about Jack Lemmon, a policeman, who is very by-the-book. He’s a very no-nonsense, straight-laced policeman. And he gets transferred to a beat that contains a lot of prostitutes. And, like any policeman would — he reports them. However, since the chief of police knows full well about the prostitutes, and has been letting them work in exchange for bribes (monetary and … other), he has Lemmon conveniently convicted of being bribed and fired. So now Lemmon is out of a job, and disgraced. And he comes back to where it all happened, so to speak, and meets Shirley MacLaine. She’s a popular girl on the block, and, is Shirley MacLaine. So she’s very brassy and charming. And he gets to know her, and eventually, unbeknownst to him, becomes her pimp. Sort of. Let me explain.

The film is a classic farce. The whole thing is screwball to the max. Like, there’s the bartender who works at the bar where Lemmon was framed, and where everything in the film happens. It’s basically the bar and Irma’s apartment in the building where all the prostitutes do business where most of the film takes place. And the bartender is a guy who has led all of these double lives. Whenever they need something, they find out, he’s that someone. He’s a doctor, a priest, whatever. And it’s always, “I didn’t know you were a priest.” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, but that’s a whole other story.” It’s one of those movies.

And Lemmon tries to get MacLaine to quit being a prostitute. So what he does is — he creates a fake alter ego. The alter ego is a rich British man — him in disguise, naturally — and he has the British man come to visit Irma, and slowly he has it that the man falls in love with her and wants to take her away with him. Now, the problem with this is twofold. One, Lemmon actually is her pimp. He takes the role when she dumps her former pimp. Him trying to stop her from hooking isn’t a good career move when he’s her pimp. And secondly, since she doesn’t know he’s this British guy (remember, it’s a farce. Disguises work), he has to come up with the money to pay her. So he’s working all these long hours on all these odd jobs to pay for sex he could get for free, all for the sake of getting her to quit. Then when Irma decides to leave with the British dude, Lemmon decides he doesn’t want to do it anymore. So he gets rid of his disguise in the river. And then somebody sees it and thinks he killed the dude. And he goes to jail for it.

And by now, Irma is pregnant, with the fake British guy’s child, and there’s a great scene where Lemmon escapes and hides in the apartment and escapes by putting on his old policeman’s outfit. Then he goes into the river and comes out as the actual dude they think has been killed. And then there’s a whole big race for the two of them to get married before she has the baby, and then there’s this crazy meta ending, but — that’s a whole other story. It’s really a fantastic film. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Now, as for the Oscars, Shirley MacLaine automatically gets consideration because she was blatantly snubbed three years before this. Though I can’t help but keep thinking this is more of a minor work and doesn’t really deserve an Oscar. Though, she should have one, so that might be enough for a vote. Either way, Shirley is great in this, deserved the nomination (which is actually kind of surprising. I’m surprised they actually nominated her for this), and might get a vote. We’ll see.

Neal — Hud is a great film that I stumbled upon a bit earlier than I was expecting to. It got a lot of nominations, so I’d have seen it fairly early on the Quest, but it just happened to be playing on TCM one day, and I saw it that day instead of probably two weeks after that. Which really changed my mindset for the whole thing. I don’t know how to explain it, so I won’t. I’ll just talk about the film.

The film is about a rancher and his son. That’s really it. Melvyn Douglas is a rancher who is a very moral guy. He has a very specific code of ethics and believes things should go a very specific way. And his son — Paul Newman — does not feel that way. In fact, Newman turned out about as opposite as one could have hoped. And Douglas is very ashamed of that. And Newman is a real dick. How the film works is, it starts with Brandon de Wilde — that’s the little boy from Shane — all growed up and 20 years old. And he’s working on the ranch with his dad and looks up to his brother. And he and his father are working all day, while Newman is asleep. Like, they’re milking cows at 5 am and Newman is hungover from the night before. And Newman just doesn’t care for the farm life at all. All he does is go out in town (small town, no less), drink beer, hit on married women and cause problems. All he wants is to leave the town and be somebody.

And that’s the film, mostly. That whole thing playing itself out. Now, Patricia Neal, she plays the family’s housekeeper. And the thing is, both Newman and his brother are attracted to her. The brother’s is more of a younger thing, like when you have a crush on a teacher or something. And Newman’s is more, “I want to fuck you.” And Neal kind of wants to fuck Newman a little bit, but also not really, because she knows his type, and wants no part of it. And she’s just kind of there, with the family, and one night, Newman tries to rape her, or at least, assaults her, attempting to get some. And she gets upset and wants to leave. And the younger brother drives her to the station, where Newman comes and apologizes. And then as they’re driving back, they find the father dead in the road. And Newman, who had hated him for all the film, now is filled with complete remorse, because he drove everyone who loved him away.

So, that’s the film. It’s a great film. Great performances by Newman and Douglas. The thing about the Neal performance is, it’s more supporting than lead. That’s the real problem. She’s not really in the film. You watch this and expect her to be in it more, but she’s not. She won lead for a smaller role than the one that won Douglas Supporting. It’s very strange. Anyway, she is good in the role, but, like I said, she’s not in the movie nearly enough for me to consider this a lead role, and even if I did, I wouldn’t vote for it, because — what did she do here? Really? No vote.

Roberts — Okay, now this is a performance. This film is carried by two great lead performances. The film is about Richard Harris (whom most will know as the first Dumbledore) as a rugby player. And he’s a brute, for the most part, with no real talent except that he’s good at beating the shit out of people on the field. If he tries, he can be a serviceable and even good player. But instead he goes around, beating himself and other people up, drinking and making a fool of himself. The whole thing is about how self-destructive Harris’s character is. Even when he seems to have it all — a contract on a team, a good relationship (which I’ll get to in a second) — he still manages to fuck it up. The film is wonderful because it’s so well-acted. You won’t see too many performances that are better than Richard Harris’s. I’ll admit, he is trying to be Brando a bit too much here (and they even kind of mention it in the film), but, aside from that, he’s really good.

Now, Rachel Roberts plays a recently widowed landlady who gets into a relationship with Harris. And she plays sort of the redemptive woman of the film. Harris starts to feel general affection for her despite his brutish nature. And he starts to warm to her kids and acts as a real father to them. That is, when he’s not being a dick, which he manages to do despite his best efforts. And eventually we see him have to make the choice between her or his ways, and he eventually chooses his ways, which leads to her breaking up with him, which shortly thereafter leads to her having an aneurism and dying, thereby ruining any chance he had of being happy.

Roberts is really good in the role, and definitely deserved the nomination. But this is one of those — the nomination is the reward — type deals. She’s good, but, she was never going to win. I consider her a solid 4. Not good enough to win, but certainly strong enough to hold her own and make the category better. There’s really no shame in that whatsoever. She was really good in the role and definitely deserved to be here.

Wood — And, Natalie. I love Natalie. I feel like she’s become one of the more — I don’t want to say underrated, or even forgotten, but one of the more — overlooked, maybe, actresses. I feel like all the good work she did in her life has largely been overlooked. Maybe it’s because she died way too early (under really weird circumstances too. It’s really odd how that happened). But, going back and watching her work — she put in some really great work. Like, Oscar-worthy work. From age 9 too. She was putting in great work from a really young age. And then she did Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story, and really earned herself an Oscar right there for that year. But unfortunately the Academy chose Sophia Loren instead. It made me unhappy. Anyway, let’s talk about this film.

Love with the Proper Stranger is another film that deals with a certain hot button issue this year, joining The L-Shaped Room and The Cardinal, and probably some others as well. Natalie Wood plays a Macy’s employee who comes up to Steve McQueen, whom she had a fling with a few months prior, to tell him she’s pregnant. She says she doesn’t want him to marry her, all she wants is money for an abortion. And right there, I’m interested. A film talking about abortion in 1960 is a rare thing. Especially on this side of 1965. So McQueen comes into the picture and starts working to do that.

Meanwhile, Wood’s family is pressuring her to marry someone, and they choose a meek dude who is clearly not the right guy for her (albeit a safe choice). And the film contains a lot of normal scenes like that, her having dinner with the meek dude, or her having dinner with McQueen and her family, and punctuates them with scenes like the one where she and McQueen actually go into the cheap apartment building where the abortionist does the procedure. And they see how shady the whole thing is — it’s like, on a blanket, on the floor of a filthy apartment building — have you seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days? (If not, you totally should, it’s brilliant.) It’s like that. And Wood naturally gets freaked out and won’t go through with it. And then they start to get close and romance buds, but then McQueen fucks it up by saying and doing the wrong thing, and she refuses to take him because she thinks he’s doing it out of pity, and it ends with him pulling a stunt out of an 80s romance, only twenty years earlier.

That’s where this film is so great. Not only is it about abortion and unplanned pregnancy, but it ends like an 80s movie. Think Lloyd Dobler with the boombox, or riding away on the lawnmower. Like that. They do that here! In 1963! What happens in the film is, Wood tells McQueen she won’t just marry him because she wants to be in love before she gets married. She says she wants all the bells and whistles and everything. And after they have a fight, he shows up the next day, standing outside of Macy’s, holding a sign with bells on it, playing a banjo, and the sign reads, “Better Wed Than Dead,” which is just fucking hilarious considering this is right in the middle of the Cold War.

I really liked this film a lot. I thought Natalie Wood did a great job with the character. I noticed she was an actress who took on a lot of difficult roles like this. Like, in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, she plays one half of a couple in an open relationship, who initiate a foursome with their two best friends. She played roles like this all the time. Maybe that’s why they never gave her an Oscar. She was too progressive for them.

Still, she was really good here, because you actually see her character change. I mean, she starts as a girl who thinks she’s got it all figured out. Got pregnant, have an abortion, simple as that. Then, she gets horrified by the abortion process, decides to have the baby, now has to find a dude on top of it, but wants the right dude, and is ready to raise the kid by herself, but is pressured into getting married, and is dealing with all this stuff on top of the pregnancy — I thought she was fantastic in the film. She’s definitely being shortlisted for a vote. It seems to be between her and Caron and MacLaine. But for my money it’s probably between her and Caron. Those two are gonna be 1 and 2. Which order, I don’t know. But one of those two are the tops.

My Thoughts: Okay, the first two off here are Roberts and Neal. Both were good, neither are being voted for by me. I felt Roberts was a bit better than Neal, but, it’s close. I’m not entirely sure. Either way, they’re four and five, so it doesn’t matter. Of the remaining three, I put Shirley MacLaine third. It was a good performance, but, after The Apartment, she shouldn’t have won for this. It would be like if Meryl Streep won for Julie and Julia. Know what I mean? It would almost be a slap to the face if she won for this. Now, between the remaining two — Natalie Wood and Leslie Caron — I liked Caron’s film better, and I liked her performance better as well. Plus, Natalie Wood really should have won for Splendor in the Grass, so I really think Leslie Caron was the choice here.

My Vote: Caron

Should Have Won: Personally, I’d have preferred either Natalie Wood or Leslie Caron to have an Oscar. So, I say either of them.

Is the result acceptable?: No. I’m gonna put my foot down here and say no. Patricia Neal was a great actress who probably deserved an Oscar, but, really, I feel Leslie Caron or Natalie Wood really deserved this one. MacLaine was good, but, this isn’t one she should have won for. Ditto for Natalie Wood, but, I’d have taken it. I say Leslie Caron really should have won, but really, I think any one of those three were better choices than Patricia Neal. Some people might find this okay, but, I for one definitely do not.

Performances I suggest you see: Irma La Douce is a hysterical movie and is probably the film on this list that most people are likely to enjoy. Billy Wilder seldom makes a film that’s not, at the very least, entertaining. I think a lot of people will enjoy this one. It’s a hidden gem of sorts in the Billy Wilder oeuvre. (Anyone noticing I’ve been using that word a lot lately? I don’t get it either. But I like it. Makes me feel like I’m building a motif or something.) Highly recommended. Very funny movie. The L-Shaped Room is a film I like a lot because it’s just so — I don’t know — realistic. Especially for 1963. This is just when films are starting to get down to earth and gritty, and here’s a film about a girl moving to a boarding house because she got pregnant. It’s a really great film. I notice a lot of these Leslie Caron movies are all hidden gems that I had no idea about before this Quest. I really recommend this one. You might see it and be taken by it as I was. You might find a film you’re amazed you hadn’t seen before. Love with the Proper Stranger is also a really good film. Also about unplanned pregnancy — so you can see what the prevailing social trends were this year. But it’s a great movie. A very surprising little romance with Steve McQueen of all people as well. I really liked this one a lot. It’s a great film. And Hud is also a really good film too. More of an acting film, not for everyone, but for a lot of people. It’s a great movie with a great Paul Newman performance, and that’s the real draw here. If you’re a fan of Paul Newman, you’re gonna get a lot out of this one. And This Sporting Life is also a fantastic film. This is one of those, if it hits for you, it’s really gonna hit. The performances here are astounding. Richard Harris is incredible in the role, and probably should have won the Oscar for it (I voted for him). So, I recommend all the films, in the order I suggested them. They’re all really good, but in very different ways.

Rankings:

5) Neal

4) Roberts

3) MacLaine

2) Wood

1) Caron

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