The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1960

I love 1960. To me, it’s one of the best years in Academy history. Maybe that’s because one of my favorite films of all time won Best Picture. Might have something to do with it. The Apartment is a film I love dearly. I love that it won. It’s perfect. Billy Wilder winning Best Director? I like it, but, as I said here, it probably wasn’t the best of the decisions that could have been made. (Juuusst a bit outside.)

Then, Best Actress was Elizabeth Taylor for BUtterfield 8, which I talked about here, so I won’t get into it too much, but, the gist of it is, Shirley MacLaine should have won. Read the article to get the full scoop. Then Best Supporting Actor was Peter Ustinov for Spartacus, and Best Supporting Actress was Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry. All in all, pretty much every decision here was solid. And then there’s this category, which, while I do have a sentimental favorite, is a well-deserved Oscar to a much-deserved actor for a fantastic performance.


And the nominees were…

Trevor Howard, Sons and Lovers

Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry

Jack Lemmon, The Apartment

Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer

Spencer Tracy, Inherit the Wind

Howard — Sons and Lovers is a film directed by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and based on a book by D.H. Lawrence. Know what that means? My first instinct was, “Boring.” I was like, “They only nominated this because Cardiff did it. This is gonna be some shitty drama right in the Academy’s wheelhouse, and it’s gonna be so tedious to get through that I’m gonna wish I skipped it and just said it sucked.” And then I started watching it. It was so-so. I was watching, probably writing while watching, paying just enough attention and making the movie win over the rest. And here’s the thing — it did. Surprisingly. For some reason, this film had me watching, and engaged. Which is weird, because none of the story interested me at all. None.

The film is about a family. The husband works in a factory or coal mine or something. Turn of the century. And he works hard, and in dangerous conditions, so he goes and drinks after work with the boys, because that’s how he copes with it. And he fights a lot with his wife, and is pretty stern at home. And the first thirty minutes is mostly about the home life. And the mother is very overprotective of her son, who wants to go out and be an artist or something. And eventually, he leaves the house, and when that happens, he follow him. Which is strange, because, Trevor Howard is the guy playing the father. And he disappears for most of the middle of the movie, because the movie is about the Son. And his Lovers. And a lot of stuff happens with the son and his lovers — but, we’re talking about Trevor Howard here. And, Trevor Howard is gone for that part of the movie.

Basically, the film is — if I have this right — about making you think that the father is the dude holding this kid back, but then, at the end of the movie, you realize it’s been the mother this whole time who’s been doing it. And then the father dies. So, Howard has a tricky role to play, but plays it really well, and I remember, when I was watching, going, “Damn, he’s doing a really good job here.” So, Howard does do a good job. Only thing is, he’d be better served in the Supporting Actor category than here, I feel. In this category, he’s no better than a solid #4. Still, solid performance, though, and a film that exceeded my expectations. I was expecting okay but me not liking it. I got a good film that I actually kind of liked.

Lancaster — Oh man, Burt is so fucking good here. I went in being like, “Okay, chances are, I’m gonna like the performance, but prefer Jack Lemmon, and still be okay with it because Burt Lancaster got an Oscar.” I figured he’d be good, but not amazing. And I got amazing. Holy shit did Burt Lancaster deserve this award.

Lancaster is a gin-swilling, smooth talking salesman — the type of role he excels at. If you’ve ever seen The Rainmaker (and you should. It’s incredible), you know he can play smooth-talking really, really well — who comes upon a religious revival tent (the kind of shit Marjoe Gortner did. The screaming and talking in tongues — that stuff), and is like, “I can do this.” So he endears himself to the nun in charge (Jean Simmons), and figures he can make a killing taking money off religious folk. So he comes on and does a fiery preacher deal. And what makes the whole thing work is, you know that he’s insincere the whole time, and he’s trying to sleep with Jean Simmons, a devoted nun, and here he is, sounding like he was a born and bred religious man. Plus he does end up fucking Jean Simmons. He’s that good.

Then Lancaster becomes well-known, and is heard about by Shirley Jones, a prostitute he used to see. Or rather — his girlfriend, who became a prostitute after he left her. Because she used to be in Jean Simmons’s place (sort of), and had no other choice. So she’s like, “Oh, Imma blackmail this fuck. I can fuck him up so bad if I said anything.” So she does, and then he ends up getting exposed anyway, and then he tries to settle down and live a normal life with Simmons, who turns him down, because she’s religious, and then she dies in a fire. And Lancaster goes on, stops preaching, and leaves. The movie ends with him giving a great quote from the bible that’s like, “When I was a child, I thought like a child and spoke like a child. Then when I grew up, I stopped being so childish.” It’s a great quote. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s similar to that.

It’s a great film. It works because Lancaster fucking nails the preacher talk. He’s so fucking good. He’s so smooth-talking, this man will talk a naked person out of their pants. He’s so fucking great here. You just watch the first twenty minutes of this movie and are like, “I totally get why he won.” He’s just so great. It’s not even close, that’s how good he is. And this is coming from someone who would probably put The Apartment in his top ten favorite films of all time.

Lemmon — The Apartment is a perfect film. I’ve talked about this film at least twice already, and honestly, I have no problem talking about it some more. Because all I need to do is convince just one person to see it, and I’ve done my job. Because this film is so perfect, that one person is going to be amazed that they hadn’t seen this movie before. And that’s what movie people live for. Seeing other people enjoy something we enjoy.

The film is about Jack Lemmon, just a nameless employee at an insurance company, who just happens to loan out his apartment several nights a week to the higher-ups at his company, so they can bring their mistresses there without their wives finding out. And Lemmon’s also got a crush on Shirley MacLaine, an elevator employee in his building (who most men have a crush on). And the early part of the film is him managing the appointments at his apartment, as well as him convincing Shirley MacLaine to go out on a date with him. Then, the big boss of the company, Fred MacMurray, tells Lemmon he’ll be promoted up the ladder (which he’d wanted for a while). And MacMurray tells him the only catch is — only he can get the key to the apartment from now on. And Lemmon agrees. And then, we find out (but not Lemmon) that Shirley MacLaine is actually MacMurray’s mistress, and MacMurray plans on bringing her back to Lemmon’s apartment.

Then, on Christmas, MacMurray brings Shirley to the apartment (Lemmon knows about the affair at this point), and breaks up with her. And Lemmon, knowing the woman he loves and his boss are in his apartment, probably doing things, and goes to a bar and gets drunk. And then, he comes home, and finds Shirley MacLaine in his bed, having taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills. So he runs and gets the doctor who lives next door (who humorously thinks Lemmon is immoral, because he thinks Lemmon is the one having all the parties with the women), to pump her stomach and keep her alive.

And then they save her, and — I mention this every time, because this line literally makes me cry every time I watch the movie — after they save her and are in the clear, Lemmon brings her back to the bedroom to get some sleep, and the first thing she says as he puts her into bed (the first coherent thing she’s said in a long time), is, “Why didn’t you just let me die?” Which is so fucking heartbreaking. And then, the next day, she stays at Lemmon’s place, and they get to know one another, and get closer together. And eventually she leaves almost gets back with MacMurray, and there’s a whole thing where we think Lemmon might kill himself because she’s just not interested in him, and then there’s that brilliant moment at the end where she leaves MacMurray and comes back to spend New Year’s with Lemmon, and he tells her he loves her, an she pulls out a deck of cards (which was a running thing between them), and says, “Shut up and deal.” It’s one of the most famous closing lines in the history of cinema. It’s a perfect film. I love it so much.

Lemmon is fantastic in the movie, and, honestly, if Burt Lancaster weren’t note perfect in Elmer Gantry, I wouldn’t even hesitate to vote in Lemmon. Even if it might be a little too comic (and similar to his Mister Roberts performance he won for already), I’d still vote for it, because I love the film so much. But, I can’t vote for it, because Burt Lancaster was so good.

Olivier — The Entertainer is a film that, honestly, I didn’t like. Not even a little bit. Apparently this was a turning point for Olivier and his career — it helped him transition from the Shakespearean roles of his youth into a more, older, set of roles. Not that he plays old here. It’s just — different, from what he’s ever done. It’s a very symbolic film. It’s kind of about the downfall of the theater, which, was Olivier’s milieu. He was the king of the theater.

It’s about Olivier, once a music hall king, now a fading star, playing to houses full of only a few people, most of whom don’t give a shit. And he’s a drunk, sleeps around, and has a lot of problems. His family life is a mess. And he’s still hanging onto this dream of still doing what he always did, even though the whole industry is just dying. And the film is about him neglecting everything around him as he focuses on his career. He even ignores his family as they get the news that his son died because he’s too focused on planning his show. The whole thing is a strange mirror to Olivier’s own life. Not that he was anywhere near as bad as this dude, but, he was one who put work above all else.

The film is — not for me. I didn’t care for it much. Olivier is really unlikable. Which, is usually never a problem for me. But here, there wasn’t much going on. I just didn’t care. I get that it’s a landmark performance for him, so I’m cool with him being nominated. But he’s clearly a #5 for me.

Tracy — Inherit the Wind is another perfect film. It’s amazing how good this is. And it’s based on real history, which makes it doubly good. You get a history lesson and you’re not bored to death. How often does that happen?

The film is about the Scopes trial. A dude who taught evolution in the school back before — you know, it was socially acceptable to do so — and is arrested for it. He’s thrown in jail simply because he refuses to tell people that the earth was created — well, how they say in the bible. And it becomes a huge thing. A big national thing. And two major lawyers come down for the trial — WIlliam Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow — played respectively by Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. They changed the names, and dramatized it a bit, but, still, this film isn’t bad for a Hollywood film. And the film is mostly about March — the fiery, religious conservative prosecuting attorney — vs. Tracy — the smart aleck, wise-cracking liberal defense attorney, who does nothing but demean March at every turn. And it’s basically about allowing one to exercise freedom of speech (the play was written as a response to McCarthyism) and the whole issue of creationism.

The film is fucking amazing. Both Tracy and March are at the tops of their games. Personally, I think March should have been the one to get the nomination, but, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Both were amazing, and both had two Oscars and clearly weren’t winning. The nomination was purely a nod to the greatness of the film. And I can live with that. Really though, this film is perfect. Watch this if you haven’t.

My Thoughts: This one, despite seeming difficult, is actually quite easy. Burt Lancaster. I don’t even have to think about it. Olivier had his Oscar and I didn’t find him particularly great here. At least, not for a vote. Trevor Howard was really good, but, in a way, outclassed by the competition. And also, his role was kind of lead, kind of supporting. So it’s tough to think about voting for him. I just count him as a strong “just lucky to be nominated” nominee who more than holds his own. Spencer Tracy was very entertaining and very good in Inherit the Wind, but he won twice, and one of those was grossly undeserved, so, he’s out. Jack Lemmon was great, but, at the core, the performance is the same comedic, put-upon neurotic that Lemmon played in almost everything. He won an Oscar for it in 1955 (Supporting, but still). You knew he’d get his Oscar one day, and he did, in ’73, for a very deserved performance. Here, this was Burt Lancaster’s time. He was incredible in the role, and no one else could have or should have won (as much as I love Jack Lemmon).

My Vote: Lancaster

Should Have Won: Lancaster

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. Best (and only, really) decision they could have made. For reasons explained up there. Great decision.

Performances I suggest you see: The Apartment is a perfect film. And If you haven’t seen it, you’re dead to me, and probably dead to the world. This is a very essential film. It’s probably the best romantic comedy ever made. If you still haven’t and don’t want to see it after this, please stop reading this blog. You will attain nothing from ever reading it again.

Inherit the Wind is a film you need to see. Not only is it perfect, but it’s historical. They should (and if they don’t, do you live in the south or something where they don’t believe in evolution?) show it to you in school. Because not only is is historical, and true, but it’s fun. This is one of the most entertaining historically factual movies ever made. If you don’t see it, it’s like not seeing The Miracle Worker or The Diary of Anne Frank — you’re a bad American. You’re a bad person. Or, to quote a friend, you’re a horrible, horrible person.

Elmer Gantry is a great film. Burt Lancaster is so incredible here. His charisma is amazing. It’s a perfect foil to his Rainmaker character, which is charismatic for all the right reasons. And here, he’s charismatic for all the wrong reasons. And it’s spellbinding. He’s so good, and really turns this from being a normal good film, to a really good film. Definitely worth a watch. If you want to see Burt Lancaster at his best — this is it. (And then Sweet Smell of Success. Oh, he’s so good in that.)

Sons and Lovers is a solid picture. Kind of small and heavy (not heavy-handed, just — melodramatic in that heavy way), but well-done. Not for everyone, but, well-done. Good performances, Jack Cardiff shot and directed it well — good film. If it sounds like it’ll interest you, definitely check it out. I expected a three star boring film, I got a solid four star film that I was oddly engaged in. I find I need to recommend the films I thought I wouldn’t care about but was engaged in past an average level. I think it means they’re actually really good films.


5) Olivier

4) Howard

3) Lancaster

2) Tracy

1) Lemmon

2 responses

  1. samuelwilliscroft

    If no one else should have won, why put him at No.3?

    June 20, 2015 at 2:22 am

  2. Keith Kotay

    Great website! I’m a big fan of “The Apartment” also. The last line “Shut up and deal” is very interesting, precisely because she doesn’t respond in kind to Lemmon’s statement of endearment. To me, this means she doesn’t love him–at least not yet. She likes him because he is kind, has finally achieved some sense of honor, and because of his strong feelings for her. But the real issue is that she no longer trusts her own attraction toward men–every time she falls in love, it is with a guy who is no good for her. Her statement about sending a fruitcake every year appears to signal a commitment to Lemmon, and yet she isn’t ready to say she is in love. Is she waiting for her own love to blossom, or has she accepted a future without being “in love” with a guy who will treat her decently? There is a lot of ambiguity in that line, which is why it is so good…

    September 1, 2015 at 7:09 pm

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