The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1965

It’s weird that I think of 1965 as a blank year. Yet, one of Hollywood’s landmark films won that year, The Sound of Music. For some reason, I was never over the moon about the choice of that as Best Picture. I love the film, and I don’t think any of the other nominated films could (or should) have beaten it (even my personal favorite film on the list, Darling), so I’m not sure why my reaction is the way it is. I guess it’s because I’m strange. Robert Wise also won Best Director for the film, which — obviously.

Best Actress this year was Julie Christie for Darling, which I love as a decision. Julie Andrews would have won, but she won the year before this for Mary Poppins. Christie gave a tremendous performance in a category that was pretty stacked. I can’t wait to get to that one. Best Supporting Actor was Martin Balsam for A Thousand Clowns, which was an okay decision. The category was really, really bad, and Martin Balsam is awesome, so I support the decision. And Best Supporting Actress was Shelley Winters for A Patch of Blue, which is a great decision. She was terrific in the film, and didn’t really have any competition.

As for this category — this is one of the toughest Best Actor categories I’ve ever seen. Not so much strongest, but the toughest. Both Rod Steiger and Richard Burton were terrific in their respective roles, and then you get the big monkey wrench of Lee Marvin, who, while he didn’t give a performance that rivals those of the other two, is still Lee Marvin. So a tough decision must be made.


And the nominees were…

Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou

Laurence Olivier, Othello

Rod Steiger, The Pawnbroker

Oskar Werner, Ship of Fools

Burton — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is such a brilliant film. Watch Richard Burton here. This may be the finest performance he ever put to screen.

Burton plays the head of a CIA office that isn’t doing so well. He loses one of his operatives, and he gets demoted to a menial office position. But the reason for this is — it’s all been carefully planned. They want him to be upset and disgruntled so that way the East Germans see him as a possible defector and contact him about becoming a spy. And they do just that. And Burton, what he does is accept their proposal and agree to sell them British secrets. And he goes through a series of interviews to see what he knows, and during them, he says that a certain East German officer as a British informant. The thing is, though, his information is not rock solid. But the dude is arrested anyway, after he arrests both Burton and the dude interrogating him (played wonderfully by Oskar Werner). And there’s a trial, and at it, Burton’s story is discovered to be full of holes (especially when his girlfriend comes to testify), and he reveals that he’s still working for the British as a double agent.

And Burton thinks he’s gonna be killed, but it turns out, the whole thing was a ruse all along. See, the guy he was going to out as a double agent was actually a double agent, but Burton not actually knowing anything made it seem like Werner, the interrogator (and staunch communist), was actually the informant, and thus solidifying the other guy’s position. And as Burton is in his cell, waiting to die, the dude comes in and gets him and helps him escape. And Burton and his girlfriend make it to the wall, with help from the underground. And they get there, and — well — the ending is terrific. I won’t spoil it.

This film is fucking incredible. Richard Burton is absolutely breathtakingly good here, and for my money, deserved to win this Oscar. Problem is — we have other contenders to deal with.

Marvin — Cat Ballou is a comic western. It’s — it’s a lovely film, and very entertaining, but I’m just baffled as to how this could have won Best Actor for Lee Marvin.

Jane Fonda is a schoolteacher (only one of three positions available for a woman in a western — prostitute, schoolmarm, or Ma) who travels to meet her father. And when she gets there, she finds out that a crooked businessman is trying to take his land, and has hired a legendary gunman, Tim Strawn, to gun her father down so the dude can get the land. So she hires a gunman, Kid Shelleen, to protect him.

Lee Marvin plays both gunmen, Shelleen and Strawn. We spend most of the time with Shelleen, who is just a despicable drunk. He’s like the Waco kid when we first meet him. Just, fall-down drunk all day. And he literally can’t hit the broad side of a barn. So they sober him up and teach him how to shoot again. But, in the meantime, Strawn shoots Fonda’s father. So she becomes an outlaw. And Shelleen eventually gets sober and goes and kills Strawn. And they have a joke about, “Oh yeah, he was also my brother,” playing on the fact that both of them are Lee Marvin. And then afterward, Fonda confronts the town boss, he gets killed, and she’s sentenced to hang, but then Marvin and the gang rescue her.

It’s a comic western. It’s fun. Lee Marvin plays a drunk who has a drunken horse. It’s funny. It’s a good time. But a Best Actor winning performance this is not. Not at all. I love Lee Marvin, but he should not have beaten Richard Burton (or Rod Steiger, for that matter) in this category. They were just too good for it.

Olivier — Othello — Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier. He’s the moor (aka black guy, aka blackface for Olivier) who is manipulated by Iago to go kill a dude. Famous play. You probably should know about it.

It’s a pretty cut and dry Shakespeare adaptation. The weakest of the Olivier set, in my opinion. I can never get on board with blackface. Olivier does a fine job with the performance, but, he had his Oscar, and I am not voting for blackface over any of these other performances. Not gonna happen.

Steiger — The Pawnbroker is a film that, while I don’t love it, features a really great performance by Rod Steiger. To the point where, most people look back on this and say he should have won. That’s how good it is. And I can totally see the point. He was that good.

The film is about a dude who survived the Holocaust, but is still haunted by what he saw there — his kids were killed and his wife was raped by a guard. And now he lives in the Bronx and owns a pawn shop in Harlem. And he’s totally numb. He shows no emotion whatsoever, and is very stingy. People beg him for better prices, and he’s like, “No,” and refuses. And he is totally alienated from the world, and sees everyone as lesser. Even his assistant, a young Puerto Rican dude who is an all around good guy, he still doesn’t like him or respect him. And over the course of the film, a local pimp and racketeer wants to use the shop as a front, but Steiger refuses, and it leads to the eventual climax of the film, which is the Puerto Rican guy getting shot.

Rod Steiger is really incredible in the film, but I think the lack of quality of the film itself kind of lets him down a bit. That’s really the reason that I stick by Richard Burton in this category over Steiger. That, and, Steiger winning in 1967 has a lot to do with it. But, he’s really great here, and I can see why some people would vote for him.

Werner — Ship of Fools is an ensemble film about a bunch of people on a boat to Germany in 1933. It’s subtly about the rise of racism. It’s a big budget film with a lot of stars. Obviously it’s gonna get some Oscar nominations. Especially in the 60s, when big budget films like this were like life rafts. Even if they sucked, they were getting Oscar nominations.

The film is pretty so-so. I found it boring, most of the time. There are a bunch of different stories, let’s just deal with Oskar Werner’s. Werner plays the ship’s doctor, who forms a bond with Simone Signoret, a Spanish countess. She’s very morose, certain of bad things, and he’s a fighter. And they naturally fall in love. Thing is, though, he’s also got a terminal heart condition, and dies by the end of the movie. That’s it, really. I think all the nominations the film got were requisite for the stature of the film. I don’t think they were terribly deserved. Werner, to me, would have benefitted much more greatly by a Supporting Actor nomination, preferably for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and not here. I think he might have won there. Here, he’s just a #5. That’s just how it is. Maybe a #4 for a vote, because — no blackface — but, he had no shot here. Nor should have had one.

My Thoughts: Okay, first off are Olivier and Werner. Olivier was fine, but he won his Oscar for Shakespeare, and — he was in blackface. Can’t do it. Can’t win with it, can’t play with it, can’t do it. And Werner — just outclassed by everyone else. He was good in the film (and in his supporting role in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which he might have won for if he were nominated), but he was just outperformed by his competitors.

And then, Lee Marvin — I love him to death, but I have to throw him out of here. He was funny in the film, and did a great job playing Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn, but it’s just not a performance that should win in a category like this. It just isn’t. Even he said when he won, “Half of this probably belongs to a horse out in the Valley somewhere.” It’s just not a performance that should beat the other two he was up against. 1963, 1964 (maybe) and 1968 — he can win and nobody bats an eyelash. Here, no.

So to me, it comes down to Burton and Steiger. And I loved both performances. I have a definite preference here, and that’s Burton, even though a fair amount of people would (and rightfully so) prefer Steiger. But, to me, Steiger would win in 1967 (even though I wouldn’t have voted for him), and Burton was just better. I can’t explain it, but I just preferred Burton’s performance. So he’s my vote.

My Vote: Burton

Should Have Won: Burton, Steiger

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. Probably not, based on performance quality, but — he’s Lee Marvin. I can’t not be okay with Lee Marvin winning, as much as Steiger and Burton were better than him. So, based on performance, no, not acceptable at all, and in fact quite a terrible decision. But, based on the fact that he’s Lee Marvin, there is some sort of acceptability there. It’s tough to say, since Richard Burton never won an Oscar, but, Lee Marvin is awesome. So — there.

Performances I suggest you see: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is such a great, great film. There’s gonna be a resurgence in popularity in this film, because it’s based on a John Le Carré novel, who also wrote the book for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is looking to be a huge film comes awards time (the reviews have been breathtakingly good, like, uncommonly so, so far). Not only that, it’s a fucking great film. It’s really, really fantastic. This is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s so fucking good.

Cat Ballou is a solid film. Pretty funny, nice little comedy western. Lots of drunken horse gags. Is there anyone that can resist those? Plus you get Jane Fonda, and even Nat King Cole. It’s a strong film. A lot of fun. Definitely worth checking out for western fans.

The Pawnbroker features a great, great performance by Rod Steiger. The film itself is kind of slow, and depressing, but it’s good, and Steiger is amazing in it. That’s the real reason to see this movie. The performance is just spectacularly good.

Ship of Fools — okay, not great. Long, I don’t particularly like it, but, I’m a huge Vivien Leigh fan. I liked that moment at the end where she spontaneously dances. Other than that though, it’s just an okay film. Some might like it, some might not. See it if you think you’ll enjoy it.

And Othello — Olivier, Shakespeare. You know what you’re getting. You know if you like this sort of stuff or not.


5) Olivier

4) Werner

3) Marvin

2) Steiger

1) Burton


One response

  1. Pingback: The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1965-1966) – Site Title

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