The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1958
I don’t love 1958 as a year, but some of its categories (like this one) are really strong. The reason the year isn’t that strong is because the set of Best Picture nominees is pretty weak.
Gigi wins Best Picture. Not a bad film, but a bad Best Picture choice. Vincente Minnelli won Best Director for the film (talked about here), which actually needed to happen. That man was crazy overdue by this point. Best Actress was Susan Hayward for I Want to Live!, which, as I said here, was a long time coming, and was a good decision, even if I think she should have won three years earlier and someone else should have won here. Best Supporting Actor was Burl Ives for The Big Country, which was a great decision, since he was great in both that and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this year. And Best Supporting Actress was Wendy Hiller for Separate Tables, which she had coming to her for a while before this.
And then we have this category. This is really tough for me. It’s the only time Tony Curtis was nominated, this was Sidney Poitier’s best nominated performance, Paul Newman was amazing, and David Niven is David Niven. What do you do here?
BEST ACTOR – 1958
And the nominees were…
Tony Curtis, The Defiant Ones
Paul Newman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
David Niven, Separate Tables
Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones
Spencer Tracy, The Old Man and the Sea
Curtis — Double nomination.
The Defiant Ones is about two prisoners, one white, one black, who are chained together and escape, and have to work together in order to not get caught. I’m assuming you can guess the message inherent here.
Guess which prisoner Tony Curtis plays?
It’s a really strong film. Both Curtis and Poitier are amazing in it. But, sort of like Thelma and Louise, it’s the kind of deal where — which do you vote for? Sure, if they tied, that would solve everybody’s problems. But you can’t vote for a tie.
So, honestly, the inability to truly pick a winner leads me to just vote for neither of them. I’m guessing this is a big reason why David Niven won.
Newman — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about Paul Newman, a former star athlete who now drinks all the time, and Elizabeth Taylor, his wife, who he has turned cold toward, because she is responsible for the death of his best friend. And they go visit her father, Burl Ives, who is dying (but doesn’t tell anyone about it), and there all the secrets and feelings come out.
It’s a great film. Really great. Newman is terrific, Ives is terrific, Taylor is great and never looked more gorgeous on film. Holy shit is she fine here. I love the film a lot.
Newman is really good, and I’m definitely considering him for a vote. I don’t necessarily think he absolutely deserved this one, but I might have to vote for him out of principle. Plus he wouldn’t win for 28 years after this. That’s just disgusting.
Niven — Separate Tables is about a bunch of people staying at an inn, and their stories. I’ll skip going over all of them, because we’re only concerned with one, but know that the film is really great and is worth seeing.
David Niven plays a disgraced officer who was dishonorably discharged from the army. But he doesn’t tell anyone this, and goes around as if he’s still in the army. And he talks and talks about his experiences, ad nauseam. But then there’s an item in the paper about him, which ends up getting seen by the gossip at the inn, and she tells everyone and they all shun him. Thing is, though, Deborah Kerr, playing the woman on the verge of
a nervous breakdown spinsterhood, she takes a fancy to him, and he her. And she defends him, finally standing up to her mother, and a lot of the more sensible-minded folks at the inn do so as well. And he has this nice little monologue where he breaks down. It’s a really effective performance.
Only downside — he’s only on screen for like sixteen minutes. He’s a supporting character at best in what is clearly an ensemble cast. He probably would have won Best Supporting Actor if they put him there. But they put him here. And because he’s not really a lead in the film, I can’t vote for him. The fact that other nominees (specifically Curtis, Poitier and Newman) had more screen time make their performances better than his in the eyes of a voter. It just does. So, while he was good, and I love David Niven and he totally deserved the Oscar, I’m not gonna do the dirty work required in order to give him one. Apparently the Academy was willing to do so. More power to them (though, not really, because then who knows what kind of shit would win).
Poitier — Poitier is the black prisoner chained to Tony Curtis. And he’s also really great in the film. Both of them really are terrific. But as I said up there, I really can’t choose between the two. So I have to vote for neither.
Tracy — The Old Man and the Sea is based on the Hemingway novel, and is basically about Spencer Tracy out on the ocean, trying to best a gigantic marlin that catches his line.
It’s a good film. Not gonna vote for it here because — Spencer Tracy won twice, and honestly, wasn’t really good enough to win either time. I’ll give him the first one, but the second was a crock of shit. And to win a third time, you have to be exceptional. And the only other times he was exceptional were Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He didn’t (and shouldn’t have) win for either film. So he’s out. No way you vote for this knowing he has two.
My Thoughts: Tracy’s out first. Not worth voting for at all. Then, Niven — clearly a supporting role in the film. Not worth voting for here (or there, really). Just, not against this competition. I know he, the man, deserved an Oscar, just — not here.
And then — I guess I have to use vote split logic and cross off both Curtis and Poitier. Unless they could tie here. That would be optimal.
But I guess, through process of elimination, it’s Paul Newman. Why not?
My Vote: Newman
Should Have Won: Newman, Poitier, Curtis
Is the result acceptable?: Yeah, I guess. Curtis was hamstrung by the double nomination, and Newman didn’t really need to win here (he needed to win in 1961). So Niven actually does squeak by here. Imagine that.
Performances I suggest you see: The Defiant Ones, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — both films you strongly need to see. Not essential, but, you still need to see them. I can’t threaten a friendship with them, but I can glare at you until you see them.
Separate Tables is a really strong film. Highly recommended. Really great.
The Old Man and the Sea — worth a watch. Not bad at all. Not amazing. But not bad. Recommended.