The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1957
I love 1957. It begins and ends with The Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a Lean year.
The film wins Best Picture, Best Director for David Lean (talked about here), and this category. Terrific all around. And you have 12 Angry Men also up for Picture and Director to keep it interesting (and honest). I like that.
Best Actress was Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve (talked about here). Probably a top ten decision of all time in that category. Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress were Red Buttons (talked about here) and Miyoshi Umeki (talked about here) for Sayonara. I am on the record about despising both decisions.
And then we’re left with this category, which to me is an open and shut case. Go Alec!
BEST ACTOR – 1957
And the nominees were…
Marlon Brando, Sayonara
Anthony Franciosa, A Hatful of Rain
Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai
Charles Laughton, Witness for the Prosecution
Anthony Quinn, Wild is the Wind
Brando — Sayonara is a film that I really did not like the first time I saw it. But then, as time passed, and I saw it two more times, I slowly developed a respect (and dare I say even a liking) for it. Moderate, but still. Sometimes it takes three viewings to come around on something.
The film is about Air Force officers stationed in Japan. Brando is a good old southern boy, and his accent is hilarious. And the main conflict in the film is that certain airmen, specifically Red Buttons, are marrying Japanese women. And the army doesn’t care so much if they’re going and banging the Japanese women, that’s okay, but they don’t want them marrying them. (Kinda like Vietnam.) So they do their best to discourage it. And Brando, Buttons’s friend, tries to discourage him for practical reasons. But then he sees how in love Buttons is, and how it’s the real thing, and starts to understand. Plus he falls in love with a Japanese girl himself. And over the course of the film, he changes sides, which causes problems, since he was formerly engaged to the general’s daughter. And it ends with the Air Force ordering only those men with Japanese wives back stateside, and since they waived their rights when they got married, the women are not recognized as US citizens and are forbidden to come with them. And this leads to Buttons and his wife committing suicide so they can be together. It’s a powerful film in the sense that — I bet it’s some sort of Korean War analogy. I understand the message of the film, and it’s colorful as hell. It’s a gorgeously designed movie. It’s just the fact that it won both Supporting Oscars that makes it dislike it. Other than that, I do actually like this movie.
Brando is — well, he’s Brando. I think the accent is hysterically bad. But otherwise, it’s just Brando. He’s an actor where either you need to vote for everything he does, or only the really good stuff, like Streetcar, Waterfront, Godfather. And this isn’t one of those performances. So no vote.
Franciosa — A Hatful of Rain is about drug addiction. Don Murray plays a soldier who comes home addicted to morphine. And the film is about what that does to him and his family. It’s very gritty and realistic. Franciosa plays Murary’s brother, who is an alcoholic. And his whole thing is, he’s trying to protect his brother, but is also secretly in love with his wife (Eva Marie Saint). And you get an interesting double portrait, because here’s one dude who is a drunk in the open but is also a good guy, and another guy who is a good guy on the surface, and a morphine addict underneath. So you have situations where the addict does something and the drunk takes the blame. Shit like that. It’s really fascinating.
One interesting bit of trivia about this is that it was written by Michael V. Gazzo, who everyone will know as Frankie Pentangeli from The Godfather Part II. That’s something. It’s pretty good too. I don’t love it, but it’s certainly not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.
Franciosa does a good job here. I’m kind of surprised Murray got overlooked, but not so much. Both were really strong here. Though, honestly, I just couldn’t vote for him, simply because of Alec Guinness. Between the two, Guinness is always gonna get my vote. That’s just how it works.
Guinness — It’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. You need to have seen it.
Guinness is terrific here. There’s really not that much more to say. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. And even if you think that someone else (say Franciosa or Laughton) gave a beter performance than Guinness did in this category, there’s no denying that Guinness, with his career of performances, wholly deserved an Oscar. So I think this is a terrific decision.
Laughton — Witness for the Prosecution is one of Billy Wilder’s strongest dramas. Most people associate him with comedy, but he was also really great at drama, as evidenced by Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, and this.
This film is about Charles Laughton as an aging barrister who has health problems who takes on the case of Tyrone Power (in his final film role), who is accused of murdering an old woman in order to inherit all her money. And Laughton takes on the case, and meets with Power’s wife (Marlene Dietrich), whom he finds cold and distant. However, she shows up as a witness for the prosecution (get it?) out of nowhere. And Laughton is like, “A wife can’t testify against her husband.” And then we find out that she wasn’t actually married to him legally. She was married to another man before him and never officially got divorced.
And then she testifies and says that he was meaning to kill her for the money. However, just as all seems lost, a mysterious woman (who is clearly Dietrich in disguise. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be obvious or not, but it is) gives Laughton letters that were written by Dietrich to a lover, which would give her a strong motive to lie to a jury, which basically cancels out her testimony and gets Power off. But then, after he’s found not guilty, we find out that he did actually murder the woman and Dietrich orchestrated the whole thing to help him get acquitted. So, while it seemed like she was cold toward him all film, we find out that she actually loves him very much, and perjured herself for him. But then, in a final twist, we find out that he’s actually been seeing another woman, and is going to leave Dietrich for her, and only used Dietrich to get acquitted. So in a fit of anger, Dietrich stabs Power to death in the middle of the courtroom. And Laughton, who had been planning on taking a vacation, decides to defend Dietrich. It’s a great movie.
Laughton is terrific here, and honestly, had he not already had an Oscar, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have won here. The veteran status would have been too much to ignore. But, he already had one, and Guinness was so good. So fortunately, I don’t have to vote for him. He was good, though.
Quinn — Wild is the Wind is an Italian movie. Not foreign, just, Italian. Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani. About as Italian as you’re gonna get. Quinn is a widower, and he marries his wife’s sister. And the film is about their awkward relationship, but then her falling for his young ranch hand, who isn’t his son, but he treats like his son — one of those deals.
The film is pretty boring, but it’s all about the performances. And Quinn and Magnani are terrific. Thing is, though, Quinn had two Supporting Actor Oscars by this point, and this performance isn’t one that really requires a vote. So I just kind of leave it at, nice job, but no vote.
My Thoughts: This category to me, begins and ends with Alec Guinness. That’s it. Right there, you have your winner. Brando had one already (and was not winning it for this movie, and that accent), Laughton had one already, and wasn’t the type of actor who was gonna get a veteran Oscar, Quinn was good, but wasn’t really going to win for this, and Franciosa — good, but not really the lead of the film. He’d have fared better in Supporting.
Plus, Alec Guinness is an actor who could do it all, and is always great. And here he delivers a fantastically nuanced and brilliant performance. It’s really no contest.
(I understand that Guinness is sort of part of an ensemble, and spends large chunks of time off-screen, but in a category like this, and the fact that he’s Alec Guinness — I still think he’s an easy choice.)
My Vote: Guinness
Should Have Won: Guinness
Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. One of the best decisions in this category. For the performance and for the actor. Alec Guinness is an acting legend, and gives probably his best dramatic performance here. This is a perfect storm of acceptable.
Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, you’re dead to me.
You should really see Witness for the Prosecution, or else we can’t be friends.
Sayonara — this film keeps creeping up on me. What began as dislike with respect for the color and set design became a weird fascination with the film. I think it’s not half bad. I’m not at the point where I can say completely good things about it (after all, it won two Oscars it really shouldn’t have), but it definitely is worth checking out for a variety of reasons. So there.
A Hatful of Rain — good, not essential. But good. Stark. Honest depiction of drug addiction. Worth a look.
Wild is the Wind — okay. Not great. Very Italian. Good performances. Most people don’t need to see it, though.