The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1963

1963 is one of the toughest Academy years to deal with. It’s arguably worse than 1968, since, at least there, the film that one is a okay choice depending on the category. Here — you don’t know what to vote for. And it’s not that the year itself is horribly weak (though the nominees all-around were on the weak side). It’s just that the more daring films like 8 1/2 and The Cardinal weren’t nominated. So it leaves us with a category where we wonder — what do we do? (Which is probably how we got our eventual winner.)

Tom Jones, aside from Best Picture, won Best Director for Tony Richardson (talked about here). It’s not a good decision (How does Fellini not win?), but it’s understandable. Best Actor this year was Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field (talked about here), which is a great decision historically, but they really did pick one of the worst performances to award him for (he’s seriously playing a magical negro). Best Actress was Patricia Neal for Hud (talked about here), which I don’t love as a decision, but I guess is okay. Melvyn Douglas won Best Supporting Actor for the film (talked about here), which I am okay with. (It’s his second win, in 1979, that I hate.) And Best Supporting Actress was Margaret Ruherford for The V.I.P.s (talked about here), which — there really was no other choice in the category, logistically. So, meh. Whatever.

Overall, what 1963 got right was giving Sidney Poitier an Oscar. Otherwise, the other decisions are either forgettable or just okay. The real weakness for this year is the fact that the Best Picture category consisted of a comedy, a religious film that’s not really about anything, an epic western that’s more entertainment than “Best Picture,” a film about a Greek immigrant, which is terrific but seems to be little-seen (the kind of movie that would be nominated that people wouldn’t know about), and an epic failure (that’s great, but still thought of as a disaster). What do you vote for with that?


And the nominees were…

America, America (Warner Bros.)

Cleopatra (20th Century Fox)

How the West Was Won (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Lilies of the Field (United Artists)

Tom Jones (United Artists)

America, America — What an amazing movie this is. It’s a film that’s so terribly underseen, too. It’s a shame more people haven’t gotten a chance to see this.

The film is essentially the story of Elia Kazan’s uncle. He told it with unknown actors, and it’s about as personal a film as you’ll ever see. It’s basically the story of his uncle’s emigration from Turkey to the U.S. We first see him traveling to work for a cousin of his, but along the way he is scammed out of all of his money. Then he shows up at the cousin’s house broke, and the cousin (who needed the money in order to sustain the business), tries to marry him off to his daughter. He, wanting to go to America, says no. Then he starts working odd jobs to save up money, but again loses it all, this time to a woman, whom he spends all his money on before she leaves him. Then he ends up in a slum and is almost killed by police. Then he ends up at his cousin’s house again and this time agrees to marry the daughter. Though he backs out again when he finds a way to pay for passage to America. But then, along the way, he has an affair with another man’s wife and is caught, which will result in him being deported. Though a friend of his, who is dying, switches papers with him, allowing him to enter America freely. And the film ends with him working as a shoeshine boy, which will eventually lead to him bringing the rest of his family over to America, and giving them the potential for a better life (including Elia).

It’s an amazing, amazing film. It’s one of the best films ever made, and I can’t believe it’s so hard to find nowadays. This, to me, should have had more of a potential to win than it did.

Cleopatra — I saw this movie for the first time in a Latin class in high school. Our teacher (who was from Malta) flew home very suddenly during the year to care for his ailing father, and the head of the department took over. And because he wasn’t much of a teacher anymore (he could teach, he just — wasn’t very good with lesson plans), all he’d do is go by the book, which was pretty boring compared to the original teacher. Though since his method was very straightforward, it left a lot of spare time. So what he did was put on these old Roman movies. That’s where I saw this and Spartacus for the first time (for which I’m very grateful). And if you notice, both films were quite long and took up a lot of class time. Which was pretty cool too. Anyway —

The film is over three hours long and basically split between two stories. The first is of Caesar and Cleopatra, and the second is of Antony and Cleopatra. Liz Taylor is Cleopatra, Rex Harrison is Caesar and Richard Burton is Antony. And the first half deals with Caesar, having defeated Pompey, chasing him to Egypt, where Pompey tries to get help from Cleopatra and her brother. Caesar becomes intrigued by her and takes her side when her brother attempts an assassination on the two of them. The brother is killed and she becomes queen. They have a son, Caesarion, and Caesar goes back to Rome, a hero. He is made dictator for life and then sends for her. She then shows up in that gigantic procession, which only adds to the displeasure of the senate with Caesar, which leads to his death. That’s the first half of the film.

Now, in the second half, Cleopatra is back in Egypt. And later on, after the conspirators are killed and the empire is split up and all that, Antony calls on Cleopatra and asks her for money to help with a campaign. They soon become lovers, and Octavian meanwhile starts poisoning Antony’s name while he’s there. Antony is then forced to marry Octavian’s sister, which pisses off Cleopatra. Then he comes back to Cleopatra and divorces his wife, which leads to Octavian declaring war on Antony. And there’s a big battle, and, during it, Antony is defeated. He comes back to Cleopatra’s palace, where one of her servants (who never liked him) tells him she’s dead, so he kills himself with his sword. She then sees him and kills herself with an asp.

It’s a great movie. It really is. Yeah, I know they spent too much and it’s too long, but it’s amazing. I can watch this movie all the way through. And every time I talk about it, I want to watch it again. That, to me, is the sign of a great movie. So I love the film. I think it definitely should be considered for a win.

How the West Was Won — In case you were wondering, this is not How the West Was Fun, the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen movie.

Yeah, I’m sorry. I just really wanted to drop that reference. I have no shame.

The film is a big epic western shot in Cinerama (which is the one with the curved screen and three film cameras shot side by side to create an ultra-ultra-ultra widescreen panorama view. The idea behind the film is for it to be sort of an episodic retelling of — well, read the title. Basically a history of the western. Which is great, since this was the time where the western was starting to wind down and be questioned. But I’ll save that for another time.

The film has five segments: The Rivers, The Plains, The Civil War, The Railroad, and The Outlaws. All revolve around several generations of the Prescott family. We start with them heading out west — to the frontier. The family meets a fur trader who falls in love with their daughter. He doesn’t want to marry, though, because, like all cowboys, it would require him to stay in one place. But then he is double-crossed by river pirates who plan on killing the Prescotts. So he goes and saves the family (though the mother and father drown) and marries her.

Just to keep a running tally of all the famous people in the section: Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead are the Prescott parents. Carroll Baker is the daughter. Jimmy Stewart is the fur trader. Walter Brennan is the head of the river pirates, and Lee Van Cleef is one of them.

Next segment is The Plains. Carroll Baker’s sister goes to St. Louis to work in a dance hall. She meets a gambler who has inherited a gold mine. He joins her wagon train to avoid paying a debt. Along the way, he and the wagonmaster both try to win her hand, but she turns them both down. They survive a Cheyenne attack and arrive at the mine, which the find out is worthless. So the gambler leaves and the girl goes back to work in a dance hall. Later, they meet again on a riverboat, and they agree to marry and move out to San Francisco.

In this segment, Debbie Reynolds is the sister, Gregory Peck is the gambler, Robert Preston (aka Harold Hill from The Music Man) is the wagonmaster, and Thelma Ritter is one of the passengers on the wagon train.

Next: The Civil War. Jimmy Stewart joins the army to fight in the war. However, his son does too. Jimmy Stewart dies in one of the battles, and the son ends up deserting with a Confederate soldier who is also disillusioned by the fighting. However, as they’re leaving, they come across a conversation with General Grant (Ulysses) and General Sherman (William Tecumsah), and the Confederate tries to kill them, which leads the son to kill the Confederate and rejoin the army. Then the son comes home only to find out his mother (Carroll Baker) is dead, having died after finding out her husband died. So the son gives his share of the family farm to his brother and heads out to find adventure.

In this segment, George Peppard is the son (he’s the guy, in case you don’t know, who was the male lead in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Russ Tamblyn is the Confederate, Harry Morgan (famous character actor best known for playing Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) is Ulysses S. Grant, John Wayne is General Sherman, and Andy Devine (oh, Andy) is one of the C.O.s of the army. Oh, and Raymond Massey plays Abe Lincoln again.

The next segment is The Railroads. Here, Peppard joins the cavalry during the time in which the two railroad lines, Central Pacific and Union Pacific (one moving east, the other, west) try to outbuild one another. He helps try to maintain peace with the Native Americans. He gets help from a buffalo hunter who was a friend of his father’s. Meanwhile, a railroad man tries to build on Indian territory (breaking the rules of the treaty), so the Indians stampeded buffalo through the camp, killing a lot of people. And Peppard leaves, not wanting any part of it.

In this segment, Henry Fonda is the buffalo hunter and Richard Widmark is the railroad man.

And finally: The Outlaws. Debbie Reynolds is now a widow and sells off all her things to pay her debts. She moves onto a ranch, where Peppard (now a marshal) comes and joins her to oversee it with his wife and kids. He runs into an outlaw he knows, whose brother he killed in a gunfight earlier. The outlaw starts threatening Peppard’s family, so he goes to see the town marshal, who tells him the guy’s not wanted for anything. So Peppard decides to face him rather than wait for the inevitable. He ambushes the gang during a robbery and kills them. And then he and his family can live happily ever after. And the film ends with shots of how the west became the cities we know them to be today.

The people in this last segment — Eli Wallach plays the outlaw, Carolyn Jones plays Peppard’s wife, Lee J. Cobb is the town marshal, and Harry Dean Stanton is one of the members of Wallach’s gang.

It’s a real terrific film. You get everything. A history of the west (as told by the genre, of course), all these stars, ultra-widescreen — it’s amazing. It’s really a masterpiece in its own way. Kind of like the American Around the World in 80 Days. Which might make it surprising why it didn’t win, yet — it’s perfectly understandable why it didn’t. It’s not of any particular substance, though it is a lot of fun. I like that it’s here, but it was never going to win.

Lilies of the Field — This film is…I’m amazed that this film has the reputation it does.

Okay, here’s what it’s about: a group of German nuns are trying to build a chapel (in America). Sidney Poitier is a drifter who stops to cool down his overheated car. They persuade him to stay and help build their chapel. He doesn’t want to work for them because they refuse to pay. Eventually he works for them for no pay, because it’s the Christian thing to do. He helps them build the chapel, and feels good about himself for having done it. Then the chapel is built, the nuns celebrate, and he slips away without saying goodbye. I swear to god, that’s the film.

Nothing happens here! That, what I described, is the entire film. And it was nominated for Best Picture. (Not to mention that Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for the film, for playing what is essentially a magical negro. Which is the biggest insult in the world, I felt, that they gave him his Oscar for this and not for one of his strong performances, like In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which were both in the same year, mind you. Not to mention that year, they passed him up for his white co-star in one of the films.) So, I’m not the biggest fan of this film. It just feels wrong to me. There’s no story, there’s a magical negro, and there’s religion all over it. This is a film that I just want no part of. It offends me on too many levels.

Tom Jones — How does a comedy come out and win Best Picture like this? It must have been a really weak year for them. (Though, I guess it is pretty sexually explicit, so, that’s something.) The film is a picaresque comedy, taking place in 18th century England.

The story starts with a silent sequence, which, was pretty entertaining. Basically, it’s about Tom Jones, a young rake who likes to sleep with women. Though, he’s only in love with one woman, whom he cannot marry because he is considered a bastard child. So he basically goes out into the world to become a success so he can marry his girl, and along the way, sleeps with a bunch of women and gets into a lot of trouble. And he basically comes within seconds of being hanged with, through a contrivance of coincidence, is actually discovered to be the lost son of a nobleman, and can now marry the woman he’s always wanted to marry, and is saved at the absolute last second from her father (who all along had hated him). It’s a terrific film, actually. It’s quite funny. It’s a bit raw (technically speaking and in terms of how it depicts sex, only one of which is a bad thing), but on the whole it’s a good film. I still don’t much understand why it won, though. But, meh. At least it’s not Lilies of the Field.

My Thoughts: To me, this comes down to two films. I throw off Lilies of the Field automatically. I don’t like religious films, I don’t understand what’s so great about this story (a black drifter helps German nuns build a chapel), and I have that distaste about the Academy only wanting to award a black man an Oscar when it’s a “magical negro” performance. I also throw of How the West Was Won. I love it, but it’s long and unwieldy, and basically a scrapbook of famous western historical events. It’s entertainment, not an Oscar winner. I feel like it’s only here because it made a lot of money and was technologically significant (Cinerama).

I also take off Tom Jones, because, while it’s entertaining — what is it? It’s a picaresque comedy. There’s nothing here to signify Best Picture. So to me it comes down to Cleopatra and America, America. I’d take either one of them. Pretty much anything that won this year would be met with questioning, so I don’t disqualify either based on that. Personally, while I love America, America (I think it’s one of the great overlooked films of all time), I just love Cleopatra more. I don’t even mind that it’s over three hours long. I can watch that movie all the way through every time. Give me one or the other though. I’m shocked either didn’t win. (Though the more I think about it, the more I want to take America, America. So either way, I can’t believe neither won.)

My Vote: Cleopatra

Should Have Won: Cleopatra, America America

Is the result acceptable?: To me, no. Objectively, maybe. Just because, the year had no singular winner, so whatever won would have been considered weak. But to me, they just chose the Driving Miss Daisy winner. The light comedy of no substance. At least America, America is about something. And at least Cleopatra signifies what the 60s were for Hollywood. And How the West Was Won — it would have been a great film to win in 1937, not 1962. So I don’t think it’s okay, but again — what do you vote for?

Ones I suggest you see: If you really love movies, America, America is an essential film. It’s so criminally underseen, and it’s such a great movie. It’s seriously one of Kazan’s best (which is saying a lot). You need to see this one. Trust me. This should be better regarded than it is.

Cleopatra is also a film I consider to be essential. I think everyone should see it. It’s such a great piece of classical Hollywood. It’s like the Gone With the Wind of the 60s. Not nearly as perfect as Gone With the Wind, but it’s very representative of how lavish Hollywood can be. It’s so great. I say it’s essential, but that’s just me.

Tom Jones is a fun film, and a Best Picture winner. That should be enough for you to see it. It’s quite good. He sleeps with a lot of people, and there’s a lot of screwball-ness to it. Definitely worth checking out.

How the West Was Won — definitely worth a look. It’s a huge production, has just about every major star in Hollywood, and is a classic western. If you love westerns, you’ll love this. And if you’ve seen any westerns, you’ll recognize just about everyone in this movie. It’s incredible. I can’t recommend this highly enough. I wish I can get the chance to see this in full Cinerama one day.

And Lilies of the Field — yeah, it’s good. But — I just don’t get the full appeal. I can watch it and enjoy it (for the most part), but I just don’t get why this is so good. So, slight recommendation. It’s not bad. I still don’t get it, though.


5) Lilies of the Field

4) Tom Jones

3) How the West Was Won

2) America, America

1) Cleopatra

4 responses

  1. Michael

    I couldn’t agree more with the your opinion on the year. Incredibly weak. I would only consider America, America and maybe Cleopatra. 8.5, Hud, The Cardinal, and some more would have been much better choices.

    May 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm

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  3. Yeah I agree with you, Cleopatra is EXTREMELY underrated. Yes it’s long, but its epicness makes up for its length.

    September 17, 2013 at 12:44 pm

  4. Pingback: Film Review: America, America (1963) | ZJ Sans: The Official Site of Zachary Sanfilippo

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