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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1953-1954)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1953

Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar

Richard Burton, The Robe

Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

William Holden, Stalag 17

Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity

Analysis:

Julius Caesar is one of the most famous plays of all time.

Marlon Brando plays Mark Anthony. As in, “Lend me your ears.” That guy. He’s a great actor in a great role delivering some great monologues.

As I think we all know by this point, this type of role in an Oscar setting, post 1940, really doesn’t appeal all that much to me. The fact that he is Brando and, at this point in time, was snubbed for one Oscar and was very solid the year after that, and this being his third nomination in a row without a win — that would, putting myself somewhat in the shoes of picking the way this category would seem at the time, make me more likely to want to take him. But honestly? Nah. This doesn’t do anything for me. Fourth at best for a vote.

The Robe is one of those “of its era” films. In 1953, this movie was huge. The first CinemaScope release, a big religious epic. I totally get all the nominations. But now, you watch this movie, and you just don’t get the appeal. It’s pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but this does not hold up the way the other films in this category hold up.

Did you see the movie Hail Caesar this year? This movie is a big influence on the fake epic they were shooting in that one.

Richard Burton plays a Roman soldier who thinks Christians are beneath the Romans. He doesn’t take them seriously at all, and is very much wrapped up in his own shit. Then he sees Jesus crucified. And he gets a piece of Jesus’s shroud, the titular robe, and then when he puts it to his face (more on this later), he is instantly converted to catholicism. Which puts him completely at odds with his fellow Romans, and, as you can guess, leads to martyrdom.

Richard Burton is solid here. He was an up and coming star. He had his first American role in My Cousin Rachel the year before this, and got a Supporting Actor nomination (for a leading role). This got him his first lead nomination. A lot of that rising star power went into this, as did the prestige of the picture. However, this performance is so very dated. I can never vote for this performance for one reason and one reason only: the scene where he puts the robe to his face and becomes converted is one of the most hilariously over the top bits of acting I have ever seen. It’s like he’s being burned by acid, the way he screams and contorts his body. And then, “I’ve seen the light! I’m a Christian now!” is just too much for me. I can’t take the rest of the work seriously after that. He’s fifth for me. Can’t do it.

From Here to Eternity is one of the all-time classics of cinema. It’s a great, great film.

It’s about a bunch of soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor before… well, yeah.

The two stories we’re concerned with are with our nominated actors.

Montgomery Clift is a soldier who was transferred to the base after a previous incident. He was on the squad boxing team but killed another guy in the ring. He now wants to keep his head down and have as little responsibility as possible. He’s the company bugler. The general wants him to be on the boxing team, but he refuses. And as such, the general puts him through crazy punishment. Which he just takes. And on the side, he falls in love with a prostitute.

There’s more to it than that, and he’s definitely very good in the role. I just don’t have a lot of passion for the film or the performances in it. They’re good, but I don’t love them enough to want to take them. I preferred Clift in A Place in the Sun. And here, because the category is on paper good but in practice just okay, he does rate as highly as top two, but I really wouldn’t want to take him unless I had to. Though, at this point, it looks like I might have to.

Burt Lancaster plays the aide to the general of the base. It’s a job he’s had for a number of years, and he’s been up for advancement for a long while, but refused it, because he feels the minute he gets the role of an officer, he loses the respect of all the men (though it’s clear there’s more to it than that). He begins an affair with the general’s long-neglected wife, which culminates with one of the most famous images in all of cinema (the beach shot).

Lancaster is pretty steady all the way. It’s not his best performance. He’s solid in it, and does good work near the end when he gets drunk, but he’s not as good as Clift is, and is probably fourth at best on performance in this category, even though I’d take him over Brando because of that thing I have with Shakespeare.

Stalag 17 is Billy Wilder. And for me, it was one of those GREAT Billy Wilder movies that isn’t one of the obvious great ones. Though after the fact, yeah, it’s obviously one of the great ones. But with Wilder, there are so many obvious great ones — Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity — that this is right up there on that list without really having the instant notoriety of them.

It’s a POW movie. The men in a German POW camp constantly plot escapes, but none of them ever seem to go right. They begin to suspect they have a traitor in their midst. And they think they know just who it is…

William Holden plays the guy in the camp who can get anything. Want something? He has it or can get it for you. And it’ll cost you. He doesn’t give discounts. He doesn’t give a fuck. He’ll sit there, listening to a radio in front of everyone else. He doesn’t care. And that makes him seem like an asshole to most of the men. Because it looks like he’s out for himself and only himself. So when they begin to suspect a traitor is in the midst, he immediately becomes the first suspect. He gets ostracized by the rest of the men and decides to uncover the traitor himself. Especially before the high profile prisoner is to be smuggled out of camp.

He’s great here. He really is. Holden is a bit of an underrated actor who always seems to make his film and those around him better. This is a performance that wouldn’t win most years, but I see why he won here. It’s a difficult role to pull off. And, with the previous two on a vote split, Burton not really having a chance and Brando seeming a bit too on the nose… he fits. I wouldn’t take him normally, but he sure seems like the choice here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Last time I went over this category, I went the logistics route. Lancaster would get one later, Brando would get two, Burton would give better performances more worth taking, and Holden had my vote from 1950. Which left Clift, a great actor unrewarded and this being the best opportunity to vote for him. Made sense.

Now — I still could take him. Burton is out. Brando is out. And Clift is the choice over Lancaster. Which leaves only Clift and Holden as the choices. I think both are solid winners. But if I’m being honest, I prefer the Holden performance to the Clift performance. I’d probably need to go back in five years to parse them further, but for now, I’ll take Holden.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. William Holden, Stalag 17
  2. Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity
  3. Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity
  4. Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar
  5. Richard Burton, The Robe

Rankings (films):

  1. Stalag 17
  2. From Here to Eternity
  3. The Robe
  4. Julius Caesar

My Vote: William Holden, Stalag 17

Recommendations:

From Here to Eternity is one of the 100 most essential American films ever made.

Stalag 17 should be seen as even more essential than From Here to Eternity. Not in the objective sense, but in the film buff sense. You should see this cast, this story, the Oscar win plus the fact that it’s a Billy Wilder film and go, “I need to see this movie right now.” And trust me, you’re going to love it. Because it’s a perfect film that all film buffs love.

The Robe is historically essential if you’re really into film history, since it’s the first CinemaScope release. Other than that, it’s just another 50s religious epic. Solid recommend at best on that side of things. But historically, if you’re really into all that stuff, as I am, you’d be wise to consider this essential.

Julius Caesar is one of the most famous plays ever written, and this cast is stacked. Probably best to see this. Or at the very least, look at the cast and then decide if you think you want to see it. Pretty sure most film buffs would absolutely see it based on that. And you should. It’s very well done.

The Last Word: Holden was the best choice. I didn’t think he necessarily was at the time (though my logic was flawed five years ago), but he’s held up as the best choice in what is a surprisingly weak category. Brando wouldn’t have held up for this performance, especially sandwiched between two of his best performances. Clift would have been fine, but not great. Lancaster wouldn’t have looked great over Clift or for this performance, even though he’d have looked fine. And Burton would have been one of the most dated, weak winners of all time for this performance. So Holden holds up all around. The best choice in the category, if not a particularly top tier choice stacked up against other winners.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1954

Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny

Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront

Bing Crosby, The Country Girl

James Mason, A Star Is Born

Dan O’Herlihy, Robinson Crusoe

Analysis:

The Caine Mutiny is one of the great dramas in American history.

A popular ship captain is replaced by Humphrey Bogart, who is a strict, weird man with a lot of OCD tendencies who gives strange orders. Pretty soon, the men begin to hate him and start to suspect he’s losing his mind, forcing them to mutiny to prevent him from doing something that endangers all of their lives.

Bogart is awesome here, and were this any other year, I might look to get him a vote. Even as it stands, he could be considered as high as second choice in the category. But he ran into a buzzsaw, and there’s no way I can get around that. So as it is, he’s just a contender.

On the Waterfront is an all-time classic, and at this point, if you don’t know it, I can’t help you.

Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy. The fact that we all know his character’s name should tell you something.

I really don’t need to say anything about this performance, because it’s one of the most famous ever put to the screen. And if for some reason you’re thinking that this is somewhat overrated (whether because you have an alternate preference or because you’re just one of those people, all I’m gonna do is leave this right here:

The Country Girl is one of the great dramas of the 50s, and it’s been basically forgotten about or ignored over time. It also gets a lot of flak from certain people over the Grace Kelly win, which doesn’t help its reputation.

William Holden (leading yet another actress to an Oscar win, and two to nominations in this particular category) is a playwright looking to cast Bing Crosby in his new play. Crosby was a big star who is now a washed up drunk. No one will cast him because he can’t stay sober. Holden auditions him for the play and decides he wants him. He ignores all the warning signs and hires him anyway. He meets his wife, who he quickly decides is the reason for Crosby’s lack of self-confidence. Which we find out just may not be the case.

Crosby is quite terrific here. He was never much of a dramatic actor, and really never gave too many dramatic performances. But this one is a drama all the way through, and it’s extraordinary work. I love it every time I go back to watch it. I think he might have won in a lot of other years. But this year… not against Brando. Just not gonna happen. I’d love to be able to take him, but I just can’t here.

A Star Is Born is a story that, at this point, you should know. Either because you’ve read all the other articles or because it’s just so famous a story.

Esther Blodgett comes from her small town out to Hollywood to be a star. She meets Norman Maine, a fading, alcoholic star. They fall in love. Her star rises, his star falls. This logline is rote for me at this point.

James Mason plays Norman Maine, and he sure does have fun with it. He’s a carousing drunk who gets to play loving, sad and pitiful in the end. It’s a very strong, and often overlooked performance, as Judy Garland clearly gets all the notice. But he is very good. In other years, he’d be as high as a #2. Most years he’d be a #3. Here, he’s #4. It’s too strong to put him higher. I don’t think he’d ever be the vote because… I don’t know. It’s rare to see a performance the second time as something you vote for. Mr. Chips. Rooster Cogburn. It would take an extraordinary rendering of a performance to really rate a win after the first one (unless it was by the same actor) was nominated. Even if the second one is markedly better. It’s just… it doesn’t have the same luster. I can’t explain it. It just doesn’t. Fortunately we don’t have to get deep in discussion about that since he doesn’t come close to a vote against the above competition, which is stronger than usual.

Robinson Crusoe is one of the most famous novels of all time. Pretty much everyone knows the story. (Cast Away. It’s Cast Away.)

Dan O’Herlihy plays Crusoe, and this is one of the stranger nominations I’ve ever seen. Sure, he’s the only person on screen for much of the movie and he has to carry it, but I’m not really sure why he merited the nomination outside of that. But I’m not here to discuss why or who should have been nominated. I’m here to talk about what I think about the performance. And here… he’s fifth. There’s no other way around it. He’s an easy fifth and there’s no way I take him over any of the other nominees. He’s a filler nominee in a solid film with a solid performance in an otherwise very strong category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category is a killer for me. There are three legitimate choices who could be my vote in almost any other year. Bogart, if he didn’t have one already, would seriously be a contender opposite Brando. But that dam having burst, he’s a very solid #3. And Crosby gives the best dramatic performance of his career. I still keep him at 2, because I haven’t gone back to study the performances simply because of how easy this choice is. Him and Bogart are an interesting combination, and I’m curious which one I actually think is better. Regardless of that, Brando is and always will be the choice here. There’s no two ways about it. Even without the three previous nominations, the Waterfront performance is still considered one of the greatest screen performances of all time. He’s without a doubt the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
  2. Bing Crosby, The Country Girl
  3. Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny
  4. James Mason, A Star Is Born
  5. Dan O’Herlihy, Robinson Crusoe

Rankings (films):

  1. On the Waterfront
  2. The Caine Mutiny
  3. The Country Girl
  4. A Star Is Born
  5. Robinson Crusoe

My Vote: Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront

Recommendations:

On the Waterfront. Need I say more?

The Caine Mutiny is 100% essential for all film buffs, and it’s a great and classic movie. It’s so good.

A Star Is Born is an essential story. Most prefer this version to the 1937 version. I love them both but prefer the 1937 one. I’d say see them both and don’t have to make the decision. Plus, with Judy Garland here, it’s worth seeing for all areas of film buff and not something that should be skipped. It’s better to have seen this than not, so while it’s not a completely essential film, I would consider it as one just to be safe.

The Country Girl is a great movie. Very high recommend. Great performances out of all 3 leads, and essential for Oscar buffs, especially since the Best Actress win is one of the most debated in all of history. So for that I’d say you should see it, but I also think you should see it because it’s fucking great all around.

Robinson Crusoe is a good film. Solid recommend, but otherwise not wholly memorable. Very much in that Disney 50s adventure movie vein. So if you grew up watching things like Treasure Island and things of that sort, this is just like that. Definitely worth seeing and well made, but not something anyone is required to see by any stretch.

The Last Word: Brando is one of the five or ten best winners in the history of this category, and no one would argue that. Perfect choice and no one else should have won. Yes, there were other deserving winners, but no one would have been remembered as well as this performance.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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