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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1955-1956)

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.

1955

Ernest Borgnine, Marty

James Cagney, Love Me or Leave Me

James Dean, East of Eden

Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm

Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock

Analysis:

Marty is one of the simplest, most perfect films ever made.

Ernest Borgnine is a 35 year old, lonely butcher. Everyone asks him when he’s gonna find a girl and get married. He wishes he knew the answer. One Friday night, he goes out with his friend to a local dance. Pretty quickly, his friend finds a girl and leaves him alone. But then something happens — he meets another lonely person. A shy schoolteacher. They start dancing and talking, and pretty soon they find they have a lot in common. They go off and talk all the way home. And that’s the majority of the film. It’s absolutely incredible.

Ernest Borgnine is so good here. He really is. This is one of the most beautifully earnest (pun ridiculously intended) characters ever put to screen, and I completely support the win. Not sure if I take him, five years later, because the competition is strong, but he definitely rates top two in the category for me. I love this film and I love this performance, even if it’s not exactly Shakespeare.

Love Me or Leave Me is another one of those 50s biographical musicals about a person you’ve never heard of. Mostly it’s just a Doris Day musical with James Cagney to give it some unexpected depth.

Cagney plays a mobster who takes an interest in Day, a struggling singer. He helps her career tremendously, but he’s uncouth and violent. She marries him more out of gratitude than love, and he begins to hurt her career as much as help it, especially when she gets more famous.

Cagney is very strong here. In another year, he’d more seriously contend. Unfortunately, he seems a bit like a lightweight given the rest of the competition. But don’t let that fool you. This would be a #3 at worst most years. He’s very strong. But in this category, there are at least three choices above him, if not all four. He just happened to be in the wrong year.

East of Eden is an all-time American classic that even casual film fans know.

It’s based on the second half of the Steinbeck novel. James Dean plays a man who desperately wants his father’s approval. Only his father prefers his other son, Dean’s brother. He does everything he can, but only feels alienated.

Dean gives one of the all time iconic performances. He’s an actor who only starred in three films in his live, all three of which are classics. I don’t love his acting style. It never resonated with me the way I’m sure it resonated with audiences fifty, even thirty years ago. I completely get how revolutionary he was for acting, along with Brando and Clift, and I’m not gonna reduce anything he’s accomplished. But I don’t love this performance. It’s very solid, and I’d have the performance on its own a solid third. Though, this is before I factor in the Rebel Without a Cause performance that he also gave this year, which is also iconic. I probably won’t vote for him, but I completely understand how he could and would be the choice for a lot of people, if not most people. I just don’t love it enough to take it. I don’t think it’s the best performance in the category.

The Man with the Golden Arm is Otto Preminger, and one of the great films of the era that nobody talks about.

Frank Sinatra plays a heroin addict who just got released from prison. He’s determined to go straight and become a drummer, rather than deal cards for an illegal gambling racket. He also tries real hard to stay clean, despite his former dealer and other bad influences constantly undermining him at every turn. Not to mention his wife, left in a wheelchair after an accident he was responsible for, who is needy and a constant source of guilt for him, even as he develops a nice relationship with another woman.

Sinatra is incredible here. It’s a terrific performance that would win in a lot of years. The withdrawal scene is still really difficult to watch. This is a performance that would probably be second or third for most people, but I really love his work here, and he’s more than likely going to be my vote. I truly think this is the best performance in the category.

Bad Day at Black Rock is one of the great noirs of all time. And it’s a western! In color! In CinemaScope!

Spencer Tracy is a one-armed man who arrives in a small western town on a train. The train hasn’t stopped there in four years. He’s there looking for a Japanese man. Everyone in the town is really hostile toward him and claims they have no idea what he’s talking about. And as he goes around town, inquiring about the man, we slowly find out more about who he is and what he’s doing there. It’s a great film. A really great film.

Tracy is very strong here, but in this category, he can’t help but feel like an afterthought. Other years I’d have him as high as third. Here, he’s fifth. He’s really strong, but it does feel like Spencer Tracy giving his usual elder statesman type performance. He’s good, but I wouldn’t take him against any of the other nominees. Maybe Cagney, if I really wanted to parse through them, but that’s still a fourth choice at best. I love the film, but I wouldn’t vote for him here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s a strong category, and all opinions are valid in this one.

The main two performances for most people are gonna be Dean and Sinatra. Borgnine is wonderful, and I’d put him right up there, but I feel a lot of people would be more likely to give him a “yeah, he’s really good” dismissive kind of reaction. Which I understand. I don’t think Cagney or Tracy rate for most people against the competition, even though they too are also very solid.

I imagine most people would take Dean in this one. Even for just the East of Eden performance alone, let alone the Rebel Without a Cause performance he also gave this year. But I prefer the Sinatra performance. I think that performance is the best in the category, and that’s the one I would take. I would also take Borgnine over Dean, but that’s more a personal choice than an objective one. I agree that Dean collectively is better than Borgnine, performance wise. But I still think Sinatra is tops here, and that’s who I take.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm
  2. Ernest Borgnine, Marty
  3. James Dean, East of Eden
  4. James Cagney, Love Me or Leave Me
  5. Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock

Rankings (films):

  1. Marty
  2. The Man with the Golden Arm
  3. Bad Day at Black Rock
  4. East of Eden
  5. Love Me or Leave Me

My Vote: Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm

Recommendations:

East of Eden is one of the 100 most essential American movies ever made. Must see for all film buffs.

Marty is an essential film. Best Picture winner, great film all around, and just a film everyone loves. No reason any film buffs should skip a Best Picture winner, and no reason any film buff should skip this as a great film.

The Man with the Golden Arm is probably essential. It’s big in terms of the demise of the production code, it’s big in terms of “oh yeah, singers can be good actors too,” and it’s a great film with a great lead perofrmance, an iconic score and one of the most famous opening title sequences of all time by Saul Bass. I would tell everyone this is essential because it’s so great and not enough people sit down to watch this, but it’s one of the best movies of the 50s.

Bad Day at Black Rock is essential. It may not seem that way, but it is. It’ll be on all those lists of great movies of all time. It’s absolutely wonderful, and all film buffs need to see this one. It’s so great.

Love Me or Leave Me is a decent movie. Mostly worth it for the lead performances. Moderate recommend. You can skip this. Mostly it’s worth it for Cagney, or it you love Doris Day.

The Last Word: Borgnine is a good winner. Can I definitively say he as held up better than James Dean would have? No. But I feel like the cult of James Dean is helped by the fact that he never won and had these two posthumous nominations. I don’t know if him winning would have really helped that. But sure, maybe he was a better choice. I think Borgnine is fine, and I think Sinatra would have been fine. They had choices here, and I think the one they made, while the most broadly appreciated of the three, might not have been the best “acting” performance. But I’m fine with it.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1956

Yul Brynner, The King and I

James Dean, Giant

Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life

Rock Hudson, Giant

Laurence Olivier, Richard III

Analysis:

The King and I is an all-time musical. It’s really good, even if it’s somewhat overstuffed. It looks gorgeous. The cinematography, sets and costumes are some of the most gorgeous I’ve seen.

The story is really well known. Tutor comes to Siam to teach the king’s children. She and he clash, as she’s more progressive and he’s more traditional. But they become friends.

Yul Brynner plays the king. He’s big, he’s bold, he’s memorable. It’s everything you’d want out of a Best Actor winning character. Completely get him being the vote for most people and even the Academy.

My one knock against it — he’s not the lead of the film. There are long stretches where he’s not on the screen. And it’s not a scenario where you feel his presence when he’s not on the screen. The movie is too long for that. So that might hurt him in the end, even though the actual performance is quite strong and memorable and very much worth taking.

Giant is an epic about oil. One of the great American epics of all time.

Rock Hudson owns a cattle farm in Texas. He buys a stallion from Elizabeth Taylor’s family and comes away with her too. And the film is mostly about their marriage and their family, set against the changing times.

James Dean plays a ranchhand on Hudson’s estate who hates Hudson but stays around because Hudson’s sister likes him. When she dies, she leaves him a patch of land that Hudson can’t do anything about. On that land, Dean strikes oil. Hudson is very traditional, and refuses to get into the oil game, believing cattle to be the business his family has been in for generations. So Dean ends up making a killing in oil and becoming as rich as Hudson. And it’s a sort of old money/new money thing.

It’s very much a James Dean performance, specifically for the first half. I much more appreciate the second half, when he plays the older version of his character, who is isolated and lonely and just fll of self-hatred. The only issue with that is — he looks so wrong for it. He’s a 24 year old kid playing this 40 year old man, and it just doesn’t work. The performance works, but the look does not. Either way, I think he’s very solid, and I think one could take him here if they saw fit, even though I think he does skew closer to a strong supporting character who was pushed lead given the run time of the film.

Rock Hudson is unequivocably the lead of the film. He is in the majority of the scenes over the nearly three and a half hour film. Though, it’s Rock Hudson. If you’ve seen his films, you know — he’s not the most versatile of actors. But the same can be said for Charlton Heston. And he won an Oscar simply for carrying his giant epic (and because of the sweep factor, but that’s a conversation for three years from now). So I think it’s perfectly acceptable to vote for Rock Hudson on that factor alone, even if he’s not the most skilled actor in the world. So we’ll see.

Lust for Life is a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.

Kirk Douglas plays Vincent Van Gogh.

This was certainly a very “on the nose” kind of Oscar nomination. And you’d think that maybe, if anything, could get Kirk Douglas an Oscar, a role like this would.

The film is good. It doesn’t fully hold up but actually does a pretty decent job, all things considered.

Kirk Douglas is a great actor, but he’s not exactly Daniel Day-Lewis. I think he does a strong job here, given his strengths as an actor, and would be a fine choice, if that’s the way you lean. I just wouldn’t lean that way myself, and that’s really what the purpose of a vote is.

Richard III is Shakespeare. Olivier’s third of these out of four. He had one per decade.

This and Hamlet are considered Olivier’s two best versions of Shakespearean characters. But I didn’t want to vote for Hamlet in 1948 because it seemed too late. There is no way I’m taking this performance in 1955.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Tough category. Strong performances, but nothing that feels like a #1 for me. I have no idea what the hell to do with this.

There are two things that I steadfastly refuse to vote for, and I think everyone knows what they are by now. 1) Shakespeare performances outside of the first decade of the Oscars (and even then). 2) White actors playing non-white. This category has both.

To start — no on Olivier. I don’t care if this is technically one of the greatest film performances ever. He won an Oscar for Shakespeare in a category that just happened to work out in his favor and I’m not giving him another one. I just can’t do it. So to each his own, vote for him if you want to, I can’t do it.

Then, Yul Brynner. He’s great, he’s awesome, but he’s playing Thai, and he’s not Thai. That plus him not really being lead gives me perfect reason not to vote for him (which I didn’t really want to do in the first place). So I can’t take him.

That leaves Kirk Douglas and the two Giant performances. I think it’s clear that I prefer Hudson over Dean, so we’ll just take Dean off now. And then — honestly, I don’t love the Douglas performance enough to take it. So I’m backed into taking Rock Hudson more for his steadfast leading of a film that demands a lot of screen time out of him. It’s not my favorite decision I’ve ever made, but it’s one I feel okay with.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Rock Hudson, Giant
  2. James Dean, Giant
  3. Yul Brynner, The King and I
  4. Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life
  5. Laurence Olivier, Richard III

Rankings (films):

  1. Giant
  2. The King and I
  3. Lust for Life
  4. Richard III

My Vote: Rock Hudson, Giant

Recommendations:

Giant is one of the 100 most essential films ever made.

The King and I is a great musical with iconic songs and one of the most gorgeous looking films ever shot. It’s essential for Oscar buffs because of the Brynner win and is just a high recommend for everyone else.

Lust for Life is a solid film that I recommend highly. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the Quinn win and other than that it’s Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh directed by Vincente Minnelli. What more could you want?

Richard III is really only essential for fans of Shakespeare or fans of Olivier. Otherwise it’s just a moderate recommend. Not essential if you’re not into it.

The Last Word: I used to hate the Yul Brynner performance for two reasons. First — he beat Giant, which I think is one of the great under-heralded American films of all time. And second — he’s not a lead. He’s strong supporting and should be treated as such. Now, I’m actually somewhat appreciative of the performance, because he does have a performance that feels like the best choice of a compromised category. Dean and Hudson got a vote split. I suspect most people prefer the Dean performance while Hudson has the more apprpriate one to vote for. Olivier will have support but really stood no chance, and Douglas has what might be the all-around “obvious’ choice that looks good on paper. Overall, I think Brynner holds up pretty well. Douglas would probably have been second choice. I think the choice is weak historically but in context of the category looks okay. It is what it is.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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