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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1957-1958)

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.

1957

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

Analysis:

Sayonara is a film that I’ve been on the apology trail for this entire (re)Quest. Last time I did this Quest I did not like it at all, but over the past five years I must have rewatched it about three times, and I’ve really come around on it.

Marlon Brando plays an air force pilot stationed in Japan. He quickly learns of the politics of the situation — the men all sleep with local women, but are forbidden from marrying them. Because racism. He quickly befriends Red Buttons, who is engaged to a Japanese woman. The higher ups all dissuade him from getting married, but he’s in love, and Brando can see that. And pretty soon, his engagement to the general’s daughter is threatened by his newfound romance with a Japanese performer.

Brando is solid here, but I think anyone who sees this movie would agree that the supporting cast members are the real stars of this movie. Brando is fine, but this isn’t a performance of his I would take. You can’t help but compare it to his earlier work, and this is the weakest of his nominations to this point. Maybe he makes fourth in the category, but I have him outright fifth. There’s not much here for me. It feels like Brando by the numbers.

A Hatful of Rain is one of the most forgotten Best Actor-nominated films. Nobody remembers this one.

It was written by Michael Gazzo, who most people remember as Frank Pentangeli from Godfather II. It’s about a Korean war vet who has returned home addicted to morphine. And his brother sticks by him throughout all of it. So you have one brother, who is a hero on the surface and an addict underneath, and another brother, who is kind of a screwup on the surface but secretly caring for his brother unbeknownst to everyone, selling off his things to help his brother maintain his habit.

Anthony Franciosa plays the brother, not the addict. Which is surprising. You’d think they’d go for the flashy role, but I respect that they went for the quietly solid one. But that’s all this is. A quietly solid performance that normally would be overlooked but ended up getting a nomination. That’s the reward here. At best I consider him fourth for a vote. Maybe I could push him to third, but that’s about it. Not something I take, though I appreciate the performance.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is just a wonderful film. Almost perfect, and may quite be perfect. David Lean’s first foray into epic filmmaking, a trend he would continue for the rest of his career.

It’s about the British and American soldiers at a Japanese POW camp during World War II. The Japanese are tasked with building a bridge that will transport their troops from one side of the river to another. They task the soldiers with building the bridge. The British officers refuse to help, led by their Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. Eventually they help too, and the bridge is built. Though one of the escapees from the camp has informed American higher ups tha this is happening, and they set in motion a plan to blow up the bridge. Leading to an… explosive showdown. (I’m the best.)

Alec Guinness plays Lt. Col. Nicholson, and he’s awesome here. For the first part of the film, he refuses to have the officers help, as the Geneva Convention exempts officers from manual labor. So they throw him in a giant metal box and all that. But eventually he ends up seeing what a piss poor job the Japanese engineers are doing and decides to have htem build a proper bridge, if only for the men’s morale. And by the end, he’s driving the men even harder than the Japanese would have.

It’s a weird performance, in that the arc doesn’t necessarily seem like something that would fit. But when you see Guinness’s performance, it totally works. Maybe not every year, but it’s certainly top two at the very least this year. It’s quite a remarkable performance, one I find myself liking more and more each time I see it. And in this category (which admittedly has some potential nominees left off the final list, which is not something I will remotely get into here), he seems like a pretty easy choice.

Witness for the Prosecution is another unheralded Billy Wilder masterpiece. Even I forget this when I start talking about his perfect films. It takes me a minute to get to it.

Charles Laughton is an aging barrister who really should take some time off for health reasons. But he can’s seem to turn down each case that’s given to him. Including this one: Tyrone Power is accused of murdering an old lady he worked for. It sure looked like he got himself in nice and tight with the old lady and murdered her for her money. Laughton is convinced he didn’t do it. Though it’s strange that Power’s wife, Marlene Dietrich, is called to testify for the prosecution, saying her husband admitted that he killed the woman. This leads to a really wonderful tangled web of… well, watch the movie. It’s quite good.

Laughton is fantastic in this, and in another year, he might have walked away with it. In terms of veteran status, and performance, he’s really quite good. He’s my second choice here and is one of those “in another year…” choices where, if there weren’t such a great winner in Guinness, Laughton would have been my choice. Wonderful work here.

Wild Is the Wind is not a particularly great film, but it does feature a pair of great lead performances.

Anthony Quinn is a rancher who marries his late wife’s sister, as you do. But she ends up falling for one of his ranch hands instead, who is basically Quinn’s surrogate son.

Quinn is really solid here, and maybe if I saw it again I could make a case for him as second choice here, but I know for sure I did not like this performance enough to take him over Guinness. And I’m also pretty sure I don’t like it enough to take it over Laughton. So at best we’re looking at a third choice here. Solid work, overcoming a film I didn’t care for, but this is not something I would want to take. Respectable, but no vote.

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The Reconsideration: It’s pretty much Alec Guinness and then everyone else. You throw on some different performances and I’m interested, but barring that, only Charles Laughton comes remotely close to taking the vote for him. Quinn is solid but had no shot (and I’m also pretty sure some of this nomination had to also do with La Strada, which came out in 1956 in America. But maybe I’m wrong there. Quinn had also just come off a Supporting win the year before, so this may have been him riding that wave. Who knows. Either way, wouldn’t take him. Franciosa has the nomination as his reward, and I did not care for the Brando performance at all, really. On its own, sure, but as a nominee, no. It’s Guinness, and maybe Laughton for me. But Guinness all the way.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Charles Laughton, Witness for the Prosecution
  3. Anthony Quinn, Wild Is the Wind
  4. Anthony Franciosa, A Hatful of Rain
  5. Marlon Brando, Sayonara

Rankings (films):

  1. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Witness for the Prosecution
  3. Sayonara
  4. A Hatful of Rain
  5. Wild Is the Wind

My Vote: Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Recommendations:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the 100 most essential American films ever made. Must see for all. Best Picture winner too. No film buff should ever skip this.

Witness for the Prosecution is one of Billy Wilder’s (many) masterpieces, and that makes it essential for any self-respecting film buff. Seriously, don’t skip this. You’d be missing out on greatness.

Sayonara is a highly recommended film. I can’t call it a very high recommend, but it is a high recommend. It’s dated, but it looks gorgeous and is very engaging. Very much of its era in both a good and bad way. Essential for Oscar buffs alone. Otherwise definitely something film buffs should check out.

A Hatful of Rain is solid and underrated. Definitely worth a watch if you can catch it on TCM, though not something you actively need to seek out. But you should, because it’s good.

Wild Is the Wind is not something I recommend outside of the two lead performances. It’s fine. Light recommend on film value, moderate recommend on performances. If it’s on TCM and you want to, go for it, otherwise you’re fine.

The Last Word: Guinness holds up as one of the more solid winners of all time. No one else would have held up. Laughton could have been a solid veteran winner, but not over Guinness. Brando would have looked bad, Franciosa would have been forgotten, and Quinn would have been totally forgotten, and probably not looked great after two Supporting wins. Guinness was the choice and holds up as a great choice.

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1958

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

Analysis:

The Defiant Ones is one of the great films of all time. Dated, but wonderful at the same time.

In an era of civil rights and films directly challenging the public with political themes, it’s about a white man and a black man, literally chained together, having to survive. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are prisoners. They don’t like each other and want nothing to do with each other. Until their prison bus crashes and they escape. So now they have to survive together, because they are actually shackled together. (Get it?)

Curtis and Poitier — it’s really a two-hander here. No way to take the performances on their own — are both wonderful here. I can’t really separate one performance over another. They’re both very strong and both do a great job. But if there’s ever a situation where there is literally a vote split, this is it. Their performances are (almost literally) joined at the hip. I can’t take one over the other. So in the end, I probably end up taking neither.

Remember, this is 1958, so I don’t know that Poitier will win one later and that Curtis will never be nominated. All I know is that I loved the film and both their performances. I’m not sure who I’d take. My gut says Curtis, but that’s a 2016 perspective. The fact that I can’t really pick between the two is gonna really hurt this category and how it turns out.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an American classic. It just feels like an American classic.

Newman is a former college athlete who gets drunk one night and tries to jump hurdles, resulting in a broken leg. He and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, go to visit her father on his 65th birthday. Her father has just gotten word that he is terminally ill and has very little time left. And we see as all the family drama plays out over the course of that one day, mainly having to do with Newman’s best friend who died under tragic circumstances.

Newman is quite good here. I really love the film and really like the performances. I don’t think this is as mature a performance as he’d give in later years (The Hustler, Hud, etc), but I do think he’s good enough to be strongly considered for a vote here. Plus, given the rest of the category, he sure looks like he might squeak by with a vote on logistics alone.

Separate Tables is a great ensemble drama. Very theatrical, but very engaging.

It’s about a bunch of guests staying at a seaside hotel, and the little dramas that play out amongst themslves, mainly having to do with a scandal involving our nominee.

David Niven plays a former soldier who is very nice, but can’t help but bore the shit out of all the other guests with his war stories. “That reminds me of the time that we were in Berlin and…” so on and so forth. Rambling on and on. Then, one day in the paper, he notices a story about himself. He tries to confiscate it, but one of the other (nosy) guests ends up getting it and seeing what it is. He was dishonorably dischaged from the army (which is not how he’s been presenting himself) for misconduct with an underage girl. This turns into a huge thing, as the (hoity-toity) old lady wants him to be thrown out, and everyone argues both for and against him. Meanwhile, the woman’s daughter (Deborah Kerr), has a bit of a relationship with him (of sorts).

Niven is very good here, but — and here’s the big thing — he’s only on screen for something like twelve minutes. Or sixteen. Something like that. It’s very much an ensemble film, and he’s very much not the lead of the film in any way except billing only. If he were in Supporting Actor, I’d have… no, wouldn’t have taken him there either. But he’s still more Supporting than lead. He just doesn’t feel like a lead when you watch the film, and while this is a solid nomination and a way of them rewarding a veteran they really respected (even though I don’t think he needed an Oscar), I wouldn’t vote for it. I’ll speak on my feelings about the win later, but for sure this isn’t something I would vote for. There isn’t enough of a role there to take.

The Old Man and the Sea is one of those situations where the nomination is a veritable “of course.” Spencer Tracy in an Ernest Hemingway story, playing the only character on screen for 95% of the film — of course he’d be nominated.

This story is basically an old man out to sea trying to catch a fish. He fights with the fish for three days, a battle of his own mental and physical will.

Tracy is fine here. The movie doesn’t really hold up and I don’t think he’s perfectly cast as a Cuban. It’s sort of an older version of the role he won for twenty years earlier, but overall, I didn’t see anything here worth voting for. An easy fifth in the category. Maybe I could force a case for him over David Niven, but no, I wouldn’t even do that. Fifth and I get the nomination, but he makes no headway whatsoever for me in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category does not really compute. Tracy is a no, Niven does not have enough screen time for me to really like him enough to take him over the other three. And when you have Poitier and Curtis so tied together that I can’t separate them, that really only leaves Paul Newman, in a film I like a lot and a perofmrance I like but wouldn’t take most years. But this isn’t most years, and I’m just gonna take Paul Newman rather than have to separate the other two very strong performances. He’s good, and since I’m picking as if this is 1958, as far as I know this is a great performance and who knows what’s to come from here. I guess I could try to parse through the other two, but honestly, I’m okay with Newman, so let’s take him.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Newman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  2. Tony Curtis, The Defiant Ones
  3. Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones
  4. David Niven, Separate Tables
  5. Spencer Tracy, The Old Man and the Sea

Rankings (films):

  1. The Defiant Ones
  2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  3. Separate Tables
  4. The Old Man and the Sea

My Vote: Paul Newman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Recommendations:

The Defiant Ones and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are both American classics and are 100% essential for all film buffs.

Separate Tables is essential for Oscar buffs and just highly recommended for everyone else. It’s great. The cast is great and the performances are very good, and it’s just one of those movies that most people will like.

The Old Man and the Sea is fine. Moderate recommend, but not something you need to see. But it’s definitely engaging and worth a watch. I also think it might be worthy of a remake one of these days. Though I don’t know if this specific story would even work today on screen.

The Last Word: Niven actually is okay. You can’t really say one of the two Defiant Ones performances is better than the other, and while it’s regrettable Newman didn’t win an Oscar until 1985, he didn’t necessarily need to win this. It would have looked okay, but not as great as if some of his later performances had won. And Tracy would have looked awful historically. So all things considered, Niven is a fine choice. It’s only when you see that he’s not a lead that it looks questionable.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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