The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1959-1960)
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.
Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top
Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot
Paul Muni, The Last Angry Man
James Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder
Room at the Top is a film that I’ve apologized to… what, three times now? Well, two more to go.
I really disliked this film when I first saw it and completely dismissed its Best Actress win as one of the worst of all time. Five years later, I was completely wrong on that and have wholly about-faced on this one.
Laurence Harvey plays a really ambitious man who sets his sights on a rich man’s daughter, aiming to marry into the family and get a cushy job at his company. Things get complicated, however, when he actually falls in love with a middle-aged divorcee. So he ultimately must choose between happiness and poverty orthe emptiness of success without love.
Harvey is strong in the film, and ultimately the nomination is fine. But by all accounts, SImone Signoret is the one who did get, and should have gotten, all the notices and all the acclaim. He’s strong enough to not have “come along for the ride” but he’s not strong enough for me to consider him any higher than third, at best. This feels like the epitome of a #4 nominee: very solid, very well done, but not great enough that I’d want to take them, even though some might like him and the performance enough to want to push him higher.
Ben-Hur is one of the great epic films of all time.
Charlton Heston plays a Jewish prince who grows up a “brother” to a Roman. Eventually he ends up getting sold into slavery and betrayed by his brother, who wants to look good in front of the Romans. And he eventually makes his way back to Rome, a charioteer, leading to one of the most exciting sequences ever put to celluloid.
Heston is… the lead of the film. He’s not the greatest actor ever, but he carries a three and a half hour movie. I get why they voted for him, especially since the film swept the Oscars (losing only one award). They voted for everything. There’s something to be said about a screen presence that can carry a film of this size. Did he need to win? No. Am I fine with it? Yes. Would I take him? Probably not.
Some Like It Hot is one of the great comedies of all time.
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are musicians who end up watching a mob murder happen. The mob begins looking for them, to eliminate the witnesses, forcing them to get out of dodge. How do they do it? By getting jobs in a traveling band… of female musicians. Forcing them to masquerade as women. Everyone should know this movie.
Lemmon is hilarious here. It’s one of the great comic performances of all time. This is a weird one, as a lot of people wouldn’t take it because of that weird bias against comedy, and a lot of people would take it because of the conception of “this is the best movie and Jack Lemmon is amazing, so I vote him.” I split the difference. I think he gives a great comic performance, and regardless of genre, I vote based on the base level of performance as I judge it, which is completely subjective as it is to all. And I think a better performance was given in this category. I don’t drop him low, but I do not think he is #1 in this one.
The Last Angry Man is Paul Muni’s last screen role, making him the only person to be nominated for both his first and his last screen performance. Which is pretty cool.
Muni plays a doctor dedicated to helping those in need. He’s not in it for the money and doesn’t make really anything for treating his patients. He’s also old and hates everyone and everything. A TV producer comes to him one day and says he wants to do do a piece on him, which will end up giving him enough money to live in a better place. But Muni wants no part of it, because the station is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company that makes shitty drugs that aren’t really there to help people but to make a profit. And a lot of the film is him ranting and raving about his shitty things are. My kinda character.
This is a veteran nomination, pure and simple. He was being nominated for a long career of great screen work, much of which was twenty years prior. Essentially this was his first film in 13 years, and this was as much a return to cinema as much as it was a farewell. To both him and to his style of acting and the style of films he was in. He’s awesome here, but this isn’t a performance you vote for. It’s probably fifth in the category. I like it maybe higher, but he doesn’t make much headway here. This isn’t a performance that should have won, as much as I like it.
Anatomy of a Murder is a pure trial film. Like The Verdict. It’s all about the trial.
Jimmy Stewart is a small town lawyer hired to defend a soldier accused of murdering a guy. He says the guy raped his wife. And Stewart must investigate the situation and build a case. And at least half of this film, if not more, is pure trial. It’s GREAT.
Stewart is awesome here. We watch him go deep into the case and deliver great courtroom monologues. Definitely a performance that gets nominated and a performance that could win. I don’t think he wins most years, but in this category, I could see him being the choice. In fact, he’s the choice I like best, so he’s probably gonna be the choice for me.
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The Reconsideration: I don’t love this category. It’s all solid, but there’s no surefire winner. Which is why ultimately Charlton Heston does sort of hold up as a winner. He’s someone I can be okay with as a choice. But I wouldn’t take him. Lemmon I love, but I don’t love the performance enough to want to take it. Especially over Jimmy Stewart, who gives a great and powerful performance in a film I love. And since Harvey and Muni feel like solid performances that are never gonna get my votes, I’m sticking with Jimmy Stewart. He’s not someone who needed to win or necessarily should have won, but by virtue of being my favorite performance, gets my vote.
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Rankings (category and films):
- James Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder
- Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot
- Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
- Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top
- Paul Muni, The Last Angry Man
My Vote: James Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder
Ben-Hur and Some Like It Hot are two of the 100 most essential American films ever made. Required viewing for all film buffs.
Anatomy of a Murder is essential for all film buffs. Not quite at the level as the other two, but close. No film buff should skip this.
Room at the Top is essential for Oscar buffs and very highly recommended for everyone else. Film buffs should see this because it’s tremendous and a real masterpiece of the romance genre.
The Last Angry Man is awesome. Not essential, but awesome. Solid to high recommend from me. Objectively not something you need to see, but I think you should, because an old man complaining all the time is a great character.
The Last Word: Heston holds up fine. Stewart didn’t need this, Lemmon would (evenutally) get one and didn’t necessarily need to win for this performance. Harvey wouldn’t have been a good winner and same goes for Muni. I can’t tell if Lemmon would have been a good winner, so I’ll say they made the right choice with Heston, even though a potential as-good choice could have also been made. Not a great choice on pure performance, but in a lot of ways, he holds up as a good winner. It’s not even remotely a bad choie they’ve made.
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Trevor Howard, Sons and Lovers
Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry
Jack Lemmon, The Apartment
Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer
Spencer Tracy, Inherit the Wind
Sons and Lovers is Jack Cardiff directing a film. For those who don’t know, he’s one of the greatest cinematographers to ever shoot on film.
The film is based on the D.H. Lawrence novel. It’s a coming of age story. The first half is a boy living at home with his father, a coal miner, and his overprotective mother. He eventually moves to the city and gets a job and starts a relationship, but his close relationship to his mother holds him back.
Trevor Howard plays the boy’s father. He features prominently mostly in the first part of the film but then disappears for a long while. However, when he is on screen, he is very, very good. It’s a perfectly drawn portrait of a hard-working man. I definitely consider him a supporting performance and would have loved to see him in that category instead. Here, I just can’t muster up enough love for the performance to take it. This is one of the strongest categories ever. And as much as I’d love to want to take him, at best he ends up fourth choice for me.
Elmer Gantry is a good film with a great lead performance by Burt Lancaster. The role is kind of Oscar baity to begin with, but he accomplishes something special with it.
Lancaster plays (insert title here), a hard drinking, smooth talking, licentious salesman who can sell anything to anyone. One day he stumbles into a religious revival tent and sees the ultimate scam of all — selling religion to gullible people. He becomes a fire and brimstone speaker, perfectly complimenting the church’s leader, Jean Simmons. He becomes so wrapped up in this new persona that it leads to his previous life coming back to haunt him.
Lancaster is incredible here. It’s hard to watch this movie and not be impressed with the things he accomplishes with the performance. Sure, you can prefer another in the category (because it’s honestly one of the five or ten strongest categories of all time), but it’s hard to deny the greatness of this performance. It’s gonna be difficult to take anyone else over him.
The Apartment is a perfect film. It’s, to me, Billy Wilder’s best film. And he’s coming off Some Like It Hot with this one.
Jack Lemmon is an insurance agent who is unmemorable to his superiors in every way except one — he allows them to use his apartment for their affairs. He has a schedule he keeps, where each of the men gets to use (insert title here) after work, and he goes home to his lonely existence afterward. He has a crush on Shirley MacLaine, the elevator operator in his building and tries to romance her, even though she doesn’t seem interested in any of the men in the building. He eventually gets a promotion, working alongside the big boss, Fred MacMurray, who offers him the job on only one condition — that he be the only person who gets to use Lemmon’s apartment. And things progress to — well, I won’t ruin it, but it’s absolutely incredible.
Lemmon is fantastic here. He gets to play both comedy and drama, and this is the kind of film I’d support as Best Actor for most years, especially given my love of the film. But it’s hard to take him over Burt Lancaster, even with my love for him and the performance. I’m this film’s biggest supporter, and I’m not sure I’m gonna take Lemmon here, as much as I’d like to.
The Entertainer is Laurence Olivier’s mid-life masterwork. That is to say, this is the performance that marked his transition from “young” Olivier to “older” Olivier. Every actor has that transition. This one is his.
He plays a former star who is now relegated to playing lounges with ten people in them, if that. His life is a mess, and he’s still hanging onto this old way of life, which is long gone. He’s so focused on maintaining his own career that he completely ignores his own family, even after his son is killed in combat.
It’s a fascinating of a portrait of a man so set on his own self-interest that he’s willing to forego everything else to play to an increasingly disintrerested audience. It’s of course, meant to be reminiscent of where Olivier is in his life at the time, and it’s a perfect blending of star and performance. It feels like the first time Olivier gave up all of his earlier affectations and just let himself go free. And it shows. I really wish I could put him higher for a vote, but I just don’t love this performance as much as the others. He’s just in the wrong year. It’s at minimum third on performance but at best he gets fourth for a vote. I just love the other performances more.
Inherit the Wind is one of the great films of all time. I don’t usually tell people they need to see a film for life. Even stuff like Casablanca I don’t say non-film people need to see. But this is a film everyone needs to see, as humans.
It’s about the Scopes monkey trial. A teacher who taught evolution in schools and was thrown in jail. And it’s about the major trial that happened afterward, fighting for free speech.
Spencer Tracy essentially plays Clarence Darrow, defending the teacher. He now has the full gravitas of Spencer Tracy the elder statesman and delivers some fantastic courtroom monologues. I love this performance a lot. If this were a year earlier, he would be my vote. Here, he happens to go up against a performance I can’t ignore and a performance I like better. He doesn’t go higher than third for me, but fuck, I would love to vote for this performance and could not criticize anyone who voted for it.
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The Reconsideration: This has emerged as one of the strongest categories of all time. The performances here are all great. The easy version is — Lancaster and Lemmon are my two favorites and they’re the choice. The longer version is — Howard I consider supporting and he doesn’t make much headway. Olivier is fantastic, but I just have no real emotion toward the performance in the way of a vote. And I love Inherit the Wind and love Spencer Tracy in it, though he might be outright fifth on performance even though I’d look to vote for him higher than that.
The Apartment is one of my favorite films of all time and I love Jack Lemmon’s performance. Most years I’d take him on that alone. But Burt Lancaster gives one of the great tour de forces in the Best Actor category of all time. I gotta take that. He’s too good to ignore here, and given the great performances he’s given for years without much acclaim, this was his time, and he deserved it.
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- Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry
- Jack Lemmon, The Apartment
- Spencer Tracy, Inherit the Wind
- Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer
- Trevor Howard, Sons and Lovers
- The Apartment
- Inherit the Wind
- Elmer Gantry
- Sons and Lovers
- The Entertainer
My Vote: Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry
The Apartment is one of the 100 most essential American films ever made and it’s one of my five favorite films of all time. Oh, and it’s Billy Wilder and a Best Picture winner. You’re really not a film buff if there’s ever a chance you won’t or haven’t seen this.
Inherit the Wind is one of those films I think people ought to see in life. Not even if they love movies. Just as humans. It’s one of the most essential films ever made and all film buffs need to see it.
Elmer Gantry is probably not essential, but it’s a very high recommend. Essential for Oscar buffs, and all film buffs really should see this. It’s so good.
Sons and Lovers is a solid film. Relatively solid recommend overall. Not essential but definitely something I recommend.
The Entertainer is a solid film. Great lead performance by Olivier and an interesting film overall. Not essential, but worth a watch.
The Last Word: Lancaster completely holds up. Jack Lemmon is really the only other performance as widely known and loved as his, and I think all things considered, this was a perfect situation. Lemmon had a Supporting Oscar and would later win a lead (not that it should factor into the decision, but we’re talking historically), Olivier had one and didn’t really need another one. And Tracy had two already. Lancaster won his Oscar for a perfect performance. It fits, it holds up, and it was a great decision. I can’t say it was the best decision, because this category is so strong, pretty much everyone would have been a good decision. But for me, this is as close to the best decision as they could have made.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)