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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1963-1964)

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.

1963

Albert Finney, Tom Jones

Richard Harris, This Sporting Life

Rex Harrison, Cleopatra

Paul Newman, Hud

Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field

Analysis:

Tom Jones is a fun film, but still one of the stranger Best Picture winners in history.

Albert Finney plays (insert title here), a rake who goes around, sleeping with women. And he goes on all sorts of adventures, eventually coming within seconds of being hanged, until eventually everything works out and he gets to marry the girl and get a measure of nobility.

Finney is charming here. It’s a fun role and he has fun with it. It’s not an acting stretch by any means, but he was clearly gonna come along with his film. I’m actually somewhat surprised they didn’t out and out give him the award, since that feels like the kind of thing they would do. This is a performance that, in a strong year, would get straight fifth. In most years he’d get fourth. Here he probably gets third on charm even though he’s probably fourth on performance. Not something I love, even though I do appreciate the work.

This Sporting Life is a really lovely film. Pretty much forgotten, but lovely.

Richard Harris plays a miner who ends up on a rugby team because he’s big and can beat the shit out of people. They hire him mostly as a goon, but pretty soon he becomes a successful player. Though his personal life is a giant mess. He ends up sleeping with his landlady, a widow, and they start a complex relationship, in which he is both affectionate and violent toward her. It’s a good film. The lead performances are great.

Harris is wonderful here, and I would strongly consider taking him. Given how weak the rest of the category is, what would normally be a solid #3 is now top two and may be the vote. My one knock against the performance was what I said five years ago, which is how it feels like him doing Brando in Streetcar. But other than that, he’s awesome here. And it’s gonna be between him and Newman, which one I take. Because other than those two, this category has nothing in it for me.

Cleopatra is one of the big, bloated epics of all time. And I love it. It’s overstuffed, overlong, overshot, over budgeted, and over everything.

It’s about Cleopatra and her romances of Caesar and Marc Antony. The first half of the film is her and Caesar and the second half is her and Antony. And it’s four hours long.

Rex Harrison plays Caesar. And honestly, he’s great here. He might get overburdoned by the rest of the film, but the performance is quite good on its own. He doesn’t get blustery and “big” as his costars do, and he gets quite a few moments to shine. That said, this feels to me a lot like Richard Burton’s first nomination for The Robe. I admire the work, given the sort of film he’s in, but it’s not a performance I can really consider very strongly for a vote. He’s out and out fifth in the category for me, even though I do appreciate the performance more than most would, considering how overlooked it feels in his own film.

Hud is one of the great “acting” films in Academy history.

Paul Newman plays the son of a rancher. His father is very principled, and Newman just does not give a shit. He wants no part of the ranch and shirks his chores and goes around drinking and sleeping with married women. All the while his father tries to keep his ranch from going under amidst a potential cattle disease outbreak.

Newman is outstanding here. He’s been outstanding for just about every one of his nominations. At this point, you wouldn’t be wrong voting for him every time. At this point, it looks like he’s gonna be my vote here. It’s gonna be between him and Richard Harris. This isn’t a particularly great category, and those two are the clear standouts. So we’ll see where it goes. I did rewatch this one (though mostly for the Patricia Neal nomination) and I was more impressed with Newman than I was last time.

Lilies of the Field is, to me, one of the most ridiculous films. It’s perfectly entertaining, but as far as winning Oscars goes, it looks horribly dated in the worst way. But that’s what makes this such a tough situation.

Sidney Poitier plays a drifter whose car breaks down in a small town outside a nunnery. He asks the nuns for help, and they ask him to help do some handiwork for them. They eventually ask him to help them build a chapel, which he doesn’t want to do, because he needs to get paid. But eventually he helps them. And the rest of the film is him helping these nuns build a chapel. That’s it. That’s the film.

It’s a perfectly entertaining film, but I don’t much get it. This win seems more about awarding Poitier than awarding a great performance. But, given how historical this win is, it’s hard to argue against that. It’s a great thing they did.

However, in terms of pure performance, Poitier is just good. I don’t even need to see this performance nominated, let alone win. At best I can maybe say he’s a fourth choice for me? Maybe I can push him to third, but honestly — the only great thing I can say about the actual performance is that at least he looks like he’s having fun and not taking the rest of the nun stuff seriously, which makes it more palatable to me. But outside of that, I can’t say I much cared for this performance at all when it comes time to think about voting.

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The Reconsideration: Not a whole lot of interest here. The Poitier win actually looks okay as a choice more than a performance. But I’m dealing with performance, so I have to work my way through that part here before talking about the rest of it down below.

Harrison is good but I wouldn’t take him. Though if this were 1963, there’s a chance I might have. But here, nah. The Poitier performance does nothing for me, so I wouldn’t take that. Though I would vote for him over Finney, who is charming but isn’t a performance I take just because I really don’t think he had to do a whole lot here. I’d prefer the historical record of Poitier over just a ho hum Albert Finney performance to go along with a ho hum Best Picture winner. Really though, the performances to take are either Paul Newman or Richard Harris. They seem like the easy top two here, and it’s pretty much between the two of them.

I think I side with Newman now, just because I really love the Hud performance, and I just really like the Harris performance. Neither would be the vote most years, but this year isn’t most years. So I’ll stick with Paul Newman yet again. He is quite good in Hud.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Newman, Hud
  2. Richard Harris, This Sporting Life
  3. Albert Finney, Tom Jones
  4. Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field
  5. Rex Harrison, Cleopatra

Rankings (films):

  1. Cleopatra
  2. This Sporting Life
  3. Tom Jones
  4. Hud
  5. Lilies of the Field

My Vote: Paul Newman, Hud

Recommendations:

Cleopatra should be considered essential, even though if we’re really parsing through it, it wouldn’t be that bad if you hadn’t seen it. It’s just such a big film, historically and scope-wise, that most people should see it just because of its place in film history. It’s basically one of those films that is looked at as the death knell of the studio system.

Hud is essential for all film buffs. This is one of the great acted films of all time and one that most actors go back to and point to the performances of as being highly influential. It won two acting Oscars as well, so Oscar buffs must see it. No reason to skip this one.

Tom Jones is a Best Picture winner and that makes is mostly essential. On its own it’s just a fun comedy that isn’t for everyone and all things considered isn’t really all that great. It’s a weird winner and it’s actually one of the least essential Best Picture winners out there. On film alone it would only get a solid recommend out of me.

This Sporting Life has two great lead performances and is a solid film. Not essential, but worth seeing, specifically for Harris and Roberts. Check it out if you can. The British Streetcar, in a way.

Lilies of the Field is only essential for Oscar buffs because of the Poitier win. Otherwise I only give it the lightest of recommends. It’s breezy and relatively fun, but otherwise I don’t much care for it. It’s just important because Poitier won for it.

The Last Word: Poitier is one of the great decisions of all time, purely because of what he represents. If there was ever a year to give him an Oscar for reasons other than the performance, this was the year. Because no other nominee needed to win. He didn’t take away from anyone else. You have to separate performance from historical importance, and if you do that, this was a wonderful choice. On performance, he shouldn’t have won at all and probably Paul Newman got robbed. But even then, the historical importance of this win outweighs everything else, so it’s totally fine. I just wish that it would have been even more perfect and that he’d won for one of his great performances like In the Heat of the Night or something like that. But oh well. I’ll take history any way I can get it.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1964

Richard Burton, Becket

Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady

Peter O’Toole, Becket

Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek

Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Analysis:

Becket is a big historical drama. This is where they strayed away from stuff like Cleopatra and started focusing on stuff like this. Rather than scale, focus on the drama. Stage plays, acting, great actors, performances. That sort of thing. There will be a string of these nominated in the acting categories over the next decade.

The film is about King Henry II, who hires his old college drinking buddy Thomas Becket, to be head of the church, essentially to have a friend close to him while he rules. The only problem is, Becket takes this role seriously, which starts to cause endless trouble for Henry.

Richard Burton plays Becket, while O’Toole plays Henry. It seems like an obvious case for a vote split, though unlike something like The Defiant Ones, I actually do have a favorite here.

Burton’s performance, while strong, is too pious for me. He plays it too buttoned up. He’s both restrained and “loud.” Give me one or the other. Give me his Henry VIII or give me the performance he’s gonna give me the year after this. He’s the crux of the film, but I much prefer the O’Toole performance.

And O’Toole — I love what he does here, but this doesn’t scream like something I want to take. He’s probably second on performance, but I’d still take two other people over him. I like what he does with Henry, but I’m gonna like what he does with Henry in four years a whole lot more. So he’s regrettably a solid #2 on performance and third for a vote. It’s not the case of a vote split, it’s just I don’t like the performance enough to take it.

My Fair Lady is based on one of the greatest placys ever written. It was a big, classy affair that rightly won all the Oscars its year, but is now looked at as an overstuffed, bloated musical that doesn’t hold up. I don’t quite go that far with it, but criticisms of this film are not wholly unfounded.

Everyone should know this story. Professor Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle, “The Rain in Spain,” etc. What kind of film buff doesn’t know this story in some form?

Rex Harrison plays Henry Higgins, and this is one of those perfect situations. He is utterly charming in the film, he was great in the role on Broadway, he’d given solid performances for years and he was in the Best Picture winner. I’m sure he ran away with the category in 1964. Now, he still holds up as a good performance, but it seems kind of weak given the people around him. The biggest flaw with the performance is the fact that he doesn’t sing particualrly well. It definitely weakens my desire to take him. Though, that said, I love the performance and ultimately would take him over Peter O’Toole, even though O’Toole, I feel, gives a better performance. That said, I don’t think I ultimately take Harrison, since at this point, if we’re getting into which performance I liked the best… it’s certainly not gonna be this one. There’s one… or rather… three, I definitely liked much more than his.

Zorba the Greek is one of the great films. There’s something about Anthony Quinn here that’s just utterly charming.

Alan Bates plays a man of Greek heritage who travels to Greece after his father dies to take control of a mine. There, he meets Zorba, a peasant, who claims to be an expert miner and says he’ll run the mine for him. And they begin a journey and the extroverted Zorba teaches the introverted Bates about life.

Mostly this is Anthony Quinn being very — out there — and charming and bold and being the kind of character that would of course be nominated here. He’s wonderful in the film, and you can’t help but love his Zorba. I just… this doesn’t feel like a performance that would hold up as a winner, and while I would want to vote for this more than most, it’s hard for me to really say I would vote for him over our next nominee.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the great comedies of all time. One of the great films of all time.

It’s a Cold War comedy. A deranged general orders an airstrike of nuclear weapons against Russia and then closes off his base from all contact. Which is a problem, since he’s the only one who knows the abort codes. This then causes a giant international incident, and hilarity in the face of armageddon ensues.

Peter Sellers plays not one, not two, but three characters. First, he plays Captain Lionel Mandrake, who works on General Jack D. Ripper’s base and is the one with him while he goes insane. Mostly he plays the level-headed straight man to the insanity going on around him. Second, he plays President Merkin Muffley, who is also relatively a straight man to the chaos. More so than even Mandrake. And then thirdly, he plays the titular character, Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist with a hand that tends to act on its own.

All three performances are just amazing, and if there was ever a time to vote for a comedic performance, this would be the year. Especially since the rest of the category feels pretty ho-hum overall. So, he’ll probably end up being my vote without much fanfare. Fortunately the performances speak for themselves.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This one is pretty easy. It’s not overly great as a category, but it’s serviceable. I certainly like all the performances, which helps.

With the two Becket performances, O’Toole is the one I take, so Burton is out. Quinn is awesome and I love the performance, but I wouldn’t take him. And O’Toole, while solid, I wouldn’t take over Harrison, so he’s out.

It’s pretty much just Rex Harrison or Peter Sellers, and that’s a no contest. I love the Sellers performances and I’m gonna take them every time.

I’m perfectly okay with Harrison having won, but I can’t vote for it. I gotta vote for what I think is the best, and that’s Sellers.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  2. Peter O’Toole, Becket
  3. Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
  4. Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek
  5. Richard Burton, Becket

Rankings (films):

  1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  2. My Fair Lady
  3. Zorba the Greek
  4. Becket

My Vote: Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Recommendations:

Dr. Strangelove is one of the 100 most essential films ever made, and one of the 25 most essential comedies ever made. Essential for every film buff, and you probably know that already.

My Fair Lady is a Best Picture winner, and those should be considered essential. Which is good, because I was considering this as borderline essential anyway, so now I can just say it’s essential for all film buffs. Because why the hell would you not see this movie? Who doesn’t love Audrey Hepburn?

Becket is really solid and worth seeing. I can’t recommend it that highly, though I’m pretty sure the idea of Burton and O’Toole together in a costume drama will appeal to most film buffs. If it doesn’t, my recommendation certainly isn’t gonna do anything.

Zorba the Greek is awesome. I recommend it pretty highly. It’s hard not to love Anthony Quinn in this movie, and the final scene is just a thing of beauty. It’s not essential, and you’d be fine without it, but what would your life be without this movie?

The Last Word: Harrison is a fine winner. He’s average to below average overall, but it’s not the worst decision they’ve ever made. Quinn wouldn’t have held up as a winner, and neither of the Becket performances would have held up. And I just can’t fathom the idea of Peter Sellers winning Best Actor for the Strangelove performances. It feels more appropriate for him to have lost and for us to wish he had won. In a weird way, Rex Harrison was the best choice here. And then everyone can complain about how the Academy has a bias against comedic performances. Which is when they have to deal with this next year…

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Ed

    Missing your opinion on Anthony Quinn’s performance

    November 7, 2016 at 2:57 pm

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