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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1965-1966)

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.

1965

Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou

Laurence Olivier, Othello

Rod Steiger, The Pawnbroker

Oskar Werner, Ship of Fools

Analysis:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is based on John le Carré, and it’s fucking great.

Alec Guinness is a British agent working in the British sector of West Berlin. Things aren’t going well, and he’s miserable. After a botched operation, they demote him, and he starts drinking more. We later find out this demotion is a stretegically planned event, designed to make him look like the exact kind of agent who would defect to the other side. They want him to go along and pretend to defect, in order to undermine a high powered German officer as a British agent.

Richard Burton is fucking tremendous here. It’s perhaps the most low key performance of his career. There’s a quiet melancholy throughout the whole thing that I just completely loved. I can see why this wouldn’t be considerd “flashy” enough for the Academy, but there’s no denying that he’s top two on performance in this category. Especially given the rest of it looking so… mediocre.

Cat Ballou is perhaps the single worst Oscar winning performance of all time.

Sorry, Lee Marvin.

The film is an out and out comedy. Jane Fonda is the daughter of a rancher. A coroporation wants his land and hires a gunfighter to intimidate him off of it. She hires another legendary gunslinger to protect her father. We find out two things: one, that the gunfighter she hires is a drunk, and two, the gunfighter that’s gonna kill her father is his brother.

Marvin plays both roles, the drunk and the brother. The brother is barely a role. He has a mask on his face the whole time and pretty much is just a cold-blooded assassin. The drunk role is the more humorous of the two. But still, there’s absolutely nothing here that even says nomination let alone win. And it’s one of the single most puzzling wins I’ve ever seen. I can’t even defend this. I enjoyed the performance quite a bit, but I don’t get the win even a little. There’s not even really a character here.

My guess is that the other performances were so heavy they split the difference and went for the fun role. Either that or Lee Marvin was up and coming and this was the “clincher” for his status within the industry. I don’t know. This is long before I was born. I’m just guessing. Either way, I cannot take this performance. I just can’t.

Othello is Laurence Olivier’s last Shakespeare nomination, and, in my mind, the most dated and ridiculous of the bunch.

First, it’s Othello. Everyone should know this play just by going through school. Evil dude convinces a guy his wife is cheating on him. Bad things happen to all.

Okay, so now — this is a performance that shouldn’t be nominated in 1965. Even 1955 is pushing this type of nomination. Seeing this here is such a relic of a bygone era, I can’t believe it’s here. Not to mention — blackface. Othello has typically been a blackface role, and I can’t condone that. This adds up to the perfect cocktail of “never gonna happen.” The performance is fine and all, but he’s an easy fifth here for me, which is crazy, since Lee Marvin is literally just shitfaced for his entire film.

The Pawnbroker is a powerful 60s film that is both dated (in a good way) and underrated. No one seems to remember this one.

Rod Steiger is a pawnbroker in Harlem who, years earlier, escaped the Holocaust after seeing his two children murdered and his wife raped by the guards. He is now both haunted and numbed by his experiences and basically just runs out his days. He thinks everyone around him is a piece of shit and hates having to interact with them. And the film is mostly about him interacting with these various characters. The plot’s not something that really matters all that much.

Steiger is terrific here, and one can argue that he should have won this category and that his loss here is what propelled him into a win two years later. He’s very strong here. The first go around I didn’t want to vote for him at all and almost had to because he was so good.

This category is, to be as objective as possible, between Steiger and Burton. And it’s difficult to really argue otherwise, after seeing the other three performances.

Ship of Fools is a big, bloated ensemble film that feels like one of those movies that’s deliberately about something important and meant to be dramatic and yet has a high probability of coming across as exactly what it is. There’s always that “big” Oscar movie that just doesn’t land, and this feels like one of those. Though it’s not a terrible movie by any stretch.

This is about a ship bound for Germany from Mexico in the days just before the Nazis took over, and dealing primarily with the lives of all the passengers.

The story we’re dealing with is that of the ship’s doctor, who is secretly dying and strikes up a relationship with a countess on the ship. That’s pretty much it. For what it’s worth, this storyline is one of the few interesting ones in the film. Werner and Simone Signoret are both very good. I don’t think he really needed this nomination, but he’s fine in it. I much preferred the Spy Who Came in from the Cold performance (which is supporting) to this one. He’d be a fifth most years, but here he ekes out a fourth place finish purely because I just cannot vote for Olivier. He’s definitely fifth on performance, but I just can’t with the blackface Othello in 1965. So he ends up fourth for me. Not a chance I ever vote for this no matter how many times I go over the category.

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The Reconsideration: Refuse to vote for Olivier, Werner will never happen, and Marvin should be a fun fifth that no one takes seriously, and he ends up third. Which is exactly how he won (somehow).

The category is (and should be) between Rod Steiger and Richard Burton. And I’m gonna be honest, my opinion is heavily slanted in favor of Ricahrd Burton, and since I didn’t really go back and parse through the performances (even though I know they’re both very close and are both worthy of a vote), I’m gonna stick with Burton because I love the film and his performance a lot. This is just a straight up personal choice that also happens to be a decent choice in the category. So that’s nice.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  2. Rod Steiger, The Pawnbroker
  3. Oskar Werner, Ship of Fools
  4. Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou
  5. Laurence Olivier, Othello

Rankings (films):

  1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  2. Cat Ballou
  3. The Pawnbroker
  4. Ship of Fools
  5. Othello

My Vote: Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Recommendations:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not essential, but I recommend it very, very highly. If you love Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you will love this. Trust me. le Carré is always worthwhile. This movie is incredible. See this. It’s amazing.

Cat Ballou is a good comedy and a very fun movie. Not essential outside of Oscar buffs, and not even something you need to see. Just an enjoyable movie. Solid recommend, high recommend to those who like westerns or Lee Marvin. But unless you’re super into the Oscars, you can skip this and be fine. But it is worth seeing for a lot of reasons. (Jane Fonda, Nat King Cole…)

The Pawnbroker is a very good film that is worth seeing. Nothing more than a solid recommend, but I really recommend this one to film buffs, because it’s wonderfully 60s (but the good 60s, the precursor to the great 70s films kind of 60s), and features a great lead performance. Fuck it. Let’s call it a high recommend. It’s definitely something film buffs ought to check out.

Ship of Fools is fine. Moderate recommend. Big cast, good performances, but otherwise an overlong, kidn of boring movie that feels like failed Oscar bait that got pushed through to major nominations because they were holding onto a dying way of filmmaking. Not something you need to see unless you’re super into the Oscars or just really like the actors in it. But on its own, it’s fine and something you can see and enjoy well enough.

Othello is not particularly essential and not overly great. It’s fine. If you’re into Shakespeare or Olivier, go for it. Otherwise it’s not something you need to see or something of interest to most.

The Last Word: Objectively, this is one of the worst decisions of all time. Lee Marvin is awesome, but this performance might actually be the single worst to ever win. He plays two supporting characters in his own film! Plus, Rod Steiger and Richard Burton are so good! Steiger would win one, but Burton wouldn’t. And because it’s Lee Marvin, you want to say it’s okay, but performance-wise, there’s no way I can say this is remotely okay. Steiger and Burton would have been the better choices on performance. All around, I don’t think there’s a standout that would have held up much better than Marvin, so really it’s a bad choice historically that holds up somewhat purely because of who the actor is and because neither of the other performances really holds up any better. It’s only when you compare them that it looks so bad. But yeah, not a great choice, probably one of the worst ever when you factor everything into it.

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1966

Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Michael Caine, Alfie

Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles

Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons

Analysis:

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

They are though.

This is a Cold War comedy about a seaside town as a Russian submarine washes ashore. And all the local residents freak out and figure out how to fight back. It’s like a 60s comedic Red Dawn, but like, if it didn’t really mean much of anything.

Alan Arkin plays the submarine captain, and all his dialogue is in Russian. Which is impressive, really. He definitely registers and does a great job with the part. But there’s really not a whole lot here for him and it’s a boderline supporting role. Considering the rest of the category, this feels like the most slight of all the nominees in the category and really doesn’t ever make a play for anything but fifth for me.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the great plays of all times and the film is bordering on greatness just like Streetcar.

It’s about a married couple, a professor and his wife, who host another couple at their house after a faculty party. And over the course of the evening, both couples’ marital problems begin to show.

Ricahrd Burton and Elizabeth Taylor play the main couple, and these are two of the best performances ever put to screen. The fact that Burton had the two performances he had in 1965 and 1966 and came away with zero Oscars is very unfortunate.

However — and I will qualify this with a however — I get why he didn’t win this one. Most years, he would be the choice. But in this particular year, even I might not take him. There’s some really stiff competition here. He’s top two for me for sure, though. Elizabeth Taylor gets almost all the notices from this one, but Burton is equally as good, and gives a really fantastic performnace worth voting for.

Alfie is the film that started a lot of tropes and trends. It’s very 60s, but it still holds up.

Michael Caine is a limo driver who has a lot of girlfriends. He speaks to the camera (which would be copied by Ferris Bueller) and has no respect for women. He calls them “birds” and doesn’t even speak of them as people. One day he finds he has a spot on his lungs and has a nervous breakdown. And while recovering, he begins to learn a bit more about himself and change ever so slightly.

It’s a really great film. This was Caine’s starmaking performance. He became somewhat known for the Harry Palmer films, but this is the one that really put him on the map. He’s qonderful here. It’s not the most strenuous of performances, but it is punctuated by some very nice dramatic moments. This is a performance that is a perfect starter nomination. It ranks very solidly, but isn’t something great enough to take. Maybe in a weaker year he’d rate top two, but here he maybe makes third at best. He feels like a #3 for me, but I wouldn’t take him over Burton or Scofield at all.

The Sand Pebbles is Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination. That’s how I was introduced to it.

It’s a big epic film about American seamen stationed in China during a particularly hostile period. Steve McQueen is an engineer on the ship. The ship uses uneducated peasants to aid in a lot of the work, and McQueen takes one of them under his wing and actually starts teaching him how to do stuff, which puts him at odds with the rest of the men, who think they should only be used for menial labor and basically as indentured servants. And that escalates as the tension among the men and the locals escalates as well.

McQueen is solid here. It’s not a particularly memorable performance, historically, but he is solid in it. He feels like a #4 that I’d try to push through further because he’s Steve McQueen. But this isn’t a performance I would vote for or a performance that really should have won. It’s mostly him coming along with the film that got a lot of nominations. There’s not a whole lot more here.

A Man for All Seasons is another one of those costume dramas of the 60s. Might be the best one. It’s pretty great.

Paul Scofield plays Sir Thomas More, who is told by Henry VIII to grant him a divorce so he can marry Anne Boleyn. More refuses to grant the divorce, claiming it to be against God. So Henry puts pressure on him, locking him in prison, and eventually having him murdered. As one does.

Scofield is absolutely terrific here. He plays a man of principle, struggling with going against his king versus going against God. It’s an absolutely perfect role and Scofield nails it completely. It’s hard to argue against this as a winner. Even though I love Virginia Woolf and love Richard Burton, I still might have to take Scofield here. That’s how good he is.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Scofield or Burton. There’s no other choice here. No one takes Arkin, some would want to take McQueen, but he’s not good enough to have held up as a winner. And CAine is good, but not as good as those two.

And honestly, Paul Scofield is a perfect choice. The only reason Burton feels like a better choice is because he never won and had such great performances under his belt already, and Scofield never really got remembered for all that much outside of this one.

But if we’re basing this on pure performance, yeah, it’s Scofield. And since that’s what I’m basing my decisions on for this go-round, then I gotta take him. Because that is the best performance in the category.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
  2. Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  3. Michael Caine, Alfie
  4. Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles
  5. Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

Rankings (films):

  1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  2. A Man for All Seasons
  3. Alfie
  4. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Cming
  5. The Sand Pebbles

My Vote: Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons

Recommendations:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most essential films ever made. Must see for all film buffs.

A Man for All Seasons is also essential for all film buffs. It’s not on the surface as essential as Virginia Woolf, but trust me, it’s as essential. This movie is incredible and most people will love this when they see it. Plus a Best Picture winner, and those should be essential to all.

Alfie is probably essential. It’s a very important film, given how copied a lot of its elements were throughout the years. Plus Michael Caine is awesome. I’d tell people it was essential, and isn’t that all that matters here?

The Sand Pebbles is a big, epic film that’s kind of overlong and definitely overstuffed, but it has a solid McQueen performance and a good Richard Attenborough subplot, I give it a solid recommend but it’s definitely Oscar bait from the 60s that hasn’t aged well. It’s worth a watch, but you shouldn’t feel required to see it.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a great comedy. Very solid film, worth seeing. Not something that’s essential, but worth seeking out because it’s kind of like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in that it has a lot of great comedic actors and is just fun to watch. Definite TCM watch if it’s on. You’ll enjoy it.

The Last Word: Scofield holds up as a winner. Burton would have also been a good winner. The difference is that Scofield’s performance is better and Burton would have made up the difference historically given his stature as an actor. So they’re about the same, but all things considered, they voted for the right performance and one that has held up as a great winner over time.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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