Paul Newman: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Tony Curtis: The Defiant Ones
Sidney Poitier: The Defiant Ones
Spencer Tracy: The Old Man and the Sea
David Niven: Separate Tables (winner)
I’m puzzled by a couple of the actual nominations in light of what was also available in 1958. To start, Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil was certainly a miss by the Academy. More of a miss was James Stewart’s work in Vertigo. I like Kirk Douglas in The Vikings as well. There were three excellent non-English performances in this year as well. Specifically, I’m thinking of Julien Tavernier in Elevator to the Gallows, Youssef Chahine in Cairo Station, and especially Zbigniew Cybulski in Ashes and Diamonds. And how about a little love for Steve McQueen’s breakthrough role in The Blob? I’d love to mention The Horror of Dracula and Christopher Lee as well, but even though the movie is named after his role, he’s more of a supporting character.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: Part of the reason I’m putting Spencer Tracy last here is that The Old Man and the Sea is my least favorite of these five movies. Tracy is good; he always was. But this is reminiscent in a lot of ways of his role in Captains Courageous. Additionally, most of the film is handled by Tracy doing a voiceover while we watch him do stuff on a boat. I’m not sure rowing and hauling a net is worth an Oscar nomination. Of the five, this is the one I think is least deserving of a nomination.
4: I like Sidney Poitier and I like him in The Defiant Ones. My only real issue with this in terms of the nominations is that I’m not sure this was much out of Poitier’s wheelhouse. Essentially, his role was to be a mildly unthreatening black man in 1958 Hollywood. In this case, he was to be black and nicer than Tony Curtis, which was easy given the role that Curtis had to play. There are times when I was surprised that Poitier wasn’t nominated (like for multiple roles in 1967), but this a time when I kind of wonder why he was.
3: David Niven is the best part of Separate Tables. The problem is that I don’t have really firm memories of this movie despite having watched it earlier this year. I remember that Niven played a role that was the epitome of a pitiable British character—he’s all stiff upper lip and quiet desperation. But for an Oscar, both the movie and the performance ought to be more memorable than this one turned out to be. Sorry, David—you didn’t really earn the Oscar you got here.
2: Paul Newman is someone who I think earned multiple Oscars before he finally got one. This is one of the cases where I think he was one of the better choices for the statue. Newman’s performance here is a nuanced one. He always looks cool, but you can tell there’s something going on under the surface most of the time. It was also a good warm-up for the performance he would eventually give in Cool Hand Luke. It’s not my favorite male performance of 1958, but had the Academy awarded him the statue, I’d have been satisfied they did well.
1: My choice is Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. I like his performance more than I do Sidney Poitier because Curtis is the one who is forced to demonstrate more emotional range and changes more through the course of the film. Curtis has the task here of playing an actual criminal and through what he does on screen making himself likable. He does it, making Joker a sympathetic character. It’s a great nomination, and if I had my way, Curtis would have been the one to walk away with the Oscar.