Lee Marvin: Cat Ballou (winner)
Laurence Olivier: Othello
Rod Steiger: The Pawnbroker
Oskar Werner: Ship of Fools
Richard Burton: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
So let’s talk about the weird set of nominees for Best Actor 1965 compared with the movies that were released this year. Oscar’s hatred of Orson Welles was in full swing by this time, so no matter how worthy he might have been, he was going to be snubbed for Chimes at Midnight. James Bond was also not taken too seriously at the time, which leaves out Sean Connery and the underrated Thunderball. A Thousand Clowns was good enough for a Best Picture nod, but evidently not good enough to give one to Jason Robards. The Shop on Main Street got its nominations the following year, which still didn’t include anything for Jozef Kroner. Following these, I have five legitimate suggestions, and these five would make a pretty good slate. I’ve never been a Cornel Wilde fan, but The Naked Prey is very impressive. I’m genuinely shocked that there was no nomination for Omar Sharif for Dr. Zhivago. Steve McQueen earned only a single nomination in his career, which means he was robbed for The Cincinnati Kid. I would have loved to have seen some recognition for Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express. Finally, Terence Stamp should have gotten something for The Collector.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. Okay, so let’s get rid of Laurence Olivier and Othello right away. Sure, Olivier was the greatest actor of his generation, and Othello is a hell of a great drama, but this is not something that has aged well. I understand that he’d like to play this classic Shakespearean character, but, like it or not, Othello is a black, Moorish character and Olivier is white. If you are a classically trained white actor and you want to play this role, do what Patrick Stewart did—play against an entirely black cast. Doing the role in the equivalent of shoe polish was the wrong choice.
4. I should probably watch Ship of Fools again, because I don’t have a great deal of memory of Oskar Werner in the film. I evidently liked him well enough when I wrote the review, but I don’t remember a great deal of Werner in the film, and that’s not going to recommend him or the performance a great deal. That’s a shame, because I generally like Oskar Werner in just about everything he’s in. Maybe if I rewatch this he’ll move up a spot or two, but right now, the only thing keeping him out of the basement is that he didn’t do this in blackface.
3. Placing Lee Marvin in third place for his Oscar win is painful for someone who is a real Lee Marvin fan. But Cat Ballou is such a lightweight film and such a lightweight performance from Marvin. This was someone who could be truly terrifying on the screen and could just as easily and quickly be commanding and demanding. To give him an Oscar for a comedy performance that was clearly performed in no small part by his stunt doubles is kind of depressing. Lee Marvin deserved better and so did we as the audience.
2. Were I to make my own list of nominations, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would be right on the bubble. I might want to keep this nomination, and I might not. It is one of the closest times that Burton has com to winning an Oscar, though, at least in my opinion. There’s a terrible weltschmerz to his performance; it seems like he ages a dozen years from the opening frames to the closing. Burton was a terrible ham, but when he was restrained, he could be genuine and poignant, which is what he is here.
1. Oscar often screws up by nominating someone who should win but giving the Oscar to someone else. That’s exactly what happened here with Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. This was so clearly his Oscar that, out of shame, he won two years later, stealing one from Paul Newman, and so it goes. Steiger, who was always a compelling and interesting actor, was never better than in this role, played with the same world-weariness of Burton’s role listed above, but with more pain and more anger at the simple unbearable crushing weight of his own existence. He was the clear winner, and he was seriously robbed.