Friday, August 14, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1964

The Contenders:

Richard Burton: Becket
Peter O’Toole: Becket
Peter Sellers: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Rex Harrison: My Fair Lady (winner)
Anthony Quinn: Zorba the Greek

What’s Missing

I have no serious complaints about the collection of Best Actor performances, but there are a few that I think deserve mention. It was far too early in 1964 for anyone to take James Bond too seriously, but I think Sean Connery deserves a nod (or at least a wink) for Goldfinger. The same is true of spaghetti Westerns, but it’s difficult to ignore Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. And the same is true of Roger Corman horror movies, but I genuinely love Vincent Price in Masque of the Red Death. I didn’t love Father Goose, but Cary Grant didn’t get nearly enough Oscar nominations during his career. If there is a missing performance, it’s Richard Attenborough in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and that’s more of a supporting role.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like all five of these performances pretty well, so getting rid of any of them is difficult. As much as it pains me, I’m dropping Anthony Quinn off the top. I think a part of this is that of all of these movies, Zorba the Greek is the movie I like the least. That’s not Quinn’s fault because he’s excellent in the role. I wanted to like Zorba, both movie and character, and I liked the character more than the movie. But someone has to go first, so as much as I don’t like bumping such a respected actor off the top, he’s the one to go first.

4. I have the exact same issue with Richard Burton’s performance in Becket. It’s one of Burton’s best roles and one of his best performances, but it falls short with the others of this year. I like this better than his fourth place finish for me, but I like the other three performances better, and that’s really what it comes down to. Burton was nominated for seven Oscars without a win. There’s certainly one he should’ve won. It’s just not this one.

3: I’ve mellowed in my stance on musicals in the past five years, and even when I didn’t like them in general I still liked My Fair Lady. My favorite part of My Fair Lady (sorry, Audrey Hepburn) is Rex Harrison. I like Harrison’s “singing” style, which is far more talking in a rhythm than it is singing. But again, we’re in a position where I simply like the other performances more than I like this one. Sorry, Rex. Even though you won, someone else deserved this more.

2: Peter O’ Toole was nominated for an Oscar eight times and never won. That’s tragic, and if I could rewrite history, I’d give the man a golden statue. I just wouldn’t do it for Becket. He had amazingly bad luck with the years in which he was nominated. This was actually one of his best chances, and I love his performance here. Where Burton had to simply be stalwart, O’Toole had to do a lot more with this role. It’s grandiose and a hell of a performance. It just comes in second.

My Choice

1: I’ll take some shit from some people for placing Peter Sellers on the top, but I stand by my choice. Sellers had the task of playing three roles for the film. He manages to make each of them completely unique and memorable, even managing to play off himself in conversations between President Merkin Muffley and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. I get that a lot of people find Sellers over the top as Strangelove, but he’s not in the other two roles. While none of these roles qualifies as a Best Actor performance, all three of them combine to be the best male performance of 1964.

Final Analysis


  1. Your feeling re: Sellers is similar to how I feel about Eddie Murphy's turn in "The Nutty Professor," especially that dinner-table scene in which he plays pretty much every single character except the kid. Eddie got cheated that year; in my opinion, he deserved the Oscar for that performance, which required him not only to play all those different roles, but also to add on a subtle layer of nudge-wink self-parody every time he transmogrified into Buddy Love. (He wasn't even nominated, was he?) True, he squandered all his diplomatic capital when he made the sequel, but the first film still stands tall thanks to his awesome performance.

    re: Peter O'Toole

    No disagreement here—the man deserved several Oscars, and it's a tragedy he never got one. I did see "Becket," but I don't remember much about it except that Richard Burton died very tastefully, and Peter O'Toole calls his flagellators "pigs" after they finish with him.

    1. O'Toole's luck with nominations was terrible. He seems to have frequently been nominated in years where someone else gave a career performance. O'Toole gave career performances reguarly; he was essentially cursed by being as great as he was that it came to be expected that any of his performances would be among a given year's best.

      Murphy was not nominated for The Nutty Professor. I admit a soft spot for that film.

  2. I'm with you on O'Toole. Terrible luck for such a great actor. I have no complaint about your going with Sellers. My very favorite performance in that film is by George C. Scott but of course he is supporting.

    1. I agree on George C. Scott, but the role just isn't big enough. Actually, Sterling Hayden is pretty great, too.

  3. Peter Sellers is a good pick, and Rex Harrison was also deserving. Quinn was larger than life in a good way in Zorba, I film I enjoyed more than you did!. (I have not yet seen Becket). I would add Henry Fonda as deserving of consideration for his role in Fail-Safe. And thanks for mentioning Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars, a great star-making performance. Overall a strong year for actors.

    1. Fail-Safe is one I don't know. I'll add that to the never-ending list of films I should get around to seeing. Thanks for the tip.

    2. Somehow 1964 ended up with the two best cold war mutual annihilation showdown films. Dr. Strangelove took the satirical look; Fail-Safe was much more serious (and potentially more plausible). Thanks to Kubrick and Sellers, Strangelove rightfully is better known, but Fail-Safe is a great movie in its own right. Directed by Sidney Lumet and with Walter Matthau and Larry Hagman providing good support to Henry Fonda. Highly recommended.

  4. I always find it funny when two people who often have similar likes can watch the same thing and come out with polar opposite opinions. I dislike, no I despise, Rex Harrison's character in My Fair Lady. It affected my appreciation for the movie as a whole because I felt ANY ending other than one where she ends up with him would be preferable.

    I also dislike when an actor mugs for the camera (which is probably why Arsenic and Old Lace is my least favorite Cary Grant movie). Sellers made a career out of doing this (other than Being There, which I feel is a great film.) As you said, his other characters are more reserved, but the title one dominates and also affected my appreciation for Dr. Strangelove.

    I'm going to go with O'Toole in Becket. I consider his performance in Lawrence of Arabia to be better, but that's not up for consideration for this year. I agree he ran into some really bad luck many of the years he was nominated.

    1. To be blunt, I had you in mind when I said I'd take some heat for putting Sellers first here. I know this isn't a favorite performance of yours and that Sellers tends to not be someone thought of favorably by you.

      O'Toole is a hell of a good choice, and he was almost mine.

      In terms of Rex Harrison, I agree that the character is dislikable, but I like Rex Harrison's performance in the role. It's not really Harrison's fault that Henry Higgins is a shit.

  5. Love this! I'm going to have to look back at your other posts like this.

    About this one, I'm glad Quinn was the first to be eliminated. I'm not a huge fan of his to begin with although he can be very fine at times however I loathed Zorba- the movie, the character and his performance. I would have replaced him with Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker.

    All the other nominees are solid though the actor I would pick to win, Richard Burton, is nominated for the wrong performance. He was excellent in Becket but amazing in Night of the Iguana.

    Of the nominees as it stands my choice is O'Toole with Sellers as runner up. Harrison is so iconic though I can't fault him taking the prize, I just wish Julie Andrews had been given the opportunity to commit her Eliza to film despite my love for Audrey Hepburn and the fact that her performance has its charms.

    1. As much as I love Audrey Hepburn, she's the weakest part of My Fair Lady in my opinion. Harrison (and the linguistics) carry the movie for me.

      I'm fine with switching the top two positions here. I almost did myself while writing this up.