Friday, October 2, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1958

The Contenders:

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)

What’s Missing

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.

My Choices

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.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen the Tracy film and of the others I find it hard to find an obvious winner. For sure the most memorable performance of the year for me came from James Stewart in Vertigo,

    1. Ultimately, I probably went with Curtis because he was also in The Vikings and great in that, too. He had a good year in front of the camera.

      Stewart is memorable in Vertigo and probably the biggest snub. When there's at least one really solid choice, though, I try to stick within the choices I'm given.

  2. Can my choice be none of the above? I agree with your choice of Curtis as the strongest of the candidates. He and Poitier more than likely cancelled each other out this year but at least they competed in the proper bracket not pulling the recent shameless category fraud where one is placed in lead and the other in supporting in a greedy grab for a prize pushing the actual deserving supporting actors out of the running.

    Speaking of which Niven is really more of a supporting player in Separate Tables where he still wouldn't have been my choice to win, that would have been the un-nominated Dean Martin in Some Came Running. Of the actual nominees though I'm glad Burl Ives won I just wish it had been for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

    I hated The Old Man and the Sea and much preferred Tracy's work in The Last Hurrah that same year and would have rather seen him tipped for it.

    Newman was okay in Cat but maybe because Burl Ives, Jack Carson and especially Liz Taylor were working on such a high level I find his work unremarkable. He was definitely deserving of Oscars before his actual win, Hud, The Hustler to name two, but not here.

    As for whose missing I think it's generally agreed that Jimmy Stewart is the most egregious snub and he be my choice for winner as well. Otherwise Julien Tavernier was excellent in Elevator to the Gallows but that movie is all about Jeanne Moreau for me. Some of the other worthies that could have replaced almost the whole slate of nominees were Montgomery Clift in Lonelyhearts, Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running, Rex Harrison in The Reluctant Debutante and maybe Jack Lemmon in Cowboy. Ashes and Diamonds has been on my to watch list for years but I haven't quite gotten to it yet, I'll have to correct that.

    1. I came very close to mentioning Frank Sinatra for Some Came Running at the top, but I couldn't quite get there in my head.

      I agree about the idea of category fraud--Poitier and Curtis are obviously both leads in The Defiant Ones and were properly nominated. I like them both in the role and while I agree that some rearranging of nominations and snubs is necessary, I'd keep Curtis at the very least.

      And I'll disagree in some respects on Newman. Burl Ives should have won for this role (absolutely!), but Newman is one of those actors who is so regularly good at what he does that we expect a lot from him. When he gives a great performance, well...we expected that. Cool Hand Luke is the biggest should've won for him in my opinion. That's one of the great performances of its decade in my opinion, perhaps the greatest of the 1960s.

      Like I said above, when there's a performance that I think could really merit the award, I try to stick with the ones I've got. Stewart in Vertigo is absolutely a snub for the ages, though, and had he been nominated, he'd definitely be in my choices. Where he'd be...that I'm not sure of.

      Ashes and Diamonds is worth your time, even if the ending is more drawn out than it needs to be. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

  3. Niven's win is so odd...because it's reverse category fraud. He's clearly supporting, and so having him win in lead was so strange.

    1. I don't disagree. At least he's the best part of the movie.

  4. I haven't seen The Old Man and the Sea. I'd go with Newman here.

    In regards to the snubs. Touch of Evil was a B movie that happens to be much better thought of now. And Heston was about as convincing as a Mexican as I would be. I do like the movie, though. And Vertigo has only achieved its well-regarded status in the last 25 years or so due to Scorcese heavily campaigning for its re-evaluation and then all of his fans taking up the cause. It went from practically not on the list in the every ten years Sight and Sound poll, to so far out ahead in the very top spot that Citizen Kane was a distant second, in the most recent one. It wasn't that well thought of back when it came out. It only got two minor Oscar noms (Sound and Art Direction). I'm not surprised that Stewart was bypassed at the time.

    1. I wouldn't be upset with Newman winning here.

      The points about Vertigo are well-taken. As much as I try to look at film through the lens of the era, it's not always easy to do. For a modner audience, Stewart is an obvious nomination. Then again, that's sort of the point of these posts anyway.

      And sure, Heston is a Mexican like I'm a Chinese orthodontist. Still, it's a hell of a great film.

    2. I had a little closer perspective on Vertigo because the Scorcese campaigning was picking up steam just about as I was really getting into watching movies in the late 80s. I rented it and was about 45 minutes into it before I realized that I had actually seen it a couple of years before and it had left so little an impression on me that I had forgotten it until they got to the tree ring scene. It was then over the ensuing years that I just watched with a combination of amusement and astonishment as it continued to climb the critical charts as more and more people bought into just how great it was supposed to be. The 2012 Sight and Sound poll was the cap on this run. It's not a top 5 Hitchcock movie for me, let alone the greatest movie ever made.

    3. I admit that I like Stewart in the role. It might creep into my top-5 for Hitchcock and it would certainly be in my top-10.

      Things go in fads. While Scorsese might have overstressed the value of this, he's also responsible for people remembering Peeping Tom, and I give him credit for restoring that to its proper place in cinematic lore.

  5. In 1958, Newman also starred and did a good job in The Long, Hot Summer, so he had a really good year. From the nominated performances that I have seen, I would have been happy with any of Newman, Poitier or Curtis winning.
    From the non-nominees, I'm not so enthralled with Stewart's performance in Vertigo. Others deserving of a mention could include Yul Brynner for The Brothers Karamazov, and Burt Lancaster for Run Silent, Run Deep.

    1. Those two you mention at the end are ones I'm not familiar with. One of the dangers of these posts is that I end up skipping over deserving films or performances.

  6. I think Chip had some good points here and I undestand why Heston and Stewart were not nominated although they star in my two favorite movies of the year. Could Welles himself be nominated for his role or is it just supporting?
    Of what remains I would go with Curtis as well with Cybulski in second.

    1. Welles would be more supporting, I think. I think there's a great deal of truth to the idea that post Kane, Welles couldn't get the time of day from the Academy, and neither could any of his movies.