Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1955

The Contenders:

Spencer Tracy: Bad Day at Black Rock
James Dean: East of Eden
James Cagney: Love Me or Leave Me
Frank Sinatra: The Man with the Golden Arm
Ernest Borgnine: Marty (winner)

What’s Missing

There are some solid performances nominated in 1955 for actors and all five are solid. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t some room for improvement, though. The first miss in my opinion is Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts. I tend to like Henry Fonda and his performances, and this is one of my favorites of his, and it’s better than several of the actual nominations. I’d also suggest that Robert Mitchum deserved more than his one career nomination, and in 1955, he did Night of the Hunter. James Dean was nominated, but he was nominated for the wrong film; he should be here for Rebel Without a Cause. Finally, both Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle and Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday aren’t the sorts of performances that get nominations, but I like them both.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I don’t like putting James Cagney fifth, but I can’t get beyond the thought that the man was nominated for the wrong Oscar and the wrong performance. He should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Mister Roberts. His work in Love Me or Leave Me isn’t a bad performance, but I’d rather see Henry Fonda or Robert Mitchum here. I get that there may have been an effort to avoid two people nominated for the same film in the same category, but there’s precedence for that, and that should have been done here as well. Sorry, Cagney—this was the wrong place for you.

4: Just as James Cagney was nominated for the wrong performance, so too was James Dean. I have nothing specific against East of Eden except that it’s not nearly as good a movie as Rebel Without a Cause and I don’t think his performance is as good in East of Eden. I like that he was nominated; he just should’ve been nominated for something else. This isn’t the first time that Oscar did this. It just seems like this is one of the more egregious examples of having the right person but the wrong movie.

3: I have a fondness for Spencer Tracy, and I like Bad Day at Black Rock pretty well. It’s a short little movie, but it brings up some interesting ideas and gives Tracy a chance to kick a little ass and demonstrate that, as he always had been, he was still a master on camera. He comes in third for me not because of something wrong with the performance, but because I like the other two options better. Tracy was rarely a bad choice for an Oscar and I rather like this nomination, but I still think I’d put both Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum above this for 1955.

My Choices

2: I haven’t put more than one film or performance as a potential choice for some time, but here’s a case where I went back and forth for a good chunk of the day and came close to a coin flip. I’ve decided to put winner Ernest Borgnine and his work in Marty as a great choice and a worthy choice, but not my choice. I really like Marty, and a main reason that I do is because of Borgnine’s sensitive and smart performance. Borgnine doesn’t look like an Oscar actor and definitely not a romantic lead, and he makes it work. I like that he won and I wouldn’t want to take his statue away from him. But given the choice, I’d vote differently.

1: I’ve said before that I find myself fascinated by Frank Sinatra as a dramatic actor. The Man with the Golden Arm was his only nomination for Best Actor and I think it’s his best performance in a strong field. This is not a film I want to revisit that often, but it’s a gutsy film and Sinatra goes for the whole thing without blinking. As I said above, I wouldn’t want to be the person to take away Ernest Borgnine’s Oscar, but if I had the chance, I’d have given this one to Frank and the awesomely named Frankie Machine.

Final Analysis


  1. Borgnine's performance is quite moving. I hate all the hate he gets for this. It's a beautifully composed performance that still holds up (as does the film). Can't argue with Sinatra though, as he was right there with Borgnine (in a very different role) so either one winning would have been deserving.

    That being said, Mitchum should have been nominated and taken this in a walk.

    1. Gun to my head, my five nominees are:
      Sinatra for The Man with the Golden Arm
      Borgnine for Marty
      Fonda for Mister Roberts
      Mitchum for Night of the Hunter
      Dean for Rebel Without a Cause

  2. Mitchum all the way. I think I would go for Borgnine over Sinatra as a very close call. Love Me or Leave Me is coming up soon in the rotation! I like Cagney for Supporting in Mr. Roberts as well.

    1. The only real problem with Mitchum is that it wasn't the sort of performance awarded by the Academy back in the day. He'd be a hard sell, but I'd definitely want him on the ballot.

  3. Robert Mitchum is the most glaring absence here and one of the worst oversights of the award's history. Ironic that this year included another huge miss with Doris Day's best ever work in Love Me or Leave Me also being overlooked.

    I can't agree about East of Eden being the wrong performance for a nomination for Dean, it's the one I prefer over Rebel (a good film but one I think is overly venerated), and it would be he and Mitchum I would be torn between for the win if Mitchum had been in the running. Ultimately though my choice would be Dean since Mitchum would be my pick for the win in '52 for his work in another Nick Ray film "The Lusty Men".

    This is a year where all five of the performances, despite whomever was left out, are worthy of their nods. I'm glad that Borgnine, an actor often more remembered for his blustery over-emphasis, was awarded for showing how deep his talents ran and Sinatra is excellent in Golden Arm but they would be the two performers I'd pluck out to make room for Mitchum and Henry Fonda in Mr. Roberts.

    1. Funny that the two I like the best are the two you'd remove.

      I've long thought that Sinatra was better in dramatic roles (Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate, From Here to Eternity and the seemingly forgotten Von Ryan's Express) than he was in light-hearted musicals. There was a depth of pain the man could reach into, and for as bright an sunny as he could be in something like High Society, he could be dark so well.

      And I stand by the fact that Frankie Machine is one of the greatest names in film history.

    2. He is quite good in Von Ryan's Express, which has fallen by the wayside in terms of discussion. I also thought he was very impressive in '57's The Joker is Wild (now there's a year packed with outstanding leading men performances!) Before he started phoning it in in the mid-60's he really was very versatile capable of deep work in drama and smooth work in lighter fare.

      I agree about Frankie Machine.

  4. Mitchum played a villain, and a pretty heinous one at that, so although it's a helluva performance, I'm not surprised it didn't get a nomination. I remember back in the early 80s when both Abraham and Hulce were nominated for Best Actor and when Abraham won it there was some surprise because he had played the villain in Amadeus.

    I haven't seen Cagney's performance, so I can't comment on that. Of the other four, I'd pick Borgnine for the win, but here's where I separate from you. I'd have Dean second, AND for the nominated role. I wasn't that impressed by Rebel Without a Cause when I saw it (and I freely admit that was likely because it had been hyped so much as THE teen angst movie). In East of Eden he starts out unlikable, but by the end of the film he's gone through character growth to the point where he's about the only sympathetic one left. And yes, that's the screenplay, but he's got to make the audience buy into it with his performance.

    And I have nothing against either Tracy or Sinatra - I liked their performances. I'd just go with Borgnine over them.

    1. I like Rebel Without a Cause for what it is. I particularly like Dean in it.

      Mitchum was a longshot for a nomination in 1955 because he played such an obvious and heinous villain and, while I have no proof of this, because his villain was, in a sense, a religious villain. It's a great performance from him, and I consider myself a Mitchum fan, and he's a name I'll mention in the future on other Best Actor recaps.

      I don't object to a vote for Borgnine. I like Marty a lot.

  5. Here's an odd choice worth a mention from 1955: Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly.

  6. I thought about Kiss Me Deadly. It's not a film that I love, though because I think it's too goofy, and that reflects on Meeker, fair or not.

  7. I agree with you almost all the way. I like Bad Day better than the two top nominees, but that is no reason to prefer Tracy over Sinatra or Borgnine. Tracy was good in an excellent film, Borgnine and and Sinatra were excellent, period.
    Now I have watched all of Dean's movies I sort of see what the hype was, but his mannerism is grating on me. Both East of Eden and Rebel suffer from that, but of the two at least in East of Eden he develops away from that. Giant is his best performance in my opinion, but that is 56.

    1. Yeah, there's a lot to like in Bad Day at Black Rock, but this is specifically about the performances, and I like Sinatra's and Borgnine's better than Tracy's. Black Rock is kind of bas-ass, though, and Spencer Tracy pulls off the "quiet man on a mission" role really convincingly, convincingly playing something akin to an action hero at 55 years old. But, as you say, I like the film as a whole more than I like his part of it.