Monday, February 6, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1962

The Contenders:

Burt Lancaster: Birdman of Alcatraz
Jack Lemmon: Days of Wine and Roses
Marcello Mastroianni: Divorce, Italian Style
Peter O’Toole: Lawrence of Arabia
Gregory Peck: To Kill a Mockingbird (winner)

What’s Missing

As is often the case with all of these awards, the 1962 Best Actor nominees could stand a lot of improvement. When I look at the nominees that we’re given, I see two clear choices despite some good performances all around. Still, this could be a better race. Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate would be an interesting addition here. So would James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don’t think I would include Brando’s turn in Mutiny on the Bounty, but I think that’s one that could be argued, a position I also hold with Montgomery Clift and Freud. Robert Preston’s work in The Music Man is one that I think I might argue, even if he’d be right on the edge. As for James Mason in Lolita, as much as I love Mason, I think we’re better off without him. If we can agree that Robert Mitchum was in a leading role in Cape Fear, he’s the addition I’d most want to make, but he might be more supporting.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m dropping Burt Lancaster and The Birdman of Alcatraz first. I don’t dislike the film and I am a huge fan of Lancaster, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional here. This is Lancaster being Lancaster, and while the performance is a good one, I’d much rather see someone else take this nomination for work that is above and beyond the expected. Were this year to be completely redone, I don’t think he gets close to a nomination unless we expand the field dramatically.

4. The performances in Days of Wine and Roses are good across the board. This is a case where it feels like Lemmon was nominated because of the role and not because of the performance, though. Anyone who could have reasonably done this role probably would have earned the nomination because of what the role is. Lemmon could be a tremendous actor and could make a role his completely. I don’t think he did that here—he just played the role he was given very well.

3. It feels like I’m going in alphabetical order here, and I kind of am. In a different year, Mastroianni would have a much better chance of moving to a better position with this performance, because it’s a hell of a good one. His problem, and the problem for Divorce, Italian Style is that there were two monster performances from actors in 1962 with which he simply can’t compete. That’s not a knock on him, his performance, or the film. It’s simply that it wasn’t his year.

My Choices

2. I’m calling this year essentially a tie, and my rule has always been that the tie goes to the Academy. This is the only reason that I’m putting Lawrence of Arabia and Peter O’Toole second. This is a rare instance where I think the Academy would have been justified in declaring a tie and giving out two Oscars. O’Toole is magnificent in this, and I don’t know if anyone else could do the role even half as well as he did. This is a defining moment in film and in his career, and it’s magic.

1. Everything I just said about Peter O’Toole is equally true of the actual winner Gregory Peck. Peck’s work in To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most iconic roles and performances of its decade. Peck is perfect in this; his Atticus Finch is fatherly, warm, and forthright, sad and wonderful. It is one of the truly great performances not merely of its decade, but in film history. It’s a perfect combination of the right writing, the right role, and the right actor coming together to make something that should have been great one of the greatest things done in film. As much as I love Peter O’Toole, I won’t strip Peck of something he rightly earned.

Final Analysis


  1. Our lineups would run differently this time though Peck would still come out almost on top.

    I love Peter O'Toole and he's the best thing about Lawrence of Arabia but I found the whole film torturous and would never have nominated him. Mastroianni's performance is one I found enjoyable but not much more. Lancaster is very good in Birdman but as you said it isn't extraordinary which leaves Lemmon and Peck. Lemmon's role is a good one with built in fireworks but I don't know if another actor could have been as successful with it. Because of his innate likability the viewer invests far more in the portrayal since he makes you want to see him pull himself together despite often appalling behavior. He'd be my choice for the win with Peck a very close second.

    As to who else is missing I'd add Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving, Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave and maybe Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country.

    There's another group of performances that are amazing but I think category confusion cost them all nominations and that's Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Jr. and Dean Stockwell in Long Day's Journey into Night. All three men won the best actor prize jointly at the Cannes Film Festival and that probably muddied the waters for them all. I see Richardson as the lead and the other two as more supporting though they all have spotlight moments.

    1. I look at Peck's performance in To Kill a Mockingbird as the perfect melding of an actor and a role. I want Gregory Peck to be like Atticus Finch in real life. That's how I want to picture him forever. It's possible to say that he won for the summation at the end of the film. I think he won for the whole performance, and deservedly so.

  2. I've only seen Peck and O'Toole performances out of the five, but I doubt I'd disagree with your rankings: both roles are so iconic, nothing could possible be better than them. I also think that they would have been very different if a different actor had portrayed either Lawrence or Atticus.

    1. That's part of my criteria for the acting awards. I don't know that I can see anyone else in either of the two roles. They're both so iconic.

      I think you can safely skip Birdman of Alcatraz, although it's not bad. The other two are worth your time, though.

  3. What a year for actors! I would have put O'Toole on top by a hair. What kills me is how much I love Mastroianni and his performance in Divorce Italian Style. With any other line up he would have gotten my vote.

    1. Mastroianni would be a contender in a lot of other years of this era. It is a great performance, but it can't stand up to O'Toole or Peck.

  4. I know you do not like Lolita and while I am not a fan either, I do think James Mason deserves a nod. Rarely has he been this much a full and his acting is superb.
    I love The Machurian Candidate, but it is the movie as a whole rather than Sinatra. He is great in dramatic roles, but I do not know if he is the one making it great.
    You cannot argue with Peck and O'Toole. There were in a class of their own in 62

    1. I've never been shy about my love for James Mason, but I think he'd have been better served with nominations for other films. Bigger than Life comes to mind, as does a supporting nod for North by Northwest.