Friday, November 10, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1960

The Contenders:

Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment
Elizabeth Taylor: Butterfield 8 (winner)
Melina Mercouri: Never on Sunday
Deborah Kerr: The Sundowners
Greer Garson: Sunrise at Campobello

What’s Missing

Well, 1960 seems like one of those years that may be good in some categories but is lacking in others. Going through the actual nominees here, it was a couple of bright spots surrounded by disappointments. While there are plenty of performances that might warrant a look that weren’t nominated, they’re also films that wouldn’t have garnered a great deal of notice from the Academy in 1960. I could see Janet Leigh in Psycho being nominated despite her abrupt exit; after all, this was the year when Trevor Howard’s 20-minute performance in Sons and Lovers merited a Best Actor nod. I love Anna Massey in Peeping Tom, but that would never garner a nod in 1960. Melina Mercouri got the "she's not American/English" nomination, which probably prevented Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, Lee Eun-shim in The Housemaid, Monica Vitta in L’Avventura, and Edith Scob or Alida Valli in Eyes Without a Face. It may have also hurt the nomination chances for Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, since the film was mostly in French. Two last ones are worth a mention. Two Women was released in 1960, but Sophia Loren was nominated (and won) for 1961. I also feel like I should mention Catherine Demongeot in Zazie dans la Metro, but that’s entirely on reputation; I haven’t seen it.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. While I think this is a down year for the category, Greer Garson’s nomination for Sunrise at Campobello feels completely like filler, like Garson hadn’t been nominated in 15 years and she needed a last hurrah. Her version of Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most vocally affected performances I have ever seen. Throughout the movie, every time she opened her mouth I wanted her to stop talking. Just about anyone would have been a better nomination here. Hell, I’d have taken Barbara Steele in Black Sunday before I’d have nominated Garson for this weird, affectation-filled thing.

4. Elizabeth Taylor won this Oscar and it very much feels like everyone simply thought it was her turn. This is far from Liz at her best, although the performance is good enough. In a weak year, I get the nomination, but I don’t get the win at all aside from it simply being “her turn.” Laurence Harvey is the best thing on the screen throughout the film. There are plenty of places where Taylor was better than she is here. Playing a fading sex kitten may have been a great role for her, but she deserved a better Oscar than this.

3. I didn’t like The Sundowners much. I think it’s overblown and far too long for the little story it tells. Deborah Kerr is pretty good in her role. She’s asked to do a few things here—she needs to be deeply disappointed in the life that she’s being asked to lead and she’s also forced to defend that lifestyle at times to back up her husband. It’s a fine performance in a decent role, but only in a year that is otherwise this uninspiring could she hope for an Oscar nomination. Sure, I don’t like the movie and that’s going to color my placement at least a little, but I’m not going to apologize for thinking this is no better than a decent performance in a film that doesn’t have much going for it.

My Choice

2. It feels like some time since I’ve had a potential double winner. Shirley MacLaine is absolutely heartbreaking in The Apartment. It’s a kooky role in some ways, the sort of role that she seemed born to play, but it’s seriously tinged with pain and tragedy, and she does that well, too. If there’s anything that keeps her off the top for me, it’s that she’s great on screen, but never quite as great as Jack Lemmon. It’s Lemmon who we watch, and MacLaine, while wonderful in her moments, is most noticeable when she’s playing off him. I’d have been okay with her winning, but she wouldn’t be my winner.

1. Melina Mercouri’s performance in Never on Sunday doesn’t have the small problems that MacLaine’s does. When she’s on screen, she’s who we are watching all the time. It helps that her character is immediately likable, but it’s also true that she’s immediately likable because of what Mercouri does with the character. She’s completely natural, sliding into this skin so beautifully, it almost feels like it’s not a performance at all. That’s a beautiful thing to see, and for that reason, she’d be where I’d point the Oscar.

Final Analysis


  1. I think Monica Vitti is worth a nod in this category. I did not, at the time, care too much for L'Avventura, but Vitti delivers a good performance and is the absolute center of the movie.

    1. I wouldn't object to her being on the list, honestly.

  2. Elizabeth Taylor won this, and she said it herself, for not dying of pneumonia in the months leading up to the ceremony when it was very much touch and go that she would. Ironic since she hated this film, hated her part, didn't like her performance and only did it to complete her MGM contract.

    It isn't a terribly inspiring lot especially considering who could have taken the place of several nominees even if it's full of actresses I like.

    I see your point about Shirley in The Apartment she doesn't own her scenes the way she did in Some Came Running where when she was on screen no one else was there no matter how crowded the landscape. Of these five women I'd also go with Melina Mercouri for just the reasons you specified. However in an open field she wouldn't be my choice though her nomination is completely justified.

    Aside from your mentions of possibles I'd add Judy Holliday's final performance in Bells Are Ringing and Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry who would be my winner. A less assured actress would have been swamped by Lancaster's bombastic Elmer but she holds her own and creates an indelible portrait of a truly pious woman in a wonderfully controlled performance.

    1. Jean Simmons is a completely fair addition to the list, and in retrospect, she should definitely be in the first paragraph. I'd still probably go with Mercouri for her beautifully natural performance, but your point is well taken.

      Your point about this being likable actresses is right, too. I like Greer Garson; I just hate this performance from her, for instance.

  3. This was a surprisingly weak year in the nominated actress category. I would have gone for MacLaine, perhaps just because I far prefer the movie she was in.

    To throw in a couple of names not mentioned above how about Annie Giradot in Rocco and His Brothers -though she would lose to MacLaine on my ballot. Hideko Takamine could have had my vote for When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Vitti is always fabulous.

    As for Zazie, I hated the movie despite my love for Malle. It was largely because I couldn't stand Demongeot's character though I suppose her acting was good enough.

    1. I mentioned Zazie based entirely on reputation. It's one I should really get to one of these days.

      I also really didn't like Rocco and His Brothers. I haven't yet seen When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

  4. I've only seen a handful of films from this year. One of them is The Apartment. I guess that means MacLaine is my winner by default. Since Psycho is another, it also means Janet Leigh would be getting a nod if left to me.

    1. Honestly, MacLaine wouldn't be a bad choice, or even really a wrong one.