Monday, August 5, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1953

The Contenders:

Montgomery Clift: From Here to Eternity
Burt Lancaster: From Here to Eternity
Marlon Brando: Julius Caesar
Richard Burton: The Robe
William Holden: Stalag 17 (winner)

What’s Missing

1953 is a ridiculously good year for actors, and, for a wonder, Oscar actually didn’t do a terrible job with nominations. That said, it really says something that I could create two completely different lists of legitimate contenders for Best Actor. The two I’d like to mention, but not with a great deal of seriousness, are Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea and Gene Barry in War of the Worlds. In the first case, it’s much more of an ensemble cast where pretty much everyone is supporting. In the second, Barry is fine, but that movie is all about the special effects. On the horror front, we have Vincent Price’s lovely scenery chewing in House of Wax, the movie that started his horror career. From across one pond or another we get Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Masayuki Mori in Ugetsu, Chushu Ryu in Tokyo Story, and Yves Montand in Wages of Fear. Noirs were still a thing in 1953, evidenced by Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street and Robert Mitchum in Angel Face. I often get pushback on suggesting Alan Ladd in Shane, but it’s a performance I really like. Finally, while Roman Holiday is all about Audrey Hepburn, it’s so much less without the lovely and kind work of Gregory Peck.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It feels like sometimes Oscar felt that it should nominate Richard Burton just because. When Burton was great, he was really great, but when he wasn’t, he was a solid block of salty actor ham. In The Robe, he is nothing more than that and his staggering overreactions, intended to be dramatic and evidence of the “Powah of Jeeeeezus” are instead broadly comic and belong in a pantomime show. With a year this good, this is an absolutely ridiculous nomination. I’d take anyone listed above over Burton.

4. I was surprised that I liked Marlon Brando’s performance in Julius Caesar because it seemed like such a stretch. It’s worth noting that this comes directly in the middle of the height of Brando’s career when he is at both the top of his acting skill and his raw sexuality. He’s really good in this, and that’s surprising, but the truth is that he’s not so good that he deserved a nomination in a year this packed with great performances. I like this one, but it’s not one that I’m going to nominate, given the choice.

3. It’s a difficult choice for me to pick between Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, and ultimately I would probably have them tied. I’m going to put Burt Lancaster in third for one simple reason: he shares a lot of scenes in this with Deborah Kerr, and she is absolutely the class of this film. She is perfection on the screen, and because of this, everyone who shares the screen with her shines just a little more dimly. Lancaster is great, but he can’t stand up to what Deborah Kerr did, and because of that, I’m putting Lancaster in third, the smallest measure behind his costar.

2. When I started blogging, I really didn’t like Montgomery Clift for some reason. The longer I’ve been blogging and watching movies, the more I’ve come to appreciate him. He’s not always great in roles, but when he is given something to really sink into, he’s one of the best around. He’s in his element here, and this is a performance I really like. He is relatable, understandable, and completely pitiable, which is something Clift could do well. Given the opportunity to create the slate myself, I’m not sure he gets nominated, but he might.

My Choice

1. The long-standing position of this blog is that the tie always goes to the Academy. Had this award gone to anyone else, we’d have something to really talk about here, but I’m perfectly fine with this going to William Holden for Stalag 17. It’s a gutsy performance and a hell of a role to play a “hero” who is this genuinely dislikable and disliked. Holden nails this perfectly, being both contemptible in his thoughts and actions, and made all the more hateful by constantly being right. I love this movie a lot, and Holden is the main reason why. He’s my winner, and evidence that Oscar now and then picks a winner.

Final Analysis


  1. What actor tied with Holden?
    Agreed on Burton in the Robe. That is also not a good movie at all.
    It is an interesting choice to suggest Peck, Roman Holiday being a romantic comedy and his role mainly being support to Hepburn, but I like that pick.

    1. That's a fair question. Yves Montand would make this a really tight race for me, as might Alan Ladd and Richard Widmark, because I genuinely love Pickup on South Street probably more than I should.

  2. It's nothing against Bill Holden, I'm a great admirer of his, but he wouldn't be my choice nor would he make my list. It's a good performance but he's done other work I like better-he felt the same way stating that his win was a consolation prize for losing when he was up for Sunset Boulevard.

    On the other hand I have limited patience with Brando, he could be good, excellent even at times but often too busy being self-consciously actorly. But he is good in Julius Caesar but no better than everyone else in the cast. Certainly not such a stand out that he deserved to be singled out.

    Burton is terrible in The Robe but I attribute some of that to the rigors imposed on all the actors by the constrained filming process necessary to film the thing. Apparently they had to stand in a row with limited movements which left little choice but to declaim rather than act. So I can sympathize with his difficulties but the nomination is wrong.

    Lancaster is strong in Eternity and makes an excellent screen match with Deborah Kerr, he's also very good in scenes where she is absent and had he won I don't think I'd squawk too much but there was a stronger performance in the mix.

    That would be Clift. Prewitt is a tough part with a great deal of complexity to it and difficult to get just right. But he does, his excellence also rubs off on his scene partners, both Sinatra and Donna Reed-good but not great actors-give what are probably their best performances in the film. He conveys so much of Prewitt's inner turmoil wordlessly that were it a silent film you would still understand the man.

    Clift would always come out on top for me but the list of his competitors could definitely be polished up. Aside from those you've already mentioned I'd add these as worthier than some of what got in. Edmond O'Brien-who turned in two wonderful pieces of work in The Hitch-Hiker and Man in the Dark, Alec Guinness in The Captain's Paradise, Spencer Tracy for The Actress, Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur and Fredric March in Man on a Tightrope.

    Ultimately if I had my way the list would run like this:

    Montgomery Clift-From Here to Eternity-Winner
    Burt Lancaster-From Here to Eternity
    Yves Montand-The Wages of Fear (in general I don't like Montand but he's excellent in this film)
    Edmond O'Brien-The Hitch-Hiker
    Richard Widmark-Pick-up on South Street-He'd be my runner-up.

    1. I don't object to your list that much, honestly. I really like William Holden a lot, and Stalag 17 is one of my favorites of his regardless of his own opinion. Of course, I love him in just about everything, so I'm naturally going to be biased toward him. But he's such a good asshole in this movie.

      On my own line up, Montand and Widmark would almost certainly be in the mix.

  3. I love these years where I've seen all the nominees, and I've also seen all the movies mentioned as contenders in the opening except The Cruel Sea!

    I love The Robe … but not because it's a good movie! I love the bible movies of the 1950s and 1960s, with everybody taking themselves so seriously. They are very entertaining. There are a couple I could do without, and The Robe is not nearly as much fun as Samson and Delilah, but it has Ricard Boone as Pilate and Ernest Theisiger as Tiberius and Dr. Shrinker as Caligula. And you can just stare at Jean Simmons for a while. Then there's Harry Shearer's cameo.

    Burton is so wonderfully Burton-y! But no, not worthy of an Oscar nomination.

    From Here to Eternity is not really my kind of movie, but I loved it when I finally got around to watching a few years ago, and I do watch a few scenes if it shows up on cable while I'm changing the channel. Clift and Lancaster are both very good.

    Julius Caesar is a great Shakespeare adaptation, and I agree that the cast is overall pretty great. But I can see why Brando was singled out because the first thing that pops to mind is the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. Maybe it's not quite as memorable as Spanky McFarland's version, but that's nothing to be ashamed of.

    But this is Holden's. I've seen Stalag 17 a bunch of times, a great movie, that's anchored by Holden's performance. I honestly don't see why he considered he got this as consolation for Sunset Boulevard.

    1. I agree on the consolation idea. This is such a strong performance all the way around for him. He has to be the center of attention here, and has to do so in a way that makes him so unlikable that we don't necessarily want to spend that time with him. He has to maintain our interest while simultaneously repelling us personally. That's not easy.

      As for The Robe, it is a master class in overacting. Burton could be sliced thinly and served with American cheese and pickles on rye after this performance.

  4. Such a great year for actors! I really wouldn't want to have to pick.

    1. Amazing, isn't it? All of these performances in one year!

  5. Wow... 1953 was a great year for actors. With the exception of Richard Burton in The Robe which I haven't seen, I can't find fault with the choices of actors who were nominated. Plus, I fucking love William Holden and Stalag 17. Yes, I would've gone with Yves Montand or Alan Ladd but I have no problem at all with Holden winning the Oscar.

    1. Unless you really want a several hour slog of watching Burton emote at a piece of fabric, The Robe is really avoidable. It would be a great movie for Rifftrax.

      I wouldn't complain too much about Montand or Ladd, or honestly Monty Clift or Richard Widmark or Chushu Ryu or Robert Mitchum, but this is Holden's all the way for me.