Monday, February 10, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1965

The Contenders:

Lee Marvin: Cat Ballou (winner)
Laurence Olivier: Othello
Rod Steiger: The Pawnbroker
Oskar Werner: Ship of Fools
Richard Burton: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

What’s Missing

So let’s talk about the weird set of nominees for Best Actor 1965 compared with the movies that were released this year. Oscar’s hatred of Orson Welles was in full swing by this time, so no matter how worthy he might have been, he was going to be snubbed for Chimes at Midnight. James Bond was also not taken too seriously at the time, which leaves out Sean Connery and the underrated Thunderball. A Thousand Clowns was good enough for a Best Picture nod, but evidently not good enough to give one to Jason Robards. The Shop on Main Street got its nominations the following year, which still didn’t include anything for Jozef Kroner. Following these, I have five legitimate suggestions, and these five would make a pretty good slate. I’ve never been a Cornel Wilde fan, but The Naked Prey is very impressive. I’m genuinely shocked that there was no nomination for Omar Sharif for Dr. Zhivago. Steve McQueen earned only a single nomination in his career, which means he was robbed for The Cincinnati Kid. I would have loved to have seen some recognition for Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express. Finally, Terence Stamp should have gotten something for The Collector.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Okay, so let’s get rid of Laurence Olivier and Othello right away. Sure, Olivier was the greatest actor of his generation, and Othello is a hell of a great drama, but this is not something that has aged well. I understand that he’d like to play this classic Shakespearean character, but, like it or not, Othello is a black, Moorish character and Olivier is white. If you are a classically trained white actor and you want to play this role, do what Patrick Stewart did—play against an entirely black cast. Doing the role in the equivalent of shoe polish was the wrong choice.

4. I should probably watch Ship of Fools again, because I don’t have a great deal of memory of Oskar Werner in the film. I evidently liked him well enough when I wrote the review, but I don’t remember a great deal of Werner in the film, and that’s not going to recommend him or the performance a great deal. That’s a shame, because I generally like Oskar Werner in just about everything he’s in. Maybe if I rewatch this he’ll move up a spot or two, but right now, the only thing keeping him out of the basement is that he didn’t do this in blackface.

3. Placing Lee Marvin in third place for his Oscar win is painful for someone who is a real Lee Marvin fan. But Cat Ballou is such a lightweight film and such a lightweight performance from Marvin. This was someone who could be truly terrifying on the screen and could just as easily and quickly be commanding and demanding. To give him an Oscar for a comedy performance that was clearly performed in no small part by his stunt doubles is kind of depressing. Lee Marvin deserved better and so did we as the audience.

2. Were I to make my own list of nominations, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would be right on the bubble. I might want to keep this nomination, and I might not. It is one of the closest times that Burton has com to winning an Oscar, though, at least in my opinion. There’s a terrible weltschmerz to his performance; it seems like he ages a dozen years from the opening frames to the closing. Burton was a terrible ham, but when he was restrained, he could be genuine and poignant, which is what he is here.

My Choice

1. Oscar often screws up by nominating someone who should win but giving the Oscar to someone else. That’s exactly what happened here with Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. This was so clearly his Oscar that, out of shame, he won two years later, stealing one from Paul Newman, and so it goes. Steiger, who was always a compelling and interesting actor, was never better than in this role, played with the same world-weariness of Burton’s role listed above, but with more pain and more anger at the simple unbearable crushing weight of his own existence. He was the clear winner, and he was seriously robbed.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of those films nominated for Best Actor but Cat Ballou was on TCM but the fucking Emergency Broadcast Test interrupted its showing as I was forced to delete the film from my DVR as that was the one film I was going to see as it was one of my dad's favorite films.

    Not having Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight or Omar Sharif for Doctor Zhivago is just wrong. Some consideration for Claudio Brook for Simon of the Desert, Eddie Constantine for Alphaville, Jean Paul Belmondo for Pierrot Le Fou, Toshiro Mifune for Red Beard, or the duo of Clint Eastwood/Lee Van Cleef for For a Few Dollars More would've been interesting.

    I have no interest in seeing that version of Othello as the sight of Olivier in blackface just feels wrong. It's one of those reasons why I feel like Olivier is at times... overrated as an actor. Welles at least didn't do too much to make himself look moorish in his own versions of Othello.

    1. I cannot stress enough to track down The Pawnbroker. It's a gut punch of a movie, one that I don't know I will watch again, but Steiger is all-time great in it.

      Honestly, based on the year, this is one of the weirdest nomination classes I've seen.

  2. I love Cat Ballou and Marvin has a lot of fun with his dual role but he's not even truly the lead actor, that's Michael Callan, and the film belongs to Jane Fonda anyway. So yes yank that trophy right out of his hands, had he won for Point Blank I'd have had no problem.

    I'd cut both Olivier and Marvin but keep Burton who is very fine, maybe not Night of the Iguana level but it's one of his best performances. I'd rank Oskar Werner much higher, it would be a close call for me between he and Steiger but this should have been Steiger's. I found The Pawnbroker punishing to watch but there is no denying his complete immersion in the role.

    You caught most of the alternates that could have filled those two slots but I will mention Jimmy Stewart in Flight of the Phoenix, a seriously underappreciated film, and while I wasn't blown away by Alphaville Eddie Constantine would have been an interesting choice to include. Poor Steve McQueen two excellent performances in Cincinnati Kid and Baby, the Rain Must Fall and nothing.

    1. I guess this means I really should rewatch Ship of Fools.

      This is one of Burton's better performances. Rather than chewing the scenery, he really seems to be living in this role, and is just so beaten that I feel sorry for him--something I never thought I would say about Richard Burton.

      The Pawnbroker may be a film I never watch again, but Steiger is top of his form in it. It's one of the best performances of its decade.

      For what it's worth, when I think of wanting to give an Oscar to Lee Marvin, my first thoughts are The Professionals and Point Blank.