By Alan Hurst
A few weeks ago I looked at the Best Actress Oscar races from 1950-59 and now it’s time for the actors. This time I find myself disagreeing with the Academy’s selection’s a little more often. While none of the performances honoured are bad – far from it – I just think there were others that deserved the win more and, as with the actresses, it’s a kick to hypothetically correct some major Oscar oversights, if just for the time it takes to read the article.
1950: William Holden in Sunset Boulevard
While this was a highly competitive year for women, it was less so for actors. Still, there were several top-notch performances that year from the nominated Spencer Tracey for Father of the Bride, Louis Chalhern for The Magnificent Yankee, James Stewart for Harvey and William Holden for Sunset Boulevard. The winner was Jose Ferrer for the stagey, cheap looking adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. I much prefer Roxanne (1987), the inspired Steve Martin take on the Cyrano tale. My choice – hands down – would have been William Holden for his career accelerating work in Sunset Boulevard. Holden’s character is the driving force of the film and you see everything from his point of view. Nothing the actor had done before indicated that he was capable of playing this kind of conflicted cynicism. As the down on his luck screenwriter who finds himself in the mansion of a former silent screen star, Holden’s Joe Gillis knows he’s latched onto a good thing, but you can also see he knows he’s selling his soul by taking advantage of her. I saw the film again recently in a theatre and it’s amazing how Billy Wilder’s film and Holden’s portrayal hold up for contemporary audiences. It’s a great performance. In terms of missing out on nominations, I would have liked to see Humphrey Bogart for In a Lonely Place and Sterling Hayden for The Asphalt Jungle on the list instead of Ferrer and Calhoun.
1951: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire
Humphrey Bogart was on the list in 1951 for The African Queen and deservedly so. But this was also the year of A Streetcar Named Desire and the volcanic performance of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. The Elia Kazan adaptation of the great Tennessee Williams play was one of the major films of the decade and Brando’s performance is a classic, bringing a fresh, raw and highly sexual energy to the screen that shocked and fascinated audiences. As terrific as Bogart is, the Oscar should have been Brando’s. He was able to adjust his successful stage performance to confines of the screen without diminishing its impact, and his Stanley remains both repulsive and attractive. With the one-two punch of Brando and Bogart, the other actors didn’t have a chance and they included Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, another classic performance and one of the actor’s best. Also nominated were Arthur Kennedy for Bright Victory and Frederic March, miscast in Death of Salesman. I would have liked to see Kirk Douglas for William Wyler’s excellent adaptation of Detective Story and possibly Gene Kelly for An American Paris on the list.
1952: John Wayne in The Quiet Man
Nobody can begrudge Gary Cooper his second Best Actor Oscar for High Noon, one of the great westerns of the fifties. It’s an iconic performance from an actor who had a powerful impact on screen by seeming to do very little. But it’s another icon who would have got my vote that year in a charming and comedic change of pace – the non-nominated John Wayne in John Ford’s near perfect The Quiet Man. I love John Wayne in this movie. His Sean Thornton – a boxer returning from American to the Irish town of his birth – is still the strong, masculine presence Wayne was known for, but here there’s just a little more nuance and softness to his work and his scenes with Maureen O’Hara are deeply romantic and very fun. It also helps that the film itself is a comical and visual treat from start to finish and one of the top comedies of the fifties. Other nominees that year included Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata, Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob, Jose Ferrer in Moulin Rouge and Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (one of his best performances). I would also have liked to have seen Gene Kelly on the list for Singin’ in the Rain, probably in place of Alec Guinness.
1953: Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity
In 1953 William Holden won his only Oscar for his terrific performance in another Billy Wilder film, Stalag 17, a darkly comic look at a group of POWs who suspect one of their own (Holden) is actually a spy for the Germans. But this was also the year of From Here to Eternity and two major performances from it’s stars – Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. Clift gets my vote for his heartbreaking and soulful work as Private Prewitt. From Here to Eternity is set in Hawaii during the weeks leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and it’s a multi-character look at life on and around an army base. Clift plays a boxer who has joined the army, but his life is made miserable when he won’t join the regimental boxing team (he stopped fighting because he blinded a man). This is probably Clift’s best performance – tough yet vulnerable, proud yet humble – and very moving. Other nominees that year included Marlon Brando playing Marc Anthony and breathing life into Julius Caesar, a very wooden Richard Burton in The Robe, and Burt Lancaster for From Here to Eternity. I think Alan Ladd in Shane should have been on the list instead of Burton and it would have been nice to see room on the list for Fred Astaire for The Band Wagon, one of his best performances.
1954: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando – with four consecutive nominations for Best Actor – finally made it to the podium for his classic performance in On the Waterfront. It would be hard to find many who would disagree with this award – it truly is an iconic, powerful, and gritty performance in a ground-breaking film about mob control of the New Jersey waterfront. The film was the major winner at that year’s awards, and a lot of the credit for that goes to the impact of Brando’s performance. No one else had a chance that year, despite several worthy nominees. Bing Crosby received his third nomination for his dramatic turn in The Country Girl, a really strong performance. James Mason was nominated for his excellent work opposite Judy Garland in A Star Is Born and he would have been my choice in any other year. Humphrey Bogart was back again for his acclaimed work in The Caine Mutiny and Dan O’Herlihy was there for Robinson Crusoe, a film not seen very often today. I would have probably included James Stewart for Rear Window in place of O’Herlihy – Stewart is superb in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s major successes.
1955: James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me
This was an exceptionally strong year for lead male performances, with each of the nominees deserving of attention. Ernest Borgnine was the winner for Marty – a sweet and moving performance about a lonely butcher who finds love for the first time. Borgnine’s work here is quite good and it’s nice to see him do so well with his first lead role. But I think Oscar should have been looking a little more closely at what James Cagney did in Love Me or Leave Me. Nobody does mean like James Cagney and in this film he’s being mean to Doris Day, but you don’t hate him. It’s to Cagney’s credit that he makes this gangster/manager/husband believable. This is a character that has to be in control, and you feel for Cagney when that control starts to drift away. I think this even tops his work in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and White Heat (1949). Other nominees included James Dean in East of Eden, Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, and Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm. To illustrate how competitive it was that year – non-nominees included James Dean for his other 1955 hit Rebel Without a Cause, Henry Fonda for Mister Roberts, William Holden for Picnic, and Robert Mitchum for the chilling Night of the Hunter.
1956: Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life
It was an amazing year for Yul Brynner. He had a few film and TV credits earlier in the decade but that was before his Broadway success in The King and I, which he repeated on film in 1956 and won a Best Actor Oscar for it. He also had major roles in two other big hits – Anastasia and The Ten Commandments. Not a bad way to kick off your film career. Brynner defined charismatic in The King and I – he commands the screen with every movement and each line of dialogue. He deserved his place as one of the five nominees. However, I think Kirk Douglas should have finally gotten his Oscar for Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life. It’s a beautifully filmed biography of Vincent Van Gogh and Douglas redefines intensity with his riveting, multi-faceted performance. Other nominees included Rock Hudson and James Dean for Giant, and Laurence Olivier for Richard III, one of his best performances. I struggle with the posthumous nomination for Dean – his performance in Giant is so stylized and awkward that it’s almost like he’s in another movie. John Wayne should have been on the list instead for The Searchers – one of the best westerns of all time and one of Wayne’s major achievements.
1957: Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
This was a relatively weak year for lead actor performances and it’s a head scratcher as to why Robert Mitchum didn’t make the list for his wonderful performance in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – particularly when co-star Deborah Kerr did get a Best Actress nomination for the same film. Both Mitchum and Kerr would have been my choices that year as two individuals stranded on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. I think Mitchum is one of Hollywood’s unsung leading men – a major star from the late forties onward, with a string of terrific performances that run the gamut from light comedies to dramas to thrillers. But he never got the critical attention he deserved. Heaven Know, Mr. Allison is one of his best performances – low key, strong, and charming. He does a beautiful of job of showing his character’s growing love and attraction for Kerr, who’s playing a nun, and the conflict that causes. Alec Guinness was the winter that year for The Bridge on the River Kwai, an excellent performance. Other nominees included Charles Laughton’s great work in Witness for the Prosecution, Anthony Quinn in Wild is the Wind, Anthony Franciosa in A Hatful of Rain, and Marlon Brando in Sayonara. Another name that should have been there, possibly instead of Quinn, is Andy Griffith for the searing Face in the Crowd.
1958: James Stewart in Vertigo
David Niven was the popular winner for Separate Tables. It’s nicely judged performance where he plays a sexual deviant (not a typical role for him), but Niven ultimately has so little screen time that this should have been considered a supporting performance. I would have put James Stewart in the winner’s circle that year for his multi-layered work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The film was not a success at the time, which probably hurt Stewart for any serious award consideration, but I think this is his best performance since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Stewart’s Scottie is a complicated character – obsessive, quick to anger, and guilt-ridden with an underlying fear of heights that has ended his career as a police detective. There’s a lot going on here, both in the film’s plot and with the character of Scottie, and Stewart misses none of its opportunities. Unfortunately not even a nomination. In addition to Niven, other nominees included Paul Newman for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in the excellent The Defiant Ones, and Spencer Tracy for The Old Man and the Sea.
1959: Cary Grant in North By Northwest
You have to give Charlton Heston credit – there are very few actors with both the gravitas and physical presence who could have carried off the lead in so many epic films – The Ten Commandments (1956), El Cid (1961), The Agony and The Ecstasy (1965) – and not look foolish or out of place. Ben-Hur was another one of his successes and he won the Oscar for it in 1959. It’s a good performance, but not great. There’s no question that the role required undeniable stamina. Heston looks perfect for the part and he’s the film’s anchor. But there’s also a two-dimensional quality to what he does that ultimately feels like this is not an Oscar worthy piece of work. But four other performances that year were. I love what both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis did in Some Like It Hot – two perfect comedy performances (but only Lemmon got a nomination). James Stewart was back with another strong performance in Anatomy of a Murder and received his fifth and final nomination. But my choice that year would have been the non-nominated Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. This is probably the film and performance people think when they try to define Grant’s appeal and impact. His Roger Thornhill is everything you want to see in a Cary Grant performance and here it’s on steroids – he’s suave, he’s handsome, he’s funny, ironic, self-deprecating, and ultimately heroic. I think it’s one of the great movie star performances. The other nominees that year were Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man and Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.