Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar…

The gratuitous back-patting known as the Academy Awards will get underway in less than a month (February 26th this year), and though I haven’t really given the ceremony that much thought, a stray comment from my fellow classic movie pal ClassicBecky on my recent The Long Walk Home review set in motion an idea for a post:

I was particularly interested in your view of actors winning Oscars for the wrong movies. Made me think of Russell Crowe winning the Oscar for "Gladiator", in which his predominant line of dialogue was the monotonal "I am Maximus." Then the very next year, losing the Oscar for his truly remarkable performance in "A Beautiful Mind." Huh?

There was a time (don’t be frightened by the wavy lines—it’s just a flashback) when I would await the arrival of the Academy Awards with eager anticipation.  That enthusiasm disappeared in 1995, when the Best Picture Oscar went to Forrest Gump, a film that beat out far superior movies like Quiz Show and Pulp Fiction for the top prize.  (I apologize to any Gump fans out there…but that odious piece of fromage gets the 1960s counterculture so wrong it elevates my blood pressure just thinking about it.  Hell, even the other two features nominated—the romantic comedy trifle Four Weddings and a Funeral and the so-popular-it’s-stupefying The Shawshank Redemption—would have been better choices.)  To add insult to injury, Tom Hanks won a second Best Actor Oscar for that travesty; I always think of that purported observation by Alma Reville to her husband Alfred Hitchcock that Oscars weren’t too much of a big deal because “after all, Luise Rainer won two of them.”

It wasn’t long after this that I purchased and read with delight film historian Danny Peary’s wonderful book Alternate Oscars.  Published in 1993, Peary argues that throughout the history of Academy Awards, the films that should have been recognized aren’t for a variety of reasons—mostly having to do with Hollywood politics.  (Look, I love How Green Was My Valley as much as the next person…but is it really a better film than Citizen Kane—despite Orson Welles’ on-the-record reverence for John Ford?)  Danny attempts to rectify the many mistakes Oscar has made throughout its history; sometimes he’s okay with the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…other times he questions as to whether its membership was passing around a crack pipe.  If you don’t have this invaluable reference on your movie bookshelf, you need to do so at your earliest opportunity; it’s available from a number of used bookstore both online and off (it’s OOP, sadly—Peary seems to be more comfortable writing sports books these days) but in case you’re curious about its contents, you can find the complete list from the book at one of my favorite movie sites:

In Alternate Oscars, Danny advocates the taking of many of the trophies from those individuals who won Academy Awards and reallocating those prizes to actors/actresses more deserving.  I agree with many of his choices: how thesps like Clark Gable (a particular bête noire of mine), Paul Lukas, and Broderick Crawford ever won Oscars is a mystery to me.  (And I say this as someone who loves All the King’s Men.)  In other instances, Peary argues that actors frequently receive Oscars for the wrong movies.  A great example of this is Mary Pickford, the best actress winner in 1928/29 for Coquette.  You people know the story: they gave “America’s Sweetheart” the acting prize because she wanted one (the Academy was an organization created to bust unions—you know this as well).  Mary is much better in My Best Girl (1927), and Danny argues she should have had a statuette for what was her final silent film.

The chief culprit to consider when you say to yourself out loud during an Oscar telecast—“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—surely they’re not giving him/her an award for that?”—is that these honors are often handed out for an outstanding body of work…not because they were really, really good in a particular film.  Even people who defend the Academy Awards will cop to that.  There’s no greater example of this than Henry Fonda, who finally nabbed a Best Actor trophy in 1982 for playing the “get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids” crank in On Golden Pond (1981)—then Hank went on to an even greater reward a few months after (when he snuffed it).  I don’t think Fonda ever gave a better performance onscreen than as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) …but they didn’t give him that Oscar because they were too busy giving his bosom buddy James Stewart the Best Actor prize for The Philadelphia Story (1940).  The general agreement was that Stewart got his Oscar that year for being ignored previously for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

I’m not a fan of The Philadelphia Story, chiefly because the romantic problems of rich people rarely register high on my personal Give-a-Damn-O-Meter.  I’d argue that Jimmy is much better in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946—this gets Stewart his “Alternate Oscar” in Peary’s book) and if he was shut out that year by The Best Years of Our Lives juggernaut, the Academy could have always waited for Vertigo (1958) or Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  By that same token, Henry Fonda gave first-rate performances in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Wrong Man (1956), Fail-Safe (1964), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  My personal Fonda fave is Fort Apache (1948); a journalist once asked Hank’s son Peter what his famous dad was like off-screen and Pete asked him if he’d ever seen Fort Apache.  When the reporter applied in the affirmative, Fonda remarked: “That’s what he was like off-screen.”

Speaking of John Wayne (well, he’s in Fort Apache as well)—the Duke got his “Atta boy” from his peers for True Grit (1969) …even though he was just being John Wayne in an eyepatch.  To be frank, John Wayne pretty much played John Wayne in every movie he was in…but he could occasionally step up to the place and hit one out of the thespic park.  It’s no coinky-dink that these performances were in films directed by the aforementioned Mr. Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949—my personal favorite), The Quiet Man (1952—Peary’s pick in AO), The Searchers (1956) …and even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (I always forget how splendid that movie is until I take the time to sit down with it again.)

Here’s a short list of some more actors who won Oscars for the wrong movies.  I didn’t include actresses on this list—not because I’m being chauvinistic, but because I was racing a deadline for this post and decided it would be better tackled in a follow-up next week.

Humphrey Bogart – Despite my love for Bogart, most of his movie roles were, like John Wayne, variations on his established persona—including The African Queen (1951), the one that earned him his Oscar.  But Bogie gives much more interesting (and in my opinion, better) performances in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950).  My sentimental favorites are Deadline – U.S.A. (1952) and Humphrey’s swan song, The Harder They Fall (1956).

Rod Steiger – Speaking of The Harder They Fall, I think Steiger’s turn as the autocratic mobster Nick Benko is sensational; Steiger is a difficult guy to pin down because…well, let’s not mince words: he could chew up the scenery when inclined (which is why his serial killer in 1968’s No Way to Treat a Lady should have been Academy Award-worthy—it plays perfectly to this handicap).  Rod got his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967), but my personal pick is his role in The Pawnbroker (1964).  (I would also have accepted his psychiatrist in The Mark [1961] as an answer.)

Sidney Poitier – I truly think Poitier gives the better performance in In the Heat of the Night as Virgil Tibbs, but the Academy had already given Sidney honors for 1963’s Lillies of the Field.  I have never been able to understand why this great actor got overlooked for A Raisin in the Sun (1961—my choice).  Other outstanding Poitier choices include Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Edge of the City (1957), and Something of Value (1957).

Burt Lancaster – I’ve said it many times in the past: Burt Lancaster’s acting got better and better with age.  You can see the genesis of this in my favorite of his films, The Swimmer (1968) …but he was really on fire by the time he made Atlantic City (1980—this is the one I’d hand him an Oscar for), Local Hero (1983), and Field of Dreams (1989).  Peary takes Burt’s trophy for Elmer Gantry (1960) and gives it to Anthony Perkins for Psycho (ignoring the fact that Perkins played variations on Norman Bates pretty much the entirety of his career).  Not even an honorable mention for Sweet Smell of Success (1957—maybe he thought Burt was a supporting actor in this one)!

Charlton Heston – You might have seen the gag in Wayne’s World 2 (1992); an inconsequential bit player (Al Hansen) finds himself switched out with a “better actor”—none other than Heston himself.  I probably laughed harder at the irony of Charlton being considered a good actor because…I don’t think he was all that and a bag of chips.  Heston won for Ben-Hur (1959), but if we consult The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ he was at his very best for the titular role of Will Penny (1968).  (I once had a dream where I was trapped in an elevator with Charlton Heston, and all I could do was mock him at every turn: “Get your stinking paws off me—you damn dirty ape!”)

Paul Newman – Newman was nominated for an Oscar six times before the Academy decided to give him a special trophy…and then the following year, he got the Best Actor prize for The Color of Money (1986).  Paul would score two more nominations following this (one of them a favorite of mine, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool) …but how he got overlooked for The Hustler (1961—Peary’s choice), Hud (1963), or The Verdict (1982—this is for me his Oscar-winning performance) is a mystery for the old man on the mountain.

Jack Lemmon – Lemmon already had a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on the mantelpiece for Mister Roberts (1955) when his peers decided to throw a Best Actor prize his way for Save the Tiger (1973).  No, sir.  I don’t like it.  If he was going to win a Best Actor Oscar it should have been for either Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The China Syndrome (1979), or Missing (1982—my personal favorite).  Jack received nominations for all three of those films, not to mention Some Like it Hot (1959—picked in AO) and The Apartment (1960).  (He’s also first-rate in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross—though this might be considered a supporting turn.)

Jack Nicholson – Another multiple winner, Nicholson got his first Oscar for 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a movie I revisited not too long ago, and was disappointed that it has not aged well.  (Danny Peary has a dissenting opinion…but he also argues that Jack’s comic turn in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) should have been honored, and I side with him on this completely.)  I can’t believe Jack got ignored for three better performances (all of them nominated): Five Easy Pieces (1970—Peary’s pick), The Last Detail (1973), and Chinatown (1974—my choice…though it was a tough year with all that Godfather II-ing going on).  (Nicholson later won a Best Supporting for Terms of Endearment [1983] and a second Best Actor trophy for 1997’s As Good As It Gets.)

Al Pacino – The Rod Steiger of his era.  I paid good money to see the film for which they finally gave Pacino an Oscar, Scent of a Woman (1992).  (The only positive thing to come out of that experience was that I spotted soap stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes in the theatre lobby.)  Any of the 70s films that Al received noms for—The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …and justice for all (my favorite)—would have been better choices.  (Future nominations stopped with his Scent Oscar, yet despite his propensity for scenery chewing, Al’s given some wonderful performances in the twilight of his career: Donnie Brasco [1997], The Insider [1999], Insomnia [2002], etc.)

Denzel Washington – They passed on giving Denzel a second Oscar (he had won a Best Supporting for 1989’s Glory) in 1993 because everybody liked the way Pacino constantly hollered “Hoo-hah!” in the previously mentioned Scent of a Woman.  Denzel should have been the winner that year, but he’d have to wait until his name was called for a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001).  (He even got snubbed for the excellent For Queen and Country [1988].)

Disclaimer: the preceding were my opinions and mine alone—if you disagree with me, I welcome your input in the comments section.  (All that I ask is that you remember that my parents are married.)


Rich said...

I'm still bitter about Nicholson stealing what should have been Robert Duvall's Oscar for THE APOSTLE.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rich interjected:

I'm still bitter about Nicholson stealing what should have been Robert Duvall's Oscar for THE APOSTLE.


Hal said...

My favorite Peary book, by a hair over Guide for the Film Fanatic. Though I agree with George C. Scott's belief that competition between actors shouldn't go beyond the nomination stage. Simply impossible to properly evaluate any work of art after a few months, films included.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Hal waited for the furor to die down:

I agree with George C. Scott's belief that competition between actors shouldn't go beyond the nomination stage. Simply impossible to properly evaluate any work of art after a few months, films included.

Outstanding point. Thanks for bringing this into the conversation.

ClassicBecky said...

I'm with George C., you and Hal about the "who's best" thing. I've always thought a big part of an actor's performance anyway is definitely the writing and, let's face it, the look. George C. Scott won for Patton in the first few minutes of the film. The fact that he was marvelous in the rest of the film was icing on the cake...I especially loved the part when Patton bellows "An entire world at war and I'm to be left out of it?!!"
I do have to take exception with you, Ivan (and I'm the Muse for this one, so you should listen to me) ... Anthony Perkins over Burt Lancaster that year? Nah...I loved Perkins, but Elmer Gantry was everything good about Lancaster all rolled up into one juicy part.
I think Henry Fonda should have received the award for "Fail Safe" -- he was the president everybody wishes they had (especially now!) I also say "Amen" to Duvall's performance as "The Apostle" losing out to Nicholson. Lastly but not leastly, George C.'s opinion of the awards thing was never more proven than the year that Rod Steiger was passed over for "The Pawnbroker" and won by Lee Marvin for "Cat Ballou". How the hell do you compare those genres? You can't. Well, I've written a book here, Ivan -- hope it wasn't too boring and that it shows how much I've enjoyed this topic. Now if I could only Muse myself into doing some actual writing for myself!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Becky would not be silenced:

I do have to take exception with you, Ivan (and I'm the Muse for this one, so you should listen to me) ... Anthony Perkins over Burt Lancaster that year? Nah...I loved Perkins, but Elmer Gantry was everything good about Lancaster all rolled up into one juicy part.

Just to clarify, Anthony Perkins is Danny Peary's pick for Best Actor in Alternate Oscars...not mine. However, I respectfully disagree with both of you: my favorite performance that year is Montgomery Clift's in Wild River. Truth be told, it's my favorite of all of Clift's acting's a crime that Monty never got an actual Oscar. Peary gives Clift an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, taking away the trophy from William Holden (Stalag 17). Depending on the day of the week, I either agree with this (Holden did kind of play the same guy in most of his movies) or reject it outright ('cause I'm a big fan of Stalag 17).

Which always reminds me of Holden's observation that if that "son-of-a-bitch" (Peter Finch) hadn't died he would have had two Oscars.

ClassicBecky said...

Hmm ... I didn't realize Wild River was the same year. I couldn't agree more about Clift's performance -- that movie is superb. Jo Van Fleet was so exceptional -- I'll have to look her up to see if she was nominated. I remember her performance in East of Eden -- again so good! She always seemed to take parts in which she was so much older than she actually was. Hey, I think that just gave me an idea for an interesting article -- more to come!