Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Affairs of Oscar

Elizabeth Taylor:
Best Actress for
Butterfield 8


The 33rd Academy Awards might just have well been called Near-Death and Transfiguration.  A year earlier, Elizabeth Taylor was denounced and shunned for a scandal that today is still shocking: running off with her friend Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fischer less than a year after becoming a widow due to the death of Fischer's best friend, Mike Todd, in a plane crash. 

Following this shocking turn of events when The Black Widow stole the husband of America's Sweetheart, Taylor nearly died while in London filming the epic Cleopatra, and had to have emergency surgery as she was inches away from death.  Her ordeal and long recuperation somehow absolved her sin of 'erotic vagrancy' as the Vatican put it (though to be fair, that term was coined when she left Fischer for Richard Burton, her Cleopatra costar).  As a way of welcoming her back to the good graces of moral Hollywood, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as a wanton woman in Butterfield 8, a performance Taylor found to be one of if not her worst.  History has proven Taylor right: if the tawdry yet entertaining Butterfield 8 is remembered at all, it is precisely because she won for a singularly unspectacular performance in a role that veered toward parody of her private life.

It was clearly a sympathy vote.  Even Debbie Reynolds, the woman whose husband Taylor had stolen, said she voted for Taylor.  Taylor for her part made no secret of how she hated Butterfield 8 and was pushed into it to fulfill her MGM contract.   I personally don't hate Butterfield 8, finding it entertaining but aware that this was not a 'great performance'. 

No sympathy votes for The Alamo, a film that essentially bullied its way to the Oscars.  Representing a new low for campaigning, The Alamo, like its namesake, fell in spectacular fashion, winning just one of its seven nominations (for Sound).  More on the particular scandal of The Alamo later.

Adultery was on the mind of Oscar this year.  There was the false preacher done in, in part, by the pleasures of the flesh in Elmer Gantry.  There is Taylor winning her first Oscar for being a woman of ill repute (the dialogue has her shouting such classic lines as "Face it, Mama.  I was the slut of all time!").  And then there is the Best Picture winner: The Apartment, a romantic comedy about a man who lets his bosses use his flat for their own trysts.  The Apartment would also be the last black-and-white picture to win Best Picture for thirty-three years.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



The Green Leaves of Summer: The Alamo
The Facts of Life: The Facts of Life
The Second Time Around: High Time
Never on Sunday: Never on Sunday
Faraway Part of Town: Pepe

Here we have one of The Alamo's seven nominations, but I think it's a safe bet that The Green Leaves of Summer is not on your iPad.  Also forgotten is Mexican comedic genius Cantiflas' second (and mercifully last) effort into the English market with Pepe, a film my Mexican mother found a horror.

Shockingly, the Academy actually picked the best song with the title song in Never On Sunday, the first foreign-language song to win in this category.

Curiously, the lyrics to the original Greek-language Never on Sunday are radically different from the more popular English-language version.  The Americanized version is more humorous, almost cute in the flirtatious, while the Greek version is one almost of longing.  I can live with both versions, but my leaning is towards the original.

However, I'm picking another song that is equally iconic.

The Facts of Life: The Facts of Life
Any Way the Wind Blows: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Never on Sunday: Never on Sunday
Please Don't Eat the Daisies: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Where the Boys Are: Where the Boys Are

From Where the Boys Are, Where the Boys Are, music and lyrics by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Has Neil Sedaka ever gotten the credit he deserves for being a great songwriter?  Where the Boys Are is a song that evokes the joys of innocent Spring Break frolics, despite that the film itself explores premarital sex just as we were coming out of the conservative Eisenhower Era.   It's that mix of innocent and experience that makes Where the Boys Are even better, and I think that while Never on Sunday is an excellent song, Where the Boys Are has stood the test of time a trifle more.    


Jack Cardiff: Sons and Lovers
Jules Dassin: Never on Sunday
Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho
Billy Wilder: The Apartment
Fred Zinnemann: The Sundowners

I liked The Apartment just fine.  It flowed well and had that cynical Wilder touch.  However, I think that when it comes to cinema, Alfred Hitchcock is held in higher regard.  Moreover, while The Apartment isn't completely forgotten like other Best Picture winners, Psycho is the one that is still being studied, copied, and even reworked as a television series.  The film is a cultural touchstone and still ranks among the great films, so at this moment I have to say Sorry, Billy.

You're just not Wilder enough.

Jack Cardiff: Sons and Lovers
Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho
Stanley Kubrick: Spartacus
John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven
Billy Wilder: The Apartment

I have too much respect for Cardiff to take him off, and I think of some of the other great films from 1960, it makes one wonder why a.) other directors were ignored, and b.) how the director of The Alamo was left off.  Then you remember The Alamo was directed by John Wayne, and it makes sense.


Glynis Johns: The Sundowners
Shirley Jones: Elmer Gantry
Shirley Knight: The Dark At the Top of the Stairs
Janet Leigh: Psycho
Mary Ure: Sons and Lovers

I think Jones got the Oscar in no small part because it was one of those 'radical change' roles.  Jones was seen as an ingénue, a sweet, almost virginal figure.  Therefore, it must have come as a revelation to see her play a hooker.  Oscar has a weakness for hookers too.

However, my vote goes to Janet Leigh's turn as the tragic Marion Crane in Psycho.  I can say tragic because even if you've never seen Psycho, you know enough to know who gets a bad shower. We saw her play in part a woman done in by love.  We empathize with her actions, and feel for her throughout the film.  It's now an iconic performance.

Shirley Jones: Elmer Gantry
Janet Leigh: Psycho
Janis Paige: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Joan Plowright: The Entertainer
Jean Simmons: Spartacus

I think each one of these actresses was never given her due.  However, if I had the chance, I would give the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to a comedic performance.  Janis Paige gave a wonderful turn as the starlet determined to get back at the snobbish critic who trashed her using a mix of wiles and genuine talent.  A scene that has stuck with me was when she met David Niven's character in a beatnik coffee-house.  She gave a very good, dramatic monologue...until Niven told her she was 'acting' and he could see through it.  However, even he conceded she almost had him.


Peter Falk: Murder, Inc.
Jack Kruschen: The Apartment
Sal Mineo: Exodus
Peter Ustinov: Spartacus
Chill Wills: The Alamo

Let us look upon the sad, sad case of Chill Wills.  Wills was a veteran actor who specialized in Westerns, and this was Wills first (and only) Oscar nomination.  Perhaps sensing that his time was either at hand or about to expire, Wills (or someone on his behalf) mounted an Oscar campaigned that would prove disastrous and backfire in a spectacular way.

Wills put out an ad saying that his Alamo costars were praying harder for him to win than the men IN the actual Alamo were praying to win against Santa Ana's troops.  This bizarre declaration so shocked director/costar/producer John Wayne (who had mounted a similarly aggressive campaign for The Alamo, not nearly as tasteless and as grandiose as Wills'...though it came close) that Wayne was forced to publicly apologize for Wills' frankly-insulting comparison and shameless campaigning (even by Oscar standards). 

Wills then decided that after his Oscar gaffe, he needed to make another one.  He took out another ad declaring that win, lose, or draw, the Academy members were all his 'Alamo cousins' and he loved them all.  In return, Groucho Marx, no stranger to stinging remarks, put his own ad.  "Dear Mr. Wills, I'm delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo".

That public put-down by the Master of Quips pretty much doomed Chill Wills' Oscar chances.  Not that it helped Mineo win, as the Academy went for Ustinov's seriocomic performance as the gladiator school head forced into the machinations of rival Roman Senators.  

In retrospect though, the shameless campaigning can reap results...just ask Eddie Redmayne.

Gene Kelly: Inherit the Wind
Charles Laughton: Spartacus
Fred MacMurray: The Apartment
Peter Ustinov: Spartacus
Alan Young: The Time Machine

At least THIS redhead can act!  Alan Young, who will forever be beloved as the voice of Scrooge McDuck, was one of the best parts of one of the great films: The Time Machine.  Having read The Time Machine, I still prefer the film version to the original novel.  As George's best friend Filby...and his son...young and old, Filby is the quiet conscience, the one of the group who does not immediately dismiss George's story or accept it quickly. 

In other matters, I am puzzled why MacMurray, again playing against type as the sleazy boss, was overlooked Oscar time.  The fact that MacMurray NEVER received an Oscar nomination is a blight on the Academy, not on MacMurray.


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

Another safe bet is that few people remember that Elizabeth Taylor's first Oscar was for the rather tawdry (but still oddly enjoyable, if in a camp way), Butterfield 8.  One can wonder whether she was playing a version of herself as the appropriately named Gloria Wandrous, or was playing the image of this 'slut of all time'.  Taylor got the Oscar (which even she later said she didn't merit) out of sympathy, and that cost other actresses a chance to win legitimately.  For my money, it is MacLaine's turn as the lovelorn elevator girl, the heart in a heartless company, that moved me the most.

Doris Day: Midnight Lace
Greer Garson: Sunrise at Campobello
Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment
Melina Mercouri: Never on Sunday
Elizabeth Taylor: Butterfield 8

I have a bit of love for camp, so I'm leaving Taylor in (even though logic should tell me to cut her out).  Doris Day, an actress who stubbornly has never been given the recognition she deserved, showed that she could handle drama extremely well in this psychological thriller.  As the wife being terrorized to the point of insanity, Day delivers a fantastic performance, showing she could do more than be the cheerful chanteuse.


Trevor Howard: Sons and Lovers
Burt Lancaster: Elmer Gantry
Jack Lemmon: The Apartment
Laurence Olivier: The Entertainer
Spencer Tracy: Inherit the Wind

I'm going to admit I have never warmed to Burt Lancaster.  Perhaps that is why I'm not big on his win for Elmer Gantry.  I'm much more fond of Laurence Olivier's wild change as the seedy Archie Rice in The Entertainer, as radical a departure for the classic Olivier as can be found.

That is the point of Archie Rice, isn't it?  The fact that he IS seedy, that it's so clear that he is seedy and sleazy but that there is also something sad and tragic about him.  Archie Rice WAS suppose to be grotesque, the humor of his second-rate act showing the pathetic nature of the man, one who could not equal his father's vaudeville heights or his daughter's respectability.

Jack Lemmon: The Apartment
Steve McQueen: The Magnificent Seven
Laurence Olivier: The Entertainer
Anthony Perkins: Psycho
Rod Taylor: The Time Machine

It is astonishing that given how iconic his performance has become, how it has influenced so many others and even inspired the television prequel Bates Motel, Anthony Perkins was NOT nominated for his performance in Psycho.  Let's face it: no matter how good Freddie Highmore is as Norman Bates in Bates Motel (and he IS extremely good), he knows that he is standing in the shadow of Perkins' turn.

The role was a blessing and a curse for Perkins.  Once held as another of the 'nice, clean-cut young men' of cinema, he was forever typecast as lunatics or at the least, highly troubled men.  Perkins eventually made peace with his most famous role, appearing in three Psycho sequels as Norman Bates.   For better or worse, Anthony Perkins in Psycho is an iconic performance in a brilliant film, one of the few screen monsters who didn't need a mask or twisted features to frighten.


The Alamo
The Apartment
Elmer Gantry
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners

Now, granted, I am prejudiced about The Alamo given I'm a native Texan.  In fact, I don't know about other states, but in Texas, fourth or fifth graders are taught the state anthem (Texas, Our Texas) and we pledge allegiance to not just the American flag, but the Lone Star one too.  Given that, I'm bound to like The Alamo (even if I think it was one of the lesser choices among the films of 1960 to receive a Best Picture nomination).

In these times, studios and producers (like John Wayne) were willing to do everything short of actually giving out cash to get these nominations, and in the future, we'll see even worse nominees (and worse Best Picture winners).   Therefore, going after The Alamo seems a bit unfair, and to its credit the film is still popular with audiences. 

However, out of the five nominated films the clear champ is The Apartment, this story that mixes sleazy with sentiment about a man who lets his bosses use his place for immoral behavior. In the midst of that, our hero finds love with our heroine.  It's a love story...that involves extramarital sex.

The Apartment
The Magnificent Seven
The Time Machine

Still, given just how many great films there were in 1960, The Alamo pushing its way to seven nominations (especially Best Picture) ranks as a particular low point in the Academy's storied history.  I think all the films I've submitted rank among some of the greatest, and out of the choices I'm switching my vote from The Time Machine (which is one of my personal favorites) to Psycho, a film that still holds the ability to shock.  It set the standard for 'suspense' and while at times unfairly lumped with witless slasher films, Psycho is still among the great films.

Therefore, I name Psycho the Best Picture of 1960.

Next Time, The 1961 Academy Awards.

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