Best Actor: 1953

Just shy of a year later…The Oscars series returns, with another round of the Best Actor nominees — this time ’round featuring the nominees of 1953! The purpose of this series is to examine and rank past Oscar-nominated performances — who won and who should have won? And to refresh your memory (and mine!), here are the criteria I have established in reviewing and ranking performances:

  • Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting?
  • Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
  • Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people?
  • The complexity/depth of the performance.

The nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role of 1953 were as follows:

  • Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar 
  • Richard Burton, The Robe
  • Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity
  • William Holden, Stalag 17 
  • Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity 

Think you know who I’m going to give the Oscar to? Who do you think should have won the Oscar? Let’s see how our rankings compare! (I’m feeling a bit like Ellery Queen here, challenge to the reader and all.)

5. Richard Burton in The Robe **/*****

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That’s the exact expression I had while watching this movie. Flattering, huh?

This was Richard Burton’s second Oscar nomination (although his first for a Best Actor in a Leading Role). He did not win. He would be nominated a total of seven times and amazingly, he never won.

The premise of The Robe is that it answers the question: what happened to the Roman soldier who won Jesus’ robe in a dice game?

Richard Burton plays that Roman soldier, Marcellus Gallio, who is cruel, condescending, and a womanizer to boot. When he wins Christ’s robe in a dice game at the site of the crucifixion, he is cursed by his slave, Demetrius, and is furthermore plagued by guilt and nightmares, leading people to believe he is crazy (which he kind of is). In an effort to rid himself of this guilt, he searches for Demetrius, who now possesses the robe, with the plan to destroy the robe, which he believes in turn will cause the nightmares to cease. Instead, however, after a series of events and meetings, he becomes converted to Christianity.

You would expect such a dramatic transformation to be extraordinary and rich with palpable emotion. This performance, however, is rather dull and flat, with little depth. I kept waiting to feel something, to care about this character and what happened…but I never did. Caligula was more interesting to me because…well, it was Caligula, so of course it was entertaining.

I think Burton was a great actor (or at least I remember him as being so in what films my 9th grade World Geography teacher showed our class…don’t ask), but this was not a very good performance, and it did not deserve the Oscar. Maybe next time!

4. Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar ***/*****

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Yo, wassup, Brand-o?

This was Marlon Brando’s third (in a row!) Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He would be nominated a total of eight times and win twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather (an honor which he famously rejected).

Ouch. It hurts to see Brando ranked fourth out of five because it’s Brando and I love Brando. Frankly, however, when I was reviewing which films/performances I needed to watch/review for 1953, I completely forgot that he was even nominated, signaling that this was not a standout performance. Reviewing the film, however, it’s not so much that it’s not a standout performance (indeed, it’s a very, very good one) as that it’s more of a supporting performance. Perhaps a Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination would have been more suitable for James Mason as Brutus, while nominating Brando in the Best Supporting Actor category. At the same time, however, every time Brando enters a scene, he commands your attention. You can’t take your eyes off him!

Brando had been deemed “The Mumbler” and doing Shakespeare was seen as a chance to disprove that title. He does a fantastic job — the guy could do it all! — the famous speech of Mark Antony is especially impressive. Check it out:

Goosebumps!

In Brando’s autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, he wrote of his experience making Julius Caesar: “After being a Mexican revolutionary, I played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director, assembled a good cast, including Louis Calhern, James Mason, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Edmond O’Brien and John Gielgud, who played Cassius. Though English actors generally are far superior to American actors in their style, speech and familiarity with Shakespeare, many British actors, like Maurice Evans, are no better than we are in his plays. It takes someone of Gielgud’s stature to perform with authority because he has played most of the important Shakespeare roles. But for me to walk onto a movie set and play Mark Antony without more experiences was asinine.”

I think Brando was being a bit harsh — he did a great job. (And he looked pretty good in those skimpy Roman outfits, too.) There were, however, stronger and more captivating performances deserving of the Oscar that year.

3. William Holden, Stalag 17 ****/*****

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“I’m no escape artist…You can be the heroes, the guys with the fruit salad on your chest. Me, I’m staying put. And I’m gonna make myself as comfortable as I can. And if it takes a littler trading with the enemy to get me some food or a better mattress…that’s okay by Sefton.” 

This was William Holden’s second Oscar nomination. He won! He was nominated a total of three times, with this being his only win.

William Holden plays Sefton, an American airman in a German Prisoner of War camp. Sefton is cynical and practical. He derides the others’ attempts at escape. He has decided to make the best of his situation, trading cigarettes (which he mostly wins by betting with the other prisoners) with the Germans for food and favors. Because of this behavior and certain occurrences demonstrating that someone inside their camp is keeping the Germans informed of their plans and deviations, he is soon accused of  being a “stoolie.” After suffering physical abuse because of this accusation, he becomes determined to reveal the true rat.

Holden gives an excellent, gripping performance, pulling you into the story, gluing you to the screen as you become determined as him to uncover the truth. You grow to care about Sefton, cynical and unsympathetic as he is at times. Still, at the end of the film, you, like the others, wonder what made him do it. (What “it” is…you have to watch the film to see!) Holden’s performance earned the Oscar. I just happen to think two others may have earned it more — an opinion Holden himself held!

Good on Holden for giving the shortest Oscar acceptance speech on record: “Thank you.”

2. Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity ****/*****

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This was Burt Lancaster’s first Oscar nomination. He did not win. He would be nominated a total four times, winning once in 1960 for Elmer Gantry.

Aren’t you proud of me for resisting the temptation to use a screencap of a half-naked Lancaster on the beach? I am. Aren’t you disappointed in the Academy for resisting giving Lancaster the Oscar just for being half-naked on the beach? I am.

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Oh, you didn’t really think I had that much willpower, did you?

Moving on from Burt Lancaster’s booty to his actual performance…Lancaster brings the perfect mixture of toughness and gentleness to the role of First Sergeant Milton Warden, a man who loves the Army more than anything, including the woman he loves, yet despises and undermines the corruption and cruelty of Captain Holmes. Even though he is no nonsense on the surface, there is a warmth and gentleness to Lancaster’s performance that lets you know Warden is a good, kind man underneath his tough exterior, which, I think, is slowly revealed through his relationship with Clift’s Private Prewitt, a man he at first believes to be stubbornly stupid but by the film’s end perhaps realizes he has more in common with him than he initially thought.

I was torn between Lancaster and Holden — I think their performances are equal in terms of quality and depth, and I can’t exactly pinpoint what made me pick Lancaster over Holden — perhaps a personal preference for Lancaster or a character with more depth or maybe an overall preference for From Here to Eternity

1. Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity *****/*****

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This was Montgomery Clift’s third Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He did not win (again). What the heck, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences? He would be nominated a total of four times, and he would sadly never win — unjustly so.

There was no question for me as to who should have won the Oscar this year. Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt is undoubtedly the heart of this film. Director Fred Zinneman noted: “Clift forced the other actors to be much better than they really were. That’s the only way I can put it. He got performances from the other actors, he got reactions from the other actors that were totally genuine.” Indeed, both Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, who each won Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for their performances in From Here to Eternity, would credit Clift with helping them craft and perfect their performances.

Prewitt is a loner, a principled man whose choices and actions do not make much sense to others but to him are simple — in a way, Prewitt is an embodiment of Clift himself. Prewitt switches companies after being relegated to second Bugler in his previous outfit not because of talent or skill but favoritism. When he arrives at his new company, he is immediately pressured by the crooked Captain Holmes to join the boxing team, which he refuses to do despite continuous pressure and cruelty. To Lancaster’s Warden, this is stupid, and he tells Prewitt so.

Warden: You know what you did just now when you turned down dynamite Holmes? You put your head in a noose. Things are soft for a boxer in this outfit. Otherwise, you’d better know how to soldier.
Prewitt: I can soldier with any man.
Warden: You’ll fight, Prewitt. You’ll fight because Captain Holmes wants to be Major Holmes. He’s got an idea he’ll make it if he gets a winning team. And if you don’t do it for him, you’ll do it for me, ’cause my job is to keep him happy, see? The more he’s happy, the less he bothers me and the better I run his company. So we know where we stand, don’t we, kid?
Prewitt: I know where I stand. A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’.

“I know where I stand. A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’.” These are probably my favorite lines in the entire film and lines that better than any other encapsulate the character of Prewitt.

Clift, as always, puts so much into his performance. From the moment the novel From Here to Eternity was published, he hoped to play Prewitt in a screen adaptation. He envisioned Prewitt as an inarticulate man and thus cut his dialogue as much as possible. Furthermore, he modeled his subtle accent on recordings of Kentucky speech he tracked down with director Fred Zinneman. He spent hours learning and practicing the bugle, even though he knew he would not actually be playing in the film. He complete engrosses himself in the character, and as a result, he pulls you in with him. His performance is, in a word…meticulous, fearless, emotional, breathtaking, flawless, unforgettable.

This performance matches every criteria I have set for reviewing performances. Yes, this performance is believable and makes the film. Yes, I forget Montgomery Clift is acting. Yes, I would watch this film again and recommend it to other people. Yes, there is a depth and feeling to this performance unmatched by any of the others. So why didn’t Clift win the Oscar? Karl Malden offered these thoughts: “Because he always became part of the warp and woof of a script. So much so that his artistry wasn’t always appreciated. If you watch him in From Here to Eternity, he completely immerses himself in the character and situation of Prewitt, so much so that he actually sinks into the flesh of the story.”

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What is your face? A work of art, that’s what. Your face was made to be seen in high definition, so let’s release as many of your films in Blu-Ray as soon as possible and there will finally be world peace. And your skill and talent as an actor — pure artistry. The best. My favorite. Always.

Previously: Best Actor 1951 

Up next (by Christmas, maybe): Perhaps a year where Montgomery Clift wasn’t nominated so I won’t be so doggone predictable.

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Best Actor: 1951

A few weeks ago, Daniel Day-Lewis made Oscar history when he became the first male actor to earn three Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (Katharine Hepburn still holds the record for any performer–four Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That be my girl.) We all woo-hoo’d and hallejuah’d ’round here–not only because every superlative in existence could be applied to his performance as President Abraham Lincoln (or just one superlative: P-E-R-F-E-C-T) but also because no other actor in recent memory could be deemed more deserving of such an honor than Daniel Day-Lewis. This is, after all, the man who played Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, the movie I watched countless times and the character I proudly told anybody I had the courage to speak to as a four-year-old I would someday marry. Yes, I had a normal childhood.

Inspired by Day-Lewis’ historic win and a few other things (but mostly Daniel Day-Lewis), I decided to examine and rank previous Best Actor Oscar winners and nominations. Who won? Who should have won? I decided to first take a look at 1951, mainly because I was very familiar with three of the five nominated performances but also because it was an interesting year for acting with the arrival of Method Acting, perfectly executed by two its nominees. But before I delve into those actors and their performances, let’s establish some criteria that will direct my evaluations and rankings:

  • Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting
  • Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
  • Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people? 
  • The complexity/depth of the performance. Let me clarify this through an example: In 1973, Robert Redford was given his only (!!) Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in The Sting. Now, ya’ll know how I feel about Robert Redford. And if you don’t, I will tell you right now: I love Robert Redford. A lot. And The Sting is one of my favorite movies. And he is great in it. But I’m not sure that he really deserved the nomination for this role. More deserving that year was his performance as Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were. But let’s not talk about The Way We Were because I’m starting to dissolve into a puddle of tears just thinking about it. Your girl is lovely, Hubbell! Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just rocking back and forth in my desk chair here, quietly sobbing. And not just because Hubbell belonged with Katie but because I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand brushing Robert Redford’s hair across his forehead…and I’m just really envious. I’m continuing that whole “normal childhood” thing into my adulthood.

Without further ado (or gushing about Robert Redford and his immaculate hair), here are my rankings of the Best Actor in a Leading Role nominees of 1951:

5. Fredric March in Death of a Salesman **/*****

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This was Fredric March’s fifth and final Oscar nomination. He did not win. He previously won in 1931 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ) and in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.

In this production of Arthur Miller’s play, Willy Loman (Fredric March) is portrayed as a complete lunatic, something which disgusted the playwright. I spent much of the film wondering if I was supposed to feel something for this character or see some depth in him beyond the fact that he is insane? Because I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t see it. The film also inserts the flashbacks sloppily. I suppose that these flashbacks were supposed to demonstrate Willy’s descent into insanity, but they were integrated (or, rather, not integrated) into the story in such a way that they were frustrating. Regardless, this performance is lifeless and, quite frankly, boring.

Ultimately, I felt nothing watching this film, save boredom, and I would not watch it again. If I were in a high school English class reading Death of a Salesman and the teacher showed us this film, I would probably throw darts at a picture of that English teacher.

Just for fun, of course.

4. Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory ***/*****

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This was Arthur Kennedy’s first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role throughout his career but never won.

I had never heard of Bright Victory, which tells the story of Sergeant Larry Nevens, who is blinded by a German Sniper during World War II. Kennedy gives a fine performance as Nevens, who, when we first meet him, is cocky and unlikable. As Nevens comes to grips with his injury, however, Kennedy creates a character whom you feel sympathetic toward and whose fate you care about. Kennedy is especially effective in the first half of the film, before Nevens becomes too comfortable with himself as a blind man, particularly in the scene in which he tries to commit suicide after first learning of his permanent blindness and a later scene when he calls his parents and finally tells them the seriousness of his injury. Less effective, however, is the film’s subplot dealing with racism. While traveling to Valley Forge Hospital with other wounded soldiers, Nevens converses with another black soldier. When he realizes the soldier is black, he asks the nurse to sit by him instead. Nevens’ racism arises again when he befriends another blind soldier (who happens to be black) in the hospital and uses a racial slur casually one day, not knowing the race of his friend. There is silence, and instead of further conversation or exploration of his offense, the scene ends with the two parting ways. While this is later resolved, the entire subplot seems half-formed and leaves you wanting a more meaningful exploration of the issue.

Overall, however, this was a good performance in a good film. Good–not great, but by no means poor.

3. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen ****/*****

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Humphrey Bogart received his second Oscar nomination for The African Queen. This was his only Oscar win. He was nominated two additional times, previously in 1943 for Casablanca and again in 1954 for The Caine Mutiny.

Some detractors may claim that Bogart’s win for The African Queen was the Academy’s attempt to mask a “Best Actor” award as a “Lifetime Achievement” award, thereby remedying its mistake of not awarding him the award for Casablanca. And while I obviously think there were at least two actors more deserving of this award in 1951, I do not think that by any means was this award undeserved. Bogart is very, very endearing and effective in this film. I mean, look at him up there imitating the hippos and monkeys.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here: I initially watched The African Queen for Katharine Hepburn. I was never drawn to Bogart and thus never felt compelled to watch any of his films (although I had watched Sabrina). He was just kind of this old, gruff actor to me. So The African Queen was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, a major draw of this film and Bogart’s performance (for me, at least) is his chemistry with Katharine Hepburn. I love how at the start of the film the two characters have absolutely nothing in common but slowly build a relationship as the film progresses. Amidst World War I, Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Hepburn) are aboard The African Queen, a boat which they plan to convert into a torpedo boat and sink the enemy’s boat downstream–a plan suggested by Rose. Charlie, however, hoped that Rose would soon become discouraged and abandon the plan, but after they survive the first set of rapids, Rose becomes even more dedicated to their cause. She tells him, glossy-eyed, when he asks how she liked the rapids, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! I’ve only known such excitement a few times before, a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him!” Later, Charlie half-drunkenly reveals he never intended to complete their plan and insults Rose, who retaliates by branding him a liar and a coward–and promptly disposes of all the alcohol on board.

Then comes my favorite scene (outside of Bogart mimicking the hippos and monkeys, which is just fun) and one of Bogart’s best in the film.

Charlie attempts to apologize to Rose, by cleaning up his appearance (via shaving) and complimenting her. Rose completely ignores him, silently reading a book. Charlie grows frustrated, apologizes, and explains his actions, saying, “What ya bein’ so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in awhile–it’s only human nature.”

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” replies Rose.

Touché!

In this scene, Bogart is adroitly conciliatory, frustrated, angry, pleading, and begrudgingly submissive in the space of just a few minutes. Even though (in my opinion) there were more deserving performances in 1951, Bogart earned this Oscar for a very good performance.

2. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire *****/*****

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Brando received his first Oscar nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire. He did not win. He would be nominated an additional seven times (six Lead Actor nominations, one Actor in a Supporting Role) and won twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather, an honor (some might call it an offer) he refused.

Update: I am now writing this blog toothless and hairless because I pulled out all my teeth and all my hair trying to rank these last two performances. Now that you have that lovely image in your head, let’s talk about something slightly more pleasant and pretty.

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“What’s that?”

“Oh, those cats. ME-OW!”

(That’s what I say when I see your face.)

So.

Brando.

Marlon Brando.

What do you say about one of the greatest screen performances of all-time? What do you say about an actor who took a flat, detestable character and made him explosive, sensuous, and vulnerable? And what do you say when you learn that this actor was robbed of the Oscar (co-stars Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden were all nominees and winners in their respective acting categories)?

You don’t “say” anything, per se, you just sort of do this:

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It’s really not fair. He should have won.

Still, there’s one more performance that I think was maybe–just maybe–even better.

1. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun *****/*****

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This was Montgomery Clift’s second Oscar nomination. He did not win. He had been nominated in 1948 for The Search, would be nominated in 1953 for From Here to Eternity, and in 1961 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Judgement at Nuremberg. He never won, and that is an absolute travesty.

According to Patricia Bosworth’s biography of the actor, Clift sometimes imitated Charlie Chaplin’s “goofy, expectant smile” in the last frames of City Lights, which a spectator described: “It was fascinating to watch him become a different person without uttering a sound. He could capture the essence of a personality, a character, instantly and not only that, make you experience a rush of emotion–and you had no idea how he did it.” Bosworth quotes a film director later observing this same technique, stating, “Montgomery Clift knows how to use silence and fill it up.”

And this is exactly what he does in A Place in the Sun. 

Clift portrays George Eastman, an ambitious young man who attempts to earn his own “place in the sun” by working his way up through his wealthy uncle’s prestigious company. Along the way, though, he falls in love with two women: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a fellow factory worker in the company and Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy socialite. George and Alice’s romance must remain a secret, as it is against company policy, but it quickly moves further into the shadows as George becomes acquainted with Angela. It becomes even more complicated, however, when Alice reveals to George that she is pregnant.

Stop reading if you’ve never seen this film (watch it) and don’t want to be spoiled.

The only solution Alice and George are able to find is to marry and leave town and start a new life somewhere else, where nobody knows them. This plan, however, would thwart George’s designs for his “place in the sun.” He is also unwilling to give up Angela.

And so George plans (or does he?) to take Alice out in a boat on the lake and, knowing she cannot swim, drown her. As the two are in the boat, however, George begins to have second (and third…and fourth…) thoughts. In just a scene lasting just a few minutes, Clift expresses George’s contempt for Alice as she talks about what their married life would be like, then you see his face soften, feeling almost sorry for her, then you see him imagining drowning her, malice shining in his eyes, and he then again crumbles, unable to fathom going through with the murder. Clift faultlessly conveys this wrestling of emotions George has with himself–and he does it without uttering a single word. 

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It gives me goosebumps. It just might be Clift’s finest piece of acting–and that’s saying quite a lot.

But what follows is perhaps even more compelling and impressive acting by Clift. George is eventually arrested and put on trial for the murder of Alice. The film leaves it unclear whether George truly and maliciously murdered Alice Tripp. During the trial, George testifies that he could not go through with the murder and that he was thinking of someone else (Angela) while he and Alice were on that boat, not of murdering Alice, and that her death was an accident. You believe him. Clift makes you believe him. You believe him so much that when George is grilled by the prosecuting attorney, who declares, “You pushed that poor girl into the lake and watched her drown. Isn’t that the truth?” You sit there, shouting at the screen, “No! No, it isn’t! That isn’t the truth! He isn’t a murderer!” And you get so mad at that stinking lawyer, you just want to stick your tongue out at him. Or something slightly more menacing.

And then you remember…George Eastman is just a character. Montgomery Clift is an actor. This is just a movie.

But that is a testament to the power of Clift’s acting and skill. And that is what ultimately compels me to rank his performance at the top of this list.

But then I have a soft spot for Montgomery Clift.

I can’t believe he never won an Oscar.

I mean, shouldn’t he have at least got a special Oscar for that face?

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Lord have mercy.

Well, there you have it. In 1951, the Academy awarded Humphrey Bogart the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But I would have given it to Montgomery Clift. Or Marlon Brando. Or Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Oh, think of all the beautiful photos of those two holding their awards together that could have been!

Now do I not only have no teeth, no hair, but I am officially just a puddle of nothing. Melted by visions of Brando and Clift. I must say, writing this blog post has done wonders for my complexion.

Okay. See ya next time.

(Note: This is a topic I may revisit occasionally–examining and ranking a given year’s nominees in Best Actor/Supporting Actor, Best Actress/Supporting Actress, Best Picture, although I doubt I will ever watch every Oscar-nominated film/performance ever because there are some films I have no desire to ever, ever watch, and I hope to someday have a life. I wouldn’t count on the latter ever happening, though.)