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.

burt lancaster & deborah kerr - from here to eternity 1953

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.

Five Favorite Montgomery Clift Performances

The Oscars are next week and just to give you an indication of how incredibly vacuous and self-congratulatory the ceremony will be, George Clooney is nominated for Best Actor. I mean, it’s not exactly Marlon Brando for The Godfather, is it?

Once upon a time, though, Montgomery Clift was nominated for an Oscar. Four times. He never won–unjustly so–but his performances inspired countless actors: Brando, Dean,   Pacino, de Niro. And on and on. He did not die young, an immortal idol like James Dean; he died at home quietly, alone, aged 45. He did not remain an enduring film star like Cary Grant or John Wayne, dying with just seventeen films to his name. And so he is often forgotten–but only by those who have never witnessed one of his indelible performances, each one marked by his exceptional talent, vulnerability, and intensity.

This list could easily encompass all his films because Montgomery Clift never committed a mediocre performance to film. But here they are–my five favorite Montgomery Clift performances.

Honorable Mention: Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961) 

Montgomery Clift, Judgment at Nuremberg

“I want that you tell me was she feeble-minded? My Mother! Was she feeble-minded? Was she?!”

OK, so I fibbed a bit. There’s six films on this list. Five was just way too constrictive.

Clift appears in a mere seventeen minutes of Stanley Kramer’s 186-minute film about four judges who executed Nazi sterilization and “cleansing” policies. The film boasts an all-star cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, and Spencer Tracy, but Clift’s performance eclipses them all. He portrays a sterilized Jewish man, Rudolph Peterson, who claims the Nazis sterilized him because of his family’s political affiliations. During cross-examination, however, the defense alleges the reason for his sterilization was his genetic “feeble-mindedness.” Peterson’s vigorous, heart-wrenching reaction to the charge is unforgettable, as he holds up a photograph of his mother and asks the court if she was feeble-minded.

Clift struggled to remember his lines; Spencer Tracy reportedly told Clift to play the scene to him, and that is the take that appears on film. Director Stanley Kramer states that he instructed Clift to ad lib, a way to convey the character’s confusion, and that helped calm and drive Clift to his performance. Criticisms that the shambling behavior Clift exhibits in the film (parodied here by Martin Short) are indicative of his drug addiction are ridiculous; Clift appears a mess because his character is a mess. The fragmented sentences, the broken syntax, the trembling hands show that the character of Peterson is not in control of his physical or mental state. The actor, however, despite all his personal turmoil, is.

Actress Nancy Walker and her husband, who were close friends of Clift, reportedly got up and left the theatre after Clift’s scene, Walker declaring that nothing else in the film could possibly surpass what they just saw. Too true.

Clift received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for this film–this time as Best Supporting Actor. George Chakiris won the award for his performance in West Side Story. If anyone needed further proof that the Oscars is a sham, that’s it.

5. The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 

Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, The Heiress (1949)

I want that you tell me this dude is a fortune hunter. Look how utterly disappointed he looks that Catherine is dancing with some old guy. Come on!

 Ah, my first Montgomery Clift film, you will always be very near and dear to my heart. I wanted to watch an Olivia de Havilland film that wasn’t, you know, Gone with the Wind, and so I found The Heiress and was completely enchanted by Clift and his performance.

Based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, it is the story of Catherine Sloper (de Havilland), a plain yet wealthy young woman, who comes under the spell of the charming and handsome Morris Townsend (Clift). Is he truly in love with her or is he simply after her money? Clift’s performance is so infuriatingly convincing, I’ll never be completely persuaded. He apparently hated his performance (here’s a photo of him watching the rushes of the film), however, and he was criticized for appearing too “modern.” Sorry, I missed that.

'Stached Monty, The Heiress

Important lesson I learned from this film: if you want to age someone seven years, just give them a ‘stache. It does wonders. 

The bigger villain in the story (to me, at least), though, is Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who constantly belittles his daughter for being so plain, awkward, and unlike her dead graceful mother. He threatens to disinherit her if she defies him by marrying Townsend, whom he believes to be a fortune hunter. He is perhaps more responsible for the transformation we see Catherine undergo–a chilling performance that earned de Havilland her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

Clift’s performance, though, sticks with me. You’ll never convince me he was just a greedy fortune hunter. You just won’t.

4. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

Montgomery Clift & Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”

After The Heiress, this was the next Clift film I watched, and I remember wondering if this guy was ever going to stop fooling me into thinking that these dirtbags (?? I’ll never be completely convinced!!) were actually innocent, decent people.

Clift portrays George Eastman, a poor relation of a wealthy industrialist who takes an entry-level factory job at one of his uncle’s facilities. His rich family treat him as an outsider, but Eastman is eager to impress them and works hard to advance in the company. He also begins a relationship with fellow factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a breach of workplace policies, until he meets socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), with whom he immediately falls in love. The fact that Alice is pregnant and expects Eastman to marry her, however, complicates the situation.

Eastman takes Alice out on a boat, intending to drown her. He loses his nerve, and Alice stands up in the boat, falling into the water. Does Eastman really drown her or does he simply watch her die, refusing to help her? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

This was the first of three films that paired Taylor and Clift. To promote the film, the studio arranged to have Taylor accompany Clift to the premiere of The Heiress. Clift reportedly had no idea who Taylor was and dreaded the evening, but the pair instantly became lifelong friends once they met.

A Place in the Sun was Taylor’s first foray into more serious, dramatic films. Clift helped shape her performance, which was hailed as the best of her career at the time. This–extracting the best performance out of other actors–was to become a pattern, another testament to his extraordinary talent.

This film earned Clift his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Marlon Brando was also nominated that year for A Streetcar Named Desire. Both actors thought the other would win the award. Humphrey Bogart, instead, won for The African Queen.

3. The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)

Montgomery Clift, The Young Lions

“I want to say something to you. I’m not opinionated. I don’t think I have a single opinion in the whole world. I don’t know why I kissed you–I just couldn’t help it, I guess. I guess I wanted to impress you. I was afraid if I was myself, you wouldn’t look at me twice.”

After suffering a disfiguring car accident in 1956, Clift was unsure whether he still had a future as an actor. The Young Lions was his first post-accident film, and it proved unequivocally that yes, Montgomery Clift could still act. Or, at least, it proved it to me. People in 1958 were somewhat unsure and apparently brain-dead.

The Young Lions, based on Irwin Shaw’s acclaimed novel of the same name, tells the stories of three soldiers in World War II: Lieutenant Christian Diestl (a blonde Marlon Brando), a German officer who gradually loses his faith in the Nazi cause, Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a show business coward who eventually wants to prove himself, and Noah Ackerman (Clift), a Jewish soldier who suffers bigotry in the military.

Clift, as always, underwent rigorous preparation for the role. His weight dropped to 130 pounds, and he used putty to augment his nose and ears. He is absolutely heartbreaking as the shy and sensitive Ackerman. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Ackerman meets a girl, Hope (Hope Lange), at a party and accompanies her home. He clumsily kisses her, and she slaps him. He turns, embarrassed and ashamed, to return home, only to turn back to ask her for directions. It’s incredibly endearing. Ackerman bears many similarities to another soldier Clift portrayed, Private Robert Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Both are resistant to conformity and refuse to succumb to the abuse of others. Ackerman, though, suffers extreme prejudice in a military professing to fight intolerance abroad.

Touted as rivals throughout the 1950s, Brando and Clift actually had great respect and admiration for each other. Brando wrote in his autobiography that he considered Clift a friend and a very good actor. This was the only film in which they both appear, although unfortunately they never share any scenes. (You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found this out…oh, about halfway through the film.) During filming, they apparently avoided one another–understandable, considering they had very different approaches to acting. Clift completely immersed himself in a role, endlessly debating how a character should say a certain line, where their eyes should focus their attention, how they should open a door. Brando could waste literally hours of film trying to figure out what direction he wanted to take with a scene, and he rarely bothered to learn his lines. Clift remarked that Brando was “sloppy” during filming. Brando was concerned about Clift’s growing alcohol and drug addiction, going so far as to offer to attend Alcohol Anonymous meetings with him. Clift privately appreciated the gesture deeply but publicly retorted that didn’t Brando have his own problems (i.e. Brando’s notorious weight fluctuations)?

The Young Lions was an important film for Dean Martin, who was looking to revitalize his career after his professional split from Jerry Lewis. Once again, Clift helped a fellow actor give one of his best performances. Clift also admired his own work; he considered the role and resulting performance his favorite, and he secretly felt it would earn him his fourth Oscar nomination. Following the premiere, his fellows actors congratulated him on his riveting portrayal, but none of them could hide the one condemnatory review that would crush Clift. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Clift is strangely hollow and lackluster as the sensitive Jew. He acts throughout the picture as if he were in a glassy-eyed daze.” (Obviously, he and I did not watch the same film.)

Clift broke down, telling friends, “Noah Ackerman was the greatest performance of my life. I couldn’t have given more. I’ll never be able to do it again. Ever.”

Sadly, I don’t think he ever really did.

2. From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” 

Forget Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smoochin’ on the beach, Montgomery Clift’s Private Robert Prewitt is what makes this film. Prewitt, like Ackerman of The Young Lions, is tough, principled, a loner, an outsider rejected by the thing he loves most (the Army). Watching him suffer through “the treatment” he endures because of having made the (right) choice to adhere to his principles makes you cringe with pain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role except Clift, who was not the first choice (Aldo Ray was). He took boxing and bugling lessons, although he knew his playing would eventually have to be dubbed for the film. He wanted his breathing and fingering to be completely realistic. Two of my favorite scenes in the film involve Clift playing the bugle–in the bar when he grabs the bugle from some punk and says, “Why don’t you learn to bugle?” and shows him how it’s really done, and playing “Taps” after the death of Maggio.

From Here to Eternity earned Clift his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Clift had not been overly concerned about winning the previous two, but by all accounts he really wanted to win this time around and was deeply disappointed when he lost to William Holden for Stalag 17. He reportedly said, “What do I have to do to prove I can act?”

Clift did not lose because Holden was a better actor who gave a better performance. It was mathematics. From Here to Eternity had more votes for Best Actor than any other film. Burt Lancaster, though, was also nominated for Best Actor and because so many members voted for him as well as Clift, the votes cancelled each other out. Further proof that math sucks.

Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, though, both won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively. As before, Clift helped to drive them to perform. He and Sinatra, who was desperate to prove himself as an actor, became especially good friends. After winning his Oscar, Sinatra said, “I wanted to thank Monty Clift personally. I learned more about acting from Clift—it was equal to what I learned about musicals from Gene Kelly.”

Similarly, Donna Reed said of Clift: “I had never worked with any actor like him; to watch him was incredible and memorable. He had a talent and a side to our profession I had never seen before, just superb.”

Never seen before, never seen since.

1. The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

Montgomery Clift, The Search

“You have no idea how useful it’s gonna be for you to know English. You can go wherever you like–everybody knows what OK means. You can use English all over the world, not just America–Canada, Africa, Australia, India, even in England they understand English. Well, sort of.”

It was difficult to determine which Montgomery Clift performance is truly my favorite. As stated previously, any and all of his films could top this list. (Except maybe Freud, which is just extremely turgid and excruciating to watch, partly because I know what the film did to Clift as a person.) I ultimately chose The Search, his film debut (although Red River was filmed first, its release was delayed due to legal issues), because there is something so inexplicably pure and genuine in his performance as an army engineer, Steve, who tries to help a young child (Ivan Jandl), left orphaned and homeless by the war, learn English and find his mother.

Clift had a deep connection with children, friends said, not because he talked to them or treated them as children but because he treated them as fellow human beings. They instantly flocked to him and he to them. His scenes with Jandl, who spoke no English at the time of the film and memorized his dialogue phonetically, are unbelievably endearing. My favorite scene in the entire film is when Steve first tries to teach Jim “yes” and “no.” Just when Steve is about to give up all hope, Jim says no, and Steve excitedly asks him, “Am I genius or am I not?”

“No,” Jim says.

“OK. OK. But look, lad, the answer should have been yes!”

It’s one of the most adorable things in the world.

There are so many films about World War II, but this is one of my favorites because it tells such a different, heartwarming story. Director Fred Zinnemann allowed Clift a considerable amount of control over the script, and Clift remembered the experience of creative freedom fondly. It would remain one of his favorite roles, and it earned him his very first Oscar nomination.

He, of course, lost to Laurence Olivier for Hamlet.

Do yourself a favor–instead of watching the bland Oscars next weekend, watch Montgomery Clift put all the others to shame. Because he can act.