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.

Two Takes on Sabrina

Remakes get the shaft, man. They face the fiercest competition of all in the film world: the original. The sacred, untouchable original starring the legendary, flawless actors with the letter-perfect script and astute director. So don’t touch it, film world! But they do. And sometimes it works out okay. And sometimes it doesn’t. But there are always comparisons to the original. And while there is almost always criticism of any film, the criticism of a remake is frequently rooted in its failure to meet the standards set by that untouchable original. “The original is always better,” is often the resounding sentiment when it comes to remakes.

Sabrina tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild, the awkward daughter of a chauffeur of the wealthy Larrabee family. She’s hopelessly in love with the Larrabee’s younger son, David, a handsome, carefree playboy who barely acknowledges her existence. She goes to Paris to try to forget him, returns as a beautiful woman, and David subsequently falls in love with her. David, however, is supposed to soon be marrying the daughter of another business tycoon, and older brother Linus, the shrewd businessman, hopes the marriage will secure a merger between the two companies. To keep the marriage and merger intact, Linus intervenes and romances Sabrina–and ends up falling in love with her himself (even though he doesn’t realize it). And poor Sabrina doesn’t know which Larrabee she’s in love with anymore. It is nothing short of a modern fairy tale.

Sabrina, derived from the stage play Sabrina Fair, was twice made into a major film, in 1954 by Billy Wilder and again in 1995 by Sydney Pollack. But which take was better?

Take #1: Billy Wilder, 1954 sabrina1954

Humphrey Bogart. Audrey Hepburn. William Holden. (Even the extras in this film turned out to be Hollywood legends, you know.) This film should ooze screen presence. Does it?

As lauded as this film was, Bogart was often cited as being “too old” for the part. (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice to play the part. Grant rejected the part, as he was temporarily retired at the time.) I don’t agree with that criticism; Bogart’s performance is probably my favorite in the film.

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“Look at me–Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” Love this guy.

Bogart does a great job of portraying Linus’s businesslike approach to “dealing with” Sabrina. When he is first sent to handle the situation, you know he is doing it for business reasons, but then he kisses Sabrina so forcefully as only Bogart can that you begin to wonder. But then he complains the next day to his father about having to set aside work to take Sabrina on a date for the day, and you’re again unsure of his intentions. And so Bogart keeps you questioning Linus’s motives throughout the whole movie: Is this just business? Or has he already fallen in love with her? And you can’t be 100% sure until the film’s final minute.

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Bogart, though, reportedly had nothing but disdain for his costars. He nicknamed William Holden “Smiling Jim” and when asked how he liked working with Audrey Hepburn, he replied, “It’s OK, if you don’t mind to make 20 takes.” Ouch!

This disdain doesn’t translate to the screen, however. Admittedly, there is little chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart–but just enough, just enough to make the relationship believable, just enough to keep you hoping that Sabrina will choose Linus over David.

Oh, David. How could anyone choose David?

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Okay, if Bogart was considered “too old,” then what exactly was Holden? His age (Holden was 36 when the film was released–and he looks it) is more noticeable, distracting even, than Bogart’s. Linus is supposed to be older, wiser, more responsible. David is supposed to be young, dashing, carefree. Holden doesn’t exactly embody the debonair, handsome playboy as well as another actor might have, making it somewhat difficult to understand Sabrina’s obsession with him, but he does a fair job. (Maybe I’m just not a fan of Holden. I’ve never been blown away by his performances.)

The central role of the film, though, is of course Sabrina.

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When we first meet Sabrina, she’s hidden in a tree, spying wistfully on the Larrabee family hosting one of their spectacular parties. She is awkward and so obsessed with David that she even attempts suicide. She’s also supposed to be an “ugly duckling,” but I doubt all the makeup and wardrobe experts in the world could ever successfully transform Audrey Hepburn into an ugly duckling.

Through her trip to Paris (in this version, she attends a cooking school–hello, 1950s!), Sabrina matures and gains confidence. The audience is shown little of her time in Paris–we see her disastrous first cooking experience and the beginnings of a friendship with a sweet old man, but that’s it. Instead of being shown how she grows and changes, we are simply told via Sabrina’s letters home to her father. So when she returns home as a sophisticated woman, it’s difficult to swallow. It is a classic example of telling and not showing.

In this version, Sabrina comes very close to crossing the line from naive to flat-out annoying. Her obsession with David is not only sickening but bemusing. What is so great about David? He has…Actually, I can’t think of any redeeming quality that David may possess. He certainly is not worth locking yourself in the garage and turning on all twelve cars the Larrabee family owns. Get a grip, girl. Perhaps Bogart had a point when he criticized Hepburn’s acting–she certainly isn’t as endearing as I used to think she was.

Overall, though, this is a good film. The actors play their parts well, some more effectively than others, and even if aspects of it are painfully dated, it is still a sweet story and a very enjoyable film.

Take #2: Sydney Pollack, 1995

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Sydney Pollack’s update of Billy Wilder’s classic is superbly acted, well-written, and enchanting. Even though it may seem impossible for another generation of actors to compete with the legendary stars of the original who inhabited their roles so iconically, this group of actors does it very well–in fact, I would even argue they do it better.

Let’s start with Sabrina. Julia Ormond arguably had the most difficult job of trying to recreate a role so indelibly linked with an actress as beloved as Audrey Hepburn. But she does it so well. Part of the power of Sabrina in Pollack’s version is she is given more depth, more strength.

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She is just as awkward and googly-eyed about David as Hepburn’s Sabrina. But Ormond conveys this lack of grace and social skills so much more effectively. You really feel embarrassed for Sabrina as she confesses her love to David before leaving for Paris–and it turns out Linus is the one in David’s closet instead. (This is such a better way of allowing the audience see Linus and Sabrina interact for the first time than Linus’s discovery of Sabrina’s suicide attempt in the garage in the original.) You feel so, so, so, so bad for her as she struggles in Paris as a somewhat incompetent, inexperienced photographer’s assistant. Man, do you feel bad for her.

But then the photographer takes an interest in her, and you see her begin to change. She becomes more comfortable with herself, more confident, and she even discovers a passion: photography. She really does “find herself”–and the audience gets to see it, not just hear about it in a letter home.

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Yeah, Sabrina and this photographer go dancing in some club. It’s sooooooooo ’90s. Unwanted ’90s flashbacks aside, the transformation of Sabrina is so much more expansive and believable–and as a result, the character of Sabrina is more fully formed.

Now, in the original, I had a little trouble believing Sabrina could be so obsessed with David. There must be a deleted scene with Holden holding a voodoo doll or something. (Maybe I’ve watched Dark Shadows for too long.) But in this version, David Larrabee did a Gap Ad. Oh yeah. Take that, Holden.

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(And of course Sabrina had it on her wall in Paris.)

Greg Kinnear, only in his second feature film, embodies the character of David so much better than Holden. He actually is charming and handsome, sweeping girls off their feet, whereas Holden’s David just acted like he was all those things. Kinnear is the real deal, man.

The chemistry between Ormond and Kinnear is also superior to that of Hepburn and Holden–and the chemistry between Ormond and Harrison Ford is if not superior then definitely more palpable than that between Bogart and Hepburn.

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Have these people ever had their picture taken before?

Harrison Ford gives a great performance as the cold-hearted businessman, Linus Larrabee. The character of Linus is given more room to breathe in this version, as the father character is eliminated. The head of the Larrabee family was always breathing down Bogart’s neck and sticking his nose up at anyone who didn’t have a trust fund in Wilder’s version. Pollack instead has Linus as the successor to his father as the head of the family and the family business. With his father’s absence, you are given a better understanding of why Linus is the way he is–why he is so consumed by the family business and money and why he is so fixed in his day-to-day routine.

As well as Bogart did at showing the two sides of Linus’s personality–the cunning businessman and the softer, vulnerable side–Ford may just give a stronger performance. You see how far Linus is willing to go to seal a business deal, yet at the same time you have to convince yourself that he’s not in love with Sabrina and is romancing her only for the sake of a business deal.

Not only are the principal characters given more development and depth in Pollack’s film, the minor characters are stronger, too. David’s fiance is given a personality, a career, and you are able to see what initially drew him to her (and what ultimately draws him back). The dialogue is also stronger, wittier. “We were up to our elbows in your underwear drawer. It was like touching the Shroud of Turin.”

What really convinced me that Pollack’s version was superior to Wilder’s wasn’t so much the strength of the story or the development of the characters, however. It was actually the fact that THIS ONE GUY is in it:

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What’s up, Paul Giamatti?

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He basically does two things in this movie: eats and smokes. But it’s still awesome. And in this case, it seals the deal that the remake is indeed superior to the original.