Friday, July 12, 2013

Overlooked by Oscars: Top Men

My absolutely fabulous longtime friend, Dominic, and I have bonded over classic films ever since we met in college.

This week, he asked me to come up with a list of "5 greatest performances that didn't get an Oscar or even as Oscar nomination."  Oh, my, my, my.  I've previously done blog pieces on actors or films "Overlooked by Oscars."  But Dom gave me a fun challenge.  So, for now, here's my list of 5 Great Performances Overlooked for a Best Actor Oscar Nomination.  Of course, there are more but these are 5 that came to mind and I don't have time right now to make a bigger list.  I'm still job hunting.

1.  Andy Griffith for A Face in the Crowd (1957):  If you only knew the beloved TV actor from his homespun sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show or from solving murders as Matlock on his other TV series, you need to rent this movie immediately.  His work will leave burn marks on your mind.  Andy Griffith gave one of the most scorching, bold, intense, memorable movie performances of the 1950s as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes.
He's a hard-drinking, babe-chasing country drifter with a folksy way of telling a story.  He's discovered for a local radio show then skyrockets to network TV stardom using anyone he can. He's got no scruples.  He's not nearly as nice as his TV host image.

He's really a menace to society with dark political ambitions.  He's drunk on his own power and popular with politicians because of his influence on television.  Lonesome roars, "This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!" Before Network, director Elia Kazan gave us this blistering drama about television and the power of the medium.  Patricia Neal co-starred as the person Lonesome uses the most.  Andy Griffith was never nominated for an Oscar.

2.  Edward G. Robinson for Little Caesar (1931):  Right up there with James Cagney's stunning performance as the gangster in The Public Enemy, Robinson truly gave a killer performance as Rico, the gangster called "Little Caesar."  He showed us the ruthlessness and humanity in the man, letting us see that we share all the same emotions.  It's us to us as to what we do with them in society.  Unlike Oscar-winner Cagney, Edward G. Robinson was never nominated for an Academy Award in his long, acclaimed film career.

When Caesar Enrico Bandello is shot by rivals, Edward G. Robinson gave us a now-famous movie line:  "Mother of Mercy.  Is this the end of Rico?"

3.  Anton Walbrook for The Red Shoes (1948):  Not one wasted gesture as Lermontov, the elegantly glacial impresario of a famed ballet company.  He gets what he wants.  He admires talent. He's obsessed with ballet.  For him,  "it is a religion." Boris Lermontov was probably a dancer once himself. A children's story inspired this original screenplay.

Those who dance for him must feel the same.  They must be obsessed with ballet, more so than matters of romance and marriage.  He's also obsessed with turning Hans Christian Andersen's fable into a ballet.  He's found the perfect ballerina to star in his production.  Lermontov discovers Vicky Page.  For her, dancing is also a religion.  He's determined to turn her into one of the greatest dancers the world has ever known.  But, unexpectedly, love enters in the form of the company's composer.  There's anger and jealousy.  Boris Lermontov warns, "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer.  Never!"  Vicky is a great dancer.  We see that.  We also see that Boris has broken one of his sacred rules.  He's one of the two men in love with her.  His passionate inner monster will break through the outer shell of the reserved ballet company director in a rage.  Vicky's in torment.  He wants her to "dance like nobody ever before."  Blood will be shed.  The dark side of talent and ambition.  Anton Walbrook was brilliant in this British film.  He was never nominated for an Oscar.

4.  James Mason for Lolita (1962):  He never won, but Mason did get Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations in his career.  In Lolita, he gave one of best movie performances of the 1960s that did not get an Oscar nomination.  He's funny, pathetic, mean, manipulative yet clueless and -- above all -- very human as the intellectual whose lust makes him pursue something he shouldn't.  A controversial Kubrick film adapted from an equally controversial novel.  Mason is excellent in this challenging role.  To me, Mason's Professor Humbert is his best screen performance in a lead role.

His career started in Great Britain.  Mason was doing lead roles in British films by 1939.  The stellar reviews he got for Carol Reed's acclaimed 1947 British political thriller, Odd Man Out, were noticed by Hollywood too.  In the late '40s/1950s, he really hit big in Hollywood with films that included MGM's East Side, West Side (1949) co-starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner and Nancy Reagan (yes, that Nancy Reagan),  Julius Caesar (1953) starring Marlon Brando, A Star Is Born with Judy Garland (1954), Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959).  His first Oscar nomination came for Best Actor A Star Is Born.  Next was Best Supporting Actor for Georgy Girl (1966).  His last Oscar nomination came for Best Supporting Actor in The Verdict (1982).   Mason was amazing in that legal drama starring Paul Newman.  Hollywood should have honored him with a special lifetime achievement Oscar.

5.  Fred Astaire for The Band Wagon (1953):  The Master at the top of his game in one of the best musicals directed by Vincente Minnelli.  Comedy is hard work.  Musical comedy is even harder.  But rarely does an actor get an Oscar nomination for the lead role in a musical unless tragedy is involved.  Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956), Ron Moody in Oliver! (1968) and Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables (2012) were all Oscar nominees for musicals that had a heartbreaking death in the last act.  Gene Kelly, who generously and often mentioned the artistic debt he owed to Fred Astaire, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Anchors Aweigh (1945), a musical comedy with a happy ending.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were a legendary screen team that starred in iconic original movie musical comedies in the 1930s.  Her one and only Oscar nomination came for the feminist drama, Kitty Foyle (1940).  She won.  Astaire's one and only Oscar nomination came for his supporting role surviving disaster in The Towering Inferno (1974), also a drama.  He should've been in the Best Actor Oscar race for this Minnelli gem.  Astaire played the Hollywood musical comedy veteran of 1930s classics, nervously attempting to reinvent him in a new Broadway musical after three years of movie unemployment.  West Coast movie columnists consider entertainer Tony Hunter (Astaire) a has-been.  He takes it all in stride as he sings a breezy rendition of "By Myself."
He's intimidated by the pretentious but good-natured director as he watches him on Broadway star in a Greek tragedy revival that he also directed.  Lovable Tony Hunter is also sensitive about his age and height.  He's got a temper.  There's misunderstanding and conflict with his leading lady, a young ballet star.  We know they'll fall in love while everybody tries to fix The Band Wagon after a disastrous out of town preview.

Astaire did reinvent himself with this musical.  He did one of the most sublime numbers of his film career with Cyd Charisse, his co-star.  It's the "Dancing in the Dark" number.
The movie ends with the celebrated "Girl Hunt" jazz ballet, a send-up of Mickey Spillane novels popular at the time.  This number, with Tony Hunter narrating/dancing the role of private eye Rod Riley, is a knock-out.  Cyd Charisse was simply extraordinary.
That jazz ballet shines with the brilliant, complicated choreography by Michael Kidd.  It's one of Astaire's most athletic numbers.  And he was in early 50s when he did it.  Another mark of Astaire's mastery in musicals -- he danced in character.  It wasn't just a number like on Dancing With The Stars.  He danced in character with attention to the emotions of the scene and the words of the song.  This detail of acting while dancing inspired John Travolta when he made Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 hit film that brought him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  (And somebody dies in that disco movie.)

Fred Astaire was presented a special Oscar in 1950 for his contributions to the art of film musicals.  I'd have given him a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Band Wagon.

 As the song he introduced in The Band Wagon says, "THAT'S entertainment."


  1. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen them all. Some classic film fan I am. But as usual you make me want to catch them all and I will. Thanks Bobby!

  2. Start with Andy Griffith in Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD.

  3. Stunning list Bobby. Your #1 has to make you scratch your head. Edward G. is perhaps the best actor never to get a nomination. Mason was just right as Humbert Humbert, the professor lusting after a young girl. The moment when he first lays eyes on Lolita, you immediately see the lust and excitement in Mason's eyes. It's a perfect piece of acting and one of my favorites. I can't wait to read your female list tomorrow night!

    1. By the way, when I said scratch your head, I meant scratch your head as to how the Academy could not honor Griffith with a nomination, not because of why you chose that as your #1 pick. I didn't want you to misinterpret my comment.

  4. Thomas! That moment when Mason as Humbert first lays eyes on Lolita...and we hear Charlotte (Shelley Winters) say " cherry pie" is just brilliant. And Mason got only 1 Best Actor nomination in all those decades of excellence. It's still hard to believe that Edward G. Robinson didn't get any kind of Oscar nomination at all.

  5. Edward G. was given an Honorary Oscar, but posthumously, though. I really hate it when the Academy does that. It's basically their way of saying, "Sorry Edward G., we screwed up royally by never giving you an Oscar, let alone a nomination." The fact that it was given to him after his death makes it even more obvious.

  6. Would only add Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. Utterly terrifying.



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