Sunday, 2 March 2014

Three Pivotal Roles for Which Actors Did Not Receive Oscars

There are perhaps only a few subjects that classic film buffs enjoy debating more than the Oscars. We can spend hours debating which films should not have won Best Picture, which directors and actors were snubbed, and so on. When it comes to the Academy Awards, often it seems classic film buffs tend to focus on those times when the Academy "got it wrong". Indeed, last night I started thinking about the lead actor and actress categories and instances in which the most deserving actor either was not nominated or did not win. I narrowed this down to what I think could be the some of the gravest "miscarriages of justice" with regards to the Best Actor and Best Actress categories on the part of the Academy. These are three instances in which an actress lost an Oscar for what was the greatest performance of her career, an actress was nominated for entirely for the wrong role one year, and an actor who was not nominated for his best known role.

Of course, the instance that came to my mind in which an actress did not receive an Oscar for what was her greatest role is also one of the most notorious cases of what many consider the best performance of the year losing an Academy Award. As all classic film buffs know, at the 27th Academy Awards Judy Garland, who had been nominated for her role as  Vicki Lester in A Star is Born (1954), lost the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1954). Even then there was a good deal of controversy over Grace Kelly's win, with many maintaining that it was Judy Garland who truly deserved the award. Indeed, no less than Groucho Marx would call Judy Garland's loss of the Academy Award for Best Actress, "the biggest robbery since Brink's."

Reportedly the vote for Best Actress was very close that year. According to Hedda Hopper at the time it was the closest Oscar vote to not end in a tie, with only six votes separating Miss Garfield and Miss Kelly.
As surprising as Judy Garland losing the Oscar for Best Actress is, it is perhaps even more surprising that A Star is Born won no Oscars, even though it was nominated for six awards (including Best Actor in a Leading Role for James Mason; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; Best Costume Design, Colour; Best Music, Original Song for "The Man That Got Away"; and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture).

Today for many, perhaps most classic film fans, it seems incredible that Judy Garland lost the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her part in A Star is Born. While it is not Miss Garland's most famous role (that would be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), I rather suspect that the vast majority of film buffs consider Judy Garland's performance as Vicki Lester in A Star is Born as the greatest performance of her career. Indeed, I rather suspect some might well regard it as one of the greatest performances of all time. It is then difficult to understand how she lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly.

It seems likely that much of it might have had to do with the performance of A Star is Born at the box office. At the time A Star is Born was one of the costliest films ever made, its budget winding up over $5 million. Unfortunately, it only made $6,100,000 at the box office, hardly enough to pay for itself. The perception of A Star is Born as a box office failure may have had an impact upon Judy Garland's chances at winning the Best Actress award. At the same time it seems possible that Grace Kelly was not actually receiving the Oscar for her performance in The Country Girl, but for her performance in Rear Window from the prior year. Giving what some consider the best performance of her career in Rear Window, Grace Kelly was not even nominated for an Oscar for the film. It then seems possible that part of the reason Judy Garland lost the Oscar for Best Actress at the 27th Academy Awards was because the Academy felt guilty that Grace Kelly had not even been nominated for Rear Window!

At least Judy Garland was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role in A Star is Born. In another instance an actress was nominated for Best Actress, but for entirely the wrong film. Ask anyone to name one of Ingrid Bergman's roles and odds are very good that they will name Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942). It is definitely her most famous role and I suspect even many classic film buffs would consider it one of her best performances. Indeed, there are many who believe Casablanca to be one of the greatest films of all time. It won the Oscars for Best Picture; Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay for the year 1943. It also received nominations in for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Humphrey Bogart and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Claude Rains. Despite this, Ingrid Bergman would not receive a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Casablanca.

Of course, that did not mean that Ingrid Bergman was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. She was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but for her role as Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) instead. I am sure that I am not alone when I say that it seems preposterous that Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls instead Casablanca. Indeed, it is not simply a case that Ilsa Lund in Casablanca is Miss Bergman's best known role, as identified with her as Scarlett O'Hara is with Vivien Leigh or the second Mrs. de Winter is with Joan Fontaine. It is more a case that Ingrid Bergman gave a truly fine performance in Casablanca while she gave what may have been one of the worst performances of her career in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Not only did Ingrid Bergman play the role of Maria in Whom the Bell Tolls much too broadly, she also endows the part with no depth or personality. While Ilsa Lund in Casablanca seems like a real, living, breathing woman, Maria seems more like an automaton. Worse yet, Ingrid Bergman was horribly miscast in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Maria is supposed to be a Spanish refugee, yet in the role Miss Bergman seems unmistakeably, inarguably Swedish.
 
I think most classic film buffs would agree with me that Ilsa Lund is not the greatest role of Ingrid Bergman's career. I also think most classic film buffs would agree with me that it wasn't even the best performance of the year (that would be Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph for me), but I think most classic film fans would also agree with me that her performance in Casablanca is far better than her one in For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I also think that most classic film buffs would agree with me that Ingrid Bergman deserved a nomination for her role in Casablanca.

Given this, it is hard to explain why Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of Casablanca. I have to suspect part of it might have been a bit of snobbery on the part of the Academy. For Whom the Bell Tolls was based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway, who was already a highly regarded novelist. It might have also been due to the fact that For Whom the Bell Tolls simply made more money than Casablanca. Indeed, For Whom the Bell Tolls was the highest grossing film for the year. Regardless  For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated for nine Oscars, one more than Casablanca. In the end, however, it only won one Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for Katina Paxinou. Sadly, it would seem Ingrid Bergman would have had a better chance at winning the Oscar for Best Leading Actress had she been nominated for Casablanca instead!

Of course, at least Ingrid Bergman was nominated for an Oscar for a performance in 1943, even if it wasn't for the one she should have been. Alongside Mr. Thackeray in To Sir With Love (1967),  Sir Sidney Poitier's most famous role may well be that of Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. In fact, Sir Sidney Poitier was so successful in the role that he played Virgil Tibbs in two more films, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organisation (1971). There can be no doubt that Mr. Poitier's portrayal of Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night was responsible for much of the film's success. Indeed, In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Oscars. It won five, including the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Rod Steiger as Police Chief Bill Gillespie. Amazingly, among those nominations there was not one for Sir Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs.

The lack of a nomination for Sir Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs that year seems especially curious given Mr. Poitier had previously been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Defiant Ones (1959) and won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lilies of the Field (1963). Indeed, his win for Lilies of the Field made him the first African American to win the Best Actor award. Given his previous nominations it would have seemed that Sir Sidney Poitier would have been a sure bet to be nominated for In the Heat of the Night. Sadly, it appears he was not.

It is difficult to say why Sir Sidney Poitier was not nominated for In the Heat of the Night. I very seriously doubt it was because it was one of those rare films with two lead actors. The Academy could have easily have nominated both Rod Steiger and Sir Sidney Poitier. Indeed, it must be pointed out that The Defiant Ones also featured two lead actors and both (Sir Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) were nominated for the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Instead it seems quite possible that Sir Sidney Poitier may have lost out on an Oscar nomination for In the Heat of the Night simply due to his own success. If ever there was a year for Mr. Poitier, it was 1967. Not only did the year see the release of In the Heat of the Night, but To Sir with Love (1967) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) as well. It seems possible that any votes for Mr. Poitier in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role might have been divided between In the Heat of the Night and To Sir with Love. In other words, Sir Sidney Poitier lost out on a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role simply because he was too good.

While I don't think anyone can complain that Rod Steiger won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Chief Gillespie (he was amazing in the role), it seems to me that Sir Sidney Poitier should have been nominated in the category as well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that year the Best Actor category should have ended in a tie, with both Rod Steiger and Sir Sidney Poitier receiving the award. It is impossible for me to say whose performance is better and, in fact, I would say that the two roles play off each other so much that one really can't have one without the other. Of course, here I must point out that for the year 1967 Sir Sidney Poitier was not the only actor to lose out on an Oscar for what would be his signature role. Nominated for her role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), Anne Bancroft lost the Oscar for Best Actress to Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner...

Of course, Anne Bancroft's loss to Katharine Hepburn points to the fact that there are many more instances in which actors lost Oscars for what was their quintessential roles. While the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often awards those actors most of us would agree are most deserving, they also often fail to award those most of us agree who are most deserving. While in theory a truly great performance should be considered with regards to the acting awards, it is a sad fact that other factors can come into play as well. And it is when other factors come into play that situations such as Judy Garland losing the Oscar for A Star is Born occur.

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