Armchair Oscars – 1961

Best Picture

West Side Story (Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise)
The Nominees: Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg

Victim (Directed by Basil Dearden)
My Nominees:
The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson), Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer), Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan)


I am sorry to say, but I’m just not the world’s biggest fan of West Side Story. Generations have thrilled to this Romeo and Juliet tale set amid the racial tensions of Spanish Harlem but for me, I saw it, I enjoyed it but I couldn’t admit to myself that I thought it was a great cinema. I suppose that in 1961, in the midst of the civil rights movement, a movie which tries to boldly examine racial divisions seemed startlingly contemporary. But if you want a film from that year that really examines a controversial subject, I direct your attention to Basil Dearden’s Victim, the story of a British lawyer being blackmailed for his homosexual past.

Racial problems and the Civil Rights movement were major news in the early sixties but homosexuality was a subject no one discussed, not even in whispers. I am not saying that one subject is more important than the other, but for a film of this era to tackle such an issue was not only brave but was considered professional suicide.

The network of characters in the film is astonishing, most of them are victims of the blackmail and as Farr follows the trail of victims that lead to the blackmailers we see the effects of what has been done to them. The movie follows the trail, beginning with a penniless man named Barrett (Nigel McEnery). As the film opens, Barrett is on the run from the police for embezzlement and is attempting to get out of London. He tries various sources to gain the money to get out but mostly finds doors slammed in his face. The police close in and catch him in a men’s room attempting to flush pages from a scrapbook. The police piece the book back together and find that it contains clippings which follow the career of Melville Farr. Barrett had called Farr but he hung up

Farr had spoken to Barrett but hung up on the boy when he called him for help. He is startled when he is informed that Barrett hung himself in his jail cell. Why startled? Farr was in love with him.

Farr can’t hide the truth especially when a photograph shows up that was taken when he attempted to break off the relationship. His wife Laura, who knows about his past, senses immediately that something is going on and presses her husband to admit to truth. He admits that he never had physical contact with Barrett, that he broke off their affair when he sensed a sexual attraction. She understands that what he felt was stronger and (although the film never states it directly) he is more likely to love a man more than he could ever love her.

The way the screenplay unfolds this story is done entirely through words. There are no scenes of gay men cavorting; there are no scenes of sex, debauchery, no scenes of what is being explained. The physical acts of “perversion” are only spoken about, not in an over-the-top manner but in dialogue that is both direct and indirect. We understand what has gone on in the past, and we are given just enough dialogue to understand it but not overstate it. We aren’t positive that sex ever happened between Barrett, and Farr but we know that the attraction was there.

I was also struck by some of the characters in the film. There are two or three characters who seem accept Farr’s past without ever granting an overt approval. There is the police detective who reads the Barrett situation almost immediately and tells one of his young disapproving sergeant that “If the law punished every abnormality, we’d be kept very busy.” There is another scene at the very end when Farr’s assistant William tells him that he has respected him for 10 years and does not intend to change his opinion. But the most striking is the last scene between Farr and his wife Laura when they agree upon their relationship, but it becomes a moment dictated by their personalities, not by the machinations of the plot.

The characters set Victim apart from other films of this type. At the time (and for many years to come), movies about homosexual characters were dark tragedies which had one inevitable conclusion: a grisly death. Here, Melville Farr does not end up dead, does not end up going down the road of his own destruction, he has people around him who are willing to help but never seem overtly willing to accept who he once was.

Best Actor

Maximilian Schell (
Judgement at Nuremberg)
The Nominees: Charles Boyer (Fanny), Paul Newman (The Hustler), Spencer Tracy (Judgment at Nuremberg), Stuart Whitman (The Mark)

Vincent Price  (The Pit and the Pendulum
My Nominees:
Marcello Mastoianni (La Dolce Vita), Paul Newman (The Hustler)


Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of Abby Mann’s teleplay Judgment at Nuremberg was a film packed with faces familiar to American audiences. Here in the same film was Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner and Werner Klemperer (a.k.a. Colonel Klink), but oddly enough, the only performance to win an Oscar came from an actor who was virtually unknown in the United States.

Austrian native Maximilian Schell had won raves in 1959 for his performance in the television version of Judgment at Nuremberg, in the role of Han Rolfe, the lawyer who tries to defend his clients of Nazi war crimes on the grounds that they were simply following orders. Translating his success to film won him wide critical acclaim and, for some reason, an Oscar for Best Actor. It is a good performance but it is clearly belongs in the supporting category. How could anyone have thought that he had the lead?

My choice for Best Actor of 1961 was Vincent Price who never received an Oscar nomination in his life and was never given any honors by the academy for his lifetime of great performances. Even his critically acclaimed supporting role in 1987’s The Whales of August went completely unnoticed. That’s too bad because Vincent Price was such a fixture of American films, an actor with a big personality, a great talent whose legacy in the industry has been sorely under-appreciated.

Maybe this lack of respect came from his style. Price was an actor whose performances were made of broad theatrics.  He had a slippery voice, menacing eyes and a leering smile that made his characters appear to be on the verge of parody. In his best roles, he could use his theatrics to play a multitude of notes and, for me, they are best on display in Roger Corman’s adaptation of Pit and the Pendulum, a blood-thirsty little thriller in which he plays the tormented Nicholas Medina, son of Sebastian Medina (also played by Price) who went insane after his service as a torturer in the Spanish Inquisition and killed his brother and wife before the young Nicholas’ eyes. Years later, Nicholas is closed up in his castle and painfully mourns the mysterious death of his beloved wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele).

Nicholas’ pain at her loss has put him on the edge of insanity, but it is only when Elizabeth’s brother Francis Barnard (John Kerr), comes calling to find out the facts of his sister’s death that events unfold that cause Nicholas to come unglued. He hears Elizabeth’s voice, finds her room torn apart, labors under the suspicion that Elizabeth may have been buried alive and then thinks he sees her walking the halls. Showing Francis the infamous chamber of horrors he is forced to admit “This was my father’s world, Mr. Barnard. The shrieking of mutilated victims became the music of his life.”

What I love about Price’s performance are the broad strokes. He plays this role with every theatrical trick in his arsenal. When he mourns for his beloved Elizabeth, there is such pain on his face and in his voice that he manages to create the most sympathetic moments that he has ever played on film. The heartbreak really bubbles to the surface when we realize that Nicholas is being conned by Elizabeth and her lover Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone) in an elaborate scheme to drive poor Nicholas into madness. Well, it works, and drives Nicholas to commit the same dastardly acts to which his father was employed. He tries to put the titular device to work on Francis but his evil mission is foiled in the movie’s great climax that ends with one of the most shocking surprises that I can remember (trust me, you’ll know it when it comes).

Do I seriously believe that Vincent Price deserved an Oscar for this role? Yes, because he was a great actor and this is his best performance. It is also the kind of broad-lined performance that the academy seems determined to suppress. It wasn’t serious enough, or prestigious enough to merit an award but just take a look at what he does here. Listen to his voice, a howl of pain as he mourns his late wife. Look at his eyes filled with terror when he thinks that he has seen her ghost wandering the halls. Listen to the venom in his voice when he learns of her deception and tells her, “I’m going to make you suffer for your faithlessness to me. You HARLOT!” Watch the twisted smile that crosses his face as he manipulates the pendulum that will do away with Francis. It is a great performance, the best of his career. It makes me sad that he never received his due credit and in this film he displayed all the reasons that he became a movie star in the first place.

Best Actress

Sophia Loren (Two Women)
The Nominees: Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Piper Laurie (The Hustler), Geraldine Page (Summer and Smoke), Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass)

Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass)
y Nominees: Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Piper Laurie (The Hustler), Sophia Loren (Two Women)


It is rare when sex symbols have the opportunity to prove themselves to be more than just the sum of their parts. Sophia Loren spent a decade in one miscast role after another before starring in Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women, in which she plays Cesira, a mother who flees the allied bombings in Rome during World War II with her 13-year old daughter and does everything in her power to protect her child.

Not only was it a rare opportunity for a sex symbol to prove that she could be more than just a pretty face but for Loren, it proved that she could really act. No performance before or after showed this much depth or this much pain. For her efforts, she would earn Best Actress honors from Cannes, The Italian Syndicate of Film Journalists, The British Academy Awards, The New York Film Critics Circle and would become the first actress in a non-English speaking role to be honored with an Oscar for Best Actress (a feat that would not be repeated for another 46 years). But aside from all the accolades, she gave a heck of a good performance.

I loved Sophia Loren’s performance but for 1961, my favorite comes from Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. Wood was a child actress who proved herself a formidable presence onscreen as a young adult – when given the right material (though she did struggle through some bad material like 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar (a movie that actually takes time out for a rock and roll version of “La Cucaracha”). She was best at playing angst-ridden teenagers like the one she played in Rebel Without a Cause, but while that film was mostly about James Dean’s Jim Stark, Splendor in the Grass evenly divides the stories of the two lovers so that we see their adolescent frustration in equal parts.

She plays Wilma Dean Loomis, known simply as “Deanie,” a teenager living in a small town in Kansas in 1928. She has a boyfriend, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), son of a wealthy businessman, and when the two are together, a fire of sexual passion burns in both. Restrained by the social code of the times, Deanie is constantly reminded by her mother that a nice girl waits until marriage.

What hangs over both of them is a visual example of what can happen if they give in to their carnal desires. It comes in the form of Ginny (former pin-up girl Barbara Loden), Bud’s sister, who is a wild and sexually free party girl, a flapper who once got herself “that way” and have to seek help from “a special doctor.” His parents are ashamed of her and so they pin all their future hopes that Bud will go to Yale and make something of himself.

There is nothing wrong with Deanie. She is a normal teenage girl stuck between arousal and responsibility. When she is alone with Bud, she wants so badly to have sex with him. You can feel the heat coming off their bodies but their social order and the prospect of a future stand between them. Her body language speaks volumes. There are motions and movements with her body, especially in Bud’s presence, in which you can almost feel that tension. She has a brilliant moment early on when she signals where her mind is when she lays on her bed across a pillow and then picks up her teddy bear and throws it. She has a scene in which she suffers a breakdown and goes to take a bath. Sitting in the tub with her arms behind her head, her face reveals what she was doing before the camera entered the room.

This is one of the best examinations I’ve ever seen of a young girl caught between new-found sexual feelings and the restrictive warnings of her parents to keep them in check. I think all girls go through what Deanie goes through but the trick is being able to know what to do about it. Early in the film she wants nothing more than to be by Bud’s side, to give him what he wants (she wants it too) but when he breaks off their relationship, she tries unsuccessfully to be the girl – the slut – that she thinks he wants her to be. She cuts her hair, puts on a red dress and becomes the image of Ginny. There’s a perfectly erotic moment when she sits in his car and looks at him and tells him, “I’m not a nice girl.” It is an open invitation that he ultimately turns down. She can’t take it anymore and tries to drown herself.

The turning point of Deanie’s emotional and sexual journey comes when she is put in an institution. Away from Bud and finally confronted by a doctor who actually listens to her and reminds her that her parents are only people. This is the only adult in Deanie’s entire journey that stops to listen. It is a growing moment for her as she opens up and realizes that falling under the thumb of restrictive parents will overtake her life if she lets it. And by the same token, I think she learns that she doesn’t need to be driven by Bud either. While in the institution she meets a fellow patient whom she has a sweet romance. Having expanded that horizon she realizes that there might be more out in the world then she thought.

The last scene is the most effective. Having been released from the hospital, she goes to visit Bud, who is married and is running a farm. Privately, the visit is really to see if she still has any feelings for him. She decides that she will never completely remove him from her heart but now she can move on and make a life for herself. This is a story we can all identify with, those moments when we first fell in love and were confused by where the line was drawn between love for someone and just lust. It also captures the complete reality that the first person we fall in love with never really leaves us. When Deanie and Bud meet up at the end, after having been apart for several years, we can feel the tension between them, but we also understand how far they have come emotionally. They won’t be together but they are richer for having been in each other’s arms.

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