Armchair Oscars – 1962

Best Picture

Lawrence of Arabia (Directed by David Lean)
The Nominees: The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, To Kill a Mocking Bird

The Manchurian Candidate (Directed by John Frankenheimer)
My Nominees:
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean), Lolita (Stanley Kubrick), Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich)


I cannot, in good conscience, criticize anything about Lawrence of Arabia, a film so beautifully produced with such a grand canvas and intricate detail of story and character.  David Lean is one of the rare men who can accurately be called a “cinema artist,” a man who was an expert of telling a personal story within a very large canvas.  Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films in which everything came together in a movie that was lucky to even get made.  It was not an easy sell, it had no big name stars, no love story and only a handful of action scenes.  Lean simply tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, a British Officer who leads the Arabs in their raids against the Turks during the First World War and assumes that this is enough.  You know what?  He was right!

The movie is a work of bold imagination, with great visuals and a focused center on a man who goes mad on the power of his own image. I enamored of the chutzpah that it took to make such a bold work of art but for 1962, there was another film that takes even bolder steps, John Frankenheimer’s red scare epic, The Manchurian Candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate is one of those time stamp movies, a film that captures the attitudes of a particular moment in our history. A hundred years from now, this film will give future generations an impression of how frightening a time it was in the midst of the fear of Communist subversion.

The fear was that communism would not threaten our way of life with bombs and tanks but that it would infiltrate our society from within, that somehow the Reds could infect our brains and our way of life. That this film was made in 1962 is sort of chilling because this was a year before the Kennedy assassination gave rise to the public speculation that a political assassination might not be the act of one man.  Also speculation was that it was a mass conspiracy brought on by our entire government. Whether you believe this theory or not, you can’t deny that such a foreshadowing exists in this film.

That foreshadowing has built up a sort of legend with The Manchurian Candidate. Co-star Frank Sinatra bought up the rights to keep the film out of release for reasons that have been speculated ever since. Director John Frankenheimer states that he was irritated because he didn’t get any profits from it. Sinatra’s reason was that he was so despondent over the death of President Kennedy that he couldn’t bare to put it in front of the public. So from 1963 until 1988 it sat on the shelf. When it was released, Sinatra praised the film and said that it was his best performance, however in an interview at the time he never mentioned why it was shelved for a quarter of a century.

The movie is based on a book that was written in 1959 and even though the Red Scare is gone, the film feels surprisingly contemporary. The threat of Communist subversion has withered and the cold war is now just a history lesson, but it has not dimmed the impact of The Manchurian Candidate, which at all times seems to vibrate with an uneasy tension just under the surface. Something is going on, there are strings being pulled, there are whispers that we don’t hear, promises that go unspoken and yet we only bear witness to the terrifying results of those machinations.

Laurence Harvey stars as Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, a Korean War veteran who has fragmented memories of an attack on his patrol. The bits and pieces of lost memory begin to come back to him in the form of nightmares from being brainwashed when he and his patrol were captured by the North Koreans. In one astonishing scene, a flashback establishes what happened. The POWs are hypnotized by their captors and think they are attending a flower show back home. In reality, they are attending a demonstration of the brainwashing technique by Communist officials. The camera pans around a circular lecture room, beginning with a group of older ladies and their flowers and slowly reveals the Communists and their mind control. From Harvey’s point of view, the film cuts back and forth to show the different realities. To show how deeply the suggestion has been implanted, Raymond is asked to shoot one of his buddies in the head. His buddy, unaware of what is really happening, simply smiles.

Two years later, back in the states, Raymond receives the Medal of Honor and, at his side, is his doting mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), who has just been remarried to Senator Iselan, a pathetic commie-bashing drunk not a million miles removed from Joe McCarthy. There is a bold, but not overstated, incestuous relationship between Mrs. Iselin and Raymond which, in the book, led to the bedroom, but here only led to an uncomfortable kiss. The casting of Angela Lansbury in the role of the incestuous mother is, I think, a masterstroke. Lansbury’s public persona is so warm, gentle and inoffensive that it’s a shock to see her in such a seething role. If you see her as the American voting public would have seen her and you understand how manipulating and misleading the character can be and how brilliant the casting of Lansbury was. She received an Oscar nomination for her performance and her character has become one of the most reviled villains in movie history. That is to Lansbury’s credit because nothing that she had done before or since suggested that she could pull off a character this complex.

The cracks in the Communist plot begin to unravel at the hands of Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who can’t stand the nightmares anymore and concludes that he and Raymond may have been under mind control. He is surprised that Raymond has received the Congressional Medal of Honor because neither he, nor any of the other men in the patrol, can remember what he did to get it. The reason is stated that he saved their lives but that doesn’t seem consistent with the memories they have.

Unfortunately, Marco makes a critical error by not bringing Raymond in for questioning because he believes that the love of a good woman will cure him.  Raymond has just fallen in love with an old high school sweetheart who is the daughter of a left wing senator. What he doesn’t know is that Raymond’s mind has been programmed – with the Queen of Diamonds as a trigger – by the senator and Mrs. Iselin to commit political assassination so that the country will rally around its government in overthrowing the opposing powers. The assassination will line up Senator Iselin as leader of the free world.

What is striking in The Manchurian Candidate is the way in which it never falls into a formula thriller. The movie uses an inventive style that, at times, tricks the eye and plays with the expectations. It moves back and forth in time to build pieces of that memory so that we learn of the plot slowly. The film has such intriguing villains that even when we know every foul turn of the plot, we still sense that there is a lot left untold, that the conspiracy extends even further. There is a hypnotic feel to the film that is essential to the material. There are scenes that are almost surreal, like a dream.

The look of the film plays well off of George Axelrod’s screenplay which often speaks in code. Take for example the moment when Ben meets a woman named Rose (Janet Leigh) on a train. She makes a reference about Ohio that seems completely out of place. “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” She says. “This is Delaware,” Marco corrects her. “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.” The line makes no sense and I found that working it out, it makes even less sense. Is there a buried significance to the line? We’re never told what it is. Is Rose one of them? Is this a programming code? An anti-programming code? Is she a hallucination? The line makes no sense but it underlines a working manipulation just under the surface.

Revisiting the film recently, I was struck by director John Frankenheimer’s refusal to take sides. There is no party view, no right or left, no foreign or domestic point of view. We are invited to view the film as we see it, not to be manipulated by where the movie tells us to train our minds.

Best Actor

Gragory Peck (
To Kill a Mockingbird)
The Nominees: Burt Lancaster (Birdman of Alcatraz), Jack Lemmon (The Days of Wine and Roses), Marcello Mastroianni (Divorzio all’italiana), Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia)

Peter O’Toole  (Lawrence of Arabia
My Nominees:
Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent), Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird


Gregory Peck had a unique screen presence, he held a grace and a voice that we can imagine that Mr. Lincoln might have had.  I think of Lincoln when I see Peck’s performance in Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he plays Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer who tries unsuccessfully to defend a black man (Brock Peters) who is facing an all-white jury when he is falsely accused of raping a white woman (the movie strongly implies that it was her father).  His nobility and his boldness to stand alone in a cause that he knows he will lose is the great American story.

However, I think Atticus is a little too noble.  Peck’s Atticus Finch is a man so full of grandness that his character seems to lack flaws.  In being a good father and a good lawyer he makes himself an admirable figure but lacks the very human traits of frustration at injustice (his only true flaw is that he loses the case).  The film moves us very close to Atticus who understands (and teaches his children) right from wrong, even while those around him make up their own definition.

My choice for Best Actor is a man that we understand very little.  In David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole plays T.E. Lawrence based on a real-life legend who led the Arabs on a mission to defeat the Turks for the British in the First World War and made himself a near god-like celebrity in the process. Peter O’Toole would play many characters like T.E. Lawrence in his career, eccentrics whom we admire but do not fully understand.

We first meet him in 1935 when he dies in a motorcycle accident.  The film then flashes back to Lawrence when he was a young officer working an office job while stationed in Cairo.  He is delighted when he finally gets a field assignment to be Liaison to Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), the Arab leader whose army is in a struggle against the Turkish army.  Something about the Arab’s spirit impresses Lawrence, but he is distressed by their petty tribal warfare.  When Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) shoots Lawrence’s guide dead for drinking from his personal well, Lawrence is outraged and proclaims that they will never succeed unless they put their problems aside and stop murdering each other.  “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe,” he tells Ali. “So long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.”

He does not make his superior officer very happy when he makes the statement that the Arabs needed to fight for their own freedom and not so they could become one with the British.  He develops a plan that makes him a legend: He leads the Arabs across the desert to Aqaba to fight the Turks without British military aid.  They are impressed with his tenacity, his bravery – at one point he turns around and makes a suicidal trek several hundred miles to retrieve a man who has fallen behind. They are impressed by his approach to them.  He doesn’t try to teach the Arabs his native customs but rather adopts theirs and thereby earns their respect.

There is a brilliant, semi-comic scene in which Ali takes Lawrence’s uniform off the clothes line and throws it on the campfire and then adorns him in the clothing of a Bedouin prince.  Lawrence struts around in his new robes, walking out into the desert to let the wind twirl around his robes as he tries them out and looks lovingly at his own shadow.  The movie never directly points it out, but the Arabs unconsciously adorn Lawrence with the new and more Middle Eastern sounding name “Aurens.”

Lawrence becomes legendary for his efforts both among the Arabs and the British and for his ability to unite and mobilize Bedouin tribes who had been at war with one another.  He is promoted from Lieutenant to Major and is given the task of leading sabotage missions against the Turks.  On both sides, his name becomes legendary, and he isn’t humble about his new-found image.  He enjoys the spotlight and enjoys his newfound taste for blood.  Ironically, his bloodlust begins when he is forced to kill the man who he had rescued. “I enjoyed it”, he tells his superior officer.

O’Toole’s performance defies the conventions of a traditional hero.  Lawrence is an eccentric, an odd duck who doesn’t follow the usual patterns of heroism or humility.  He is a man who doesn’t wave off praise but rather becomes intoxicated by the power of his own image and feeds off of the legends that are being written about him.

To the Arabs, he becomes a god-like figure for his bravery and his seeming invincibility and Lawrence is more than happy to feed them that image.  The best scene in the movie takes place when Lawrence destroys a railroad track with dynamite, crashing a Turkish train.  He then leads the Arabs in a barrage of gunfire that destroys the train and kills all of the passengers.  Sitting on the wreckage, he is asked by an American journalist (Arthur Kennedy) to pose for a picture.  And so he does, this blonde-haired blue-eyed celebrity struts across the top of the wrecked train while the Arabs chant his name.  To them, he is a celebrity, a messiah, and in one brilliantly symbolic moment, these desert-dwellers watch as this man turns and blocks out the sun.

The ending is painfully sad, at least for Lawrence. The Turks have been defeated, the job is done, the mission is at an end and Lawrence’s time in Arabia has come to an end.  He returns to his native land but there are regrets and the last scene in the film has him sitting in a jeep, back in the uniform of a British officer, a sad look on his face as he realizes what he has created and what he is leaving behind.

Best Actress

Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker)
The Nominees: Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), Katharine Hepburn (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Geraldine Page (Sweet Bird of Youth), Lee Remick (The Days of Wine and Roses)

Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?)
y Nominees: Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), Jennifer Jones (Tender is the Night)


Rarely has an actress had to struggle to pay her dues like Anne Bancroft.  Her movie career in the 1950s seemed to consist of knock-around melodramatic B-Pictures and forgettable horror like Gorilla at Large, The Naked Street and The Girl in Black Stockings.  So, it was probably a relief when she got the role of Anne Sullivan in Arthur Penn’s film adaptation of The Miracle Worker.  Bancroft gives a lovely performance as the legendary teacher who uses her patience and determination to break down the barrier of communication between herself and the young Helen Keller.

There is no doubt that the performances by both Bancroft and Patty Duke (as Keller) are wonderful but, for me, the movie is a little like homework.  It is a great film but not one that I would choose to spend an evening with.  For my taste, the struggle between teacher and student isn’t half as interesting as the battle between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Here is a movie containing two actresses whose real life hatred for one another is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  Knowing of the real-life feud that existed between these two actresses, Davis was probably delighted to take on a role that required her to torture Crawford for 90% of the film.  But the surprise is that Davis turns in a performance that is probably one of the saddest characters she ever played.

We first meet Baby Jane Hudson in 1917 (played by young Julie Allred) as the toast of Vaudeville, a child actress who packs theater seats with recitations of songs like “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.”  With her pretty dress, her golden curls and her adorable stage presence, she is so popular that life-sized dolls are selling in the lobby.  After the show, we glimpse a certain power that she has over her stage-manager father.  We see that the adorable loveliness displayed onstage conceals a screeching spoiled brat backstage.

Standing in the wings is her older sister Blanch whose face is a mask of jealously.  We soon see, however, that this envy won’t roll over into adulthood. We jump forward to 1935 and see that the tables have turned.  Blanch is the most popular actress in Hollywood, while Jane struggles with acting skills that are middling at best.  Blanch so loves her sister that she has it written in her contract that she will only make a movie if her sister is allowed to make one as well. The problem is that Jane is a chore to spend time with. She has grown up to become an alcoholic who carouses with men and feeds the deterioration of her own public image.  Both careers are sidelined by an accident which leave Blanch paralyzed and Jane out of show business for good.

Years later, we find them somewhere in their late 50s with Blanch confined to a wheelchair and Jane waiting on her hand and foot.  Jane is a washout – a sad, bitter old lady who resents her sister and guzzles booze with striking regularity.  The portrait of Jane is the portrait of the tragedy that befalls a child actor when they can’t carry their specialty into adulthood.  Wandering through the dusty old house, her face is an unsightly mask of bitterness and alcohol, with bags under her eyes and a face-full of make-up that seems to resemble a failed attempt to look like one of her old dolls.  Her outfits always seem to resemble the ones she wore on stage and her messy, matted hair holds faded remnants of those once- famous curls.  She can’t let go of her past, nor can she tolerate the mere thought that the world outside has forgotten her.  Alone in the misery, drunk almost constantly, she spends her evenings singing the old songs before a mirror, trying to recapture just a glimmer of what once made her special.  But it all keeps washing back and the reflection is a bitter reminder of her years of reckless anger.

She pushes her bitterness on Blanch who is confined to a wheelchair in the bedroom upstairs.  Realizing her power over her sister, Jane refuses company, refuses any comforts and eventually refuses her food.  But somehow Blanch retains her love for her sister even when Jane torments her.  Jane’s attempts at happiness are pathetic, at best, as when she places a classified ad for a musician.  When a handsome young piano player (Victor Buono) arrives she tells him that she is eager to restart her career. But we know that it is really just a ruse to get company into the house.

Alcohol erodes her senses and soon her mind is spinning into a kind of static paranoia. She learns of Blanch’s plan to sell the house and send her sister off to an institution and thus begins the torturous conflict.  Jane starves Blanch by making her fear the food she brings her especially after an incident when she serves her pet bird and then a rat she caught in the basement.  Concerned that her sister might be poisoning the food, Blanch fears eating and when she tries to signal to a neighbor for help, her message is intercepted.  Eerily, we also discover that Jane has the unusual talent to imitate Blanch’s voice over the phone.

A living ghost in her own haunted house, Baby Jane Hudson is a sad relic, a bitter reminder of what happens to child actors when they aren’t nurtured into their adult years.  Davis’ brassy performance, hateful at first and increasingly spinning into madness, is helped by the eerie black and white cinematography by Ernest Haller who won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind).  His work here seems to suggest a woman with all the color and life drained out, pale white like a ghost.

The power of Davis’ performance is her ability to begin the movie as camp, with grandiose gestures and bags of overacting; then as the film progresses takes leave of whatever sanity she had left, allowing us to begin (slightly) to pity her.  It would have been easy to send the third act into a physical assault between the two old broads that would have had the audience cheering (which is logical given their off-screen history). But there is more restraint than that and when the final act plays out, it comes down to Blanch’s stubborn devotion to her sister which cuts deeper than any knife.

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