Armchair Oscars – 1963

Best Picture

Tom Jones (Directed by Tony Richardson)
The Nominees: America, America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, Lilies of the Field

The Haunting (Directed by Robert Wise)
My Nominees: 


Nineteen sixty-three was a troubled year for Hollywood.  The once-thriving enterprises of Universal, Paramount, MGM and Fox were now only shadows of their former selves.  Mired in legal wranglings, changing tastes and public indifference the future of studio films were being determined by a group of aging, stuffy old studio heads had lost touch with an audience that once made the movies a nightly ritual.

For the most part, the content of American films by the early 60s was a tapestry of outdated old formulas and aging movie stars who weren’t jiving with the tastes of an audience that was hungry for something new.  Nineteen Sixty-Three was a monumentally dismal year for studio films.   Even films that got rave reviews haven’t stood the test of time, especially the films nominated for the year’s Best Picture.  Having viewed all five again, none are films I am eager to spend another evening with.

The Best Picture winner was Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s ribald 1861 novel Tom Jones, about an orphaned youth (Albert Finney) who is raised by a wealthy land owner and grows up with the opportunity to wed an heiress.  He has a rival for the heiress’ hand but he also has a voracious sexual appetite and most of the movie focuses on his sexual misadventures. Tom Jones has it’s admirers but I find it overlong and dated, and containing scenes that don’t have the intended impact on me that I think they were intended to have back in sixty-three.  The famous fox hunt scene goes on and on and on far beyond a reason to exist and the much-discussed scene at the dinner table between Finney and Joyce Redman, in which they chow down on food as a carnivorous symbol of their lust, is less erotic for me than just plain disgusting.

  Jones’ sexual dalliances may have been tantalizing once but now seems terribly dated.  At the time, Tom Jones seemed quite original with it’s frank sexual humor, it’s satirical edge, funny asides with Tom regarding us directly into the camera and other elements that they became so imitated that they became a standard.  In the years that followed Tom Jones would come the sexual revolution and the breakdown of Hollywood’s production code that would allow filmmakers to display graphic content and nudity.  Today, the impact of the film has dimmed and whatever sharpness it once had is now gone.

I didn’t have many great films to choose from for nineteen 1963, so I am going with my personal favorite, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House”.  In the cannon of haunted house movies, this one works because it is more interested in characters than throwing special effects around.  Wise was a master of adding extra dimensions to worn out genres (as he did with the alien invasion of The Day the Earth Stood Still), and here he creates terror out of mood and atmosphere and set design.

The Haunting involves an experiment by the gung-ho Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson, who bears an odd resemblance to Clark Gable) to capture and record any supernatural activity in a 90-year old mansion called Hill House.  In the opening narration, Markway spins a yarn about Hugh Crain, an old miser who built the house for his bride who died in an accident only moments before laying eyes on the place.  Crain, despite the tragedy, moved himself and his daughter Abigail into the house where they both lived a considerably miserable existence for the rest of their lives.  The house, which we are led to believe was simply “born bad,” seemed to have an effect on several people who have occupied it’s space, not the least of which were Crain’s second wife who died from a nasty tumble down the stairs and Abigail’s caretaker who went mad and hanged herself.

Markway, who approaches his experiment with all the gusto of a game hunter planning an African safari, carefully selects three people to spend the weekend in the old gothic manor with him.  They include: Eleanor (Julie Harris), a troubled young woman who witnessed a poltergeist disturbance as a child and has led a haunted life ever since.  Theodora (Claire Bloom), a clairvoyant socialite who is secretly in love with Eleanor but keeps it bottled up, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a non-believer who stands to inherit the house and is happy to make wisecracks about all this supernatural hoo-ha.

The character dynamics are set in place pretty early on but most of the focus is on Eleanor, who has spent several years waiting hand and foot for her sick, demanding mother.  Now that her mother is gone, Eleanor wishes to break free and find a life of her own.  She’s too troubled, really, to inhabit a place like Hill House which has a history of working a sort of psychological torment the emotionally fragile.  We spend a great deal of the film hearing her internal monologue as her sense of self-preservation, at first, tells her not to go to the house and keeps telling her this all through the film.  She is convinced that the entire house is evil, that it will consume her but somehow she cannot turn away.

The personal drama in Eleanor’s head is well-written, helping us understand the massive toll that the house has on someone with a troubled mind.  We can see that in the architecture of the house both outside and in.  Driving up to the place, Eleanor’s inner monologue tells her that the house is “staring at me” and indeed we see two veranda windows that look like big ugly eyes.  Added to the effect are dark clouds that seems to always hang over the place (Wise’s cinematographer took the image of a clear sky and reversed the negative so that clouds would appear black).

The exterior of the house shows us a wide, forbidding old manor that defies anyone to approach.  While it seems well-made it seems like a fortress, a place designed carefully but not exactly welcoming.  The interior of the house seems to have no specific plan, every inch of the place is over-decorated.  There are rooms that are expansive but seem strangely abstract.  Markway explains that Crain “designed the place to suit his mind”.  Looking at the blind corners and confusing layouts, the place seems to have been designed to trap the inhabitants because with so many twisty hallways and empty dead ends it seems very easy to get lost.  Even Eleanor’s bed looks like a cage with a canopy like a net ready to drop on her.

There are specific details to the house that are brilliant, like the strange angelic statuaries, silent, ghastly and ghost white, not the least of which is a bizarre statue of a saint out the conservatory that seems to be a symbol of Crain’s obsessions.  There is a spiral staircase that isn’t firmly mounted to the wall and seems designed to be a booby trap.  At the top is a dizzying upper landing that seems designed to pull someone back down the hard way.

Using the web of architectural confusion in the house, Wise is able to mount the scary scenes simply by observing the house’s strange layout.  The first disturbance take place in Eleanor’s bedroom as she and Theo hear a bizarre, rhythmic pounding that moves toward their door, then over their heads, then back down to the door where there is a bone-jangling smashing sound.  It is all done with light and shadow and sound.  We never see any ghosts, but we feel their presence outside the door.  Later there are voices that seem to come from the room next door and we, the viewer, strain to hear what is being said (closed captions don’t help).  Most unnerving is that this male voice sounds like a strange incantation followed by a small child crying. What’s going on? Our minds fill in the blanks.

The fact that we never see the ghosts in The Haunting is a plus, we hear the pounding and the voices when we are in Eleanor’s room and so when she leaves the room and we see those white statues, we somehow expect that one of them will be a ghost.  The black and white photography and the choice to shoot at odd angles work on our minds, we see things in the shadows and in the corners and we aren’t sure if we’re seeing something supernatural or not.  The use of light and shadow here is brilliant feeding on those expectations even when they come to nothing.  This is an example, like Polanski’s Repulsion, (my favorite film of 1965) of a film that achieves mood and tone.  Here is a movie that creates fear out of our expectations.

Best Actor

Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field)
The Nominees: Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), Rex Harrison (Cleopatra), Paul Newman (Hud)

Paul Newman (Hud
My Nominees:
Steve McQueen (The Great Escape), John Wayne (McLintock!)


One of the things I loved about Paul Newman was that, occasionally, he wasn’t afraid to play a role that made him look like a jerk. He was one of his generation’s best actors and was talented enough to rise above his stature as a sex symbol and fall into a role that wasn’t exactly lovable. That was one of his best qualities, and it is probably one of the reasons he remained a star for over fifty years.

He was nominated for the academy award eight times in his career, winning only for Martin Scorsese’s mediocre The Color of Money in 1987, and receiving two further awards, one a career Oscar and the other a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, but awards aside, he did his best work in the sixties, showing us a range and depth and keen eye for character that never left him. I think this was the decade in which he gave two of his best performances and I have rewarded them both, first in 1963 for Martin Ritt’s Hud and the other in 1967 in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke.

I think that Paul Newman might have won the Oscar for Hud had it not been for Sidney Poitier. In 1963, with the civil rights movement having arrived at a point where it could no longer be ignored, the voting academy may have wanted to seem progressive by giving the first Best Actor award to a black man and the first acting award to an African-American actor since Hattie McDaniel 25 years earlier. Yet, as progressive as it may have seemed, it is hard to see the award as having come for the performance and not for the prestige. Plus, as progressive as it may have seemed to have given the Best Actor award to a black actor, it should be noted that it didn’t happen again for another 38 years.

Watching Lillies of the Field, in which Poitier plays Homer Smith, a man charged with helping a group of Eastern European nuns build a church in the desert after his car breaks down near their farm, one cannot help but feel that this isn’t his best performance especially when you know what would come later in his career. Stacked against better defined performances in In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do It Again, Homer is not a very compelling character.

Hud Bannon, on the other hand, is a compelling character. As played by Paul Newman, he isn’t exactly a lovable soul. The son of an honest rancher, Hud’s pursuits are led by his appetites, an appetite for drinking, an appetite for fighting and an appetite for carousing with married women. He is brash, selfish, mean-spirited and has little interest in making an honest dollar.

Our scope of Hud is seen through the eyes of his teenaged nephew Lon (Brandon De Wilde), who looks at his uncle with some fascination and is kept in the dark about the history of his relationship with his father Homer (Melvyn Douglas). Homer and Hud come from the same bloodline, but their ethics are polar opposites. While the father believes in earning his money by the sweat of his brow, Hud believes in just simply making money. When a heifer on their ranch turns up dead, and they are informed by a government official that it could possibly be a case of hoof and mouth disease, father and son are at odds on what to do about it. Homer is devastated that an epidemic could mean that 200 head of cattle will have to be put down but his son urges that he sell the cows to the next sucker up the line so they can profit before it becomes a total loss. “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud,” his father says sadly.

Later when the government official confirms that the cattle are diseased, and therefore must be destroyed, the old man is devastated beyond words. Yet, Hud moves in a different direction. He suggests turning the land into an oil field but Homer’s pride won’t allow it. Later he stirs up a devious plot to have the land legally pulled away from his father on the excuse that the old man isn’t fit to own it. Hud would then own it lock, stock and barrel and would be able to make a profit from it any way he sees fit.

What these two men represent, I think, are the principles of the past and the future. Homer represents a proud, upstanding American tradition born of hard work, pride and making an honest dollar. Hud represents the future, of what would eventually become the “Me Generation,” a generation of Americans who are happy to make their way any way they can. He also represents the country’s slipping moral values. He drinks, he is violent, he commits adultery, but what is most amazing is that he stays that way. Though the old man is destroyed by his loss, Hud’s immaturity remains stubbornly intact. Despite everything that happens, he is practically the same man at the end that he was when we met him. That is a tragedy.

Best Actress

Patricia Neal (Hud)
The Nominees: Leslie Caron (The L-Shaped Room), Shirley McLaine (Irma la Douce), Rachel Roberts (This Sporting Life), Natalie Wood (Love With a Proper Stranger)

Leslie Caron (The L-Shaped Room)
y Nominees: Claudia Cardinale (8-1/2), Elizabeth Taylor (The V.I.P.’s)


I loved Patricia Neal. She wasn’t like most leading ladies who are polished and perfected. In every role, Patricia Neal always looked like she had experienced a lot of life before she stepped in front of the camera. With her deep sexy voice filtered through her native Texas accent, she was sexual without being sluttish. Until her career was sidelined by a stroke in the mid-60s, Patricia Neal was one of the most respected actresses in the world and as proof, just look at her body of work. She is one of the rare actors who can look down her list of credits and find nothing to be ashamed of.

She won her only Oscar in 1964 for her performance in Martin Ritt’s Hud, playing the only woman in the film of any substance. She plays Alma Brown, housekeeper to the hard-working, elderly rancher Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), a motherly figure and a sort-of conscience to the male dominated household. Yet, while she is an incredible presence in the film, I don’t think that it is a lead role. She is gone for long stretches of time and, while I like her performance, I think she would have been better suited in the supporting category.

I am overlooking Neal’s performance in favor of one of her competitors, Leslie Caron in Bryan Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room. Caron was known for playing the love interest in light romantic comedies and musicals like Gigi and An American in Paris but in this adaptation of a Lynn Franks Reid novel she showed that she could play different notes, that she could do more than just look beautiful. She took most of her admirers by surprise by playing role unlike anything she had ever played in her career

She plays Jane Fossett, an unmarried woman who is two months pregnant and has moved to Fulham, England after finding no support from her parents. She rents an L-Shaped room in a dingy boardinghouse. She is a stranger in a strange land, dealing with money troubles but making friends in the tenament with various neighbors, like Toby (Tom Bell) a writer who’s career is at a standstill and Johnny (Brock Peters), a nice black man who lives down the hall and also in her building is Mavis a forty-ish lesbian.

She meets these people through a series of scenes that have the leisure pace of real life, not plot points but just a kind of easy going experience. The films sees Jane’s life through her own eyes. Her experiences are not positive, as when she visits a doctor to find out if she is, indeed, pregnant he is no help and makes false assumptions about her. She falls in love with Toby but is hurt when he shuns her because of her pregnancy. They reconsile but it isn’t the kind of happy-go-lucky reunion that we expect.

What is interesting is the effect that Jane’s pregnancy has on those around her. The people in the boardinghouse are all lonely and living a kind of stillborn existence. They have different approaches to Jane. Toby loves Jane but struggles with his repulsion at her condition. Tom sees her pregnancy as evidence of a loose woman and Mavis (who I suspect is quietly in love with Jane) is a lonely lesbian who has a cat as her surrogate child.

In the early sixites, a woman choosing to keep an illigitimate child was scandalous, but today it would be viewed as rank conservatism, as a pro-life stance. However you see Jane, she is a strong, stubborn woman who is bound to live life on her own terms. Yet she is not a pariah or a symbol, she is a flesh and blood woman who is happy and then miserable, who cries and has fits, who has doubts and takes unwise actions – at one point taking pills to induce a miscarriage – but in the end she makes a choice and stays with it.

If you followed Caron’s career up until The L-Shaped Room, it was to see that this was as different from any other performance as night is from day. Caron was best known for light comedies, usually playing girls who were sexually mischievious but here she shows a different side of herself, a deep dramatic side that those of us who admire her didn’t know she had. What amazes me about the film and the performance is that there is no compromise. In a Hollywood film, Jane would marry Tom or she would have an abortion or she would die so the baby could live but director Bryan Forbes refuses to shoehorn this woman into a neat and tidy plot.

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