Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oscar Year 1969--Best Actor

Five of the cinema's most enduring leading men landed in the 1969 competition for Best Actor.  Two of most memorable roles of the year were played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.  Both were in the same film and no doubt cancelled out each other's votes; Hoffman may have competed more successfully in the Supporting category.  No one who has ever seen "Midnight Cowboy" will ever forget Joe and Ratso, in two of the finest screen performances to emerge from the '60's.  Another two of the  nominated actors were industry giants who had competed many times in this category; tragically, neither Richard Burton (seven nominations) nor Peter O'Toole (eight nominations) ever won an Academy Award; O'Toole managed another unsuccessful bid just a couple of years ago in "Venus".  Burton was in familiar territory in a costume epic, playing a royal figure with bravado.  O'Toole played against character in a musical, and while critics admired his realization of a beloved character, his singing skills were cooly received.  Rounding out the category was one of the most popular screen legends in movie history, and his very nomination was a sentimental nod for his entire career.  John Wayne good-naturedly parodied his own screen persona and created a lovable character.  I would argue that any of the other four actors were more deserving by virtue of their technical skills; but it was Wayne's year, and the Academy found a vehicle to justify their recognition of him at last.

Richard Burton, "Anne of the Thousand Days".  By 1969, the portrayal of King Henry VIII by Richard Burton was close to typecasting. Well-loved in his Broadway triumph in "Camelot", he earned Oscar nominations for costume epics like "The Robe" and "Beckett" before turning in a fine performance in this film.  Burton's strengths were the intelligent scowl, the slowly-building  dramatic speech, and his perfect diction.  Here he finds a core of humanity within the bluster, and his interpretation of Henry gives a by now too-familiar story (told just three years before in the Oscar-winning "A Man For All Seasons") an originality and a fresh intensity.  It is possible that, in spite of these strengths, he was upstaged by his red-hot co-star, fellow nominee Genevieve Bujold.  Or, maybe Burton's devastating portrayal of George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" three years before rendered his return to the stately pageantry of royal England seem like a retread.  Or maybe the costume epic was losing favor with voters and audiences alike.  Burton was one of those performers who was always so good that Academy voters took him for granted.  Whatever the reason, Burton's nomination was assured but he never emerged as a favorite to win, sentimental or otherwise.  Other than an attempt to appeal to a tried-and-true audience for these epics (as well as creating Oscar-bait), the inclusion of this movie in the Oscar race, let alone its release during the heady protest era of 1969, seemed  almost anachronistic.  Burton gives an expert realization of the character; but he is just one element in a movie filled with visual splendor and the amazing presence of Bujold.  Interesting note: Hal Wallis, who produced " the historical epic "Beckett" which earned Burton (and Peter O'Toole) nominations, also produced "Anne of the Thousand Days" and John Wayne's Oscar vehicle "True Grit".  The two films might have been conceived on different planets. I wish I could have asked Wallis which of his two nominated actors he was rooting for in '69.

Peter O'Toole, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips".  In "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", Peter O'Toole had the daunting task of re-creating one of the most lovable screen characters in all of filmdom: the shy, gentle English schoolmaster Arthur Chipping, who earns the admiration of his students and the love of a free-spirited woman in the decades during and after World War II.  It had been thirty years since the classic original version won Robert Donat an Academy Award (beating among others Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind").  Considering the unrest on school campuses during the late 1960's, it is interesting that two of the biggest Oscar contenders of the year were from stories about schoolteachers in more traditional times.  "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was as sentimental as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was tough.  While this re-make of "Chips" found modest success on the strength of its beloved story and the popularity of its stars Peter O'Toole and popular singer Petula Clark, it faced some critical lambasting for adding songs and turning the production into a sort of musical.  O'Toole struggled gamely with his numbers, often "speaking" the lyrics in the manner of Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady".  The music, by Leslie Bricusse, was pleasant but mediocre despite its Oscar nomination for Adapted/Original Music Score. Told as a straight drama, the film works exceedingly well.  This role was something quite different for O'Toole, who made his reputation in epics and costume dramas.  In the previous year he scored his third nomination with his rip-roaring portrayal of King Henry II in "The Lion in Winter". In "Chips", O'Toole is called on to communicate with a whisper rather than a roar. O'Toole's subtlety is everywhere in evidence, most notably in his scenes with Clark, who provides marvelous support, and in the quietly tragic sequences when the devastation of the war in Europe hits too close to home.  It is also to his great credit that he is never upstaged by the boys with whom he shares numerous dramatic scenes and musical numbers.  While this is rarely cited in discussions of O'Toole' finest work, it is nevertheless a fine piece of work in a kind of big traditional musical drama that would all but disappear after the late 1960's.

Dustin Hoffman, "Midnight Cowboy".  Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the sickly Ratso Rizzo in the cutting-edge, X-rated "Midnight Cowboy" is resonant in so many ways and works on so many levels one hardly knows where to begin.  It was a brave performance, an unforgettable appearance.  It was funny and sad and human.  Afraid of being typcast in bland romantic leads, Hoffman took the risk and portrayed the thieving, tubercular cripple who lives in a condemned New York apartment building, forming an unlikely friendship with Joe Buck, a naive hustler from Texas portrayed by fellow nominee Jon Voight.  While Voight is the emotional heart of the film, Hoffman is its conscience, grounded in the reality of the loneliness, sickness, and survival-at-all costs mentality that was the New York City of their existence.   Not appearing until nearly thrirty minutes into the film, and then introduced almost off-handedly, Hoffman's Ratso soon embodies the dark aspects of the film's descent into a hell.  At the same time, he introduces the film's first real moments of affection.  His angry epithet to a cab driver, pounding the hood and crying "Hey! I'm walkin' here!" is legendary.  Hoffman insists that the moment was improvised, although Producer Jerome Hellman has disputed that.  Chances are that the scene was scripted but a miscue caused hoffman to react differently than was expected; he stayed in character to save the take, and it wound up in the movie.  Hoffman connected to young audiences everywhere by the time he took the iconic final bus ride with Katharine Ross in "The Graduate" in 1967; in "Cowboy" he ends up in another fated bus ride in an act of almost Christ-like sacrifice that makes the troubling resolution to the film all that more resonant.  I will never forget Hoffman's command of the camera when Ratso can no longer walk; his plaintive "I'm scared" shakes a viewer deeply.  On the other hand, Hoffman's sly portrayal of Ratso's shyster character is filled with humor and keeps the film lively even in its darker moments. In a film filled with favorite scenes I particularly enjoyed Ratso's sprightly daydream of his life in Miami Florida, cooking for rich ladies and out-running Joe on the beach.  Hoffman's Ratso is a character we warm to and care about, and we are as devastated as Joe is by his fate.  This is a potent portrayal in an endlessly inventive work. Given the lack of screen time relative to Voight, it may be argued that Hoffman might have had a real chance at an Oscar had he competed in a Supprting role. Hoffman would go on to win two Oscars and have a long and varied career (he won the British Academy Award for Best Actor in "Cowboy"); but this will always be my favorite of Hoffman's portrayals.

Jon Voight, "Midnight Cowboy". This was Jon Voight's first leading role, and this film belongs to him.  It is one of the greatest screen protrayals ever, up there in my estimation with George C. Scott's "Patton" or Brando in "On the Waterfront".  Amazingly, he almost lost the role of Joe Buck to Michael Sarrazin, who more cloesly fit the character's description in James Leo Herlihy's novel.  After Sarrazin's representative failed to agree to terms, Voight's screen test was reconsidered,  and with the urging of Dustin Hoffman, the role became Voight's.  Joe Buck is a naive innocent with a troubled past. Decking himself according to the images of cowboys he learned as a child at faded drive-ins, he heads to New York thinking his Western garb will attract rich lonely women only too glad to pay him for his attentions.  Soon overwhelmed by the crowds, the cruelty and the loneliness he encounters in the big city, and rejected by all but hustlers and a desperate gay student (Bob Balaban), he meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly con-man who first cheats Joe, then offers him hospitality in his condemned apartment as winter approaches.  It is soon apparent, through flashbacks and edgy dream sequences, that Joe is a very troubled young man indeed, haunted by a sordid affair with a girl from home, left desolate by the death of his abusive grandmother, and needing to prove himself sexually after being subjected to a gang-rape by a group of redneck toughs.  Voight is funny, endearing, sexy, kind and child-like, vulnerable and saddened by the world around him. Voight raises the register of his voice slightly to create the gee-whiz innocence of his character, as Joe moves from one shocking and degrading encounter to another,: from a wise streetwalker (Sylvia Miles), to a deranged Evangelist; from a creepy mother-and-son-and-rubber-mouse encounter in a dreary diner, to that lonely student looking for sex in a theater balcony; from a Warholesque couple and their drugged-out partygoers, to a middle-aged john wanting love and violence.  The movie's frequent theme-refrain, Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'", is a perfect musical representation of this idealistic young man slowly losing hope.  Voight cleverly keeps the pain in check, and so Joe always seems ready to move to another adventure, and allows viewers to thoroughly engage with his character and follow him anywhere.  When Joe finally resorts to the brutality he at first rejects, it is a deep shock to the viewer, and Voight consummately shows Joe's inner discord, the confusion mixing with anger and violence in his expression, his determination to survive and help his friend get well.  Jon Voight's Joe Buck becomes real to us, and in the final shot of him on the bus holding his friend in his arms, we agonize with him and wonder, as he does, what will become of him.  This is an incredible role and a terrific portrayal by Voight that might have been a winner in any other year.

John Wayne, "True Grit", Oscar Winner. I think the Motion Picture Academy wanted to find some way to honor John Wayne for a long time. A resilient veteran of scores of films since the 1930's, Wayne was an enduring and well-loved screen presence. His appearance in a film represented values held dear by the conservative members of the movie industry.  With "True Grit", Wayne finally got a role in which he could relax, enjoy himself, and turn his well-known screen persona upside-down.  Wayne would most likely never again play such a riotously likeable role as Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and for successfully realizing the part without one misstep, the Academy had its reason to award him at last.  Playing a fat, lazy drunken lawman who reluctantly agrees to help a young girl (Kim Darby) avenge her father's killers, he successfully finds the comedy in his character, rallies the affections of the audience by "getting the bad guys", plays hero to the girl that hires him, and does amazing stunt work.  Be prepared to cheer when Wayne shouts "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!", grabs the reins in his teeth and gallops away blazing, a gun in each hand.  It's goofy, it's nothing but fun.  It isn't great acting, but you're just happy to see Wayne accomplishing this portrayal so effortlessly.  Oddly enough, Wayne gets an unlikely tribute in the film "Midnight Cowboy."  When Dustin Hoffman claims that Jon Voight's "cowboy crap" doesn't appeal to the ladies but is "strictly for fags", an incredulous Voight blurts out, "John Wayne! You're gonna tell me he's a fag?"  So, the cutting-edge movie year of 1969 sees the Academy Award for Best Actor go to an old-guard sentimental favorite.  They even forgave Wayne for his embarrassing polemic, "The Green Berets", just the year before.  The Oscars that year symbolized the divisions in ideology in the movie industry as well as the world.  It was perhaps appropriate that as the industry started to change forever, one of filmdom's indelible personalities was singled out for recognition.


  1. I remember seeing Midnight Cowboy in a theatre when it came out back then and remember just how provocative that scene you describe was for the time. I graduated High School that year..only a pup back then.

  2. Stan, I'm so glad you've come back for a visit. I wish I could have seen "Cowboy" in its initial release. Thanks for your comment!