This has got to rank as one of the weakest fields in Oscar history – and yet somehow, the Academy still managed to pick the worst of the worst. Here is what they nominated in 1963 – from worst to best.
5. Tom Jones (WINNER)Tom Jones is one of my least favorite best picture winners ever. How did it win? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because a year after Lawrence of Arabia – a big, old fashioned epic (even if it looks modern in retrospect), they wanted to go with something lighter. Perhaps it was just because the director’s branch threw the Academy for a loop by only nominating two of the directors of the Best Picture nominees - aside from Jones’ Tony Richardson, only Elia Kazan for America, America was nominated – and they didn’t feel like giving Kazan a third Oscar – especially since his controversial testimony to HUAC was already starting to look bad. But whatever the reason, this costume farce – about the sexual exploits of its title character – played, actually quite well by newcomer Albert Finney walked away with the Best Picture Oscar. The film looks hopelessly dated now – 50 years later – as Richardson throws in every “modern” technique he can think of. To me, the film is hopeless mess – a tired, boring one at that. Even in a year where the Academy picked very wrong, this one seems almost embarrassing now.
4. How the West Was WonThe old school Academy quite obviously was trying to hold onto some semblance of power back in 1963 – which explains why this epic film was nominated, despite the fact that it is largely square and kind of dull. The film is nearly 3 hours long, has five “chapters” – three directed by Henry Hathaway, one by an aging John Ford and one by George Marshall. The film spans 50 years, and 4 generations of a family as the travel West from New York to the Pacific Ocean from 1839-1889. The film advertised that it contains “24 Great Stars in the Mightiest Adventure Ever Filmed!” – and you at least have to admit that they do have some great stars – James Stewart, Karl Malden, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark and John Wayne all show up – some for extended periods of time, some as mere cameos. The film undoubtedly loses something when viewed on home video – it was shot in the three strips, Cinerama process, and when that gets converted to home video, it loses a lot. Still, other than Ford’s 15 minute Civil War segment, much of the film is simply dull. It was a huge hit back in 1963 – one of the last gasps of this type of studio epic.
Speaking of last gasps of the studio epics, here’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 248 minute campy version of Cleopatra – with Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. The film was an epic bomb back in 1963 and was much maligned by critics even then – and its reputation hasn’t much improved in the years since. Still, when I watched the film, I couldn’t help but have fun with it – as riddled with flaws as the film is, you can still see almost every one of the $44 million (a huge sum back then) it cost to make the film up on screen. Harrison is actually pretty great as Caesar – and the film’s second half certainly suffers from him not being in it. Taylor digs into the role and goes wildly over the top – I’m not sure I’d call it a great performance, but it’s a memorable one. That pretty much describes the movie as well – not great, but memorable. I’m not sure it’s an objectively “better” film than How the West Was Won – but even though it’s about 90 minutes longer, I know which one I would rather watch again. Cleopatra may not be great – but it’s certainly something to behold.
2. Lilies of the FieldSidney Poitier won his only Oscar for his work as Homer Smith – a drifter and handyman, who stops at a farm one day, and ends up staying for months on end to help a group of European nuns build a chapel in Arizona. Poitier often complained that he always had to play the “respectable black man” – but Homer Smith is at least slightly different. We never really learn where he’s coming from, or where he’s going – or why he stops and allows himself to be persuaded to help the nuns. He is a somewhat ambiguous character – who at the end of the movie departs with as little warning as he appears. Lilies of the Field is not a great movie – but it is a good one, and it is elevated by the simple humanity Poitier brings to the role. It would not have made my list of the best films of 1963 – but given the other films they nominated, this looks like one of their better choices that year.
1. America, America
Of the three epics nominated for the 1963 Best Picture Oscar, Elia Kazan’s America, America is far and away the best – and would have gotten my vote out of the five films nominated this year easily. Loosely based on the true story of Kazan’s Uncle, it tells the story of a young Greek man (played by Stathis Giallelis) living in Turkish Anatolia, who goes on a journey that will eventually lead him to America – and his family to a better life. The film is one of the best immigrant dramas ever made – and tells how hard they hard to work simply to gain passage to America. Giallelis goes through hell on his journey across his home country – he is robbed, ends up poor and starving on the street, finds few people willing to help him, but her perseveres and eventually accomplishes his goal. This was obviously a very personal story for Kazan – the film itself, a labor of love – and it shows in every scene. It isn’t a perfect movie, but in terms of the 1963 Best Picture race, it was clearly the best.
What They Should Have Nominated: You almost have to admit that the Academy was in a bad situation in 1963. Looking at my own list of the best films of the year, it is dominated by foreign films – Fellini’s 8 ½ is clearly the best film of the year, but there are other masterworks like Bergman’s The Silence, Visconti’s The Leopard, Kurosawa’s High & Low, Resnais’ Muriel, Polanski’s Knife in the Water and from England, Joseph Losey’s The Servant – and that doesn’t even mention Godard’s Contempt, of which I’m not as big of a fan as many. Among American films, America, America would rank just a notch or two behind Martin Ritt’s Hud – which somehow did not get nominated for Best Picture, despite winning both Actress and Supporting Actor for Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas, and getting a nomination for Paul Newman’s title character and Ritt’s direction (it would get my vote for Best American film of the year). The Academy also ignored Hitchcock’s late masterpiece The Birds – which dwarfs the reputation of anything they did nominate. I also loved Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor – although that was never going to get nominated, Orson Welles’ The Trial (was this even released in America that year?) and if they wanted pure entertainment – why not John Sturges’ The Great Escape? I guess what I’m saying is that 1963 has one of the weakest Best Picture lineup ever – but it was a great year for movies.