THE OSCAR TRACK

The Oscar track is upon us since the nominations were announced last month, as shown here. I use the term “The Oscar track” as it’s the appropriate term used by Lee Marvin when he was interviewed by TIME Magazine’s Stefan Kanfer in the 1970s. Kanfer had the audacity to tell the actor he didn’t think his Oscar-winning performance in Cat Ballou was even close to his best performance. The writer was amazed to hear Marvin agree with him. Adding, “But y’know, you run this track, and that’s the track that the racers are on; it’s the Oscar track. It really isn’t based on skill as much as it’s based on luck and popularity.” Kanfer’s remembrance of the interview — along with his assistant, future Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Jay Cocks — is hysterically recounted in Lee Marvin Point Blank.

Lee Marvin in POCKET MONEY and as he probably appeared when interviewed by Stefan Kanfer.


 As to the Oscar track, Marvin’s point is well taken. Now, normally this time of the month I’d be blogging about any upcoming Lee Marvin-related films on TCM but since the network is broadcasting “31 Days of Oscar” all month there’s a dearth of Marvin-related films. The sole exception is Ship of Fools, which is a shame since he made other films that were indeed on the Oscar track in one way or another: The Professionals (1966), and The Dirty Dozen (1967) received such recognition but truth be told, I think a few of his films SHOULD have been on The Oscar track and were not. 
 On the technical side, the innovations apparent in Point Blank (1967), such as the editing and the sound advancements (first film in which the actors were individually ‘miked’) and Conrad Hall’s breathtaking cinematography of Hell in the Pacific (1968) were certainly worthy. They may have ran out of the money since they were both directed by the very British John Boorman and both films did poorly when first released. I don’t know if either factor is the case but it’s a pretty safe bet. 
 I can say, for the purposes of this blog entry, two of Lee Marvin’s performances overlooked by the Academy were certainly worthy:
Monte Walsh (1970), remains an overlooked classic for which Marvin gave one of his most poignant performances.

Monte Walsh, 1970


As cited in detail in Lee Marvin Point Blank, several critics at the time of its release said the same and thought an Oscar nomination for Best Actor was practically a foregone conclusion. Sadly, It never happened. 

The Big Red One (1980): Sam Fuller’s semi-autobiographical yarn of his experiences in Europe during WWII allowed Marvin to give one of his best performances of his career, running a gamut of emotions from badass to empathy as a nameless sergeant pushing his young charges on a rifle squad to the poignancy of caring for a young boy in a liberated concentration camp. 

The Big Red One, 1980.

It’s a pity both of these performances were overlooked and the reasons they were are as speculative as they are varied. Too bad there’s no such thing as a retro Oscar track. If there were, Marvin would win it in a walk.

– Dwayne Epstein

 

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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND…LEE MARVIN?

William Shakespeare is not usually a name associated with the likes of Lee Marvin. More is the pity as the actor had several brushes with the bard as recounted in my book Lee Marvin Point Blank. First, as a fledgling postwar acting student at the American Theater Wing (ATW), in which several hilarious anecdotes are retold by David Ballantine, a friend from Lee Marvin’s Woodstock days.

Lee Marvin (far right) cavorts  with fellow students during his American Theater Wing days in costumes from a play by William Shakespeare.


Later, on the set of The Big Red One, in which costar Kelly Ward recounted an amazing incident at sunset in an ancient Israeli ampitheater. 
Apparently, my research struck a chord with one who would definitely know more about the subject of William Shakespeare’s work than I ever would. Through the wonders of the digital age, noted actor/writer/historian David Weston sought me out to contact recently and wrote me the following:
“I was an actor for more than 50 years and I agree with all you say about Marvin’s talent and magnetism. He would have been game-changing in several Shakespearean roles..” 
 I was humbled by his words once I found out more about him via the internet. Not only does he know his stuff, he’s married to actress Dora Reisser, who knew Marvin well, ever since her costarring role as Telly Savalas’s victim in The Dirty Dozen. When I asked David if I could use his comments concerning William Shakespeare and Marvin on my blog, he sent me the following mini-essay. To call it a wonderful surprise, is an understatement. Here now is David Weston making the point better than I ever could. Enjoy….
– Dwayne Epstein

(L-R) Dora Reisser and David Weston.

Lee Marvin as a Shakespearean Actor

Shakespeare’s plays are full of violence and comedy, two things Lee Marvin revelled in. Titus Andronicus, probably the Bard’s first play, contains mutilation, rape, ripped out tongues and cannibalism. As far as I know Lee Marvin never appeared in a Shakespeare play, although he told my wife, Dora Reisser, that when he was filming The Klansman with Richard Burton, he would make up mock Shakespearean speeches and ask the inebriated Welshman to guess which plays they had come from. I will give some examples of roles in which Marvin could have excelled at various stages in his life. It could have happened. Richard Burton, like Marvin, no the weak spinner of fanciful tales, once told me that Marlon Brando had wanted to join him for a season at the Old Vic, only to be rejected by the board.

As a young actor Lee Marvin was never a Romeo, but he would have been a superb Mercutio [Romeo’s best friend], revelling in the bawdy comedy.  His catlike movement would have been ideal for the sword fights and tragi-comic death.

Richard Burton was a pretty good Petruchio [in The Taming of The Shrew], but can you imagine Lee’s drunken antics or his savage treatment of Kate – Gloria Graham’s coffee springs to mind.

Likewise he was born to play Bottom [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. Kevin Kline attempted it recently but he would not have touched Lee’s befuddled wonder at acquiring ass’s ears and the love of the Fairy Queen.

His lighting quick humour and savagery would have made him a terrifying yet hilarious Richard III. Kevin Spacey was a pussy cat in comparison.

Sean Connery was the best Hotspur I’ve seen [Henry IV, Part I], but Lee would have run him close.

Shakespeare could have written the part of Pistol, the bawdy braggart, with Lee in mind, but in the same plays in his more mature years he would have been one of the great Falstaffs. I can close my eyes and see him in the tavern scenes, bragging, wenching, hilarious – yet over brimming with pathos, glimpses of which we saw in Cat Ballou.

Marlon Brando was a superb Marc Antony [in Julius Caesar), in what I consider to be the second best Shakespeare film ever made after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, but Lee Marvin would have been better.

So many actors can play King Lear in their old age – it is in fact one of Shakespeare’s easiest leading roles – but Lee’s fury would have been terrifying and his grief over Cordelia’s death heart-breaking. As a young actor he would have revelled in the sadism of the Duke of Cornwall in the terrible scene when he takes out Gloucester’s eyes.

Last of all Iago [in Othello]. Again the humorous villainy and savagery – Liberty Valence in tights.

There is something for him in every play. It is our loss he was never asked.
– David Weston

Covering McKellen by David Weston.

Covering Shakespeare by David Weston

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LEE MARVIN’S BEST MOVIES? NOT EVEN CLOSE!

Lee Marvin’s best? That’s a pretty subjective concept. After all, one man’s meat is another man’s poison but still and all, some things along such lines are pretty obvious.  “The 5 Best Lee Marvin Movies” is the title of a recent blog entry I came across by chance on the web and the concept is the subject of this blog.
I’m not really big on chiding other writers but the author’s choices leave much to be desired. The title alone is somewhat irksome: “The 5 Best Lee Marvin Movies.” Why only five? Wouldn’t ten be more appropriate for such a lengthy career? And his choices! If you can’t see the link I included above, here’s what he chose:
5. The Wild One
4. The Big Heat
3. Cat Ballou
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1. The Dirty Dozen
Can you see the problem I had with the choices that were made? Three of the five are not even Lee Marvin movies in the strictest sense. Marvin had supporting roles in The Wild One, Big Heat and Liberty Valance. Granted, they were great scene-stealing roles, but supporting roles, nonetheless. They are all better known as Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford & John Wayne movies and Lee Marvin would be the first one to say it. All the films (and more) are of course recounted and detailed in Lee Marvin Point Blank, by the way. It also includes Marvin’s input into these roles as well as what he thought of each of them.
While I applaud the effort made in the end to encourage others to seek out Marvin’s films, doing so by this list would make someone wonder what’s the fuss about Lee Marvin since he apparently was merely a villain in the 1950s & 1960s. The author barely recognized the fact that Marvin was a major star in the 1960s & 1970s.
I’m not and never have been a fan of “Best Lists,” which is why there isn’t any on this blog site. However, if one were to attempt a list of Lee Marvin’s best, here’s a good start, at least in terms of what might make someone a fan. Consider the following a sort of starter kit. If after viewing these films, you’re still not a fan, then you never will be.
– Dwayne Epstein

The Professionals, 1966.

Point Blank, 1967

Monte Walsh, 1970

Emperor of the North, 1973

The Big Red One, 1980

 

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