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 the 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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TCM’S 31 DAYS OF OSCAR HIGHLIGHTS LEE MARVIN

TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar is an ongoing annual event for the basic cable channel and this year Lee Marvin is very much in evidence. As the schedule shows, there are a plethora of his films on tap. No less than a half a dozen Lee Marvin gems, that’s right, a full half dozen, for most of February. If needed, here are the air dates (if you want to set your recording device for viewing, check your local listings for times). The Oscars or nominations of each film are listed below. My source? Why TCM’s own resident guardian angel, Robert Osborne from his excellent reference book, 50 Golden Years of Oscar. Okay, ready? Here are the Lee Marvin classics being shown for TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar….

THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) Airs Wednesday, February 5th. Nominated for Best Picture (Stanley Kramer, producer), Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Best Screenplay (Stanley Roberts), Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary (Sound Director), Best Film Editing (William A. Lyon & Henry Batista), Best Motion Picture Score (Max Steiner).

Marvin & shipmate Claude Akins in THE CAINE MUTINY.

CAT BALLOU (1965) Also Wednesday February 5th. Marvin won for Best Actor and the film was a also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Walter Newman & Frank Pierson), Best Film Editing (Charles Nelson), Best Song: “The Ballad of Cat Ballou” (Jerry Livingston & Mack David), Best Score (Frank DeVol).

Marvin as Kid Shelleen one of 2-roles he enacted for his Oscar-winning performance in CAT BALLOU

THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) Again, Wednesday February 5th. Won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects (John Poyner). Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes), Best Sound (MGM Sound Dept.) and Best Film Editing (Michael Luciano).

Marvin confronts Robert Ryan in the Oscar-winning THE DIRTY DOZEN.

RAINTREE COUNTY (1957) Airs Monday, February 10th. Nominated for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Art Direction-Set Direction (William A. Horning & Urie McCleary; Edwin B. Willis & Hugh Hunt), Best Costume Desgn (Walter Plunkett). Best Score (Johnny Green).

Rod Taylor as Garwood Jones and Lee Marvin as Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins in RAINTREE COUNTY.

 

 

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) Airs Saturday, February 15th. Nominated for Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Director (John Sturges) & Best Screenplay (Millard Kaufman).

Most of the cast, excluding Anne Francis, Ernst Borgnine and John Erickson in BADY DAY AT BLACK ROCK.

 

 

THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) Airs Monday, February 24th. Oscar nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (Richard Brooks for both), and Best Color Cinematography (Conrad Hall).

(L-R) Woody Strode, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster as THE PROFESSIONALS.

So there you have it! Further proof — as if any were needed — that Lee Marvin didn’t just make really good action films. He made some of the greatest of all-time! Don’t think you’ll be seeing any Jason Statham titles in years to come on TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. Just saying.
And of course, rare behind-the scenes stories on all of theses films (and more!) can only be found in Lee Marvin Point Blank.
See ya at the movies.
– Dwayne Epstein

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MEN ON A MISSION: THE BEST OF LEE MARVIN

Men on a Mission, a subgenre of pretty much every possible action film, has been around for a very long time and is undergoing a resurgence of sorts within the ranks of superhero films and the like. The undeniable king of the subgenre, however, has to be Lee Marvin. Whether the genre is a western, WWII, crime films or sometimes impossible to categorize, no actor did more of them or the best of them than Marvin.
According to a 2014 IndieWire article on WWII films, “The recipe is simple: take a bunch of men (the more ill-suited and quarrelsome the better), give them an objective—killing Hitler, looting Nazi gold, saving Private Ryan, protecting crucial work of arts from destruction by the Germans—and send those men on the mission.”
By that definition, no list of great WWII Men on a Mission films could be complete without The Dirty Dozen (1967). Of course, the definition left out the crucial aspect of training which often makes up the best part of the film, all elements of which are even the ad line for the film….

Poster for THE DIRTY DOZEN, the best of WWII Men on a Mission films in which the genre is defined in the ad.

When it comes to westerns within the subgenre, it’s hard to beat The Professionals (1966) for plot, character, action and dialogue. Kind of forgotten nowadays but anyone familiar with it knows how great a film it truly is.

 

Poster art for THE PROFESSIONALS.

 

 

 

 

Some crime films don’t usually include the subgenre as they are often revenge or heist oriented in their plots and themes. One obvious exception would be Prime Cut (1972).

The very strange project had Marvin tasked with rounding up a crew to get rogue mobster Gene Hackman to fork over the money he’s been skimming from the Kansas City mob. Naturally, Hackman does not take kindly to their mission and the resulting violence makes up the bulk of the film. Marvin does rescue Sissy Spacek from Hackman along the way and dallies with ex-girlfriend Angel Tompkins but that aside, it’s pure male-dominated action. At one point, Marvin even has to introduce himself to the mother of one of his young recruits!

Two different ad campaigns for director Michael Ritchie’s, PRIME CUT.

And then there are action films that simply defy categorization. The best example of this is Marvin’s 1973 opus, Emperor of the North. The mission, which is also clearly stated in the ad, was so unique audiences did not know what to make of it and ultimately simply avoided it altogether. A shame really as the finale and the cinematography throughout are excellent.

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH’s ad states the mission quite clearly.

So there you have it. A small smattering of examples showing Lee Marvin’s work as the best of the subgenre. There are many more, of course, but for the uninitiated, the above examples are a good place to start. Naturally, all of his films, including the ones mentioned herein, are explored in detail, from inception to reception within the pages of Lee Marvin Point Blank. Feel free to check it out for yourself and you’ll discover the best of a rediscovered and still relevant subgenre.

  • Dwayne Epstein
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