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The 1967 Best Actor race was filled with strong contenders–a mix of method actors (Paul Newman), newcomers (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty), and classic Hollywood studio actors (Rod Steiger and Spencer Tracy). The winner that year was Rod Steiger in his spirited performance as a bigoted southern police chief working with a northern black detective (Sidney Portier). It’s surprising that Portier wasn’t nominated in the lead role over Steiger. He should have won for this performance instead of 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Instead, the studios pushed him into the Supporting category.
Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night is a great film and Steiger’s performance is excellent, but 1967 had some even more iconic roles for the younger actors, specifically Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
These were Beatty and Hoffman’s first nominations. Beatty went on to win for Best Director in 1982 for Reds and Hoffman won two Oscars for Best Actor in 1980’s Kramer vs. Kramer (a much deserved win) and 1989’s Rain Man. Beatty was just coming out of the shadow of being Shirley MacLaine’s brother, and Hoffman has always been known for being very anti-establishment and very anti-Oscar. Beatty is great as Clyde Barrow opposite Faye Dunaway, and Hoffman displays a boyish dumbfoundedness in The Graduate. These two roles were career-defining for Hoffman and Beatty, but the one role that served as the embodiment of another actor’s career was Paul Newman as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke.
Newman came onto the Hollywood scene in 1954 with the religious dud, The Silver Chalice, but his breakthrough role came in 1956 as boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman exuded a youthful, charismatic charm that audiences found intoxicating. In some ways he was the successor to James Dean (with whom he was originally going to star in East of Eden), but a more stable, mainstream version. From 1958 to 1969, he starred in box office hits such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, Exodus, The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud, Harper, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of these films embodied the Newman anti-hero, the roguish rebel that charmed audiences into getting his own way. But the role that really defined him was as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke. Jackson is sent to a chain gang prison for breaking parking meters and stealing change (a funny, if somewhat idiotic offense) and there he finds the will to live against the ruthless guards. The famous “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” line comes from this film.
It’s in the quieter scenes where Newman really shines, such as when he bets his fellow prisoners he can eat 50 hardboiled eggs, and when he slowly sings “Plastic Jesus” to himself. Newman deserved the nomination and in my opinion deserved the win that year. Ironically Newman, who was nominated 10 times (and won an Honorary Oscar and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar) finally won for the sequel to The Hustler—Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money in 1986 (a year after he won his Honorary Oscar).
And where is poor Spencer Tracy in all this? Tracy, a solid character actor who was at his best in the 30s and 40s, would be nominated as the doubting father of a girl who wants to marry a black man in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? This was his 9th nomination and a posthumous one at that. He died 17 days after shooting was finished. Katharine Hepburn (his longtime real life companion) and his onscreen dutiful, liberal-thinking wife Christina Draper, won for Best Actress that year in what many (myself included) see as a consolation prize for Tracy’s death and a tribute to the many films that Hepburn and Tracy starred in together (9 in total from 1941 to 1967).
While Steiger took the Oscar home that night, Paul Newman deserved the win.
Below are the lyrics to “Plastic Jesus” written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty.
Paul Newman sings “Plastic Jesus” in Cool Hand Luke
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant
Glows in the dark ’cause it’s iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed in rhinestones sittin’ on a
Pedestal of abalone shell.
Goin’ 90, I ain’t scar-ied
‘Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assurin’ me that I won’t go to Hell.
By N. DiSabatinoContinue Reading »