Oscar Actors: Marvin, Lee–Cat Ballou (1965)

Did Lee Marvin deserve to win the Best Actor in 1965? In my view, it’s one of the weakest performances to ever win the Oscar.

Marvin won for a dual role in the Western comedy-spoof, Cat Ballou, a playing drunken gunslinger and a killer with a silver nose! The Academy, as I noted in my book, All About Oscar: History and Politics of the Academy Awards,” has always favored eccentric performances, defined by big boozy scenes, heavy accents, dual roles, confusing the craft of masquerading with the art of acting.

For instance, in “Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” Oscar nominee Peter Sellers played no less than three roles: the powerless President Muffley, the nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove, and Captain Lionel Mandrake. By the way, initially, Sellers was going to play a fourth role, Major king Kong (Slim Pickens in the movie).

The main reasons why Marvin won lie elsewhere. First and foremost, the competition in 1965 was not very strong. The male nominees were: Richard Burton in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” Laurence Olivier in “Othello,” Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker,” and Oskar Werner in “Ship of Fools.”

It goes by a process of elimination. Olivier had already won an Oscar, in 1948, for another Shakespearean adaptation, “Hamlet.” Burton was nominated for a genre that’s not respected by the Academy, and Oskar Werner, despite popularity in Europe (“Truffaut’s masterpiece “Jules and Jim,” among others), was an outsider in Hollywood, a new face in town.

Second, in 1965, Marvin gave another (better) performance in “Ship of Fools,” Stanley Kramer’s period drama, which was nominated for Best Picture and other awards (see below).

It’s not unusual for the Academy to honor actors for the “wrong” role, or to honor them in a year in which they give more than one decent performance. Voters have also rewarded actors who spoof their own screen image (John Wayne in “True Grit”), and cast against type. Prior to “Cat Ballou,” Marvin epitomized the tough macho in Hollywood movies, mostly doing war pictures and adventures.


Cat Ballou

Oscar Nominations: 5

Screenplay (Adapted): Walter Newman and Frank R. Pierson

Actor: Lee Marvin

Song: “The Ballad of Cat Ballou,” music by Jerry Livingston, lyrics by Mack Davis

Scoring of Music: DeVol

Film Editing: Charles Neslon


For most Academy members, the choice was between “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Zhivago,” each of which received 10 nominations. In the end, the awards were also equally divided, with each movie getting five, though, except for screenplay (Robert Bolt), “Doctor Zhivago” received mostly technical awards, such as Color Cinematography (Freddie Young), Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (John Box and Terry Marsh), and Color Costume Design (Phyllis Dalton).

The competition for Best Picture was rather weak. Stanley Kramer’s flawed and pretentious “Ship of Fools” and the screen adaptation of the Broadway comedy “A Thousand Clowns” stood no chance of winning. The other two contenders were made by British directors, David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” a romantic spectacle, and John Schlesinger’ “Darling!” clearly the most innovative of the nominees, earlier singled out by the New York Film Critics.

Robert Bolt won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Doctor Zhivago,” Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster the Song Award for “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from “The Sandpiper,” Irwin Kostal the Scoring for “The Sound of Music,” for which William Reynolds also won the Editing Oscar.


Ship of Fools

Representing prestigious literary cinema at its most ponderous, “Ship of Fools” was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Stanley Kramer directed the Nazi trial drama Judgment at Nuremberg before Ship of Fools, and undoubtedly it was good preparation, because Fools, which is based on Katherine Ann Porter’s book, is a monument to tragedy.

As an ocean liner heads for Hitler’s Germany, our host, a cynical dwarf (Michael Dunn), ridicules the lurid and morally blank lives of his fellow passen­gers. The women (Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Ashley, Simone Signoret) would do just about anything for an exquisite outfit, a decent dancing partner, or, in Signoret’s case, a quick drug fix. Their male companions–selfish artist George Segal, rich oaf Lee Marvin, terminal whimp Oskar Werner, and Nazi-lover Jose Ferrer–are worse than the women.