As they loosened its production code in the 1960s, Hollywood focused more on grittier character driven films that finally gave way to the New Hollywood era at the end of the decade. News names like Warren Betty and Jon Voight were breaking through, while Sidney Poitier smashed the color barrier in 1963 with his historic win. Of course, older stars like Burt Lancaster and John Wayne also received their due, making the 1960s one of the most interesting decades in Oscar history.
In only his second nomination, Burt Lancaster earned his career’s only Academy Award for his portrayal of the titular Gantry, a drunken womanizing preacher who partners with unsuspecting Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) in building her dream tabernacle. Dishonest, but charming, the unscrupulous Gantry jeopardizes Sister Sharon’s dreams when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of a prostitute (Shirley Jones) who lures him into an uncompromising position. Lancaster’s tour-de-force performance won him the Oscar over Trevor Howard in Sons and Lovers, Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.
Though the film was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, Austrian actor Maximilian Schell brought home one of only two Oscars for his performance in Stanley Kramer’s stellar reenactment of the infamous postwar trials that convicted 16 Nazis of war crimes. Schell portrayed fictional defense attorney Hans Rolfe, who attempts to use the United States’ own support of eugenics and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 that lead directly to the German invasion of Poland. Schell’s standout performance allowed him to triumph over competition that included Charles Boyer in Fanny, Paul Newman in The Hustler, Spencer Tracy in Judgment at Nuremberg and Stuart Whitman in The Mark.
Having been nominated four previous times, Gregory Peck finally won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved screen characters of all time. As Finch, Peck projected strength, morality and fortitude in his portrayal of a Southern small town lawyer who defends a black man (Brock Peters) wrongly accused of rape while teaching his two children about the evils of racism. Peck’s iconic performance – one that was closely identified with the man himself – earned him the Oscar over Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce – Italian Style and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
In 1963, Oscar history was made when distinguished actor Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. The young Poitier was in top form as Homer Smith, an aimless handyman who helps a group of nuns tend to their Arizona farm. While the film itself was rather formulaic, Poitier’s performance was one of his best and earned him the Oscar over the likes of Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Rex Harrison in the epic box office failure Cleopatra and Paul Newman in Hud.
After becoming a victim to history the year before, British actor Rex Harrison took home the one and only Oscar of his career for performance in George Cukor’s classic musical My Fair Lady. Harrison played Henry Higgins, an arrogant and misogynistic elocution teacher who takes great sport in attempting to transform a lowly cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), into a proper English lady by teaching her the Queen’s English. In the end, while faced with the prospect of never seeing Eliza again, Higgins sheds his stilted demeanor in realizing that he actually cares for her. Harrison triumphed over the competition that included Richard Burton in Becket, Peter O’Toole in Becket, Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek and Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.
A musical Western spoof that starred Jane Fonda as prim schoolmarm fending off land developers, Cat Ballou was Lee Marvin whose dual roles earned him his only Academy Award in his career’s sole nomination. Marvin played a ruthless – and noseless – villain who murder’s Fonda’s eccentric father (John Marley) while also portraying a former gunslinger turned hopeless drunk to help her in her quest for revenge. Marvin’s dynamic performance earned him the Oscar over the likes of 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.
In his first nomination for Best Actor, British actor Paul Scofield earned a surprising victory for his portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann’s hit adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play. Scofield’s More stands up for principle by refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) determination to split from the church so he can divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), leading to him losing his own head in a public execution. Scofield’s winning performance won him the Oscar over Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Michael Caine in Alfie and Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles.
While his costar Sidney Poitier had the film’s most memorable line, it was Rod Steiger who walked away with Oscar glory for his stellar performance as a small town sheriff who slowly breaks through his veil of racism to solve a murder. Steiger played Bill Gillespie, a racist Mississippi sheriff who arrests a black man (Poitier) for murder, only to discover he’s the top homicide expert in Philadelphia. As they work together to solve the case, Gillespie grows to respect and even admire Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs. Steiger won the Oscar over four other great performances that year which included Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Warren Betty in Bonnie and Clyde, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Though his career suffered following his only Academy Award, Cliff Robertson nonetheless turned in an exemplary performance as a mentally challenged man in Ralph Nelson’s melodramatic adaptation of Flowers for Algernon. As the titular Charly, Robertston goes from a 30-year-old man with mental retardation to receiving an experimental treatment that allows him to experience genius-level intelligence, only to regress back to his original state. Robertson’s heart-tugging performance won him Oscar over the likes of Alan Arkin in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Alan Bates in The Fixer, Ron Moody in Oliver! and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter.
While never considered to be a dynamic actor, John Wayne still turned in an Oscar-caliber performance as the cantankerous Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit. More than a play on Wayne’s classic Western mystique, the film allowed him to subvert some of his own conventions with humor and sentimentality, as Cogburn partners with a determined 14-year-old girl to find the man (Jeff Corey) who murdered her father. Wayne’s lone Academy Award came at the expense of competition that included Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.