Friday, 7 August 2015

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1959: Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur

Stephen Boyd did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning the Golden Globe, for portraying Messala in Ben-Hur.

Stephen Boyd perhaps suffered one of the worst snubs in Oscar history, even ignoring the quality of the performance it seems bizarre that he was not nominated. His film was loved by the academy winning 11 of the 12 awards it was nominated for. Boyd must have had the equivalent of buzz at the time judging by the fact that he won the Golden Globe the only real precursor at the time. It's only made odder by the fact that an actor was nominated and won for the supporting category that being Hugh Griffith for his comedic turn as a friendly Sheik. The only explanation I suppose can be found in the role and performance itself so I might as well take a look at it, that's what I'm here for anyways. Stephen Boyd's Messala is actually introduced before our hero Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) even appears. Boyd's first appearance is fitting as he rides his horse in with other Roman centurions exuding the confidence of a seasoned soldier within his eyes though there is a nostalgia for his boyhood home.

At first he seems a man of two minds as he proclaims in all his bluster about making the region far more secure for the Roman Empire, but he is very easily dissuaded by such talk particularly when he hears that his old friend Judah has come to visit him. There is something particularity brilliant about Boyd's choices in his first scene with Heston. Boyd portrays a constant fascination with Judah's very being of existence. He's excessively happy to see him, and Boyd plays these scenes in such a physical fashion. Physical in terms of his interactions with Heston. Boyd is always touching Heston throughout the scene and often lingers quite long in these moments. Although Heston plays it as just an old friend greeting another Boyd does not. Boyd plays it as though Messala had formerly been Ben-Hur lover, or at the very least had always wished to be. This relationship certainly is never stated in the film, rather it's all in Boyd's performance. It's extremely effective in creating the first divide between the two since they seem on different wavelengths of how this relationship should continue. The most remarkable moment in this regard is when Messala hopes they can continue to be good friends, that good friends given a certain accentuation in Boyd's delivery to mean more, which is countered bluntly by Judah rearranging the meaning since one is a Roman the other a Jew.

Boyd continues to carry this to the succeeding scenes where Boyd continues this interest as he always chooses to glance more often to Judah, than to Judah's sister who is interested in him. This is until Judah refuses to give Messala names of potential Jewish rebels, but at the same time Judah still does not look at Messala the way Messala looks at him. Now Boyd realizing this subtext to the character of Messala adds more than simply making his and Judah's past a bit more complex. Boyd utilizes this to make Judah's refusal seem all the damaging to Messala. The intensity Boyd brings in the moment where Judah "betrays" him is particularly powerful. Boyd does not show Messala in the moment as that commander who wants names, he brings a greater emotional quality in his face, of a man whose been denied by the man he believed loved him. Boyd does not lose this when Messala decides to have Judah and his family arrested for accidentally causing the injury of a Roman. Boyd brings a cold demeanor as he has them taken away, but there's a uncomfortable rigidity that Boyd brings as though he is still fighting with himself over this decision. Boyd keeps this idea as Judah gets the chance to confront him. Boyd portrays Messala in thought as though there is still a second thought in his mind, before assuring Judah that he has condemned both Judah and his family.

There is one last emotional outburst, as Boyd brings a searing hatred again in Messala words as he says that he begged Judah for help, but with that Boyd naturally ends the old Messala as he assumes the role of the cruel Roman he wished to create. In this way Boyd is equally effective, and I almost wonder if that's the reason he was not Oscar nominated, maybe he was just too good at being this sort of villain. After all when Judah swears revenge saying he'll return, Boyd's delivery of merely asking "return?" is so perfectly smug and despicable suggesting full well that Messala knows he's given Judah a death sentence. After that scene Boyd disappears for along time in the film, as it follows Judah through his life as a prisoner of Rome. When we finally return to Messala Boyd shows him to have apparently assumed his role as the fierce man of role in his confident rather smarmy demeanor. Boyd is great at this but what I love about his work though is that he still does not make Messala one note. When Judah makes his reappearance known Boyd actually delivers a very realistic reaction of a subdued disbelief with his tough exterior, and also even a fear of what Judah might do. Even in his scene with the Sheik that's all about ego, which again Boyd delivers incredibly well when taunting the Sheik, he still does well to subtly show that Judah is no laughing matter to him. When the other Romans doubt his return, Boyd is excellent by expressing how Messala is very mindful of Judah's return.

This is put aside for the chariot race where the two are pit against each other. Boyd is fantastic in this scene as he has Messala fully embrace his status, and actually seems to revel in it particularly when he loudly asks for Jupiter to give him victory. Boyd importantly does not let the sheer spectacle of the chariot race overshadow his performance, always keeping the villainy of Messala present, presenting such pompousness in his manner as well as such a viciousness in his eyes as purposefully tries to kill the other racers particularly Judah. This ends in his brutal defeat though where he is trampled by a group of horses. Boyd is simply amazing in this final scene as he depicts every bit of Messala's pain, from the straining in his body, and face, to his voice where every breath seems through a collapsed lung. Boyd does not leave it to the makeup he creates Messala's broken body, and it must be said that Boyd dies well. As remarkable as his physical performance is in the scene, that's not all there is. Once last final time Boyd brings the two sides to Messala. There is a certain somberness in his voice as though perhaps there is the regret of a better man as he asks if Judah is happy to see his enemy defeated. Boyd though still leaves hate in the man as he portrays such a vile and final joy in Messala as he is allowed to tell Judah the horrible fate of his family. This is an outstanding performance by Stephen Boyd as he so well realizes Messala as the despicable fiend he should be, but brings a surprising amount of depth to the character as well. His work is one of the most memorable aspects of this epic and deserved to recognized with it.

85 comments:

Robert MacFarlane said...

The homoerotic subtext alone turns this from a standard villain to a masterful one. A shame that as an actor, Boyd seemed to be one-and-done after this. His work in The Oscar has been sung of by the bards for many a moon, usually in derisive jest.

Anonymous said...

Louis: What are your full thoughts on Virginia Woolf and The Graduate as films? And the ratings for The Graduate, Sierra Madre, Key Largo, African Queen, Lawrence, River Kwai, The Original Star Wars trilogy and Bonnie and Clyde.

Matt Mustin said...

Alright, let's not get carried away with this rating films thing.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess I got too carried away. Sorry about that, Matt.

Psifonian said...

Brilliant work, and it's criminal he didn't get a nod while his co-star, fun as he was, won.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, Boyd was amazing, it's a pity it's his only great performance.

Psifonian said...

I saw "Mr. Holmes" when I went on vacation, and I found it a lovely surprise. It's light but far from slight, and it packed a surprising emotional wallop. McKellen is in top form, and even though he is still hale and hearty, there was a deep sense of melancholia watching him, remembering that Christopher Lee just died and that there will be a huge void when McKellen goes, and you know he'll be acting right up to the very end, and seeing McKellen's ancient Holmes totter about and wither away is heartbreaking to watch. As superb as he is, I found myself equally impressed with Milo Parker, who plays the young boy who looks up to Sherlock. Child actors rarely impress me, but this kid's got chops, charisma, and more than enough presence to stand alongside a legend like McKellen. Keep an eye on him. The film also deftly juggles three or four subplots and timelines with alacrity, never missing a beat.

Keith Allison said...

Yay! When I saw the film, I thought for sure that this had to be Hugh Griffith. There's no way that it wasn't the winning performance of the year. Ah, such a shame. Brilliant review.

Anonymous said...

He was brilliant, he should have been nominated and won. I like Griffith even less than you guys, I thought he wasn't very funny and was absolutely nothing special. Still better than his ghastly performance in Tom Jones.

Calvin Law said...

Psifonian: Glad you loved Mr Holmes as much as I did. Would it be in your top 5 for the year?

Louis: Thoughts and ratings on the rest of the cast?

Calvin Law said...

As in top 5 for the year, so far

RatedRStar said...

One thing that is clever about films from the 50s, more so than the 60s, is that they seemed to always get away with having this homosexual subtext hanging over the film without actually saying it, like with Landau in North By Northwest, Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause and Boyd in this.

Especially Mineo how did they let him get away with his performance lol a ten year old could have guessed that he had the hots for Dean lol =D.

luke higham said...

Expected, but extremely happy with this review and rating. :)

luke higham said...
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Calvin Law said...

Everyone: your top 10 films of the 1950s?

1. Vertigo
2. Stalag 17
3. Rear Window
4. Ikiru
5. Bridge on the River Kwai
6. Marty
7. Hiroshima Mon Amour
8. Anatomy of a Murder
9. 12 Angry Men
10. Outcast of the Islands

luke higham said...
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luke higham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
luke higham said...

Calvin:
1. Vertigo
2. The Bridge On The River Kwai
3. Rashomon
4. On The Waterfront
5. Seven Samurai
6. Ikiru
7. The Seventh Seal
8. The Quiet Man
9. Ben-Hur
10. North By Northwest

RatedRStar said...

Calvin: My lists keep changing all the time lol for now though I will say

1) On The Waterfront
2) Vertigo
3) Rashomon
4) Seven Samurai
5) North By Northwest
6) A Place In The Sun
7) Sunset Boulevard
8) Rear Window
9) A Streetcar Named Desire
10) Paths Of Glory

Robert MacFarlane said...

Uh...

1. The Seventh Seal
2. The Bridge on the River Kwai
3. The Night of the Hunter
4. Seven Samurai
5. East of Eden
6. Sunset Boulevard
7. Rashomon
8. Giant
9. The 400 Blows
10. Vertigo

Michael McCarthy said...

Psifonian: Really? I thought Parker was kind of obnoxious. Then again, I hated how that character was written.

1. Rashômon
2. All Bout Eve
3. On the Waterfront
4. Seven Samurai
5. Vertigo
6. The Bridge on the River Kwai
7. North by Northwest
8. Ikiru
9. Touch of Evil
10. Ugetsu

Calvin Law said...

Psifonian loving Mr Holmes, instills in me great faith that Louis' correlation of tastes will bring McKellen a strong 5.

Psifonian said...

He's still not my win this year, though. ;)

luke higham said...

Psifonian: What is your Lead win so far.

Psifonian said...

Dano and Cusack share it.

Calvin Law said...

Oh wow, what are your thoughts on Love & Mercy as a whole then?

Anonymous said...

My top 10 films of the 50's
1. Vertigo
2. Seven Samurai
3. Rashomon
4. The Night of the Hunter
5. The Bridge of the River Kwai
6. Rear Window
7. On the Waterfront
8. From Here to Eternity
9. Ben-Hur
10. Touch of Evil

Psifonian said...

https://psifonian.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/love-mercy-bill-pohlad-2015/

Robert MacFarlane said...

@Psifonian: I've been meaning to ask you this concerning your review of Slow West; Did you really hear Fassbender with an American accent? Because it sounded like his normal Irish one to me, plus his character even mentions Irish heritage.

Michael McCarthy said...

....Dano and Cusack? Really? Cusack was fine but really one note I thought. Dano had a few very good moments but mostly couldn't get past how aggressively formulaic his side of the story was. Also I think both performances were hurt by the fact that they never felt like they were playing the same man, even at different stages of his life.

luke higham said...

Psifonian: It sounded Irish to me too.

ruthiehenshallfan99 said...

Calvin: Here are mine... My tastes are very different from others.

1. Cinderella
2. The Ten Commandments
3. Ben-Hur
4. Sunset Boulevard
5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
6. A Streetcar Named Desire
7. All About Eve
8. Sleeping Beauty
9. On the Waterfront
10. Imitation of Life

Fun fact: All of them are in my top 50. I also have Vertigo, but still need to see it.

John Smith said...

Louis, what your top ten performances from Kurosawa's movies?

Psifonian said...

It still sounded a bit "off," but it's a vast improvement over what he's done before.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Yeah, I'm still pretty certain that wasn't an American accent or even attempt at one. Then again, I don't care enough about Slow West to debate it.

Matt Mustin said...

People's natural accents aren't always completely consistent.

Robert MacFarlane said...

It sounded the same as the one he has in interviews, "Oirish" dialect and all.

luke higham said...

Matt: Don't get me wrong, I like Fassbender's work and Accent work has never been a deal-breaker for me, unless it's really bad like Sharlto Copley in Maleficent or Justin Theroux in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, but Robert and I just wanted to point that out. :)

Anonymous said...

Luke: In his review of Paul Muni for Louis Pasteur, Louis stated that he didn't do a French accent. I think he was trying to do one.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: I haven't yet seen Pasteur and I probably won't, but just as Louis said, most actors used their own accents for characters of foreign origin during the Golden Era.

Anonymous said...

Luke: I don't know exactly what to think of performances of characters of foreign origin without accents.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: It's Understandable. I remember having that problem years ago, though Louis changed my views considerably since then.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Your worst film of the year so far.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Well, Hurt gave a masterful performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, along with Julia. I guess that's what matters. But I still think he should have bothered mastering an accent.

Anonymous said...

Luke: I would say the Fantastic Four.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Your thoughts on the film.

Anonymous said...

Luke: It's just awful. Doom should have gotten more screentime. I believe it should have been like a two hour film. The four main actors were just okay and Kebbell as Doom is just...bad. The third worst villain performance in a Marvel movie. The worst villain performance in a Marvel movie is Jamie Foxx as Electro while the second worst is that guy who did the Red Skull in the 1990 Captain America. I think that it's just as bad as the earlier two movies.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Here's a tweet by Trank: "A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You'll probably never see it. That's reality though."

Anonymous said...

Luke: Oh, his name is Scott Paulie, the guy who played Red Skull in the 1990 Captain America. Trank then deleted that tweet, by the way.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: I do not believe him one bit. :)

My thoughts are pretty much the same as yours, though it is slightly watchable, which is something I can't say for Spider-Man 3.

I completely give up on Marvel (With Thor/X-Men as exceptions) when it comes to delivering an above average villain.

Anonymous said...

Luke: I still find Spider-Man 3 watchable. Jamie Foxx as Mike Tyson will be just as awful as Will Smith was as Ali.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Fair enough, I just hate Maguire so fucking much in that film and for a film that I was highly anticipating when I was 12, it was a shambolic mess.

Agreed, Foxx just can't exude menace to save his life, no matter, how hard Scorsese tries.

Anonymous said...

Luke: When people saw Foxx in Ray, the Academy was vowed by his performance and gave him the Oscar. Same with Cooper in Sergeant York in Muni in Pasteur. I guess that when people around the world saw Muni play such a part, they suddenly started to call him the greatest actor in the world.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Yeah, I know that, I know it's an obvious thing to say, but I completely hate it when people hype those performances up to absurd levels.

Edward Norton has called for all FYC ads to be banned, which is a great idea, in my book.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Norton's the man. Arquette's performance in Birdman was also severely overhyped.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: You mean, Arquette in Boyhood.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Oh, yeah! Sorry about that. But it's always the same. Many performances are overhyped. It's very typical. Chris Cooper in Adaptation is one of those overhyped...can't think of any other one.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: E.g. Javier Bardem in Biutiful.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Or Edward Norton himself in Birdman.

Yeah, I know I'm the only one who thinks that. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Luke: You're right. And Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven and Still Alice, which the latter was overhyped for the right reasons. Still Alice was average at best, but Moore's performance was great. I feel sorry for Joanne Woodward, knowing she has Alzheimer's.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, I'm changing my prediction.
1. Boyd
2. Schildkraut
3. Welles
4. Mason
5. Olivier

Robert MacFarlane said...

You can't. You can only change after the first review.

luke higham said...

Robert: Is their any chance Schildkraut could win.

Anonymous said...

Luke: there.

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Typo *There.

Robert MacFarlane said...

No, you can't change your prediction after the first review. It's a rule.

luke higham said...

Robert: That's not what I meant, Do you think Schildkraut has any chance of winning this lineup, plus I do have him at #1.

luke higham said...

Robert: I've known for more than a year and a half about that rule.

Matt Mustin said...

I think after this review, Boyd has it pretty much locked.

Anonymous said...

Robert: Well, I didn't know about such rule. Sorry.

luke higham said...

Matt: Penultimate reviews within a line-up tend to have a great success rate, that's why I'm asking.

Michael McCarthy said...

Luke: The penultimate review for the last 3 sets all won, so by those odds I think the chances of Louis changing it up are fairly high.

luke higham said...

Michael McCarthy: I have enough time to get the requests I want, so I'm not bothered if I lose, though I actually do want Boyd to win.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Who do you think will win overall? Scott, Boyd and Schildkraut?

Anonymous said...

Louis what are your thoughts and ratings for the three Tom Jones nominated actresses and the globe nominated Joan Greenwood?

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Boyd. Since there are those who are predicting a five for Olivier, Scott might not even make it into the top five, though I think he will.

luke higham said...

Anonymous:
York - 3.5(She's incredibly sweet and quite charming. She's not meant to be much more than that other than to portray her sometimes disgust with Tom. York handles those scenes as well, and she's quite good in a simple role)

Evans - 4(It's a role that she played more than once which is the spunky old lady quick to one liners. Well Evans does this quite well and she is pretty funny particularly in the scene where she handles the robber)

Cilento - 3(She's very one note of just kinda being perpetually randy. She's decent enough at this, but I did think she was kinda forgettable)

Redman - 4(She's good in her other scenes but really her performance is all about the eating scene with Albert Finney. Well she's great in that scene, and along with the sound they make that the most memorable scene in the film)

Anonymous said...

Ratings/thoughts on Lucie Mannheim and Peggy Aschroft in The 39 Steps? And do you think Madeleine Carroll in the same film is lead, supporting, borderline?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: He considers Carroll lead.

Anonymous said...

Hey, guys, has any of you saw David Lean's Hobson's Choice and/or Summertime? If, yes, what are your ratings in their main characters?

Just watched them, and Hepburn in Summertime, although having some pretty good quiet moments, has a bunch of other histrionic ones, especially the first scene.

In Hobson's Choice, on the other hand, the protagonistas are awesome. Mills handles his arc pretty well; Laughton was the best the part allowed him to be; and de Banzie is the great star of it, carrying the dualities with tenderness and strength. 4.5, 4 and 5, respectivelly. Great actors film, I think that, if you haven't seen it yet, you will quite like it.

omar! said...

Louis what Are your thoughts and ratings about the actress nominated in the leading role of this year?

Calvin Law said...

I've seen both a while ago. I thoroughly enjoyed both films though, and I would say Hepburn gives my second favourite performance of hers in Summertime. She's very funny and moving and I would not hesitate in giving her a 4.5. As for Hobson's Choice I feel it really is a director's film. I'd give 4's to all 3 protagonists. Although I do need a rewatch.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen much of Hepburn, but Summertime may be the performance of hers I liked the least, being, I don't know, a 2.5 or a 3. So far, my top 5 of hers is:
1. Lion in the Winter - 5
2. Long Day Journey Into Night - 5
3. Bringing Up Baby - 4.5
4. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - 4.5
5. On Golden Pond - 4

And yours, guys?

Hobson's Choice is, for sure, a director's film, as all the others from David Lean, but is more centered on the characters, without the visual greatness of his later epics, and really works beacuse of the success of the performances, that could go really wrong.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

Hawkins - 3.5(I believe he was contractually required for all epics of the period, and he brings his usual commanding presence which works well for his high ranking Roman. In addition in just a few scenes he believably creates the transition of his character to strict commander to loving father)

Harareet - 2.5(Her performance I've always felt to be slightly on the melodramatic side of things. Not terrible but not great either)

Scott - 3(Basically a reprise of the Ten Commandments, but again she's good in almost the same role)

O'Donnell - 2.5(Wife of brother obligation. She's fine though)

Jaffe - 3(He's not given too much to do, but adds a nice bit of character as he usually does)

Currie - 3.5(Brings a considerable poignancy and power to his scenes, and does a great deal to help realize Jesus's off screen or back presence in the film)

Thring - 3(He's appropriately regal as Pilot and I've always liked him in his final scene with Heston as he does well to technically realize depth to the Roman intention)

John Smith:

1. Toshiro Mifune - Rashomon
2. Takashi Shimura - Ikiru
3. Tsutomu Yamazaki - High and Low
4. Toshiro Mifune - Yojimbo
5. Masayuki Mori - Rashomon
6. Toshiro Mifune - High and Low
7. Machiko Kyo - Rashomon
8. Isuzu Yamada - Throne of Blood
9. Toshiro Mifune - Throne of Blood
10. Toshiro Mifune - Red Beard



Anonymous:

Greenwood - 4(I've rather liked Greenwood in every thing I've seen her in Tom Jones included. She's deliciously cold and manipulative, while always being wholly alluring as well)

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