Whenever I think of the stage performance defeating a classic film performance, Yul Brynner’s Best Actor victory over Kirk Douglas immediately comes to mind. In fact, it’s my own personal “Poster Child” of that very phenomenon. I don’t think many share my view on this example, because Kirk Douglas has always been a polarizing figure. Some don’t care for his intense portrayals; others can’t stand his chin dimple. Whatever the case, the fact that the creepy, monotone-voiced Brynner deserved an Oscar over Douglas’ greatest performance—as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life—is a travesty, indeed.
Douglas’ director, Vincente Minnelli, believed that "Kirk Douglas achieved a moving and memorable portrait of the artist—a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award." Douglas himself referred to his as a "very painful experience: "Not only did I look like Van Gogh, I was the same age  he was when he committed suicide.”
I wonder if there’ll ever be an actor who will play Vincent Van Gogh with the same ferocity and consummate skill as Douglas. Whatever the case, the role of Van Gogh was a perfect match for Kirk’s own flights of intensity and near-the-boiling-point line delivery, which barely contained his inner fire. Whether or not one likes the Douglas style—I’ve yet to meet a woman who likes him, so if you’re a fan of his, please come forward—and Douglas remains very much a “man’s man” actor. Even if one dislikes the actor’s style, I’d still state that his performance in Lust for Life would impress the average viewer.
It’s genuinely surprising that Kirk lost, especially since it was his third career nomination, the others being in 1949 for the boxing film Champion and in 1952 for playing a tyrannical and ultimately desperate Hollywood producer in The Bad and the Beautiful. But as we know, Hollywood often awards those who’ve “paid their dues”--unless it means lavishing too much praise and awards on a “new sensation", which is what they did for Yul Brynner, the Best Actor winner in 1956. But really: was that "Shall We Dance" number really reason enough to give the Oscar to Yul Brynner?
It’s understandable why Brynner won, because 1956 was a career year for him in terms of his time in the public spotlight. In 1956, Yul appeared in two turgid epics: The Ten Commandments (a Best Picture nominee) and Anastasia (winning Ingrid Bergman another Best Actress Oscar), which further boosted his stock. In fact, all five of the Best Picture nominees were turgid epics and in my view, one of the worst years for Best Picture nominees. With Yul’s mug plastered everywhere in promotion of those hollow and creatuvely empty epics, it’s no wonder he won. Oscar loves to bestow itself upon those who have moneymaking or appearances in other films during the same year.
Compared to the three colorful and splashy epics that Brynner appeared in, Lust for Life must’ve seemed like a low-budget art film by comparison. It certainly helped that Yul played his King and I role on Broadway over 4525 times and let’s never forget how much Oscar loves to award performances that originate on the stage. The stage often gets glorified by film actors who disdain the cheap commercialism and empty spectacle of movies (though they love the money film roles offer), so it’s no wonder Academy voters heap awards on the “only true legitimate” performing arena.
It’s also been established that Hollywood loves to give awards to “exotic” performers in the often-mistaken notion that foreign performers are somehow more worthy than their American counterparts. They have been more deserving many times in the past, just not in 1956. It’s certainly polite of them to favor international performers, but when one looks at the list of American actors who lose to the international flavor of the month (particularly in recent decades), it becomes a semi-annual travesty.
Brynner would go on playing stone-faced, monotone “tough guys” with his peculiar voice and get acted off the screen by the likes of Steve McQueen and Richard Benjamin. Meanwhile, Kirk’s career as an actor, author, director, and producer would bring forth numerous memorable works in a career that has endured to this day. Brynner may now be best known for a posthumous lung cancer public service announcement; type in “Yul Brynner” on Youtube and see what comes up first—it sure ain’t The King and I.