Janet Leigh/Psycho VS Liz Taylor/Butterfield 8 at the Oscars in 1960
SPOILERS for Butterfield 8
For some years now, I have championed Psycho as the Hitchcock movie that really COULD have, and SHOULD have, won some major Oscars for Alfred Hitchcock. Best Picture and Best Director , to start. The winner in both categories for 1960 was Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which was a great movie, but not the kind of "unbeatable juggernaut" that Ben-Hur was in 1959 and West Side Story in 1961. If Psycho had been given the respect it deserved, it COULD have taken out The Apartment with Oscar voters.
The reality of the 1960 Oscars(held in 1961) was that while Hitchcock WAS nominated for Best Director for Psycho, the movie itself did not get a Best Picture nomination(which killed Hitchcock's chances.) Psycho got four Oscar nominations in all -- Hitchcock, Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress, and two in the fish-in-a-barrel "black and white categories"(Art Direction and Cinematography.) Psycho lost all of its nominations to The Apartment, save one: Janet Leigh as Best Supporting Actress lost to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry for what writer Stephen Rebello called her "abrupt about-face as a trollop" after Oklahoma and Carousel.
For this post, I'll ignore the egregious series of Oscar snubs that Psycho suffered(Picture! Perkins! Herrmann! Film Editing! Adapted Screenplay! Balsam!) and focus on Janet Leigh, who WAS nominated.
A formula I've offered for some years is: "Anthony Perkins should have been nominated, and won, for Best Actor -- and Janet Leigh should have been moved from the Best Supporting Actress column to the Best Actress column -- and won over Liz Taylor for Butterfield 8."
It made sense to me. This would allow "Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh" to be honored for the ages for their roles as the most famous psycho and the most famous victim in film history, and would take note of the fact that while Janet Leigh dies at the 47-49 minute mark in Psycho(it takes a couple of minutes to die!), she dominates all the scenes she is in at the "Best Actress" level. She has a LOT of screen time, far more than Anthony Hopkins had to win Best Actor for "Silence of the Lambs."
I based this assertion on the fact that Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8 was clearly inferior to Janet Leigh in Psycho, and that Butterfield 8 as a movie was inferior to Psycho as a movie.
One problem, though: I never saw Butterfield 8.
Until now. In the past few days. HBO Max had it so I was like, "oh, time to check out my theory after all these decades."
In a lifetime of movie-going and movie-watching, there have been the movies that I have ENTHUSIASTICALLY watched (Jaws and The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and the movies that I have DUTIFULLY watched -- certain Oscar bait, certain old-time classics. And finally, what I call "task movies."
Butterfield 8 is a "task movie." I watched it to get a sense of what Liz Taylor did right to get an Oscar in the year that Janet Leigh could not. I realize that I am not matching "apples to apples" here - Shirley Jones was Leigh's actual supporting actress competition - but for my theory to hold, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane needs to be Best Actress level.
I tell ya, in the beginning , I was a little worried. Butterfield 8 (henceforth, BU8) opens over a long, long take of Elizabeth Taylor(henceforth Liz) sleeping in bed, alone. I mean MINUTES of her sleeping -- one senses "Best Actress" concentration right there. And she awakens. Honestly I just saw this thing and I can't remember if she was supposed to be naked or was in her slip. Anyway, she awakens and finds a note from a man with $250. (Cut to: Laurence Harvey, getting on a "down elevator.") She scrawls in lipstick on the mirror: NO SALE.
That's good, Hitchcockian "pure cinema storytelling." 1960 "pushing the envelope" tradition: Liz has spent the night with a man. He has left money. She is rejecting it. So: "loose woman" or prostitute?
BU8 is very much one of those late Hays Code movies where the sexual aspects are front and center at all times, but in which nothing of sex is shown and -- crucially -- people get punished at the end FOR their sexuality. (Recall Dwight MacDonald writing of the shower scene: "There is a Hays Code morality to the shower scene: look what necking, thieving girls get.)
BU8 -- versus Psycho -- is also a plush and lush, widescreen Technicolor movie(Oscar nommed for its color cinematography), so it lacks that weird low-budget tackiness that makes Psycho so powerful.
I'll cut to the chase and say it: I found BU8 to be a bad movie, badly written(and I thought novelist John O'Hara was taken seriously -- is this HIS dialogue?), melodramatically overacted (not so much by Liz, but by everybody else) and far more interested in "the American moral norm" (the cheating man MUST return to his boring, sexless wife) than in exploring carnality.