The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1940

Oh, 1940, a year which will live in…

Actually, 1940 lives pretty much in obscurity, mostly because 1941 lives in infamy. This year is relegated to forgotten status, even though I bet if more people looked at it they’d probably have problems with the end results. I’m talking of several categories, not just Best Picture.

The reason 1940, especially the Best Actor race, is important is because, aside from how staggeringly wrong they got it, it’s actually the first real obvious makeup Oscar on record. The early Oscars, like Mary Pickford’s, are more career achievement and more — “these new awards just started recognizing the ‘best’ in the industry, and you’ve been considered aces for a while now, so we feel you ought to have one.” I don’t count those. This is the first real instance where they gave a performer an Oscar irregardless of film or performance. It’s pretty clear when you watch the film that the performance is not very worthy as a Best Actor-winning performance. And it’s also pretty clear which ones on this list are. So, in terms of history, this is the beginning of the cycle of makeup Oscars that continues to this day.

Also, so we can place this in context of what else happened this year, Best Picture went to Rebecca, Best Director went to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath, Best Actress went to Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, in case you were going to skip over the name for lack of recognition) for Kitty Foyle, Best Supporting Actor went to Walter Brennan for The Westerner (his third), and Best Supporting Actress went to Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath (Good ol’ Ma).


And the nominees were…

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator

Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath

Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Laurence Olivier, Rebecca

James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story

Chaplin — Everybody knows Charlie Chaplin. He was the biggest star in Hollywood until the talkies happened. Then he continued to show his brilliance by continuing to release amazing silent pictures even after Hollywood stopped making them. The Great Dictator was his first talking picture.

To show you how audacious this movie was at the time, keep in mind when it was released. This was before we entered the war, back when we were trying to stay out of everything. We basically shoved Hitler under the carpet. People knew what was going on, but we just didn’t talk about it. It was “Europe’s business.” And here comes Chaplin, releasing a film that not only highlights all the atrocities Hitler was committing, but making fun of them. And making fun of them intelligently.

I know it’s shocking — it’s because this would never happen nowadays. Even if someone had the balls to make fun of something major going on in the world and got the funding to do so — I highly doubt it would be done intelligently. It would be more like Uwe Boll’s Postal.

So, Chaplin goes into this, playing dual roles. First, he plays essentially his Tramp character, in the middle of World War I. He has a comic scene as he tries to fight, and it’s funny and all. Then, he gets injured and loses his memory. Cut to twenty years later and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of the title, also played by Chaplin, is such a perfect caricature that it’s as though history made it this way just so he could do it. The Tramp character looked kind of like Hitler as it was (it was that moustache). Now Chaplin is not only using that similarity, he’s also parodying a man that’s killing millions of people across the ocean. So Chaplin plays Hynkel, and he gives all these crazy speeches in gibberish that sounds like German, and he spends the movie satirizing this man and his conquest (he even has Jack Oakie play a bumbling Mussolini). Also, we start cutting back to the barber, who is living without any memory of the last twenty years and knows nothing about Hynkel. And as it would happen, he falls in love with a Jewish woman who is being hunted by Hynkel’s secret police. And he swears he’ll get her out of the country. And then people start confusing him for Hynkel, and things then start to get really crazy.

It’s a great set of performances. Chaplin gets to do five things at once in this movie. He gets to parody Hitler, speak on film (and let people hear that great voice of his), continue his tramp character while also not diminishing it by giving him lines, give a great speech that puts forth everything he believes (and is just a beautifully delivered monologue) —

Check it out, it’s spellbinding:

— and he gets to show off his superb filmmaking abilities. To really see how great he is at making these wonderfully lyrical scenes, watch these two:

It’s an incredible, incredible performance. I’m still undecided about whether or not I’d vote for him because—

Fonda — Henry Fonda delivers the performance of a lifetime in this movie. This is his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington role. I guess it’s only fitting that the only person he could lose to is Mr. Smith himself. But enough about that, more about the film.

We should all know about The Grapes of Wrath. Family, farm, ex convict comes home to discover the Depression has ruined the family. They set out west to find work. We see the effects of the Depression first hand, and show how the working man will triumph no matter what happens.

I can’t say enough about this movie. It’s one of those rare perfect films. And really, should have won Fonda the Oscar. It’s bad enough he had to wait 41 years to get one after this (and also a direct continuation of the makeup Oscar — though that one doesn’t seem like one as badly as this does).

Massey — Raymond Massey was born to play Abe Lincoln. It’s like Morgan Freeman and Nelson Mandela. You can’t see anyone else in the role. And the dude really didn’t do any other films in his career that he was remembered for. He basically made his career playing Abe Lincoln. That was his major claim to fame. The Problem is, like all “perfect fit” roles, once you see him in it, it’s not astounding. You watch it and go, “Well, yeah, we knew he could do it.” And as a result, you get a performance that fits really well, evokes the person they’re playing, but also is one you can’t really find yourself ready to vote for.

Henry Fonda might have played a better Mr. Lincoln, but Raymond Massey is Abraham Lincoln. You watch this movie and just see how perfect the man is to play old Abe. But, like I said, as you watch him do it, it’s almost like watching Abe Lincoln instead of watching Raymond Massey play Abe Lincoln. You lose that distancing effect, which then distorts the performance. I think that’s what it is. Either way, you should at least check out clips from this movie, if you don’t want to see the film in its entirety (I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a standard Lincoln movie. There were quite a few back then. He was their (good) Nixon.), so you can see how well he fits as Lincoln. And I bet you’ll watch them and go, “Yeah, he was really good, but I can see why you wouldn’t want to vote for him.” There’s something about that “perfect fit” role…I can’t quite figure it out.

Olivier — Here’s Olivier now starting to get the hang of film acting. Being unable to vote for him in Wuthering Heights because I still saw the stage actor in him coming out — here’s a performance I’d have been more willing to vote for if Chaplin and Fonda weren’t so goddamned good.

Olivier plays the lord of a manor, who is on vacation, and is still troubled about his wife’s death, several years after the fact. She’s the Rebecca of the title. And he meets Joan Fontaine, who is this young and naive girl, and he finds himself falling in love with her while on vacation. And the first half hour of the movie is very light — it’s a series of comic scenes of him trying to meet with her and get around her chauffeur who is trying to keep her away from all men she doesn’t approve of because she’s uppity and old-fashioned. And then they get married, and the movie starts to take a dark turn. Once they get married and move in together, Joan starts finding out just how strong Olivier’s attachment is to his dead wife. So much so that she causes waves when she decides she’s now the lady of the house.

And the rest of the film becomes about Fontaine trying to figure out what happened to Rebecca, which, I’m going to spoil, because, while it’s the focal point of the film, to me it’s the least interesting part about it. The rest of the film is interesting and the reveal just seemed anticlimactic because you knew what was going to happen. It’s a fucking Hitchcock movie. (Not a true one, mind you, in case you were expecting/avoiding it for those reasons.) You know what’s going to happen. It’s the artistry that makes it work. So we find out that she had a lot of affairs, and he kept it quietly to himself (strangely reminiscent of Olivier’s later years of his marriage), until one day she announces she’s pregnant. Then they have an argument and she ends up hitting her head and dying. And he covers it up as a suicide (with help), and then finds out that the wife only lied to him because she discovered she had terminal cancer, and only lied about being pregnant so he’d kill her (an assisted suicide kind of deal, though one he didn’t know about). So he’s living with the guilt of all that, and it’s making his marriage to his current wife difficult. There’s much more to the movie though, so don’t not see it based on my telling you that. It’s actually a really great film.

Olivier’s performance in the film works, because he gets to play many different emotions. However the real stars of the film are John Fontaine and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, Olivier’s faithful housekeeper (who is faithful to Rebecca and not Joan). Olivier’s performance isn’t really one you can vote for as a lead role, but it’s definitely one that should have been nominated. So, good job on all fronts. Though, I will say, against Stewart’s performance (just the performance), Olivier was more worth a vote.

Stewart — I hate to do this to Jimmy, because I love him. But this movie is nothing more than a glorified romantic comedy. Not even one I love, either. I like it, but I much prefer Bringing Up Baby to this one. At least that was laugh out loud funny, and had a better Grant/Hepburn pairing. This one is funny, but is more a respected movie than a favorite of mine. It’s about Hepburn and Grant being a socialite married couple who divorces on very nasty terms. And now she’s marrying a boring rich dude, mostly as a reaction to Grant, and now he comes back for the wedding, intending to ruin it as best he can (with the help of her family members, who still like him). And he hires two society reporters (well, one reporter and his photographer), Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey, to come and cover the wedding (even though Hepburn hates the press because they vilify her). And they show up to cover it, and, naturally, love happens. Stewart falls in love with Hepburn, even though Hussey is in love with Stewart, and all along Grant is trying to get Hepburn back. And then by the end of the film, Hepburn ends up remarrying Grant and Stewart is left to marry Hussey. Comedy of remarriage, basically. It’s a fine film, don’t think it’s bad because I think Stewart shouldn’t have won. This is purely a category thing. My bias doesn’t extend past the fact that Stewart won (like The King’s Speech. I fucking love that movie. It’s just, I don’t think it should have won).

Stewart’s performance is pretty standard, it seems. He plays the reporter, then gets drunk and gets to run around drunk, then he gets to fall in love with Hepburn and eventually gets shot down by her. That’s pretty much it. I saw nothing here to would make me think he should have won here. And even further — even Jimmy Stewart didn’t think this performance was good enough to earn him a win. The night of the ceremony, he wasn’t planing on attending at all. Then, someone who worked there (since they knew ahead of time who was going to win. Not the actors. Just the people who worked there. It wasn’t as secretly guarded as it is today), came and really suggested to him that he put on a tie and get over there. So if Jimmy Stewart didn’t think he was good enough to win that’s enough for me. It’s really just a standard comic performance and nothing more. It’s the equivalent of if Tom Cruise won Best Actor for Jerry Maguire. I wouldn’t have really been upset, but, it’s that type of role. Ultimately, it’s a romantic comedy. Bad comparison, I guess. The best example really is James Garner being nominated for Murphy’s Romance, but something tells me 90% of the people reading this wouldn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Let’s call it — if Tom Hanks won Best Actor for Sleepless in Seattle. How about that one? That’s really what this is the equivalent of. And you’re like, “But, he was in Forrest Gump. Cast Away. Philadelphia. You gave it to him for that?” That’s what this is.

My Thoughts: This is a very strong category. Four strong performances, four great actors. The overlap comes with Jimmy Stewart. He gives the only weak performance here and is the won that won. It’s a shame. He really should have gotten the Oscar the year before. Then I could have been heralding Robert Donat’s turn in Mr. Chips and telling people they need to see it because if he hadn’t have won, I could have pushed it as strongly as I’d like to. Either way, when it comes to voting in this category, it’s really between Chaplin and Fonda. It’s really a tossup, and my heart just goes with Henry Fonda. I think it’s because Chaplin was sort of pre-Oscars, and to me he didn’t need one to validate his career (though he did win three. One honorary for The Circus, for being brilliant, one honorary for being old and awesome, and a Best Original Score for Limelight, which is interesting because, the film was released in 1952, but because it never officially premiered in L.A. (those were the requirements back then) it technically was never eligible to compete for an Oscar. And so it got nominated in 1972, when it had an L.A. screening that counted as a premiere. And since The Godfather score was ineligible (because of some stupid technicality that was quickly brushed under the table so the Godfather Part II score coule win two years later), and everybody knows Chaplin wrote all his own scores (and brilliantly too, I might add. That score from The Kid is so incredible), he ended up winning the Oscar, a year after winning his honorary one. Great story, right?). So, I say, give it to Fonda. But both him and Chaplin deserve it more than Stewart did (for these specific roles. If we’re going by career achievements like Oscar does, then by all means Stewart was deserving.)

My Vote: Fonda

Should have won: Fonda. Or Chaplin. And really, against Stewart (in this role), Olivier too.

Is the result acceptable?: Not, but in a tiny sense, yes. Jimmy Stewart has an Oscar, so that result is a good one. That he won it in this race and not in the 1939 race (or for that matter, any of the other races he was in, specifically the 1950 and 1959 races. And I guess even the 1946 race.) is terribly disappointing, because this is the one time he was nominated where he truly didn’t deserve to win.

Performances I suggest you see: Fonda, Chaplin, Olivier.


5) Massey

4) Stewart

3) Olivier

2) Chaplin

1) Fonda


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