The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1931-1932

And we’re back with another three nominee category. I’m trying to accomplish two things with these: one, spread them out as much as possible, because, a three-person category feels like a cheat (and, if it’s like this one, really fucking difficult to pick, because, really, can you really say which one was the best?), and two, getting them out of the way as quickly as possible. Sure, a three-person category means less for me to write, but, it’s just less interesting. Plus I love talking about it, as much as the thought of actually writing because I have to feels like work, it’s easy once I get going. Seriously, get me talking about movies or Oscars, and I can just keep going.

So, 1931-1932, or as it’s best known in most circles, 1932. This is the year that made history that’s never been repeated (and never will). Grand Hotel won Best Picture without garnering a single nomination in any other category. That is — not win, surely other Oscar movies have won Best Picture without winning any other categories — the film won Best Picture without getting a single nomination outside of Best Picture. That’s — wow.

Other winners this year include Frank Borzage for Bad Girl — Borzage is one of the premier silent film directors and was a powerhouse in this era (he has two Best Director statues to prove it), but, I bet that unless you took a film class (or bought that awesome Murnau/Borzage at Fox boxset), you really have no idea who he is. Which is a shame — Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and that’s it. Remember, no supporting categories at this point. They were still figuring shit out.

Also of note, this is the only tie in the history of the Best Actor award, and the second in Academy history (in major categories. The other three were two shorts and a Best Documentary, but really, who cares about those?), next to the Best Actress tie of 1968. The way a tie works — or rather, worked, in this specific case — is that, if the two actors came within three votes of one another (three votes, not like, percentages. Actual votes), the result would be a tie regardless of which one received more votes. The Best Actress tie was an actual exact tie, and that’s the only one in Academy history. This race was different by only one vote.

I also believe — I think I read this once somewhere and can’t find it again — that Frederic March was the one who received the extra vote, making him the unofficial winner here, in my eyes. He received the “majority”, so, to me, he’s the one the Academy voted for. Rules just made Beery also get a statue. So that’s the mindset I’m taking when it comes to voting.

BEST ACTOR – 1931-1932

And the nominees are…

Wallace Beery, The Champ (TIE)

Frederic March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (TIE)

Alfred Lunt, The Guardsman

Beery — The way I’m gonna do this is, explain who these two actors are, specifically, and then get into the performances. Because, really, nowadays people just don’t know actors like this. They may recognizing them as having “been in that movie” they like, but, unless you’re firmly situated in the era they were stars, you really don’t know anything about them. It would be like seeing Peter O’Toole in Troy and thinking of him as “that old guy who plays all the old guy roles.” And it’s Peter fucking O’Toole. No one disrespects Sir Lawrence like that.

So, Wallace Beery was, probably without a doubt, the biggest actor between 1930 and 1935, ish. The man was like Mickey Rourke, too. He was a rugged looking motherfucker. Which, was way different from most actors of the era. Usually they were very prim and proper (pussy, basically) looking, and always had shitloads of makeup and were basically made up to be silent stars. But now, with sound, there’s a new set of rules. So the people that then took over were the stage stars. And then you got all this British-sounding, very classically trained actors in all these movies. But, here comes this guy, who looks like he just came off a wharf, delivering crates of fish, and is about to go box some dude in the alley for an extra ten bucks. Oh yeah, and he was also a great actor.

He was in a bunch of silent films, but wasn’t nearly the star he became after the invention of sound. If you’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain, you know that a lot of silent stars couldn’t make the transition to sound because they had weak voices. Wallace Beery didn’t have that problem. He sounded like — well he kinda sounded like Mickey Rourke. That gruff voice that comes from years of bodily abuse. Which made him invaluable to Hollywood, since now it started telling all these new stories. And since the classically trained actors couldn’t pull off playing characters of the street, Wallace Beery got to play them. He played convicts, working class men, boxers, Pancho Villa — people like that. He was MGM’s top star several years running in the early 30s. If you look at the poster for Grand Hotel, you’ll see that he gets top four billing, underneath Greta Garbo, Johnn Barrymore — two movie sex symbols at the time, or rather, great screen lovers — and some dame named Joan Crawford. Beery and Marie Dressler, who looked like this, were the top two stars in Hollywood at one time. Seriously.

It was at this time that he was at the height of his power and made this movie. Which, even if you haven’t seen The Champ, you’ve seen The Champ. It’s like A Star is Born. It’s one of those movies that you know the plot of because it’s become a standard plot.  Here’s how it works:

You think the way a plot becomes its own cliche is by constant remakes and ripoffs. It’s not. I mean, they made The Champ (or for that matter, A Star is Born) at least three times. It’s the male Star is Born. Actors use it at the height of their stardom. Almost like a theater actor doing Hamlet in his prime. But, the way it really becomes it’s own cliche: television. As a kid growing up, I couldn’t tell you how many of the cartoon shows I watched (and even live-action. This isn’t exclusive to kids shows), took a bunch of episodes and just rehashed movie plots in them. The Simpsons is actually the series that does this the most (mostly because they’ve been on the air longer than everyone else), but, it’s not just them either. And it’s easier for them to do it, too. Because, kids haven’t seen the movies they’re basing it on. So what you end up getting is, a great episode the kids enjoy, and then, they find out later that it was based on the movie, or even better, they see the movie and go, “Oh, shit, I remember that from that episode of Hey Arnold!” Everyone has one. I guarantee you if you look hard enough, you’ll remember one. Shit, I remember the Rugrats Chanukah episode (which, that was one of the only kids shows where they out and out made the characters Jews. That doesn’t happen very often) basically just redoing The Ten Commandments. I’m sure we all remember one.

So, The Champ. If you haven’t seen this, this is gonna get even better. See if you can remember which show you watched had an entire episode based around this movie (with the necessary changes, or not, depending on the type of show it is). It’s about Andy “The Champ” Purcell. He’s a boxer, former heavyweight champion, who is now poor, down on his luck, and has a shitload of problems. He’s divorced, fighting for custody of his son with his ex-wife, and really trying to do right by the kid. The kid worships him, of course, and the guy really just wants to raiser the kid right. And his debt mounts so high that the only thing he can do is attempt a comeback in order to make ends meet financially. And he does, and he comes back, winning fight after fight, even though he’s putting his kid in an unsafe environment, there are more custody battles, the kid runs back to be with him, shit like that, and all the fights take a toll on his aging body, to the point where the doctor says, “one more fight, you might die.” Which, coincidentally, the “one more fight” is the championship fight (fuck, this is basically the plot of The Wrestler without the kid, and of the goddamn “Wallace Beery wrestling picture” that Capitol Pictures is making (and the Coen brothers are making fun of) in Barton Fink). So he has the championship fight, against doctor’s orders, and wins, and it’s so great, it’s like the end of Rocky II, the kid thinks his father is the greatest, and now he’s finally reunited with his son. And then they go back to the dressing room and the guy dies. And the son is there, holding his father’s hand, screaming for him to get up. Credits.

Everyone knows about this picture. It’s that kind of movie. And the role was written for Beery to play. One of those Tour-de-France performances actors always try to give. And really, with the kind of actor Beery was, he really did deserve this statue (alone). In this early stage of the Academy, it’s surprising that he didn’t win this in a landslide. Shit, the first Oscars went two Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor, who were considered (well, he was, I’m assuming she was two, because, shit, have you seen the three films she won for?) the best silent film actor and actress. And the second Best Actress Oscar went to Mary Pickford, which is about the equivalent of Julia Roberts winning an Oscar. She’s not the best actress in the world, but she knows how to use her image well, and god damn it, people really fucking like her. She was Hollywood royalty by the time the Oscars came around. So, her getting one was like validation for the award itself. So, Wallace Beery having a Best Actor Oscar is the equivalent of recognizing an entire era of motion pictures that might have gotten lost (and, in a large way, have). This is a very savvy move on their part, and is richly deserved.

March — On the other hand, if Wallace Beery is the left, Frederic March is the right. Wallace Beery is the movie star. He’s the one that has no stage training. He came from the circus, stepped onto a movie set and something just clicked. Like Clark Gable. Gable was never a stage star. He was in movies and that was that. Frederic March is like Laurence Olivier. The stage star that also became an established film star as well.

Frederic March is one of the most important actors in film history, because he was the first actor to challenge the power of the studios. Of course, all the United Artists stars from the 20s — Chaplin, Griffith, Fairbanks and Pickford — were able to challenge it, but in a different sense. Pickford was able to achieve some sort of freedom, but, the freedom March was able to achieve was much different because he came up in a time when the studios were at their most powerful. In the 20s, the studios were just springing up. By the mid 30s, the studio system was in full bloom, and the studios were really the only game in town. So if you fucked with one, you fucked with them all. They routinely signed stars to indentured servitude.

The way it worked was — stars signed seven or eight year contracts, and the studios then had complete control over them. They were able to change their name, their background, their appearance. They were able to pick what movies they starred in, what studios they were loaned out to, what public appearances they made, what social events they went to, who they had dinner with, and even who they fucked. Seriously. They set up actors like crazy. Everything was controlled. And if a star refused to make a picture, well, that was a strike against them. Of course, the more established a star, like Clark Gable, then they could get away with more, but, ostensibly, the studios had the power. If a smaller star refused to cooperate, they were blacklisted. No studio would hire them. The studio that had them under contract would keep them on the bench, not making anything, until the contract ran out. They basically bled them for all the star appeal they had — and somewhat rightfully so, since they were the ones that created that star, but still, it was kind of feudal.

Frederic March was one of the first actors able to counter studio power. He managed to fight for contracts that allowed him to decide what films he made, when he made them, how many films he owed a studio, and how long his contract was. He basically became a freelance star. Which, if it sounds familiar, it’s what happens today. The only difference is, nowadays, the stars have all the power, and the fees are crazy huge. Back then, the big stars made money, but still, as a freelance star, his power was choosing what kind of roles he got, which is really where the power was. Only a few other stars ever really had this kind of power back then. Cary Grant was one of them. Frederic March being the pioneer that he was in this regard really makes him a hugely important figure in Hollywood history.

Let’s also not forget the staggering amount of great films he’s been in. I’ll just give you a list. This film was his first major star vehicle (not counting The Royal Family of Broadway, which was kind of his star-making role), followed by: The Sign of the Cross (which is basically an earlier version of Quo Vadis), Death Takes a Holiday (which is basically an earlier version of Meet Joe Black), The Affairs of Cellini (which is a hysterical film I’m going to tell you about and recommend once I get to 1934), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (a Best Picture nominee), Les Miserables (one of the few “classic literary adaptations” I really enjoy), Anna Karenina (the Garbo one, not the Vivien Leigh one), Anthony Adverse (as Anthony. Also, Best Picture nominee, and, for trivia purposes, Tony Curtis’s favorite book, which led to his stage name), A Star is Born (the Janet Gaynor one. He was the first Norman Maine), One Foot in Heaven (Best Picture nominee), The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture winner, won him a Best Actor, and one of the best films of all time), Death of a Salesman, Executive Suite, The Desperate Hours (as the father of the family. Which, I assume you know about this movie. It’s great), Seven Days in May, as the President, The Iceman Cometh, and, most importantly, a role I didn’t even know was him when I first saw it — Inherit the Wind. He plays the William Jennings Bryant character, the bible-thumping, speech-making, Matthew Harrison Brady. You know who he was if you’ve seen it. This man has had an amazing career. And clearly he picked good material. This is an example of a star cultivating his own image. He was like the Sean Penn of the 30s-50s.

So, let’s talk about Jekyll and Hyde. There’s really not much to say. We all know the story. The morality tale. About him dealing with the “evil” that’s inside of him, personified in the split personality. And it’s a fine performance — really what the movie is, is taking the horror movie, which really had only gotten started with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 (which, brief history lesson, was derived from German Expressionism and films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the 20s), and making the genre classier. Its an attempt at a classier horror film. Much like The Exorcist. But differently. The way to make the horror genre classy in the 70s was to make it psychological and ground it in (mostly) realism. And they spice up the cinematic techniques to give you a new brand of horror. The way to class it up in 1932 was to make it an “acting” role. You make it a morality tale rather than a monster tale. In both case, you’re downplaying the horror and playing up the drama and psychology of the whole thing. If you notice, that’s how all genres become “classier.”

The real triumph of the film is the job they accomplish with makeup and in-camera tricks. Watch these two clips of the transformations:

Nice set of cinematic techniques at work there, right? There’s another moment I was looking for but couldn’t find in a contained clip of him transforming via fades. By the third transformation, they literally do it in about a three second fade from one to the other. It’s really well-done. The makeup is really what sells the performance.

Also, I must say, it takes a special kind of acting to be able to contort the face and do all those things without actually having the special effects at work at all times. I’d even go so far as to say that what Frederic March does here is the equivalent of what someone like Andy Serkis does with the motion capture suits. He’s able to inhabit the character and do all of this acting while not actually being in character and not having the character fully there. And for that, March deserves all the credit in the world. But, I think, if it came down to voting one vs. the other for this award, I still say Beery did a better job. The performance is still kind of — melodramatic — at times, not to say Beery’s isn’t, but, I don’t know, there’s something about Beery’s performance that gives it the intangible that March’s doesn’t have. Plus, I feel no guilt not voting for March because — in all honesty, he won a much deserved Oscar in 1946, and was snubbed when he didn’t win one in 1937 (but I’ll bitch about that when I get there). So, I think this is a great performance, but, having to vote for one (not taking into account the tie, which really solves all the problems), I take Beery.

Lunt — Oh yeah, this guy is here too. Alfred Lunt is primarily, was primarily, whatever, everyone in movies is still alive, in my eyes — he was primarily a stage actor, and with his wife, Lynn Fontanne, they were the premiere stage and screen couple of the time. Then came Astaire and Rogers (even though they weren’t married), and then Lord and Lady Olivier. Then Taylor and Burton. These two were really the first. Well, not counting Pickfair, there (that’s Pickford and Fairbanks, for you non-film history buffs), but they didn’t really make movies together. (God, I wonder what those movies would have been like.) These two were the married couple that acted together. A tradition that, while I’m thinking about it, continues on down to this day. I guess Pitt and Jolie count. They really only did the one together, and they were really only sleeping together at that time, but, have you seen the movie? It counts.

The great thing about a screen couple being married is that all the dialogue gets subtext, whether its intentional or not. And this movie they did together — she was nominated for Best Actress for this too, by the way — is actually an entertaining little film. That is — it’s entertaining for a film made in 1931. The majority of the people watching probably wouldn’t enjoy it. But me, as a writer and a film history buff, enjoy it for being what it is and for actually being a good idea. It’s one of those ideas I’m surprised hasn’t been remade (Note: It has. Twice. But not so you’d notice. They bombed and no one remembers them). Because, while there is a certain suspension of disbelief that takes place (and the film is heavily grounded in theatrical tradition, which is the primary reason neither were ever going to win this award), it’s not that far off from what most modern day romantic comedies have you go with. Watch any romantic comedy from the last five years (which, believe me, I try never to do. Because I think there were only maybe like three good ones, total), and you’ll see some crazy ass leaps of logic that take place, ones that strain even the furthest grounds of credulity. This conceit really isn’t that far off, and with today’s skill, you can probably pull it off pretty easily.

The conceit of the film is that, they’re a stage couple — and the first ten minutes of the film is an actual play they’re putting on. The difference is, you don’t know it. It starts just like a regular film would, and since all films looked just like plays back then, the audience wouldn’t have known the difference. This same trick could be pulled off nowadays. You’d only have to shoot it more cinematically and have them be a film couple. But stil, possible. And they act together, and after it’s revealed they were on stage (which they cheat by making it look like a film set, so you actually believe they’re shooting a film. Which, the same cheat would be having the fim they’re shooting be cut like a film, rather than seeing it the way they’d shoot it), and they bow and the curtain closes and all that. Then you see them backstage — what they’re really like.

Because, onstage, the two are the loving couple. And while they’re bowing, you hear them say to one another, “What are you doing for dinner,” and “You were too slow on that speech in the third act,” things like that. You hear them clearly not being what the people in the audience are seeing them as. And then backstage, they don’t even talk to one another. The two get dressed in completely separate rooms, each speak to the same manager separately, and only like twice do they ever interact with one another. The first time is when one has to come inside the other’s room to get something, and they exchange like three (brief) words, and then later on, when they start bickering out of nowhere (like, angry bickering, not, like witty banter bickering) and the manager has to get them to knock it off. And we see that, despite their image, they’re not a loving couple. They’re basically living separate lives at this point, despite the marriage.

And then the conceit is — the dude decides, “I’m going to get one over on her real good.” Or, actually what he’s really doing is — he suspects his wife might actually cheat on him. Despite the loveless marriage, and all the hatred, they are still together, and he thinks, “She might just cheat on me if the right person came along.” So, he decides to test his theory. He decides to become another person. Mostly as an acting exercise. Because that’s also his thing. He’s a great stage actor always looking for challenges. So he decides, with the help of a makeup team and such, to become a Russian count. And he shows up one day, looking for her husband, and this is when she’s decided to actually have an affair for once, because she thinks he probably has been and is now starting to give up on the marriage.

So the husband arranges to be “away” for the weekend. And he leaves, and then comes back as this count. And he starts flirting with her and sees her going for it, while also (privately), being like, “Should I do this? I don’t know if I should fuck up the marriage like this.” So, privately, she’s wrestling with the notion, and even in front of him, she’s kind of wrestling with it, but also in a flirty kind of way. In his eyes she appears to be going for it. So he says, “I’ll be back later to take you out.” And all of this, being in a pre-code era, has loads of innuendo all over it. Everything they’re saying is clearly talking about them fucking, and it’s not even trying to be hidden either. He’s literally one step from saying, “I’m gonna take you out and stick my dick innuendo.”

And then, since he sees that she’s going for it — as her husband, he gets upset. So he then starts fucking with her, calling her up, like, “My train got cancelled, I’ll be home in an hour and I’ll leave tomorrow.” So now she’s got to get him the fuck out of there because the count is coming. And the whole thing becomes slapstick on top of all this marital drama each person is going through. It’s really a very well-layered film, which is why I’m both surprised and not-surprised that the film has never been remade. It’s probably too smart to be released nowadays. They’d really have to dumb it down and make the slapstick really over-the-top (like the equivalent of someone being kicked in the balls by a gorilla, over-the-top. Trust me, they’ll find a way to get it in there). But, still, there’s a great story here.

Oh, also, the end of the film, in the true Rom Com sense — or rather, this is really a Comedy of Remarriage, since their marriage is on the rocks the whole time (that means with ice) — they get back together and the wife is like, “Yeah, I knew it was you the whole time, but I was just playing along.” Which, may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter. That’s part of the ambivalence of the whole movie, and really takes away from the leap of logic of “How does this woman not recognize her own husband?” But, with the layers of, they’re actors, acting, and then their characters are also “acting,” and all the other stuff, there’s so much going on, it could be remade into a really intelligent film. Give me like ten years. If it’s not done by then, I’ll get on it. Until then, watch for it. You know it’ll come. (Note: If it does, I’m totally taking credit for the idea, legitimately or not.)

So, the performances themselves are entertaining. Lunt gets to put on the persona of the husband and the persona of the count. And it’s good and all, but, the film really is steeped in theatrics. The whole thing is very much like a play, with them two just standing there, talking, with a lot of dead space. Even when they aren’t talking, all you hear is that white noise from the old movie soundtrack playing (which, I love, but, back then that’s just dead air). So, overall, this performance is not going to win awards, because it really is just stage acting toned down. But, I did enjoy it, and I like that it was nominated because now I get to pimp both the performance and the film. It’s one of those movies I (and probably everyone else) wouldn’t have (or wouldn’t ever) see if not for the nominations. So, great on that front. Otherwise, no vote. Sorry, Al.

My Thoughts: Really, March and Beery were the two here. Even though all three gave great performances (it’s like 1934. Poor Frank Morgan). The tie really does make everything work out nicely. Only problem is, March got the one extra vote (according to what I read somewhere, which may or may not be true and may, in fact, be the opposite). Beery was really the one choice, if there was one. So, overall, great tie, liked them both, but, picking one over the other, it’s clearly Beery. Beery wasn’t getting another chance after this. March had twenty years of chances after this. (Shit, almost thirty).

My Vote: Beery

Should Have Won: Beery and March. I can say that because they tied.

Is the result acceptable?: Shit yes. I mean, I can’t wish for a tie in other years, because it’s like wishing for anal from the wife. Even on your birthday, you’d have to get really lucky. But, if there was one, I can definitely say the tie was worth it, especially if the right two won.

Performances I suggest you see: All of them. But, you’ve essentially seen one of them already, the second you’ve kinda seen, and the third, well, you’ll see the remake that comes out eventually. I don’t push too hard for people to see films before 1934. You really have to wanna see them in order to actually watch them.Which, I do feel more people ought to anyway. There’s a lot of brilliant shit that people just discount. I think the way to do it is watch it while also learning about it in an academic sense (because a lot of the films I watched in my silents class I wouldn’t go anywhere near. But, because they were accompanied by a lecture and analysis afterward, I really got the sense of why they were important, and picked up on a lot of techniques I probably wouldn’t have noticed (or have been able to explain in such great detail) otherwise.


3) Lunt

2) March

1) Beery

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