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The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1949

1949. I’m excited for this one. I like being able to talk about years like this, because I know people aren’t necessarily well-versed in anything before 1950. Or, hell, 1970.

The year itself wasn’t particularly interesting. All the King’s Men, a good film, beat a pretty weak set of nominees. It was probably the best of the bunch, so it’s not like it was a bad decision. Mercedes McCambridge won Best Supporting Actress for the film as well. Best Actress this year went to Olivia de Havilland for The Heiress, and all I can say about that is — yes. The performance is astoundingly good, and she was by far the best choice in the category. Best Supporting Actor went to Dean Jagger for Twelve O’Clock High. I didn’t understand why he won when I watched the film, so I need to rewatch it before I decide whether or not it was a good decision. Though it was a pretty weak set of nominees. And also, Best Director was Joseph Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives, which, I don’t understand. But Best Director is murky this year and the year after this, so I’ll save it until I talk about it. In all though, 1949 is a solid year. A few solid choices, a few bad ones. Above average.

BEST ACTOR – 1949

And the nominees were…

Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men

Kirk Douglas, Champion

Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High

Richard Todd, The Hasty Heart

John Wayne, Sands of Iwo Jima

Crawford — I’m gonna make a potentially controversial statement. One that goes against my beliefs, even. I’m usually not very narrow-minded. But — without Broderick Crawford, there is no All the King’s Men.

Broderick Crawford is the only reason that movie is as great as it is. And if you don’t believe me — watch the remake.

The film is — trivia time! — the last Best Picture winner to be based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Interesting, no? The “best” books don’t always make the best movies. Probably because you just can’t include everything in a good book, as we find out all the time when people cry foul for some of these adaptations. But I have faith. I’m sure Deathly Hallows Part II will break that trend. Then it’ll be the first seventh sequel (meaning eighth film) in a series to win Best Picture. (Note: I’m not serious. Just checking.)

Anyway, the film — and the book, I guess. If we must — are based on Huey Long. It’s about as veiled as Citizen Kane is with William Randolph Hearst. He starts as a “hick” politician, who begins by making speeches on the corner. But since he’s just a “local hick,” nobody takes him seriously. Then he teaches himself law and actually starts gaining popularity. He wins a local election, and gradually works his way up to being governor. And he becomes really popular because he’s just a “good ol’ boy” and of the people and all. But, once he becomes governor, he allows all the power to go to his head, and becomes increasingly corrupt. He starts giving in to all the money and the women — hell, the tagline is “He Might Have Been A Pretty Good Guy . . . If Too Much Power . . . And Women . . . Hadn’t Gone To his Head !” And he starts pretending like the state is his, and that everyone will do what he says. And everything starts spinning out of control when his son ends up getting in a car accident with a girl, where she dies and he’s paralyzed. And then it all starts coming apart, leading to his eventual assassination. It’s a great film.

I have to tell you, this film really is nothing without Crawford’s performance. He makes this movie what it is. The movie itself, I feel, kind of skids a bit about 2/3 of the way through. At that point I was like, “All right, I get it, shit’s going downhill, let’s get to the assassination,” and then that happens literally with about two minutes to go. Which, I guess is good if you don’t know it’s coming (sorry), since, boom, end. But for some reason, I don’t know, it felt it dragged just a little. Still, the performance is incredible, and totally deserved an Oscar. Which is tough to say, because this category is so fucking good!

Douglas — Ah, Kirk! This is really the film that got him to be known. He made a couple of films, and actually started off really strong — his first five films were The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, Mourning Becomes Electra, I Walk Alone, and The Walls of Jericho. He had big supporting parts in Out of the Past (Whit Sterling) and in Electra (as, I believe, the man Rosalind Russell almost goes away with), but this is the film that got him known as a lead. (He was also in A Letter to Three Wives this year, which was also a big help.)

Let me take a moment to reflect just how awesome Kirk Douglas is, and just how many awesome movies the man has made. Here are just some of the films he made in the 50s alone: The Glass Menagerie, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Big Trees, The Big Sky, The Bad and the Beautiful, Ulysses, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Last Train from Gun Hill.

Not too shabby, right? In fact, pretty fucking amazing, is what it is. Now, the 60s. Spartacus. Just to start. Right there, you could be like, that’s a career. But no. We’re not done. Lonely are the Brave, Two Weeks in Another Town, Seven Days in May, In Harm’s Way, Is Paris Burning?, The Way West, The War Wagon, There Was a Crooked Man…, A Gunfight (costarring Johnny Cash), Posse, Brian De Palma’s The Fury, and The Villain, which is a wonderful western spoof. It’s like if Looney Tunes made a live-action western, and Kirk Douglas were Wile E. Coyote (his name in the film is Cactus Jack). The film has Ann-Margret (as Charming Jones), who brings her own set of — personalities — to the proceedings, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his first roles as “Handsome Stranger” — that’s his name — who is meant to be the mysterious cowboy, but it’s made hysterical because, the motherfucker can barely speak English and you can’t understand a fucking word that he says! Which is perfect, since the villain is always more interesting than the hero in these things anyway. It’s a really funny movie. Anyway, Kirk Douglas is awesome.

This film is about Kirk Douglas, who at first is just sort of drifting with his brother. They made money by him going the distance in a boxing match and went to buy a diner. But they find out it wasn’t legitimately sold. The person just took their money and ran off. But then he finds the guy who saw him fight and starts training to be a boxer for real. And, knowing what it’s like to be poor, he does anything he can to get to the top, stepping on top of whoever he has to. We see him dumping his girlfriend for another one, firing his manager — anything he needs to do to be successful, whatever the price. He gets everyone to hate him. And his brother is the compassionate one during all of this, who tries to be the voice of reason, but, that doesn’t work. And he eventually drives everyone out of his life, and the whole film is a flashback before his championship fight (which is actually shown mostly in its entirety. Kudos on that one). It’s a pretty decent flick.

Now, Douglas’s performance is good, but, watching it, I see it as nothing more than a calling card of sorts. It’s a bit melodramatic, and I look at it as a film that shows the studios what he can do, which then allowed him to get all those great roles he had in the 50s and 60s. It’s not a performance that’s gonna win an Oscar, but it is a starmaking performance. So, I’m glad he got nominated, but, he’s actually the #5 on this list, because, the goal here isn’t the win, it’s more work. And in that he succeeded. He didn’t really need the win here.

Peck — Oh, Mr. Peck. At first, when I heard about this film, I was like — “This is gonna be awesome.” Then, when I saw it — it was just okay. It was kind of a let down. Though, I’ll admit, I got the film from Netflix right before I left for the weekend to visit people up at college. So admittedly, when I got around to watching it that Monday afterwards, I probably wasn’t in a perfect state of mind to pay complete attention to it. I probably had a lot of alcohol still needing to be flushed out of my system, had only gotten about 11 hours sleep the night before, to make up for all the hours of sleep I didn’t get during the weekend, and just was not ready for the film. But I did make note of Peck’s performance. Because I was curious to see if he was good enough to win. I think that’s about all I did get from this movie that I could write about. Thank god. But don’t worry, by the time we get to the other categories, I’ll have seen the film again and can actually talk about them as well I can about this one.

The film is about an RAF unit in World War II. They’re the planes doing the bombing and shit. And at the start of the film, they’ve suffered a lot of losses and have really low morale. And the leader of the squad, they realize, is the problem. He’s too close to his men, and is upset that they’re all being killed. So they fire him and bring in Gregory Peck. And Gregory Peck is — well, this is almost the exact same role that John Wayne plays this year, which coincidentally I’ll be talking about very shortly. But, Peck is — well, he’s a hard ass. That’s the character. He shows up like, “This fucking place is a mess. Let’s clean it up.” And he immediately goes about fixing the problems. Which, naturally, doesn’t go over too well with the men. He’s hard on them, because they’re lacking discipline and aren’t performing as soldiers should. He’s so hard that all the pilots apply for transfers out of the unit. And Peck tells his assistant (Dean Jagger, who won Supporting Actor for the role) to delay them to buy him some time. And then the men go back into missions, and, as their training starts to show, the enemy stops picking on them because it’s clear they’re a threat. So the men start surviving, and they realize, “Hey, this fucking guy ain’t so bad.” And they come around on him, and eventually he ends up losing it when he sees one of his men go down (just like the first guy did). That’s literally the end of the film. Well, the whole thing is a flashback, but, pretty much.

Peck is good. He’s the hard ass who cares. Like Lou Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s a strong Peck role, and he does a good job, but, he’s no more than 4th choice here. Don’t worry, there’s always Atticus.

Also, now that I think about it, I actually do remember the film. I think my belief that I didn’t watch it correctly was self-imposed. I think it’s because I didn’t see why the Jagger performance won, and I told myself, “Well, I guess I didn’t watch that closely.” But now that the film is as I remember it, I don’t think it was me. I mean, I’ll watch it again anyway, but, I don’t think it’s my fault. Which, is strange. Usually it is.

Todd — This is the last performance I saw on this list, and I expected another one of those foreign actors getting on, being in a boring film and just getting there for whatever reason, and I’d have to suffer through the film. And then, the film really won me over.

The film is about a military hospital and all the patients in it. It’s based on a play, but, whatever. It stars Ronald Reagan, of all people. And Patricia Neal. And Todd as well. He’s a third lead. All the men are stuck there with whatever ailments — shell shock, cholera, what have you — and want to go. But, they’re stuck there. And one day, Todd, a Scottish soldier, shows up. And the men try to talk to him, because, you know, new guy, and he is cold as hell to them. He’s very gruff to them and tells them to mind their own business. Meanwhile they were just trying to be nice. And all their interactions with him are short, and usually end with him being a dick because he’s always like, “Leave me alone.” And eventually the men find out from Neal that he’s dying. He thinks he has a simple kidney ailment, but we find out that his kidneys are giving out and he’s gonna die soon. So she asks them to make the rest of his stay there a pleasant one. Which, isn’t the easiest thing to do, given his demeanor.

And they try to befriend him, and at first it’s obvious from our perspective they’re just doing it because they know he’s dying, but eventually it becomes sincere. And eventually they get him to at least talk to them. And he tells them he works and toiled away on land in Scotland in the hopes of owning his own farm — or loch — or whatever. And they all feel like shit, because he’s the reason he was being such a dick is because he’s so focused on doing this and he thought he was gonna be discharged after two days. And he has no idea he’s dying. And eventually the men win him over, and, really, to see him lighten up and realize, these men are actually my friends, is fucking heartbreaking. It really is. It’s a perfectly structured film. He really lightens up and befriends them, while still maintaining his demeanor at times. And he falls in love with Neal, who allows herself to give in to it because she knows he’s dying. And eventually he finds out about it and is upset, because they’re all his friends and yet they didn’t tell him, and he thinks they were only his friends because he’s dying. And eventually he realizes that they really are his friends, when he finds out that Reagan, who is his main friend, deliberately stayed past his discharge date (despite being the most vocal about leaving), in order to stay with him. And the movie ends at Christmas or New Year’s, I think, with all of them having a party, and taking a photograph together.

The film is fucking brilliant. I have to say, this will be on my list of films I’m so glad I discovered because of this Quest. I loved it so much. I thought Todd was fucking perfect as the Scotsman. He’s just the right amount of a dick at the beginning for it to actually be an impact later in the film when we find out he’s dying and when he warms up to everyone. This is my personal favorite performance on the list. It’s not the best, and I’m still ranking Crawford #1, but this is my personal favorite performance.

Wayne — And now, John fucking Wayne.

This is essentially the same type of performance that Gregory Peck gave up there, but different, because it’s John Wayne. This is actually a landmark performance for the Duke, since this is the first time he really played the hard ass.

Before this, he was always the sentimental lead man, like in Stagecoach, or the steadfast captain, like Fort Apache, or the obstinate gunslinger, like Red River. There were shades of the performance, especially in Red River, but never this overt. He’d play this type of role for a while after this, especially in Rio Grande, which was the year after this, where the York character really became a hard ass (on his own son, no less), and then later on in the 50s, he’d work it into his western performances, which gave us the image of the Duke that we all remember, like in The Searchers and Rio Bravo. So, historically, I love that this is here, because it’s a perfect checkpoint of sorts in history. You couldn’t have written it any better.

Anyway, the film is about a hard ass sergeant who is despised by his men. Fucking despised. He puts them through hell in order to send them into hell. They just hate his fucking guts. Because he does shit like abandon a man down during a battle (which isn’t really what happened, but it’s how the men perceive it). And it’s a perfect Wayne performance. He’s hard and he doesn’t give a fuck. Someone comes to complain and he just looks at him with disgust and walks away. That type of John Wayne performance. It’s fucking glorious.

And, of course, the men come to respect him and appreciate his methods. Like, at one point, he gets one of the men in a fistfight, which is seen by a superior officer. And right there, they can get him shitcanned, but the guy he’s fighting gets his back. Shit like that. And they go to Iwo Jima and fight, and leads them into battle, and he’s killed by a sniper. Now, let me backtrack and tell you why this performance was worth an Oscar nomination. Because you look at that and go, “It sounds like a regular John Wayne performance.” You’re right. But they give it just the right amount of depth for it to really work.

There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Wayne picks up a woman in a bar. And you think, “Oh, he’s gonna take her back and fuck her.” But, what happens is, when he’s there, he hears somebody in the next room and sees that she has a baby. And he sees the baby is hungry and that she’s having a hard time supporting him, since her husband was killed in the war, so, rather than have sex with her, he gives her every cent he has in the world and leaves. Just gives away all his money. And then, this is compounded at the very end of the film when he’s killed by the sniper, and in his pockets, they find a letter he wrote, to his son, telling him all the things he wanted to say to him but never got to. And that right there is perfect characterization. And it’s the kind of depth a lot of John Wayne characters don’t get. And that’s why he was nominated. And why he might have deserved to win, but, that’s only because he’s John Wayne.

My Thoughts: This category comes down to best performance, iconic actor, and sentimental favorite. Richard Todd is the sentimental favorite, but as much as I love the performance, I recognize that it shouldn’t have won, and am not even voting for it. Now, it comes down to John Wayne (iconic actor) and Broderick Crawford (best performance). The clear winner here is Crawford, and made even easier to decide because Wayne got his Oscar twenty years after this for True Grit (and it is better that he got his Oscar for a western and not a war film). So, Crawford is the vote here. Easily.

My Vote: Crawford

Should Have Won: Crawford  (Todd is my sentimental favorite)

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Crawford really did give the best performance here. I’d have loved for Todd Wayne to get it, because, Todd was great, and because, well, it’s John Wayne (plus maybe him winning would have let to someone else who was deserving win in 1969, like Richard Burton or Dustin Hoffman). But he totally should have won for a western. So that’s why it’s cool he didn’t win. Overall, this was definitely a very good decision.

Ones I suggest you see: Well, for one, John Wayne is here, and I recommend you watch any John Wayne movie. Plus Sands of Iwo Jima is really good as well. It’s a really solid war film. Also, All the King’s Men is a great film and a Best Picture winner, so I recommend that. It is actually really good as well. Product of a weak year? Maybe. Bad movie? Not at all. Crawford makes the movie, I’m telling you. He is amazing in it. Plus, you should see this so that way the Sean Penn version isn’t your first exposure to the material. And The Hasty Heart I recommend because I love it so much. It’s a great fucking movie. Gonna be one of my top films that I’m glad I discovered because of this Quest. I recommend it very highly. And Twelve O’Clock High, it’s all right. I liked it well enough. If you like war movies, or like Gregory Peck, or like flying movies, about pilots and shit, you might like it a lot. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re into that sort of film. And Champion I really only recommend if you’re into Kirk Douglas. It’s a nice film that shows him blossoming as an actor. Outside of that, I’m not sure how many people would be into it.

Rankings: 

5) Douglas

4) Peck

3) Wayne

2) Todd

1) Crawford

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