The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1944

I used to really dislike 1944 as an Oscar year. I like Going My Way a lot, but I never liked it as a Best Picture choice, especially since Double Indemnity was also up for Best Picture that year. And even if it did win, Leo McCarey winning Best Director? Was that necessary? He had one already, and I think most people agree that Double Indemnity is the superior directorial effort. So much so that I think Billy Wilder got one of those Fred Zinnemann type makeup Oscars the year after this (he directed The Lost Weekend, which won Best Picture in ’45).

I also wondered why Going My Way also won Best Supporting Actor for Barry Fitzgerald (which, I kind of understood, but I hadn’t seen any of the other nominees yet, so I figured there must have been a better choice) and even this category. That’s four of the six major awards, for a film that’s nothing more than Boys Town with some music thrown in. Also, just to recap, Ingrid Bergman won a pseudo makeup Oscar for Gaslight this year, and Ethel Barrymore wins Best Supporting Actress for None But the Lonely Heart, a clear and obvious veteran win.

So, with all of that — I saw no decisions I could get behind at all. It seemed like a bad year. Not terrible, just, bad. But now, after having seen many things, I’ve sort of come around on a few of the categories. I can at least either agree with or accept three of them, while still considering three of them bad decisions. But fortunately, though, one of the ones I agree with was this one, so, that’s good, right?

BEST ACTOR – 1944

And the nominees were…

Charles Boyer, Gaslight

Bing Crosby, Going My Way

Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way

Cary Grant, None But the Lonely Heart

Alexander Knox, Wilson

Boyer — I never much understood Charles Boyer as an actor. I never got why he was such a popular leading man. He always seemed so wooden to me. Granted, his French accent is awesome. I still crack up every time I hear him say “I love you” to his leading lady. But still, I just don’t get how he could have been nominated four separate times for Best Actor Oscars. Though, admittedly, this is probably the “strongest” of his four nominations. I say strongest because, most people would consider this his best work. I, personally, like his performance in Fanny best.

Anyway, this film is about Ingrid Bergman as a woman who returns to her childhood home after her aunt has died. Or, more specifically, has been murdered. Someone broke in looking for jewelry, killed her, and fled without getting them. Bergman comes home, and meets Charles Boyer, and falls in love with him. He tells her they should move back to the house, and they do. While they’re there, Bergman starts to experience strange things. She’s uneasy living there, so Boyer tells her they’ll put all her aunt’s things in the attic. She starts losing items, things start disappearing, and Boyer is telling her she took them, even though she doesn’t remember doing so. She sees all the lights dim and brighten very suddenly, when no one else does. She starts to think she’s going crazy. Eventually, Boyer starts keeping her inside, away from others, because she’s really starting to go crazy. Eventually, however, we find out that Boyer is the man who killed her aunt and is a thief looking for the jewels. He’s driving her crazy long enough to look for the jewels he wants. Eventually, though, Bergman starts talking to a policeman (Joseph Cotten) who convinces her she’s not crazy, and eventually everything comes to a head, with Bergman tying Boyer up to a chair and torturing his psyche.

It’s a pretty good film. I don’t love it. And the reason I don’t love it is that they give away the twist way too early. Apparently, in the earlier, 1940 version of this film, they don’t reveal the Boyer character as having ulterior motives until the policeman arrives. Until then, it seems as though he’s locking her up for her own good, so nobody knows how crazy she is. But here, they have him overreact very early on to a letter that Bergman finds to her aunt from an admirer (who was clearly Boyer, pulling the same stunt he’s pulling now). Right there, you know what the deal is, so seeing her start to go crazy, you think, “Why the fuck is she falling for this?” and it takes all the suspense out of the film. But, it’s still a pretty good film.

As for Boyer’s performance, I don’t really care for it. Like I said, I never really understood him as an actor. He either seems incredibly wooden or seems to be overacting. So, for me, he’s the #5 this year. I just don’t get it.

Crosby — Ah, the double nominee. Love these.

Going My Way is seriously like Boys Town with some music. Bing Crosby is Father O’Malley, a young priest with very progressive methods. He’s transferred to a failing parish to take it over from Barry Fitzgerald, the aging priest who is about as old school as it gets. The dude got off the boat from Ireland and went right into that parish and stayed there. He’s of the traditionalist movement, and dislikes Crosby’s habits. Fitzgerald believes Crosby was transferred there to help him, but really he’s there to take over for him. But Crosby doesn’t have the heart to tell him. Most of the film deals with the clashing styles of the two — Crosby sings songs with the kids and plays golf and stuff, while Fitzgerald is very much of the, go to Church, be good and pray, mindset. And there are little things that happen. Like, there’s a girl who runs away from home and comes to the Church, and there’s a local gang that some of the boys are involved with. And all the different elements start to coalesce in the second half of the film, where the boys sing a song that Crosby wrote, renting out an opera house, and they use the ticket sales to save the church from the financial problems it was having. And everything seems to be going great, and then the church burns down. And Fitzgerald retires and goes home to Ireland and Crosby moves on to his next assignment.

It’s a very enjoyable film. Crosby does his usual thing, and is very good in the role. It’s not quite a Best Actor winning type of role, but, it was pre-1945, and before 1945, something like this was more acceptable than it would be afterward. It’s definitely the most likable performance on this list, and I’ll tell you why I eventually came around on this performance as having won when I get to the end of all the performances.

Fitzgerald — Fitzgerald plays the older priest in Going My Way to Bing Crosby’s younger one. He’s very traditional, and a lot of the scenes have to do with him just not understanding Crosby’s methods and disapproving of most of them. And then he starts to come around on Crosby after he finds out why he’s really there. Eventually the two become friends and play golf together, and Fitzgerald is definitely the most lively element of the film. The problem is, he feels like he’s in a role that’s a mix between lead and strong supporting. He is on screen a lot, but, also, he can be considered supporting, and, since he was nominated in both categories, I consider him more supporting, and can’t really vote for him here when I could just as easily vote for him there. Path of least resistance sort of thing. He’s more likely to win there, so that’s where I want to vote for him. Ya follow? He was really good though. And earned the Best Supporting Actor award that he got.

Also, I’ll say, after he got nominated in both Lead and Supporting, a bylaw was passed that forbade any actor for being nominated in more than one category for the same performance. This helps streamline the voting method, but also lead to much more category fraud. We see something like this almost every year now. Hailee Steinfeld is nominated in Supporting for True Grit even though she’s the lead in the film. Jamie Foxx nominated in Supporting for Collateral even though the film is about him. There are lots of them. This nomination is partially the reason why that is.

Grant — I was kind of excited for this film. It seemed like my best chance to vote for Cary grant as Best Actor. And then, when I saw the film — it wasn’t very good. Which doubly surprised me. Because I’ve never really out and out disliked a Cary Grant film. Not that I disliked this film. It’s just — I didn’t particularly like it either. That’s what was so strange about it.

Grant plays a a cockney lad who doesn’t want to be tied down. That’s pretty much it. He has a stable girl who loves him, but would rather spend his time with a gangster’s wife who isn’t the most reliable of partners. His mother and father (who died during the war) wanted him to stay and manage their store, but he wanted to wander around. That sort of thing. Then he finds out his mother has cancer, so he stays home to be with her. He tries to be the son she wanted him to be, but a bunch of shit happens, and things go wrong and he fucks up  bunch, and eventually his mother dies in prison and he actually starts to think about settling down for real. That’s pretty much the film.

I found this film surprisingly boring. Which is strange, since Cary Grant films are usually very entertaining. But this one was just melodramatic and tedious. Did not particularly care for it at all past a marginal respect. Grant does a fine job here, but, his cockney accent is really dodgy. It doesn’t fit at all. It would be like Helen Mirren playing Eliza Doolittle. It just doesn’t fit. Or Larry the Cable Guy playing William Jennings Bryant. Ya follow? It just doesn’t work. I might say, though, that Grant’s performance may actually be ranked #5 for me. I know I said that Boyer was my #5, but, really, in terms of straight performance, I think Boyer is 4 and Grant is 5. I just rank Grant 4 because I really think he deserves an Oscar and gets at least some consideration based on that alone. Still, neither are getting votes.

Knox — And Alexander Knox. Not really a classic actor. His one big role was this film. Aside from this, he appeared in a bunch of films that are largely forgotten today. They seem to be B movies, actually. The biggest film I see on here is The Vikings. He was also in The Longest Day, but, who wasn’t? He played the American president in You Only Live Twice, which isn’t exactly the best of screen credits to have. He was the American ambassador in Nicholas and Alexandra, but, you can see, clearly not the kind of career that the rest of these men had. Wilson really was his only major role.

Wilson, as you can imagine, is a biopic of Woodrow Wilson. For those who suck at history, he’s the dude who was President after Roosevelt (Teddy) and was the President during World War I. Remember? Treaty of Versailles? The Fourteen Points? Yeah, that was him. This film, though, deals with his political career, from his days as the head of Princeton, to his run as governor, to his days as President. It’s a biopic, so there’s a lot of major events they show, lots of speeches, some tragedy, a lot of that. It’s a film that was a passion project of Daryl Zanuck, who really admired Wilson and wanted to make a big budget film about him. But the film failed miserably at the box office, so much so that Zanuck forbade any of his staff from ever mentioning it again. It’s not a bad film. In fact, during its 2 1/2 hour running time, I never really found myself bored. It dragged a little after he became President, but overall, it’s a pretty good film. I liked it a lot. However, it’s pretty clear that the 10 Oscars it was nominated for (including Best Picture, Best Director, and all the other major ones) were partially the result of — big film, we almost have to. You can tell when films get some pity nominations. This one isn’t totally pity nominations, since it is good, but it was a fairly weak Best Picture nomination.

Anyway, the best part of this film is Alexander Knox’s performance. He was fantastic as Wilson, and this is the kind of role that rightfully earns an Academy Award nomination. I’d even go so far as to say that he gave the best technical performance in the entire category. Crosby was the most likable, but Knox gave the best performance. Which leads me right into my thoughts on the category, because those two things factor into which way my vote is gonna go.

My Thoughts: At first I thought, “There’s no way Bing Crosby should have won this.” Now, I actually am gonna vote for him. Let me explain. Barry Fitzgerald was more of a supporting character in the film, despite actually being a co-lead. Him going Supporting actually does make it easier to vote for him there, and tougher to vote for him here. So he’s out. Charles Boyer, I never much liked as an actor. That is, as an Academy Award nominated actor. He got nominated a few times, and I never thought he was ever an actor to win one of these things. He always seemed so wooden to me. So he’s not getting my vote. Alexander Knox was really good as Woodrow Wilson, but, what holds him from a vote, for me, is the fact that he wasn’t as well known as an actor and didn’t really have the type of career that some of the others in this category did. I’ll explain further in a second. And Cary Grant — I really just didn’t like him in that role. I thought the film was boring and I thought his pseudo-cockney accent was really dodgy most of the time. I much preferred his Penny Serenade nomination to this one.

So, that means it comes down to Bing, who was positively delightful as Father O’Malley, and Alexander Knox. And when it’s kind of a toss-up — leaning toward Bing on the likability and Knox in the straight performance — I look at tiebreaking factors. And the real tiebreaker here is the fact that, ten years after this, Bing was nominated for Best Actor for The Country Girl, and had that not been the year where Marlon Brando busted out with On the Waterfront, Bing was the clear winner in that category. And knowing that, that makes me 100% certain that he should have won this award and had a Best Actor statue. That’s why he gets my vote. This was the best year for him to win it. He upset nothing. Plus, he’s Bing.

My Vote: Crosby

Should Have Won: Not really one where you can say definitively someone “should have” won, but, Crosby was the best choice here.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes it is. Very much so. At first I was very skeptical, but I do understand it. It’s the most likable performance, and Bing Crosby actually is the one actor on this list who most deserved an Oscar. Him and Cary Grant. But I did not like Grant’s film at all, which makes Crosby the most acceptable winner. The fact that he had this made him losing for The Country Girl even more acceptable. (It already was, since, I mean, On the Waterfront, but the fact that he had one made even the slightest bit of doubt, if it was there, be erased.) So, yes, Crosby winning was a very good decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Going My Way is a very good film and a very fun film to watch. That and The Bells of St. Mary’s are two films you just want to put on at Christmastime and just watch. They give you that gay feeling you get when you watch old musicals. (Fuck you, stop snickering.) It’s really a wonderful film, and I highly recommend it. Plus it’s a Best Picture winner. Definitely worth a watch. Also, Wilson is a very good film. Presidential biopic. And I feel those always hold some sort of interest. It’s very entertaining though. I never found myself bored during it at all, which is important when a film is two and a half hours. So I do recommend it. It’s in Technicolor, and in this era, when a film was in Technicolor, it was a big deal. I love watching the color from these old films, just to see how they did it. And Gaslight is an interesting and a good film. I do recommend it. I didn’t love it, because it’s very — over the top — but it is a good film. Worth a watch.

Rankings:

5) Boyer

4) Grant

3) Knox

2) Fitzgerald

1) Crosby

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