The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1952

1952, as we all know, is a pretty infamous year. The Greatest Show on Earth beats High Noon for Best Picture, in one of the most controversial and beat upon decisions of all time. I talked about it a lot, I think, in the Best Actress 1952 category article here, which Shirley Booth won for Come Back, Little Sheba, so I won’t speak too much about it except — HUAC is going on, High Noon is an anti-Communist film, and the whole situation was very awkward for them, so they just avoided it and went with the innocuous choice. But, interestingly enough, it seems like a choice where — they wanted you to know: they didn’t vote for this film, they just didn’t vote for this other film.

Anyway, Best Director this year was John Ford, winning his fourth, for The Quiet Man. I don’t really like the decision, because, he didn’t need the fourth one, and I don’t see how the bias against the film extends to Fred Zinnemann (especially considering the result of this category), and because — Cecil B. DeMille directed The Greatest Show on Earth. How do you not give him the Oscar he’s earned over the course of his career? Then there’s Best Supporting Actor, which was Anthony Quinn for Viva Zapata!, which is fine. It was kind of a weak category. And then Best Supporting Actress was Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful, which, I’m glad the film got some recognition.

So, that’s 1952. A strange year that’s not really a simple, like/don’t like, acceptable/not kind of year. And then there’s this category, which — is kind of okay, and yet, is tough to really judge. I’ll explain. Of course I’ll explain.


And the nominees were…

Marlon Brando, Viva Zapata!

Gary Cooper, High Noon

Kirk Douglas, The Bad and the Beautiful

José Ferrer, Moulin Rouge

Alec Guinness, The Lavender Hill Mob

Brando — This was Brando’s second Oscar nomination. That’s weird. His Oscar nominations went: A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront. Those were four in a row. Then he got nominated for Sayonara, which, as a film, I don’t understand how it got nominated for anything. Then nothing for 15 years, then The Godfather. I actually love how Brando’s career is strangely built solely on the 50s and the Coppola films. Everything else was either his weird 60s period or after he stopped giving a shit. I love it. He’s one of those people whose resume almost doesn’t really live up to his reputation. And then there are other actors whose resumes are fucking incredible and they aren’t thought of as highly. Which, is a loaded argument, because you can’t even remotely begin to measure what Brando was by simply looking at his movies. I mean, you could, but, it’s clearly more.

Anyway, I thought it was weird he was nominated for this film. Maybe it’s the hangover effect (Note: “The hangover effect” — this is new. It’s an unofficial theory that hasn’t even been capitalized yet — is a theory I have that, once the Academy decides they need to embrace someone (usually from a strong performance. This can either be a young actor up and coming, a veteran actor who never really won, or someone who’s been forgotten (or neglected) about and comes back with something great), they get one nomination, and then there’s like a three year period where they can come up with something even remotely in the Oscar wheelhouse and get nominated it. My go-to example is Johnny Depp, who, after Pirates got nominated for Finding Neverland and Sweeney Todd. Not exactly stuff another person would get nominated for).

The film is about Emiliano Zapata and his whole Mexico revolutionary — all that. I’m not very familiar. I don’t particularly remember the exact plot here, but it was basically, Brando and his brother — played by Anthony Quinn — doing the revolutionary thing, and they try to build up Mexico by toppling the government, and then once they do that, they realize stuff hasn’t changed — all of these Mexico films are like that. Strangely, it was written by John Steinbeck. That’s interesting. But, Brando is the leader who’s all about the people and not anything else, and won’t get corrupted, and is killed for it. You know the drill.

The film isn’t that bad. I enjoyed it. It’s just — I don’t — I don’t care about films like this. They’re all the same. I’m not particularly sure why Brando was nominated, but Quinn being nominated makes sense. But, this seems like a nomination that’s just — Brando is the big new thing, let’s nominate him. I really don’t see this at all. But, you know, he’s a number five. It’s cool. He arguably should have won in ’51, and would win in ’54. I think we all understand this isn’t something he’s gonna win for.

Cooper — It’s High Noon. How haven’t you seen this? If you have, you know what I’m talking about.

It’s a film, in pseud0 real-time, about a town marshal about to get married and leave his job who finds out a man he put in jail is coming in on the noon train to kill him. And the film is him dealing with this over the hour before he shows up. At first the town tells him to leave so he doesn’t get killed, and he does, and his wife supports this, because she’s very anti-guns (she’s a Quaker. And Grace Kelly), but then he turns around, because, he has to. Then he goes back to the town, to defend them one last time, and tries to raise a posse to face this guy, but then everyone turns their back on him. They all refuse. And he goes around, planning on taking them on himself. And then there’s a bit with his ex-girlfriend, and his wife is leaving on the train, with or without him, and all that. And he goes and there’s the big showdown.

Perfect film.

This is another one of Gary Cooper’s most iconic performances. Probably his most iconic performance. I can’t really judge this as a performance though, is the problem. I mean, it’s Will Kane. Is this really something you can call a Best Actor winning performance? Plus, we found out that Cooper had an ulcer while he was shooting, so, that nuance on his face — is the ulcer. Honestly — I see this as a performance that is cool for winning, unless there’s really someone else to win otherwise. Kind of like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. Great, iconic, but — can you really judge it like that?

So, really what I’m saying is, I have someone else to vote for, and can’t really see how this won aside from the fact that the iconic nature of the performance carries it.

Douglas — The Bad and the Beautiful is the best film ever made about Hollywood. There haven’t actually been that many, considering. But this is the best. It actually is the film that holds the record for most Oscar nominations (6) without being nominated for Best Picture. Interesting, no? Somehow Ivanhoe got this film’s nomination. I have no idea why. Well — yes I do. It still doesn’t make it okay.

It’s a brilliant noir, directed by Vincente Minnelli. The film starts in the present day and is shown entirely via flashback. It’s structure is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner and Dick Powell, a director, actress and writer, show up at Shields Pictures in the middle of the night, at the behest of Walter Pidgeon, a producer. It’s  because Jonathan Shields, played by Kirk Douglas, whom we never see in the present day at all, has fucked them all over in some way and they’re all bitter about it, and Pidgeon wants them to think about taking on this picture that Shields is producing. And the film is basically him trying to convince them to forget what he did and help out Shields. He does this by recounting all their stories.

First, the director. We flash back to Barry Sullivan as a poor, aspiring director. He shows up at the funeral of Shield’s father, and, as he’s being buried, makes a remark to one of the spectators about how much of a prick he was. He notices that Shields (that’s Douglas, by the way, in case you forgot) hears this, and feels bad for saying it. Then later, as he’s leaving, he notices that Shields paid all the spectators to show up, and, remembering him making the comment, tells him he wasn’t hired to make comments, and doesn’t pay him. Feeling bad, Sullivan goes to apologize, and tells Shields he didn’t know the people were paid and was going out of respect for his father. He and Douglas find themselves both poor and determined to make it in the business and partner up.

Then they start party hopping and doing whatever they can to find an in within the industry. They eventually go to a party where Walter Pidgeon is, and Douglas manages to lose a lot of money to him at a card game, and uses the losses to get a job from him. He tells him he can pay off the debt by making films for him. And Pidgeon hires the two of them, and they start making quickies. And eventually they make their name by making a film that’s essentially Cat People. It’s about cats that stalk people in the dark and shit. And they’re upset while they’re making it because the costumes are not scary at all, and they get the idea to do what worked for the shark in Jaws — keep it off screen. And it works and they move up in the company. And eventually they work to produce what Sullivan had as his passion project — an adaptation of a book that he knew would be their ticket to success. They plan to have Sullivan direct it and Douglas produce it. But Douglas, once he gets producing duties on the film and a budget, fires Sullivan and hires a big time director to do it. And Sullivan is pissed because that catapulted Douglas to where he is now (and won him a shitload of Oscars) and Sullivan is stuck in the middle.

Then there’s Lana Turner. Her story is much different than the first one. After the first flashback, we move over to her and start her flashback. She was the daughter of a famous actor, who Douglas’s father made his name alongside. They were a great actor/director team. And after the actor dies, Douglas goes over to the man’s house to mourn his passing. And in it he finds Turner. She’s a small-time actress, a drunk, and is pretty pitiful all around. And what Douglas does is fix her up (there’s that great moment when he dumps her in a pool to sober her up), get her a screen test, builds up her confidence, and turns her into a huge star.

We see him get her the test, get her a part in a picture that’s sure to make her a star, and we see him manipulate her too. He starts pretending he’s in love with her in order to coax a great performance out of her. And she starts to believe him. Which helps her performance. And then they have the premiere of the film, and it pops huge, and she becomes a star overnight, and there’s Oscar buzz, and all this good stuff. And at the after-party, she looks for him in order to share the moment with him, and he’s not there. And she goes over to his house to find him in bed with another woman (Elaine Stewart, who actually just died, sadly, like, a month ago). And he then drives her away from his house and basically tells her it’s never going to happen.

So that’s her story. Then we get the last story. Dick Powell (whom you may remember from all the 30s Busby Berkeley musicals, like 42nd Street and Golddiggers. He was always the male lead in all those musical numbers) plays an author who lives in a small town and has just written a best-selling book. And Douglas comes into this small town and convinces him to adapt the book into a screenplay. He gets him to do it himself, convincing him that he’s the only one who can stay true to the novel. He doesn’t want to do it. He wants to work on his next book. But his wife (Gloria Grahame, who won an Oscar for the role), does want him to, so he does it.

So they go out to Hollywood, and Powell writes the screenplay. But pretty soon, Douglas is unhappy with his progress. He believes it’s because he has too many distractions that are keeping him from working, not the least of which is his wife. So Douglas, scheming fuck that he is, gets his suave leading man (the same leading man that was in the Turner film), a notorious womanizer (in the vein of Errol Flynn), to seduce his wife to take her off his hands. However, while Powell is finishing the script, his wife is falling in love with another man. And Douglas gets what he wants. However, when Powell is done, his wife has fallen in love with the actor, and is planning on running away with him. But they’re killed in a plane crash. And Powell is devastated. And Douglas, he makes him produce the film with him anyway, because Powell doesn’t know Douglas is the reason his wife is dead. But then, a few days into filming, he has some differences with the director — not unlike David O. Selznick. (though I doubt David O. Selznick was this much of a dick to those around him) — and fires him and directs the picture himself (much like Seznick did with Duel in the Sun). And the picture bombs and Douglas goes bankrupt. And he also accidentally reveals to Powell the truth, and Powell walks out on him.

So that’s all three stories, and we come back to the present day, as Pidgeon, who had remained a loyal employee of Douglas’s (in the same position he was at the start of the film, just now working for Douglas instead of employing him), begging them to help him out, because he’s poor and needs the work. And at this point we’re like, “Holy fuck, this guy is an asshole.” And the three of them are thinking that too. And even though Pidgeon tries to tell them, “Right. You all hate him. He ruined your lives. You’re all at the very top of your profession. You’re the most successful at what you do,” it doesn’t work. Because, professionally, yes, he helped. Personally, he ruined their lives. And they tell him to shove it and go to walk out. And then Douglas (off-screen) calls, like he was going to, and is talking to Pidgeon. And the three of them eavesdrop on the conversation as Douglas tells Pidgeon all his ideas, and even though they all hate him, the final shot (which is a stroke of brilliance) is the three of them, listening on the telephone, and actually getting intrigued by his ideas. And we just know, they’re gonna do it, and Douglas is probably gonna fuck them over again.

It’s a fucking brilliant movie.

Kirk Douglas is fucking perfect in the film. He really is a lying, cheating fuck. It’s the finest performance he ever gave, and he’s one of the few actors who was actually willing to be completely unlikable in a film (I wish more actors had the balls to do this nowadays). I say he should have won for this, and don’t think anything will ever sway that opinion.

Ferrer — Moulin Rouge is a fucking great film. I feel I need to overstate the quality of this film (hence the fucking) because people are so easily capable of being like, “I saw the Baz Luhrmann version. I don’t want to see that.” They’re not the same.

You know the John Leguizamo character in the musical? Toulouse-Lautrec? The dwarf? This is a movie about him. He was a real guy. A painter. The film is about his days at the Moulin Rouge. He was a drunk, and basically exchanged sketches and paintings for booze. And his height caused him great difficulty. And the film is about his difficult life. Like, his girlfriend (played by Colette Marchand, Oscar-nominated for the role) leaves him and reveals that she was only with him to get money for her and her boyfriend. And he continues to drink and make paintings about Parisian life, and the film is him slowly descending into death via alcoholism. And it’s fucking great.

This is is really, really good. Don’t make the mistake of expecting something similar to the musical. You’ll be disappointed. This is a John Huston film. And it’s great. José Ferrer is fucking incredible in the role, and honestly, if he didn’t already win for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950 (which, made sense considering there really was no one to vote for, but, I wouldn’t have given it to him for that), I’d seriously consider him for a vote here. He was that good. But, because he won, he’s ranked #4. I’d say he gave the third or even second best performance in the category, but rank him #4 simply because I really enjoyed Alec Guinness’s film (though honestly, I’d vote for him over Guinness if it came down to it. I’ll explain why he’s still higher in a second).

Guinness — This film is one that I really enjoyed. The main reason for that is that it’s only 81 minutes long. It’s a very compact film, and is the kind of film that no one can really complain at having seen. It’s the perfect length.

The film starts with Guinness in a Havana bar, talking to a man, telling him about this great crime he pulled off.

Guinness is a bank clerk who’s been in the same position for fifteen years, never being promoted. The whole time he’s been planning an elaborate heist that can work to perfection, and wants to do it because he hasn’t been promoted all this time. You see, he is the head of gold bullion deliveries. And his plan is to steal the gold, melt it down into statues of the Eiffel Tower and since no one can tell the difference, they’ll get away with it. And, right as he’s starting to plan the heist and pick the right time for it, his boss wants to promote him (out of nowhere). And he doesn’t want the promotion now. So he quickly pulls off the heist with a coconspirator he picks up, and it works, mostly to perfection.

However, the police are investigating the whole thing and are asking lots of questions. And he and the guy go to Paris on holiday with the statues. And things go fine, except, a woman they hire to sell the statues (you see, they have regular ones and gold ones, and their plan is to sell the regular ones and make off with the gold ones), mistakenly sells six of the gold ones to a bunch of schoolchildren. And what they do is, go to the schoolhouse and exchange all the ones, worried they might be found out (because they could be traced). They manage to switch five of the six, but one girl refuses to trade hers. And Guinness is worried. So they try to follow her and steal it, and a whole series of things occur that basically alert the police to the statue being the stolen gold, and then there’s a car chase, and only Guinness manages to get away, and then we flash back to him in Havana, telling the story to the man. And then the man says, “Ready?”, and he says yeah, and they get up to leave, and we realize, he’s been handcuffed to the man the entire time. It’s a great ending.

The film is actually really well done. 81 minutes long, they did a really great job doing everything perfectly. It never feels too long or too short, and works all the way through. It’s really, really great.

Guinness does a good job with the film, and I love that he was nominated, but, he was never going to win this. He was seriously the least likely person to win this year. And, I honestly have at least two people to vote over him, so I won’t waste time pretending like I’d vote for him. But he was great in the film and the film itself is really great, so I do want to recommend it very highly to you. I think a lot of people are gonna enjoy this film if they haven’t seen it.

My Thoughts: Brando was not winning for this. He’s out first. Ferrer won one already for a film I didn’t necessarily think he needed to have won for. So he’s out, even though he was great. (I’m not underestimating that either.) Guinness — no. Good, but, no. He’d win his for Bridge on the River Kwai. I think we can all agree on that. So that leaves two. Cooper was amazing, and Douglas was amazing. And really what influences my vote the most is the fact that Cooper won for Sergeant York in a year when Orson Welles should have won for Citizen Kane. He got his Oscar. So, regardless of how iconic this performance is, I’m not voting for it. Kirk Douglas was fucking astounding in The Bad and the Beautiful, and never won an Oscar. And this is his most iconic — well, Spartacus — but definitely his best performance. So he’s my vote all the way.

My Vote: Douglas

Should Have Won: Douglas, Cooper

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. It is an iconic performance. I just don’t like it because Cooper had one already (and didn’t really need two), Kirk Douglas was deprived of an Oscar, and he was fucking incredible in The Bad and the Beautiful. So, for that reason, I find it unacceptable. All other reasons — it was.

Though, I will say, this is about the epitome of the whole “likability” thing the Oscars go for. They hate unlikable characters, and they don’t come any more unlikable than Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful. And they don’t come more likable than Gary Cooper in High Noon. And, despite Douglas giving the better performance, the Academy went with Cooper. And that about explains everything you need to know about the Academy and likability.

Performances I suggest you see: High Noon is a perfect, essential film. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t really like movies. ’nuff said.

The Bad and the Beautiful is the perfect Hollywood film. It amazes me that more people haven’t seen this movie. It’s probably the best movie about Hollywood ever made. It is perfect. I think everyone needs to see it. You do, but I’m not going to chide you as hard as I’m chiding you for not seeing High Noon. I’ll chide you, but, in the hierarchy of must-see films, this is second of the two on this list. Still, this is a film that, is essential, and it’s one of those, if you’ve seen it, you feel better than those who haven’t seen it. And then you can be like, “You should totally check out this film,” and introduce it to someone else. Trust me. You want to see this if you haven’t.

Then, The Lavender Hill Mob is a very good film. It’s short, succinct, and never overstays its welcome. It’s great. See it. 81 minutes. You won’t feel it was wasted. It’s so well-done.

And Moulin Rouge is a great film, but not for everyone. It’s a movie about a dwarf painter and his life. He’s a drunk, he’s in a relationship with a whore — it’s the serious version of the John Leguizamo character in the Baz Luhrmann version, who also was a real guy, directed by John Huston. I see so many reasons right there, not the least of which is the double feature, which I’m very excited to do. But, it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a great film. Highly recommended.

And Viva Zapata! — it’s a Brando film, and you get to see him try to be a Mexican. That’s something, right?


5) Brando

4) Ferrer

3) Guinness

2) Douglas

1) Cooper

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