The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1951

I like 1951. I don’t agree with the Best Picture or Best Director choice, but as a whole, I like this year. An American in Paris is a good film, but not one that should be winning Best Picture. There are better musicals to choose from during this period, specifically Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. I don’t get the preoccupation with choosing a musical over an American classic like A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t really have too much of a problem with it though. Streetcar pretty much swept all the other categories, so, it sort of balances out. What’s strange is that they gave Best Director to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun. George Stevens is a great director, but as I said here, you have John Huston, Elia Kazan, William Wyler and Vincente Minnelli up as well this year. Okay, Huston has one, Kazan has one and Wyler has two. But why not Minnelli? His movie won Best Picture! (See what I mean? Some decisions are just baffling and inconsistent.)

The rest of this year, though, is pretty straightforward. A Streetcar Named Desire sweeps almost everything. It wins Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter. All perfect decisions and very deserving actors. So, in all, three really strong decisions, one I don’t like but can accept, one terrible one, and then what remains the most fascinating decision of this year — this category.

Here you have Marlon Brando, who gives one of the most defining performances of his career (alongside the other two he won for, The Godfather and On the Waterfront), and Humphrey Bogart, a living legend who rightfully should have won an Oscar for Casablanca (somehow Paul Lukas wins for a performance that shouldn’t even be nominated, let alone win, there). What makes the category so interesting is that Streetcar won all the other acting awards, and here you have this category, which looks like it should be the biggest shoo-in of all. I mean, Brando — Stanley Kowalski — no contest, right? One of the most powerful performances in the history of cinema. And yet — Humphrey Bogart. And, especially now, after the fact — we know Brando wins two more. So what seems like a very cut-and-dry category becomes infinitely more complex and layered. I really like this category.


And the nominees were…

Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen

Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire

Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun

Arthur Kennedy, Bright Victory

Frederic March, Death of a Salesman

Bogart — The African Queen. Oh, man, do I love this movie. Wasn’t available on DVD for the longest time, but they finally released it spring semester of my senior year of college (aka, like, eighteen months ago), and I got to see a gorgeous transfer of it as my first (official) viewing. I was very pleased.

The film begins with Katharine Hepburn in Africa (she’s a spinster, this is the beginning of her “spinster” period) with her brother, who is a missionary. He’s trying to convert the natives to Catholicism. Their only contact to the outside (white) world is Humphrey Bogart — a river boat captain who drives up the river for five days and delivers the mail. This is during World War II. And Bogie shows up with the mail and is like, “The Germans are coming,” and dude’s like, “We’re not leaving. No one can interfere with god,” and Hepburn’s like, “Uhh…” So the Germans show up, burn shit down, and the brother goes nuts and dies. So now Hepburn’s all alone. But Bogie comes back on his boat and picks her up. He had heard they came by and checked to see if everyone was all right. So now the two of them are on the boat together, traveling toward Allied waters. And the next half hour of the film is basically the two of them bickering with one another. They don’t like one another — she doesn’t like that he drinks nothing but whiskey* and he doesn’t like that she’s all prim and proper and calls him by his last name.

* This was actually a point of contention on the set. Hepburn was a very prim and proper woman (seemingly asexual in a lot of ways) who disapproved of alcohol and swearing (the fact that she was also present at Vivien Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier, and the party thereafter, makes this even more amusing). So here she is, in the jungles of Africa with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Yeah — how you think that turned out? So, upset that all they did was drink and smoke and play cards, she made it a point to drink nothing but the local water — because they refused to, because, it’s African water. It’s not safe. So she drinks the local water, gets a horrible, horrible sickness, and the two of them, they go on, drinking nothing but liquor, while Hepburn gets dysentery. The dysentery part aside, you can see why I love this story.

So they go on the boat, eventually warm up to one another, and fall in love. And she gives him the idea of using the boat (his beloved old, piece of shit boat, that he loves more than a woman, until she comes along) to use his boat like a torpedo to take out a German gun ship. And some other stuff happens, but I won’t give it away, but I will end my synopsis on the best line of the movie, delivered by a German minister: “I now pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.”

The film is pretty great. Bogie is fine here, but in terms of performance, it’s definitely not vote-worthy. I think we can all agree, if we’re voting for him, we’re voting for him, and what he stands for, and not the role. It’s like John Wayne, Henry Fonda — these people get Oscars for being them and not for the role they’re in. Which is cool. But let’s be clear on this: no matter how great the film is, how awesome Bogie is in it, it’s not a vote-worthy performance by normal category standards. But, this isn’t a normal category. This is Humphrey Bogart.

Brando — A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those films that’s so famous that I shouldn’t have to write up a synopsis. But we’ll do a brief one.

Blanche Dubois comes to visit her sister Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley, down in New Orleans. Blanche is slowly losing her grip on sanity. She’s an aging southern belle prone to fantasy. She comes and visits the harsh reality that is Stanley — he’s brutish, course, and blunt, and he and Stella fight all the time, and she storms out, and it usually ends with him screaming her name (hence the famous line from the film) and her coming back down, and them having great makeup sex. Now Blanche is here, and her and Stanley — well, they clash. And she tries to go on a date with Mitch, Stanley’s friend, but he (and Stanley) find out what really happened with her (what she’d been saying was a mixture of lie and fantasy) — she was fired because she had an affair with an underage male student and her fiance killed himself a month into their marriage. And Mitch taunts her with this, which makes her break away a little bit more from sanity. Then Stella gets pregnant, and on the night she has the baby, Stanley rapes Blanche, which really makes her lose it. And Stanley commits her to an asylum the next day, which leads to the film’s other famous line (“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”) as she’s taken away. Then Stella comes home, finds out what happened to Blanche (not the rape part, but, maybe she knows), and leaves Stanley, and he’s left shouting for her and she won’t come back.

It’s an incredible film. Everyone needs to see it once in their lives. Everyone in the cast is pitch perfect. Brando most of all. The fact that he didn’t win here is just hysterical. And yet, at the same time, kind of understandable, and even okay. But let’s make no mistake here — Brando was by far the best in this category. This is something that should be universally understood.

Clift — A Place in the Sun is a film I don’t like very much. It’s not a bad film. In fact, it’s pretty good. But, the fact that I didn’t love it, wouldn’t really watch it again because I wasn’t that invested in its story, added to the fact that it won Best Director and I don’t think it should have, pretty much leads me to saying I don’t like it. But it’s not that bad a film. It’s just the Oscar bias. I do that sometimes.

It’s about Montgomery Clift, a meager factory worker, who is in love with Shelley Winters. He’s planning on marrying her, living modestly, raising a family, being happy. Then he meets the factory owner’s daughter, Elizabeth Taylor. She’s a socialite, and a sexual force of nature. This is the film that turned Elizabeth Taylor from the nice little girl who was in films like National Velvet and Father of the Bride, to the Elizabeth Taylor that was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — you know? Man, she is sexy here.

So she steals Clift away, and, kind of like in Sunrise, Clift decides to kill Winters. Mostly because he finds out she’s pregnant and really wants to marry him. He doesn’t want her anymore because he’s under the thrall of Elizabeth Taylor. So he goes to a lake and drowns Shelley Winters. But of course, they trace it back to him, he’s arrested and Taylor leaves him, because she’s disgusted at his actions. So it ends badly. As one can expect. Anytime a film starts off happy, it usually ends up not.

Anyway, the film is okay, just, not one I can find myself watching over and over, outside of the Liz scenes. Clift is solid here, though. He always is. But, up against Brando and Bogart, there’s no room to even consider voting for him. Plus, I’m gonna vote for him in 2 years in 1953 anyway, so, I have no problem ignoring this and not voting for it.

Kennedy — Yeah, a clear #5. Arthur Kennedy is a Supporting Actor nominee you vote for, not a lead one. He just happened to get a solid lead role that he could be nominated for. Normally I’d say, “Oh, Frederic March won twice already, so Kennedy automatically gets pushed ahead for a vote,” but, March is playing Willy Loman. That takes priority.

(And for those saying this goes against my refusal to vote for classic stage plays in Oscar categories, “Death of a Salesman” was written in 1949, so this is just like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published and turned into a film within three years. My rule only applies to situations like, if someone played Willy Loman now. After it’s become such an iconic role.)

Bright Victory is about Arthur Kennedy, a soldier during World War II, who is blinded by a German sniper. The film is about him in the military hospital, dealing with his blindness. And we see him come to terms with it, then learn to live as a blind man, using his other senses to get around, and eventually getting to the point where he can navigate around town by himself. And the other part of it is, he’s kind of prejudiced. He was born in the south, and has kind of a prejudiced attitude toward blacks. And while he’s blind, he befriends a black man, only he doesn’t know it. And they become best friends. And then he finds out he’s black one day when he makes a racist remark. And he and the friend become estranged, but then, at the end of the film (after Kennedy went and lost his fiance because she couldn’t deal with him being blind and found another woman he really loves who could), he meets his friend again and they reconcile.

It’s a strong film in many regards. It deals with a lot of important messages in a smart way. It’s very engaging, and a very good watch. I definitely recommend it. As I said, though, Kennedy is nowhere near a vote. I’d probably make him my #4, but he was never gonna win anyway.

March — Death of a Salesman, I think we all know. Willy Loman, stocking salesman, been doing it for a long time, now the age of the salesman is coming to an end, he’s losing his mind, and is having lots of problems. He used to be his son’s hero, but now he’s still trying to be and just isn’t anymore, and the whole thing is about the decay of the American Dream. Strong play. The film — not so much. It’s just okay. I liked the Dustin Hoffman version better.

March is fine here, but I can’t help but feel as though his performance is the product of a former time. That is, this performance would have been great in the 40s, but not here. It just feels a bit too — over-the-top. I mean, Brando is nominated this year. We’re in the era of a more naturalized style of acting. And here’s March doing the old Hollywood thing. It just doesn’t work. Plus he won twice. So he’s clearly a #5 for a vote.

My Thoughts: It’s pretty much a no contest. Brando gives the best performance, Bogie should have an Oscar. Everyone else is completely irrelevant. But which do you vote for? After the fact, do you vote for Bogart, knowing Brando gets two, or do you vote for Brando, knowing this is one of the best performances ever put to film? Personally, I voted for Bogart for Casablanca, so I have no problem, despite the other two wins, voting for Brando. Brando is like Daniel Day-Lewis. They might not all be Oscar-worthy, but when they are, you can’t ignore them.

My Vote: Brando

Should Have Won: Brando for the performance, Bogart for the man.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Very easily, actually. Bogart should have won this award for Casablanca. But he didn’t. And while Brando gave one of the best male performances of all time here, he would actually surpass this performance (or at least match it) twice, and win Best Actor for both those performances (On the Waterfront and The Godfather.) So, while he should have, based on the performances, won this award three times, Bogart deserved an Oscar, and that alone makes this very okay. Bogart and John Wayne and Henry Fonda are pretty much the only three who could have won an Oscar any year and it would have been okay, simply because they are who they are. so I’m very okay with this. The history books cleaned it up.

Performances I suggest you see: A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s no reason for anyone living to not see this film in their lifetime. None. You must see this.

The African Queen is a great film. It’s just gorgeously shot, on location in Africa. Leave it to John Huston to say, “Fuck that noise, we’re going to the Congo to shoot this son of a bitch.” Plus, you get Bogie and Kate Hepburn. Oh man, it’s just a great film. A lot of fun all around. Highly recommended. If you’re a fan of film (and I suspect you are, reading this), you know you love Kate Hepburn and Bogie, so you know you should probably see this film. It’s really great, so it’s not like watching it is a bad thing. See it.

A Place in the Sun is a film I don’t particularly like, though it does have a lot of good in it and about it. So I have to recommend it. This is the film where Elizabeth Taylor became the sex symbol she’s known as. I mean, the scene where she comes in while Montgomery Clift is playing pool — oh my god. That scene was like Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High thirty years earlier. Seriously — just wow. Liz is just gorgeous here. Plus Clift is pretty good, as is Shelley Winters. So while I don’t love the film, I recognize that it’s pretty good. So, you should check it out. (Seriously though, just look at Liz here. Wow.)

Bright Victory is well-made, engaging, a good film. Not for everyone, but, solid. Recommended.

Death of a Salesman — watch the Dustin Hoffman version over this one. It’s better. You need to see a version of it, so watch that one.


5) March

4) Kennedy

3) Clift

2) Bogart

1) Brando

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