The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1948
I consider 1948 to be the single worst Best Picture choice in the history of the Academy. Simply because the category was so stacked, and they went with the worst possible choice. Of a category that included The Red Shoes, Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Hollywood, an industry based in southern California in America, chose Hamlet, a British production, as their Best Picture. Fortunately, they did not make the same mistake with Best Director, which went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (talked about here).
Best Actress this year was Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (talked about here), which I consider a top five Best Actress decision for all time. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (talked about here), which was about 12 years coming for the man, and is a decision I love very much. And Best Supporting Actress was Claire Trevor for Key Largo, which I don’t like very much at all.
And then there’s this category, which — I do actually like a lot. I mean, Bogie wasn’t nominated, but outside of that, they made the best choice within the category. Olivier is a legend.
BEST ACTOR – 1948
And the nominees were…
Lew Ayres, Johnny Belinda
Montgomery Clift, The Search
Dan Dailey, When My Baby Smiles at Me
Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
Clifton Webb, Sitting Pretty
Ayres — Johnny Belinda is one of my favorite films I saw on this Oscar Quest. It’s amazing.
It’s about Ayres, as a doctor who moves to a small town. And the first fifteen minutes or so is about him getting used to being the town doctor, getting random calls about all sorts of things, like, “Bill Jones is drunk again and needs to be better so he can work the farm,” and Ayres is like, “There’s no way to not be drunk.” Stuff like that.
And eventually he meets Belinda, played by Jane Wyman, a mute girl who lives with her father (Charles Bickford) and aunt (Agnes Moorehead). And she’s a deaf mute, and because of that, her father assumed she was stupid and never taught her how to communicate. And Ayres realizes she does have some intelligence, since she’s developed her own sense of communication within her own mind. And he works with her to teach her sign language, and helps her become a member of society. And she falls in love with him, since he’s the only one who’s ever shown kindness to her. And then she ends up getting raped by a local boy, and everyone in town thinks it was the doctor, since he’s the only one who spent time with her. And Belinda refuses to tell anyone what happened, which only strengthens everyone’s beliefs. And eventually, once the baby is born, the guy comes back, wanting to see the kid, and Belinda shoots him. And then she’s put on trial for murder, and Ayres has to try to convince everyone what really happened.
It’s a really great film. What makes it work is the fact that they make the first half so low key that once the melodrama kicks in, you don’t care.
Ayres is really strong here, but he’s not someone who should win. It’s not a performance that should win unless it has to. And, given the category, it almost has to, but Olivier is clearly the vote here, so as much as I love the film, I can’t vote for Ayres here.
Clift — The Search is a really good film that I’m very happy to have discovered.
It’s about a young boy who is rounded up with a bunch of other lost boys and brought to a UN center, so they can try to find his parents. Thing is, the boys, not speaking English (they’re German), they believe they’re being sent to concentration camps (because they’ve heard that boys are rounded up and then gasses inside the vans), so they all escape. And the kid ends up running away (and getting away), and meeting Montgomery Clift. At first he’s terrified of him (he’s a soldier), and tries running away. But Clift sees the boy is malnourished and will die if left alone, so he tries to help him. But he can’t understand why the boy keeps running away. So he eventually shows the kid that he’s not going to hurt him, and that the boy is free to come and go as he pleases, and the boy ends up staying. And he teaches the boy some English, and they become friends. And the whole time, Clift is searching for the boy’s mother. And the boy’s mother is also searching for the boy. And the film builds to the big reunion at the end. It’s a really strong film. I really loved it.
Clift is good here, but I can’t really see why he got nominated. The film is great and all, but this is a performance that — in a strong category, would boost its strength. But in a category like this, it’s a weak entry because — it would never win. So it just feels like a blank in the search for a winner. I’d love to vote for Clift, but the performance was not vote-worthy.
Dailey — When My Baby Smiles at Me is about a husband and wife vaudeville team, Dan Dailey and Betty Grable. And he’s an alcoholic who has gotten sober, and they’re ham and egging on the smaller circuit. Then a guy comes and says there might be a spot for them in New York, on the big stage. And what happens is, they find out it’s just for him, and not the two of them. So he goes, and they get separated. And as they’re separated, he starts drinking a lot more and seems to be spending too much time with his costar. And we see Dailey destroying his career with alcohol, yet remaining likable in the process. The film isn’t particularly good, but Dailey’s performance elevates it to something watchable. It’s one of those Oscar performances where — you know it won’t win, but it’s a strong performance in a mediocre film, so you can see why it got nominated.
Dailey does a really great job here. There’s one number in the middle of the film where he does a musical number while really drunk, and it’s a powerful image, because it’s pitiful drunk, and you can see that he’s forcing it. He really never had a shot to win, the nomination was the reward. But he was really strong here. You kind of figured he was really strong, because honestly, when have you heard of Dan Dailey outside of this? When a relative unknown (not that he hadn’t done anything, but I did say relative) gets nominated for an Oscar, it’s because the performance is strong. Not voting for him, though. This is Olivier’s year, and I have reasons to vote for everyone else before Dailey. A shame, but, these things happen.
Olivier — Hamlet is Hamlet. I think you’ve heard of it.
Olivier is Hamlet. It’s his finest (Shakespearean) screen performance. He deserved this (based on the category. And in general).
Webb — Sitting Pretty is a delightful little film. Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara are a stressed married couple. Their nannies keep quitting because they can’t handle taking care of the children. So they put an add in the paper. Clifton Webb answers it. They think he’s a woman because his name seems like that of a woman. At first they don’t want him to come on board, because it seems weird that a man would do something like that. But eventually he proves himself to be good at what he does. His strict methods work really well, and soon the children become well-behaved.
And the whole time, the parents are trying to figure out what the deal is with Webb, who seems to have knowledge in every area imaginable and he has almost every career imaginable. And they keep trying to find out about him, and he keeps remaining mysterious and doing his thing. And eventually we find out that he’s in the town to write an exposé on it. He’s been going around, gossipping with all the town gossips and writing down everything he’s heard. And the town gets up in arms because all this sordid information becomes public, but he gets famous because of it, and he tells O’Hara and Young (who strain their marriage almost to the point of divorce during the film, because Young starts believing in the gossip that Webb has been sleeping with her) that they’re good people. It’s a really great film. Hard to find, but if you can find it — see it.
Clifton Webb is terrific here. His screen persona is perfect for this character. He’s got that snooty, better-than-you persona, and it works to perfection here. He’s hilarious. Seriously. Watch this. He’s hilarious. Can’t vote for him, because this really should have went to Olivier, but Webb is absolutely wonderful here.
My Thoughts: In the absence of Humphrey Bogart being nominated for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (seriously, what the fuck, Academy?), Laurence Olivier runs away with this. I mean, it’s not even close. Dude is the most respected actor in the world at this time, and he’s playing the perfect role for him to win an Oscar. How can you not vote for him?
My Vote: Olivier
Should Have Won: Olivier
Is the result acceptable?: It’s Laurence Olivier. And look who the rest of the category is (and what they were nominated for). Based on the category, this was a perfect decision. Plus, it’s Laurence Olivier. Come on, now.
Performances I suggest you see: Johnny Belinda is a film that I, personally, would make you see. So if you want to be friends with me, you need to see this one.
Sitting Pretty is a wonderfully enjoyable film and one I loved very much. I highly, highly recommend it, and I think a lot of people who see this one are gonna like it.
Hamlet is Hamlet. It’s good. It won Best Picture. I really don’t need to recommend this, because — it’s Hamlet.
The Search is a terrific, terrific film. And I guarantee you, this is one of the top twenty or so hidden gems on this Oscar Quest. A lot of people are gonna love this one when they see it.
When My Baby Smiles at Me — decent film, not that great, pretty generic. But Dailey’s performance is really great. So, strong performance, relatively weak film. Worth seeing, though. He’s really good.