The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1939-1940)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind
Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights
Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
I’m not one to go in for this sort of “should have been nominated instead” thing, but given this particular category, indulge me for a second. What if — I’m posing this as a hypothetical, so as not to go down that road. This is strictly, imagine this for a second — instead of Mickey Rooney, the fourth nominee was either Henry Fonda for Young Mr. Lincoln, Charles Laughton for Hunchback, or even Charles Boyer for Love Affair. How that, on the surface, might have looked like the single strongest Best Actor category of all time.
Still a great category by any stretch.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a great film. I love this movie.
It’s about a teacher. That’s it. We watch him as he starts at a school, as a young man, and slowly as he grows and changes over something like sixty years as he goes from disliked teacher to mascot of the school. It’s like the Mr. Holland’s Opus of the 30s.
Robert Donat plays Chips. And he’s strong in the role. The reason he won is because he portrays the guy from something like 20 to 80. The material and the makeup do a lot of the work for him, and I think that may have duped voters into taking him. That said, you don’t necessarily know how things are gonna hold up. So what looked like a great performance in 1939 (and still looks like a very good performance now) just doesn’t hold up next to Rhett Butler (though I think they knew Rhett Butler was gonna hold up) and Jefferson Smith. Shit happens. Donat is still very, very good here, and I might even go so far as to say he might give the second best performance in the category. That said, I’m not gonna take him, nor would most people who vote for this category today.
Gone With the Wind. Yes. That movie.
Clark Gable plays Rhett Butler. He starts off as a cad, becomes a smart cad, becomes a more complex cad, becomes a more complex character, becomes a really compelling character, and then gets to utter the most famous line in all of cinema. Good work, if you can get it.
The role of Rhett Butler did not need a Laurence Olivier type actor in it. It needed a Clark Gable in it. The character is meant to be charming and wily and all those things. Gable was not the best actor, but had a good enough range to not only pull this off, but pull it off very successfully. He has a nearly four hour movie to work with too, which will help him gain a lot of traction in the category. But here, where I think he more than earns his keep, is in the last third of the picture, when Scarlett starts pulling away from him and after they lose their daughter. Those scenes are really where he shines. Is he good enough to be the automatic choice? No. But I think that makes him top two. Maybe he slides down to third for some. But I think he’s very much a performance that rates highly here, though I don’t think I take him in the end. I’d like to, given my love of the film, but there’s just too good a choice coming up that I can’t pass up.
Wuthering Heights is a great film. Based on a work of classic literature, well told, well directed and well acted. This might be the best version of Wuthering Heights we’ve seen on screen.
The film is about Cathy and Heathcliff and their tragic love affair. He’s poor, she’s rich. They fall in love, but society and fate prevent them from ever truly being together.
Olivier plays Heathcliff, and he’s just great here. This is one of his earlier films, so he’s not totally polished on the screen yet, but his pure talent as an actor shows. He’s great here, and most years, he might have contended. Put him in 1937 or 1938, he definitely contends. Here, he’s a distant fourth choice. Very solid, would be a third or second most other years, but here, there’s nothing that makes me want to take him over three of the other nominees. He’s one of the most solid #4s I’ve ever seen, but he really stands no shot at this one. It’s too strong a category.
Babes in Arms always struck me as a very weird sort of nomination. The film’s not particularly memorable, and while Mickey Rooney is great in it, it’s not like it’s any different from the usual performance he’d been putting on in all his other movies.
The film is basically a “let’s put on a show” narrative. Very popular narrative of the 30s. That’s it, really. Kids put on a play.
Mickey Rooney plays the main kid. He and Judy Garland are the leads. And he runs around as the leader (you see this in basically every Mickey Rooney movie, especially the Andy Hardy films), telling everyone what to do and getting all worked up and such. He’s got an immense amount of energy, and it shows. And he does a bunch of impressions and stuff (and blackface, because naturally) and really just does the same thing you see him do in all these types of movies. On its own, it looks okay as a nominee, but when you know what Mickey Rooney does, it is kind of curious that they nominated him for this as opposed to all the others. But sure.
He’s clearly fifth in the category though. Does anyone take him over any of the other nominees? He never stood a shot here and pretty much just gets a “good job” pat on the back. One we take away when Breakfast at Tiffany’s happens.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the most iconic films ever made.
Boy scout leader gets picked to be a replacement senator for his state. This is done so the corrupt “boss” of the state can get a bill passed that allows them to build a dam on state land. Stewart plays the boy scout leader. At first he’s in awe of being in Washington and getting to serve his country. He even is in awe of his fellow senator, who has been in office for years and was a friend of his father’s. And eventually he gets wind of how corrupt Washington is, and starts to fight back. Culminating in the filibuster sequence, which is one of the greatest sequences ever put to film. Ever.
Jimmy Stewart should have won this by a mile. He’s so good here. He’s everything you want out of a performance, and he represents everything we want in this world. Sure, the hanging out with little boys aspect is creepy, but the rest of it.
He should have won this, and I think everyone (including the Academy) realized as much.
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The Reconsideration: It’s Jimmy Stewart. How does anyone, having seen all five of the nominees, take anyone else. Donat is really great, but I think the makeup and material do a lot of the heavy lifting for him. Though he is good enough for me to rank him as the second best performance in the category. I still take Gable over him, because it’s Rhett Butler, but Donat I think does a better job than Gable in the acting department. Still, even with those two here, how is it not Stewart? The filibuster scene would make anyone want to vote for him. This is one of the most iconic performances of ALL TIME. Gotta take it.
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- James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind
- Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
- Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights
- Gone With the Wind
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Wuthering Heights
- Babes in Arms
My Vote: James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
I’m not gonna waste my time here.
If, as a film buff, you have not seen Gone With the Wind or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, go home, you’re doing it wrong.
I get people who’ve not seen Gone With the Wind yet. It happens all the time. But you need to own that shit and say it openly because yes, it is a negative mark on your resume. Man up and watch that shit. But seriously, you need to see it.
And there’s no excuse for any person to not have seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington once. Even just as a human being.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a great, great film. All around very high recommend. A really entertaining film and a top ten for what is considered to be the best year in cinema history. Essential for Oscar buffs, and just a really high recommend for everyone else. You owe it to yourself as someone who loves movies to see this.
Wuthering Heights is a very solid film. High recommend. The best version of the story and just a really good film all around. It’s from the Golden Year, so you know it’s good. Check it out. Don’t consider it really essential, but consider it a movie you should check out just as a film buff.
Babes in Arms is just good. Solid recommend for those who like musicals. Busby Berkeley directed this. And it has Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Which is nice. TCM kind of movie. Check it out, it’s short and fun, but you don’t need to consider this an essential film. Not with the other heavy hitters in this category.
The Last Word: Donat doesn’t really hold up. No one remembers the performance. Not against Rhett Butler or Jefferson Smith. I think it’s universally agreed that Jimmy Stewart gave by far the best performance in this category. And I think the Academy knew it too, because we’re about to see them give one of the most blatant makeup Oscars in history to him.
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Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath
Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Laurence Olivier, Rebecca
James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin parodying Adolf Hitler. I think we all know this movie.
He plays dual roles here. First, a Jewish barber. And second, Adenoid Hynkel, a fascist dictator. It’s strong work all around, but I don’t know if the performance is necessarily something that should be voted for as Best Actor. I think he as an actor, and what he does on screen is tremendous. But here, in this category, for this performance, I don’t know. I much prefer him as a writer, director and even composer here. But I can totally see taking him. I might have even done so were it not for our next nominee.
The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic, and one of the most iconic films (and pieces of literature) of all time.
It’s about a poor family during the Dust Bowl trying to survive.
Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad. One of the most famous characters of all time. And this is Fonda’s career defining performance. He is incredible here, and I think most people, having seen this, would agree that he probably should have won this award. I can definitely see having a preference for Chaplin over him, but seriously, Fonda is so good here, you can’t deny that he’s worthy of a vote.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a self-explanatory movie.
Raymond Massey plays Lincoln. His big claim to fame is looking exactly like Lincoln and playing him a shit ton. I mean, if you can, why not.
He’s a good Lincoln and he’s good in the role. But so much of it feels like it’s the resemblance. Like Morgan Freeman playing Mandela. It was such a great idea for so long, when it finally happened it’s like, “Yeah, great. He’s very good, but what else?” This is one of those automatic nominations that doesn’t make a whole lot of headway for the win just because it feels too… not necessarily obvious, but uninspiring. He’s probably third on pure performance and fourth (if that) for a vote. Just not someone I’d take.
Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. Hell of a start.
Joan Fontaine is a young, naive girl who meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier while on vacation. He’s there trying to get over his wife’s recent death, and doesn’t expect to fall in love. He takes Fontaine back to his estate, where she cannot seem to overcome the shadow of his dead wife. Slowly, she starts to look into what happened to her, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death…
Olivier, as the husband, is really great. It’s not quite Suspicion, where it seems like he might be a killer. This is more — distraught man who finds unexpected love, who may also be implicit in his wife’s death. It never feels sinister the way he plays it, and I like that. This is a much more impressive performance than his Wuthering Heights performance. I don’t think I take this, but he could be considered second best in the category. I, personally, take Fonda and Chaplin over him. But I could make the case he’s better than Chaplin here.
The Philadelphia Story is one of the great all-time comedies. Hilarious film.
It’s a comedy of remarriage. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn go through a nasty divorce. She’s about to get remarried, and on the weekend of the wedding, two society reporters show up to cover the wedding. As does Grant. And he basically forces Hepburn to keep them there for the weekend. And of course hijinks ensue.
Jimmy Stewart plays one of the reporters. And he’s fine here. He’s always great and lovable, and he’s really funny here too. But there’s no way you’re telling me this is a performance you really take for Best Actor. The nomination is one thing, but he doesn’t rate higher than fifth here on performance. Not at all. Maybe you take him fourth, or possibly even third, but even so. To take him is to blatantly go for makeup Oscar. On pure performance, no way do I take this.
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The Reconsideration: How blatant a makeup Oscar is this? I love The Philadelphia Story, but there is no way you’re telling me Jimmy Stewart had anything in it resembling an Oscar-winning performance. He clearly won for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I think we can all agree on that.
Now, for who did give the best performance, and in an ideal situation who should be the vote in this category — that’s up for debate.
I don’t think it’s Raymond Massey. He’s just good. He’s not transcendently good, like Daniel Day-Lewis was as Lincoln. So he’s not the one.
Olivier, though — you can make a case for Olivier. I wouldn’t, not over the other two, but you could.
I think the choice is easily between Henry Fonda and Charlie Chaplin. Some people argue that Chaplin would have already had an acting Oscar had they not given him an honorary for The Circus in 1927/28. And honestly, who would have argued with him winning Best Actor that year of all years? But that’s beside the point.
I think Chaplin is very good here, but I don’t think the performance(s) really are that great that I have to take them no matter what. Some would take them. I wouldn’t argue with that.
For me, the best and most iconic performance in the category is Henry Fonda’s. Tom Joad is a legendary character and a lot of that has to do with Fonda’s characterization of him. This dude is everything Bruce Springsteen ever wrote about in one man. Fonda is incredible here, and him winning this is still looked at as one of the great snubs in Oscar history. So much so that they basically spoon-fed him an Oscar 41 years after this.
Fonda’s my vote.
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- Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath
- Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
- Laurence Olivier, Rebecca
- Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois
- James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Philadelphia Story
- The Great Dictator
- Abe Lincoln in Illinois
My Vote: Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator and Rebecca are all 100% essential. If I need to tell you that you need to see any of those, you’re doing movies wrong. I’m not even gonna tell you why each is essential. If I need to say anything else about why those are essential, be better at movies.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois is just a pretty good film. The only reason it’s really worth watching is because Raymond Massey was just a dead ringer for Abe Lincoln. He played him something like 12 times on screen. It’s probably more than that.
The movie’s just good. Maybe catch it on TCM, but don’t feel the need to see it. Only really worth it because of how much he looked like Lincoln. Young Mr. Lincoln is an all around better movie.
The Last Word: Here’s the thing — Jimmy Stewart was worth an Oscar, and as such holds up as a winner. But in THIS category, for THIS performance, it’s one of the worst decisions of all time. He’s good, but there’s no real performance here. This is blatantly a makeup Oscar. He wasn’t even gonna go to the ceremony, thinking that he had no chance, and they told him, “Hey Jimmy, you better put on a tux right now and head over there.” They practically rigged that shit. At a glance, this holds up. Under any scrutiny whatsoever, this is a terrible decision. Fonda and even Chaplin were better choices. Even Olivier gives a better performance than Stewart. So yes and no, as a winner. I think we all understand the complexities of this one. The best decision would have been Henry Fonda. I also think most of us would agree on that one too.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)