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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1943-1944)

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.

1943

Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

Gary Cooper, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine

Walter Pidgeon, Madame Curie

Mickey Rooney, The Human Comedy

Analysis:

Casablanca is one of the most famous films of all time.

Yeah.

Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine. And pretty much everyone votes for him in this category.

Is this a masterclass of acting? No. But this is one of the most iconic performances of all time, wonderfully delivered by Bogart. I see how he didn’t win this, but I also don’t see how he didn’t win either.

Let’s not waste any time. He’s gonna be the choice, unless someone convinces me otherwise.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the third track on Metallica’s album “Ride the Lightning.” And also an Ernest Hemingway novel.

This movie is based on one of those two. I leave it to you to decide which.

Gary Cooper is an American schoolteacher that’s part of a band of guerrilla fighters in fascist Spain, trying to blow up a bridge. And he also falls in love with Ingrid Bergman along the way.

I thought this film was pretty boring five years ago, and watched it twice or three times over the course of the original Quest. I watched it once or twice since then too, and then rewatched it again for the supporting performances. It’s grown on me since the initial watch. Cooper is solid, but at best he’s a third choice in the category.

Watch on the Rhine is a film that I hated originally. I went in against it because Lukas beat Bogart. Then at the first sign of not liking the film, I completely turned on it. Took me five years to come back to it and try to reverse course.

Paul Lukas is a German married to an American. Since the Nazis took over, he’s been fighting against them, making him a wanted man. He sneaks his family into the US to visit his wife’s family, looking for some reprieve from hiding and running. Of course, naturally, Nazi sympathizers discover his identity and threaten to ruin everything. Eventually Lukas is forced to take drastic measures to protect his family and go back to Germany without them.

Lukas is strong here. And in 1943, I completely get why they voted for him. But this, as with Miniver as a Best Picture winner, feels like a shortsighted decision. It just doesn’t hold up next to Bogart. The performance is, admittedly, quite strong, and he does rate as high as second for me in this category, having had a chance to rewatch and reevaluate the performance. But I still take Bogart over him. I really don’t think the actual performance is as strong as the message it conveys. I think they voted for things outside of the performance and just cannot vote for that.

Madame Curie is a biopic. This is the 40s version of the Paul Muni Pasteur/Zola biopics. They brought the band back together and made a surefire Oscar nominee that’s so on the nose it gets requisite nominations but not much else because it’s not particularly inspired.

Walter Pigeon plays Curie’s husband opposite Greer Garson. They first starred together in Blossoms in the Dust, then Miniver, then here, and then finally in Mrs. Parkington. They reunited a couple of years later for a couple of films too, including a Miniver sequel. He’s okay, but really, this is pretty standard a performance. Kinda flat as a film. He’s a fifth choice for me. Nothing makes me want to take him. Just an extra nominee in the category, is all.

The Human Comedy is a lovely film. I’ve always really liked this one. Meg Ryan just remade it as her first directorial effort. No one saw it and it went VOD, but the story almost makes it work.

Mickey Rooney is a small town kid whose father died and whose brother is going off to fight in the war. And he has to support his family, despite being like 14, so he takes a job as a telegram delivery boy. And he’s forced to ride around town, giving families the news that their children died during the war. It’s a strong film.

Rooney is his usual self here. He’s more dramatic than we normally see him, and I don’t remember him being as manic and “energy” as he usually is. So I wholly support the nomination. Though he doesn’t rate higher than fourth for me. Not something I take, though something I respect all around.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Bogart. Sure, were he in another year, the performance wouldn’t automatically be the vote. But here, there’s really no competition. Pigeon is an easy toss-off. Rooney is solid, but no one actually takes him. Cooper is fine, but having just won, I don’t think most people go for him. Though I’ll admit I don’t like the performance as much as some might. So maybe one could take Cooper here. And Lukas is fine, but I don’t see how he’s markedly better than Bogart. In a relative toss up, doesn’t the iconic nature of Bogart’s performance put him over the top? It does for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca
  2. Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
  3. Gary Cooper, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  4. Mickey Rooney, The Human Comedy
  5. Walter Pidgeon, Madame Curie

Rankings (films):

  1. Casablanca
  2. The Human Comedy
  3. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  4. Madame Curie
  5. Watch on the Rhine

My Vote: Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

Recommendations:

Casablanca. Please don’t require me to say anything here.

The Human Comedy is great. I would call it essential, but objectively, it’s not. It’s just a really high recommend from me, and a movie you should check out, because I think it’s really strong and a lot of people are gonna like it, especially since I don’t think it’s a film many people know off hand.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is very good and a classic. Is it essential on that alone? Maybe. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. That helps a lot. I’d say it’s easier to call it essential and be done with it. Outside of that, just a solid to high recommend. I’d consider it low end essential. See it, but you don’t need to rush into it. Just get to it whenever it hits the top of the queue.

Watch on the Rhine is only essential for Oscar buffs wanting to talk about this category. Otherwise, just a decent movie. Moderate recommend. It really only had resonance in 1943. Outside of that, it’s just okay. Sure. See it. But if you’re not into the Oscars at all, there’s really not a whole lot of reason to actively seek this out unless you really like Bette Davis melodramas or suspense/Nazi spy type movies of the 40s.

Madame Curie — ehh. It’s fine. Solid enough. See it, don’t see it. I say see it for Garson and Pigeon and not for the subject matter. It’s just okay. This is a TCM watch more than anything.

The Last Word: Lukas doesn’t hold up at all. A lot of the time, you either know the film, the performance, or can at least go, “Oh, yeah, I get it.” Here, you don’t know the actor, you don’t know the film, and you don’t know the performance. And you see, “Whoa, he beat Bogart?” And right there, he’s not a good winner, historically. He may have been a good winner in 1943, but time has shown that Humphrey Bogart would have been the best choice in this category. I firmly believe that.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1944

Charles Boyer, Gaslight

Bing Crosby, Going My Way

Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way

Cary Grant, None But the Lonely Heart

Alexander Knox, Wilson

Analysis:

Gaslight is one of the great psychological thrillers of all time. One of the few films to hold the distinction of being a “Hitchcock” film that Hitchcock didn’t direct.

Ingrid Bergman is an opera singer whose aunt was murdered. She meets and falls in love with Charles Boyer, who takes her to live in the house where her aunt was murdered. And pretty soon, weird stuff starts to happen, and Bergman thinks she may be losing her mind.

Boyer, of course, plays the sympathetic husband who is starting to get fed up with his wife’s insanity and trying to keep her sheltered from the public, who is also the one behind it and secretly fueling the insanity so he can murder her and claim it was her insanity that led her to kill herself.

Boyer’s really strong here. I didn’t love the performance because every time I watch the film, it always feels like he’s the one behind it all. There’s no suspense there. And while I like what he does with it, if I can tell he’s clearly behind it, it feels like everyone else should be able to tell as well. So that’s probably gonna prevent me from ultimately taking him, even though I do think he’s very strong in the part. Though without a whole lot else going on, he still has a solid chance at being the vote.

Going My Way is a lovely film that was the biggest thing in 1944. Does it hold up? Not really. But it is entertaining. And that holds up.

Bing Crosby is a progressive priest — you know, the kind that plays baseball and golf and sings songs — who comes to help a struggling parish. Barry Fitzgerald is the head priest of the parish, an old-school Irish catholic kinda guy. They butt heads at first but eventually come to respect one another. And pretty much it’s just an excuse to get Crosby singing with kids and such. It’s weird how much this film doesn’t hold up, and yet does hold up. It’s a lot of fun, but also, what the hell is this?

Fitzgerald is clearly a supporting part, and that’s evidenced by him both being nominated in that category and also winning it. Not sure why he was nominated in both or how that worked, but it’s clear that he should have been in the supporting category and not this one. So he’s out, even though he’s very good.

Crosby — it’s a likable performance, and I love Bing Crosby. But it’s not like he was a particularly great actor. He always did his thing. His best performance came a decade after this, in The Country Girl. But here — he’s just fun and charming. There’s not much of a pure acting performance here, and he only wins because he is who he is, because the film is so successful in 1944, and because the category isn’t particularly very strong. I get how he won, but I can’t say he was the best performance in the category. Though then the question becomes — who is?

None But the Lonely Heart is perhaps Cary Grant’s best screen performance. And practically no one remembers this movie. It’s also really hard to find nowadays.

Cary Grant is a cockney ne’er-do-well who has a taste for music, but doesn’t want to work for success. He has a contentious relationship with his mother, who constantly tells him to shape up or get out. But then he finds out his mother has cancer and stays to help her. He also starts becoming a criminal, stealing cars. Which doesn’t particularly end well.

This is a very anti-Cary Grant performance. If you love the Cary Grant persona and are expecting that, you’re gonna hate this movie. Because this is very much a straight dramatic performance. More so than Penny Serenade. He’s really great here. It’s also not a particularly — it doesn’t feel like a straightforward kind of film either. But I like it a lot. I also like his performance a lot.

Most years, he wouldn’t rate particularly high. Probably a solid #3 who would be second for a vote due to whatever circumstances were present. But here, top two on performance and looking pretty good for the vote. It’s him and Charles Boyer. This isn’t that strong a category.

Wilson is a biopic of Woodrow Wilson.

That’s about it. The film is long, but decent.

Alexander Knox plays Wilson. This is one of those nominations you see across the Oscars. The one it makes me think of is Salma Hayek in Frida. It’s the closest the actor had to an Oscar-worthy performance, and they get nominated, but once that happens, they’re easily fifth in the category and stand no chance at a win. That’s pretty much what this is. He’s good in the part, but he doesn’t contend for a vote here at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Bing Crosby is awesome, but I can’t say his performance was particularly very good. I’d take him over Fitzgerald, but that’s about it. Knox doesn’t rate at all, and is fifth for me. So really, it’s either Cary Grant or Charles Boyer. And since both aren’t particularly performances I’d vote for normally, I’m basically taking Cary Grant because I liked his performance best in a weak category. It helps that he’s Cary Grant. So I feel okay about it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Cary Grant, None But the Lonely Heart
  2. Charles Boyer, Gaslight
  3. Bing Crosby, Going My Way
  4. Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
  5. Alexander Knox, Wilson

Rankings (films):

  1. Gaslight
  2. Going My Way
  3. None But the Lonely Heart
  4. Wilson

My Vote: Cary Grant, None But the Lonely Heart

Recommendations:

Gaslight is probably an essential film. It won Best Actress, is a classic, is great, and it’s the closest to Hitchcock that people other than Hitchcock (not named De Palma) have come. All film buffs should see this one.

Going My Way is a classic all around. This was an essential film for forty to fifty years. Now — probably still essential, but mostly because it was so big at the time. Not something that really holds up, but definitely a big film, historically. And, as a Best Picture winner, that should be considered essential by most film buffs.

None But the Lonely Heart is one of Cary Grant’s best screen performances, if not the best. It’s great, he’s very good in it, and I recommend it highly for all film buffs. Seek this one out.

Wilson is fine. Solid biopic. Solid recommend. Not essential, but definitely worth checking out if it’s on TCM.

The Last Word: Crosby holds up fine because the category’s not particularly strong. Don’t think Boyer holds up as a winner. Grant’s the only other choice who could have looked okay, historically. All things considered, the choice was fine, even if the performance isn’t particularly outstanding. Father O’Malley was a major character of his era, so I get it.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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