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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1945-1946)

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.

1945

Bing Crosby, The Bells of St. Mary’s

Gene Kelly, Anchors Aweigh

Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend

Gregory Peck, The Keys of the Kingdom

Cornel Wilde, A Song to Remember

Analysis:

The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way.

The plot doesn’t really matter, does it? Once you know it’s Going My Way-related, you pretty much get the entire vibe.

Bing Crosby reprises his Father O’Malley role, and if memory serves (I’m doing this all from memory and not looking anything up, so the fact that I’m even remotely close is more important than the truth), this is the first time a person was nominated for reprising an Oscar-winning (or even nominated) role.

He’s just okay, yet again. He does the same thing he did last time, only with Ingrid Bergman to play off of instead of Barry Fitzgerald. He’s likable, so maybe he rates third here? Maybe? This category is even weaker than 1944 was. This is not a performance you take, yet, outside of the clear winner, where do you rate him? That’s really the only intrigue to this category, since the winner is open and shut.

Anchors Aweigh is a fun musical. And that’s about it.

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are sailors on leave in Hollywood. Sinatra is young and naive, and Kelly’s been around and seen some shit. Basically, Kelly’s looking for women to fuck, and Sinatra’s looking for someone to fall in love with. Music and dance and things happen.

Gene Kelly is fine here. He’s the dancing version of Bing Crosby. Huge star who got on because the category was weak and because he was so popular. I get it. This is just like the Doris Day nomination. He got this one, and it can’t be explained on a pure performance level as compared to just about any other performance he ever gave, but it’s fine and he’s fine in it. Though unless you’re really desperate, this doesn’t come close to being the vote.

The Lost Weekend is another Billy Wilder… well, maybe not masterpiece, but it’s close. His fourth film, by the way. Major and the Minor, great screwball comedy. Five Graves to Cairo, great wartime thriller. Double Indemnity, masterpiece. And now this. This swept the major Oscars this year, and with good cause.

Ray Milland is a drunk. No bones about it, he is a drunk. He is supposed to be sober, but it’s clear that hasn’t happened. His brother and girlfriend go out of town for the weekend, which he uses to go on a complete bender. And eventually he has to get sober and gets committed to a hospital to do so.

It’s — when you see the performance, there’s really no one else you can take. He’d win this award pretty much any year this decade. Complete open and shut case. The proof is in the performance.

The Keys of the Kingdom is one of those annoying Hollywood religious films that I can’t stand from this era. But here’s the thing — I kind of enjoyed this one a little bit. I guess because of the actors. I really don’t mind this one as much as I should. To me, the religious films of the 40s are like the overly political films by stars trying to direct. Preachy, heavy-handed. But this one, I am slightly more okay with than usual.

Gregory Peck is a priest who goes to a mission in China. And most of it is about him trying to bring religion to China, and getting involved in war and stuff. If you’ve seen any “missionary in a foreign country” movie, you know exactly how this progresses.

The movie is fair and Peck’s performance is definitely strong. It shows his command of the screen and shows how great of a leading man he would become. It’s a very strong performance. There was no chance he was gonna win here. This is a starter nomination. But to me, on pure performance, what would be a #4 most years or a #3 occasionally — he might be second here. Because the rest of the category is just so weak. Crosby and Kelly only rate on charm, not on performance. So Peck probably ends up second behind Milland here.

A Song to Remember is — and I try not to be prone to over-exaggeration and sweeping statements anymore — one of the single weakest Best Actor nominated performances I’ve seen. I’m not gonna say Cornel Wilde was a bad actor, nor will I say he was undeserving. I will only say that I think this film and this performance is one of the weakest I’ve seen.

It’s a composer biopic. These tend to be the worst. (Remember The Constant Nymph?) Cornel Wilde plays Chopin. I’m not gonna go over the plot. It’s a belabored composer biopic.

I think my opinion on the performance is pretty clear. So we’ll just leave it as a simple, he’s fifth for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Ray Milland. I don’t even need to get into specifics here. Wilde and Crosby are nos. Kelly shouldn’t rate third but does, and Peck is a third at best that rates second. And Milland is one of those performances that is almost the benchmark for this category. This performance still holds up today as a great choice. It’s so good it makes you forget how terrible the rest of the category is.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend
  2. Gregory Peck, The Keys of the Kingdom
  3. Bing Crosby, The Bells of St. Mary’s
  4. Gene Kelly, Anchors Aweigh
  5. Cornel Wilde, A Song to Remember

Rankings (films):

  1. The Lost Weekend
  2. The Bells of St. Mary’s
  3. Anchors Aweigh
  4. The Keys of the Kingdom
  5. A Song to Remember

My Vote: Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend

Recommendations:

The Lost Weekend is an essential film. Billy Wilder alone makes it practically essential for all film buffs. Then add the Best Picture win to it — no reason not to see this.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is not essential, but if you saw and enjoyed Going My Way, this is just as easy a watch. At worst it’s a high recommend.

Anchors Aweigh is a pretty awesome musical. High recommend, great film. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Definitely of interest for most film buffs.

The Keys of the Kingdom is a solid recommend. I hate religion films, but this one is okay. Gregory Peck is good in it. Not something you need to see, but worth it if you catch it on TCM.

A Song to Remember is not a great film, and it hasn’t held up at all either. Not something I recommend. At best, it gets the lightest of the light recommendations, and only if it happens to be on TCM after the film you wanted to watch and you leave the channel on. That’s about it.

The Last Word: Ray Milland. Open and shut. All around one of the better decisions of all time.

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1946

Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives

Laurence Olivier, Henry V

Larry Parks, The Jolson Story

Gregory Peck, The Yearling

James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life

Analysis:

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great war film about coming home. It was such a huge film of its era and now, it’s really only big because of how big it was then. It’s not that it doesn’t hold up, but it certainly doesn’t seem as big as it was say, thirty, forty years ago.

It’s about three men coming home from World War II. One lost his hands in the war and now has to deal with life with a disability. The other was a boy working at a soda shop and comes back a man with no education and no real skills to get hired at a real job. And the third is the performance we’re dealing with.

Fredric March was a bank manager who went off to war. He comes back, disillusioned, full of nightmares. He reunites with his family, but struggles to return to daily life. He drinks too much and has seen too much to have things go back to the way they were.

March is really good here, and in 1946, was a clear cut winner. Even when you see the film for the first time, it’s understandable why he won. Now, 70 years later, there are three notes to be made about this performance: 1) March’s style of acting doesn’t necessarily hold up nowadays. He tends to get theatrical at times and is prone to overacting. Here, I think he mostly holds that down. Though his drunk scenes are very… let’s just say, of the era. 2) The movie is three hours, but at times he feels relegated to the sidelines and a borderline supporting performance. Of course he was never going to not be considered lead, and it’s a three hour movie that features three leads, so it’s more of an ensemble situation. That’s not a dealbreaker for me. 3) As great as this is, and as good as a winner as he was in 1946, one must admit that this is not the iconic performance of the category. So that has to eventually be reckoned with come decision time.

Henry V is Shakespeare. Olivier.

It’s about the young King Henry trying to conquer France. “Once more, unto the breach.”

Olivier directs and stars. And Shakespeare was his forte. He’s really good here. You can consider him top two maybe. I — I always look at these performance as great pieces of work, but nothing I’d want to vote for. I only would take this if I had to. And this isn’t 1948. I don’t have to. Very solid third choice for me.

The Jolson Story is a biopic of Al Jolson. Blackface an all.

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson. There isn’t much required of him here, and he acquits himself well. This is one of those situations — Al Jolson was a big name in that era, and was almost a national hero in a lot of ways. So someone playing him in a film was almost assured to get nominated. So I get why he’s here. It’s not a performance that holds up, and it’s not something anyone would even really like nowadays. You appreciate it, but he’s easily fifth in this category.

The Yearling is a great movie. Family movie.

Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman live in the woods. They lost three of their children and only one has survived. Because of this, Peck showers the boy with affection, while Wyman remains cold to him, worried she’ll lose him the way she lost the other children. Because of this, the boy is lonely, and really wants a companion. The boy eventually adopts an orphaned deer as a pet. Which is great and lovely, though they warn that eventually the deer will get too big and they’ll have to let it go. Which… it’s a family pet film. You can guess how it ends.

Peck is good here. This is one of those Sounder-type nominations. Solid performance in a family film, but not something you vote for. At best he’s a fourth choice here. There’s no way he’s better than at least two of the other nominees, and I certainly have him below three. Peck will have his time.

It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are like twenty five movies I don’t need to say a word about, and this is one of them.

Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, and this is by far his most well known and beloved screen performance. Perhaps his best too, though I’ll always be partial to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Still — it’s George Bailey. At worst he ends up second choice here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Larry Parks is out from the jump. Peck doesn’t rate against the remaining three. Love the Olivier performance but would not take it.

That leaves March and Stewart. Which… I could give a bunch of belabored reasons, many of which I discussed up above. Mostly I’m just gonna leave it at — both performances are great and worthy of having won. But George Bailey is timeless. And that’s gonna be my tiebreaker. I’m fine with March having won, but time has shown the Stewart performance to be one of the great performances in screen history. And I have to take that.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives
  3. Laurence Olivier, Henry V
  4. Gregory Peck, The Yearling
  5. Larry Parks, The Jolson Story

Rankings (films):

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives
  3. The Yearling
  4. Henry V
  5. The Jolson Story

My Vote: James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life

Recommendations:

How have you not seen It’s a Wonderful Life already?

The Best Years of Our Lives is essential. All-time essential. Forty years ago, it was maybe top 50. Now it’s top 100, probably. As big a film this is, historically. It’s something you need to see.

The Yearling is great. I love this. High recommend, great film. Not for all, but most people will really enjoy this.

Henry V is very good. I don’t love Shakespeare films as a rule, but there are a nice handful that are really well made, and this is one of them. In terms of being essential, it’s not. You’d be okay seeing the Branagh one over this, and you’d be okay seeing neither. I’d give this a solid recommend all around and say, in terms of Shakespeare, this is a top five-to-ten adaptation.

The Jolson Story is fine. Perfectly fine. Light to Moderate recommend at best. Not something anyone needs to seek out. Not essential at all. But if it’s on TCM, go for it.

The Last Word: March is, on his own, a good winner and a solid winner. But I think we can all agree that time has shown the Stewart performance to be the one that holds up best, and probably the one that should have won. I’m fine with the result, but I think there was also a better result to be had. It’s hard not to love Jimmy Stewart in that role. He’s really incredible.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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