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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1947-1948)

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.

1947

Ronald Colman, A Double Life

John Garfield, Body and Soul

Gregory Peck, Gentleman’s Agreement

William Powell, Life with Father

Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra

Analysis:

A Double Life is definitely an acting showcase. I’ll say that much.

As for the story. You young people would call it the Black Swan of 1947. An actor is unable to distinguish himself from the parts he plays. He’s perfectly charming when he’s in a comedy, but now he’s playing Othello. And it begins to fuck with him. Until one night, he thinks he may have committed a murder. And he doesn’t know if it happened on stage or in reality.

This is a bold performance. It took me a while to fully appreciate it and place it in the context of 1947. I had ideas of what the film would be based on the logline, and it wasn’t that. So I dismissed it. But having seen it again, I’ve been able to get more out of it. Or at the very least, more of a sense of how I actually feel about it.

Colman is very solid here, and in a category like this and a year like this, I see why he won. A veteran got an Oscar for a very actorly performance. I don’t know if I like it enough to take it on its own, but given the category, it could happen.

Body and Soul is a boxing noir/melodrama.

John Garfield plays a guy who comes from basically nothing to become a boxing champion. And along the way, he loses his morals a bit, becoming friends with shady promoters and getting into bad habits, etc etc.

Garfield is very solid here. This is a really great lead performance and I totally get why he was nominated. Between this and the supporting part in Gentleman’s Agreement, this was meant to be his ascension to stardom. And then his career was cut short by his blacklisting not long after this.

This is a very solid performance, but to me this seems like pretty standard noir/melodrama work. He’s a good actor but I don’t see this as something I’d want to vote for in an Oscar situation. On a pure entertainment level, I enjoy this performance to Colman’s, but I feel like I respect the Colman performance more. Which puts me in a tough situation. So let’s hold off and see where we go from here.

Gentleman’s Agreement is a great film. I love it. It’s dated, but it still holds up for me.

Gregory Peck is a magazine writer who decides to write a piece about anti-semitism. So he starts telling people he’s actually Jewish. His last name Green is actually short for “Greenberg.” And then he sees how differently he gets treated by everyone once that happens. It’s kind of a white person thing to do, but in the context of the film and the era, the movie works. Now, it might feel a bit heavy-handed or broad in terms of tackling a social issue, but in 1947, this was a pretty big deal. They begged the studio not to make the movie.

Peck is his usual leading man self here. Very solid, capable of caryring a picture, and giving just the right amount of emotion to get through. I love a couple of his scenes in this movie. I’m not sure I vote for him in most years. He might end up a #2 most years, but given the competition here, he makes a solid play for #1.

Life with Father is an amusing film. A forgotten comedy.

William Powell plays basically the opposite of the type of roles he played his entire career. He’s a stern, strict father who tries to run his house the way he runs his business, but of course it all goes horribly wrong (it’s a comedy). The film is presented like I Remember Mama, a lot of vignettes that add together to provide a portrait of a household.

Powell is solid here, but this is nothing more than a veteran nomination. He does a good job in a weak year, and they get him nominated. No issues with that whatsoever. Though very clearly he is a fifth choice here. And maybe, since he hadn’t won, I’d give him a slight bump, but even then, I doubt he makes it higher than fourth for a vote. I love William Powell, but the film and the performance is just okay/amusing.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a very famous play and a very forgotten movie. It was, at the time, a big budget, prestige, “Oscar” picture that didn’t quite land. The performances were lauded but the film wasn’t much liked. Which I get. It’s not a great film. And the jury’s out on whether or not the performances hold up.

The film’s about the fucked up dynamic between a New England family.

Michael Redgrave plays the brother of Rosalind Russell’s Electra. I remember really liking the performance at the time, but since then, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the notion that I only liked it to try to hold onto something in this category and that the performance is just about as dated as the film itself. I think he’s appropriately solid in the film and does a fine job acting, but this isn’t the type of performance I’d want to vote for and at best, I’d consider him a fourth choice. This is skirting the “no Shakespeare” thing I have. So there’s not a whole lot that helps him out in the way of a vote for me.

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The Reconsideration: One of my least favorite Academy years of all time, and one of my least favorite categories of all time.

Redgrave has little appeal to me in the way of a vote. If I took William Powell, it would only be because he’s William Powell and would serve as a complete rejection of the category at hand. And I don’t quite hate it enough to go that far with it.

John Garfield, Ronald Colman and Gregory Peck are the three I’d choose between. Colman’s performance is the most ambitious and the most dated. In terms of how I like the performances, he’d be third. Though he might be first or second in terms of quality of performance. Garfield is third on pure performance and second on how much I liked it. And with him having a solid year, he does have a case to be made for himself. And Peck — second on pure performance, if not first (for me) and I like his film and his work the best. So really, I’m probably just gonna take Peck and leave it at that.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking Garfield because I just don’t love the performance enough. And I see no reason to take Colman if I don’t like the performance as much as I like Peck’s. At least with Peck I can feel good about my choice and be perfectly happy with a Colman win. So that’s what I’m gonna do. Don’t love the category, but at least I can live with my choice.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Gregory Peck, Gentleman’s Agreement
  2. Ronald Colman, A Double Life
  3. John Garfield, Body and Soul
  4. Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra
  5. William Powell, Life with Father

Rankings (films):

  1. Gentleman’s Agreement
  2. A Double Life
  3. Body and Soul
  4. Life with Father
  5. Mourning Becomes Electra

My Vote: Gregory Peck, Gentleman’s Agreement

Recommendations:

Gentleman’s Agreement is a Best Picture winner, and those are essential. All around essential film.

A Double Life is very dated, but with the Oscar win, it’s essential for Oscar buffs. And otherwise it’s just a really interesting film that can be viewed a couple of different ways. I think it’s worth seeing for most film buffs, even though not everyone will like it and it doesn’t hold up wholly successfully. I say throw it in the queue and watch it at some point.

Body and Soul is a noir boxing drama. We like those. They’re always worthwhile. And Garfield is a magnetic screen presence. High recommend. Great stuff here.

Life with Father is an amusing comedy that’s really only worth it if you like William Powell (who doesn’t?) or like those 40s style family films. Pretty much if you like things like Meet Me in St. Louis or On Moonlight Bay, you’ll enjoy this enough. There’s no music in this, but it’s got that kind of atmosphere. This movie would be turned into an old school sitcom in the 50s. It’s that kind of situation. It’s worth a watch if you can catch it on TCM.

Mourning Becomes Electra is not really a film I recommend outside of the Oscars. If you really want to see the material, watch the play. Otherwise, if you’re not gonna talk Oscars, I don’t think the film is really good enough to be worth most people’s time. I’m a nut, so I give it a light recommend, but other than that, most people don’t need to see this.

The Last Word: Colman holds up. I don’t love the performance as a winner, but he gave it in a year where he could win and seem okay. Peck didn’t need to win, even though I’d have supported it. Garfield never really had a shot and would have been a weak winner, even if he did deliver a performance strong enough to be considered. Powell would have been a horrible winner based on performance but good on his stature as an actor (which is why Colman is a better choice than him here). And Redgrave absolutely should not have won. So, all things considered, Colman was the best choice. So this one looks okay.

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1948

Lew Ayres, Johnny Belinda

Montgomery Clift, The Search

Dan Dailey, When My Baby Smiles at Me

Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Clifton Webb, Sitting Pretty

Analysis:

Johnny Belinda is one of those movies I knew nothing about going into this Quest, and came out loving.

Lew Ayres is a doctor that moves to a small town. He meets a farmer and his family. The farmer’s daughter is deaf and mute. The farmer thinks she’s stupid, but Ayres realizes she just has no means of communication. So he teaches her sign language. And eventually he grows close to the girl. Eventually the girl is raped by a man in the town and becomes pregnant. Because she won’t say who did it, everyone assumes the doctor is the father. And then… well, then later there’s a murder, and a trial, and a whole thing. That’s melodrama. A woman, a baby, a murder, a trial.

Ayres is good here. He’s not the standout performer of the film. That clearly is Jane Wyman. And then the supporting performances of Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead. Ayres acquits himself well, and would be a #5 in a strong year. Here, he’s probably a #3 or a #4 in a very weak year. He definitely does not contend for the vote, but I’m perfectly fine with the nomination.

The Search is a great war film. Another one I didn’t know about but ended up loving.

World War II. A bunch of children whose parents were either killed in bombings or were separated from them are rounded up by the Red Cross. They are gonna be taken to shelters to be held and fed until they can find their parents or places for them to go. However, not speaking the same language as the aid workers, and having heard stories of children being rounded up and sent to the gas chambers, they run away and escape. Most of them are picked up again, but one boy is not. And the boy begins wandering around war-torn Germany until he is picked up by Montgomery Clift, a soldier. Clift does not speak any German, and the boy doesn’t speak any English. Eventually they begin to trust one another, and Clift cares for the boy and helps him try to find his mother. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is going from relief camp to relief camp, desperately trying to find her son. I love this movie. It’s fantastic.

Clift is very good here. And it’s the kind of performance that shows the kind of star he’d become. I think this is a starter nomination at best. Fortunately for him, this category is so weak he might rate as high as second. I don’t love the performance, but the category makes him someone to consider. Sometimes that’s just how things work out.

When My Baby Smiles at Me is a pretty standard 40s musical. Kind of surprising this was nominated here, but I guess when you have a weak year, stuff like this happens.

Dan Dailey and Betty Grable are married vaudevillians. They play the smaller circuits around the country. He gets a job in New York, on the big stage. Without her. Add to that his increasing drinking problem, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Dailey is fine. He gets to play a drunk and get song and dance numbers. And, as all movie drunks in this era, he gets to be institutionalized. The film is not remembered, and I feel like he’s one of those “out of nowhere” nominees that no one saw coming. Still, he’s solid enough to maybe rate as high as third here, even though fourth is more likely, voting-wise. No chance I vote for him.

Hamlet is Shakespeare. Olivier.

Not everyone knows Henry V. Everyone knows Hamlet.

This is Olivier’s masterwork. We can all agree that he puts it all out there here, and if there was any performance he should have won for that would have best encapsulated who he was as an actor, this was it.

It also helps that the performance that would have been the choice in this movie wasn’t nominated, pretty much making him the only choice in the category.

Sitting Pretty is a really amusing film. Another one I had zero expectations for and enjoyed immensely.

An overworked family hires a babysitter. The Mary Poppins set up. Clifton Webb shows up and is the only one able to handle the crazy kids. So they hire him. And he’s this eccentric man with weird demands who manages to get shit done. And the mystery of who he is and what he’s doing goes around town, until eventually they all realize that he’s there to write a book on the crazy shit going on in the town, and airs all of their dirty laundry. It’s pretty funny.

Webb does his usual thing. He’s really great here, and really an enjoyable presence. Two things though. First — not someone you vote for. Second — borderline supporting part, even though he feels like a lead. Though he does disappear for a while. I have him probably third, maybe, on vote, and fifth on performance. He’s enjoyable, but there’s nothing there I’d want to take outside of being so amusing.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is Olivier all the way. There’s no one that comes close. I’m not gonna bother getting into alternatives, and if they were nominated. As the category stands, Olivier is the only choice. And were he not here, this might be a bottom five weakest Best Actor category of all time. Still probably bottom ten at that.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
  2. Montgomery Clift, The Search
  3. Dan Dailey, When My Baby Smiles at Me
  4. Lew Ayres, Johnny Belinda
  5. Clifton Webb, Sitting Pretty

Rankings (films):

  1. Johnny Belinda
  2. The Search
  3. Hamlet
  4. Sitting Pretty
  5. When My Baby Smiles at Me

My Vote: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Recommendations:

Hamlet is one of the best three Shakespeare adaptations put to screen, and it’s a Best Picture winner. Film buffs should consider this essential.

Johnny Belinda is a film I love and recommend very highly. I love it, even though it’s not essential unless you’re an Oscar buff. Still, really great movie that I think every film buff should see. Jane Wyman is incredible here. I love this movie dearly, and I think a lot of other people will too.

The Search is a great film. A hidden gem of history. Very high recommend. I’d consider it essential even though objectively it’s not. Check this one out for sure.

Sitting Pretty is really fun. Definite TCM watch. Solid recommend. Really enjoy this one, and you’ll probably enjoy it too if you like those Father of the Bride, Cheaper by the Dozen, etc type movies.

When My Baby Smiles at Me is a generic 40s musical that’s perfectly fine but not particularly memorable in any way. TCM watch at best. Light recommend.

The Last Word: Olivier was and is the only choice in this category, and is the only one who would have held up. All around great choice in one of the weakest categories in history.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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