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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1949-1950)

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.

1949

Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men

Kirk Douglas, Champion

Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High

Richard Todd, The Hasty Heart

John Wayne, Sands of Iwo Jima

Analysis:

All the King’s Men is a great political drama.

We watch the rise and fall of Willie Stark, from shouting on the street corners to the governor’s mansion.

Broderick Crawford plays Stark, and let me tell you, this is one of the great performances of all time. He is incredible. You can actually chart the changes of this man, how he slowly allows himself to be corrupted. And never once does it feel false or a cheat.

This is a strong category with very strong lead performances. But Crawford’s the class of the pack.

Champion isa nice noir and the first big starring role for Kirk Douglas. He’d been in big movies, but this was the first one where he was undoubtedly the star.

He’s a boxer whose rise to the top coincides with his alienation from all of those around him, including his own brother. It’s a standard progression, and in a way, it’s more of a down and dirty version of All the King’s Men.

Douglas is strong here. He’s definitely worth the nomination. Though, given the category, I have no alternative but to consider him fourth choice. Maybe he’s third on performance, but he’s fourth choice for my vote. I don’t love this performance.

Twelve O’Clock High is the first of two very similar films, but definitely the better of the two.

It’s about a fighter squadron in World War II. They keep losing pilots, and as such, morale is low. Enter Gregory Peck, tough as nails, hardass commanding officer. He’s there to whip the men into shape. He’s unlikable, but he gets shit done. That’s pretty much all you need.

Peck is great here. I didn’t love the performance the first time, but I watched it again to reevaluate the Dean Jagger performance and really came around on Peck. He might have won this if not for Crawford. He’s really strong. Put this a year later and he’s probably the vote. But here, a very strong second choice.

The Hasty Heart is a film that’s very much forgotten, and very much underrated.

The entire film takes place in a military hospital. Men stay there to recoup before being sent home. Most of the men have been there a while, and are great friends. And then they get a new patient, Richard Todd. He’s a Scottish soldier who is dying, but doesn’t know it. The men are told to be nice to him and make it easier on him. They want to do that, only Todd is a complete asshole to everyone. He’s gruff, mean, and just not friendly at all. Definitely not easy to like. Though eventually the men get him to soften up, and learn why he is the way he is, and he even starts to fall for the head nurse at the camp (the one all the men have a crush on). It’s really great. My biggest compliment to this movie is that it doesn’t end with the guy’s death. It would have been so easy to have him die, but this movie doesn’t do that. It lets him live, knowing he’s gonna die any day. Which most movies wouldn’t do.

I really love the Richard Todd performance here. Though I feel like a lot of it is built into the role more than what he does with it. You know what I mean? He adequately brings it through all the motions, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspired. I love that he’s here, and on pure entertainment value, he might be third. But on performance, he’s probably fifth. And on vote, he’s fourth or fifth. I wouldn’t take him, but I love that he’s here, and I think this is one of the more underrated films and performances on this entire Quest.

Sands of Iwo Jima is basically the same kind of film as Twelve O’Clock High.

John Wayne is the tough as nails commander of an inexperienced unit. And he’s incredibly hard on the men, to the point where they start to hate him. But of course, in the end, we’re gonna realize that he was doing it to get the men prepared for battle, and in the end they’re gonna respect what he did, because he did it to keep them alive. And of course he’s a complex man with his own problems going on.

Wayne is really strong here. Why they chose this film in particular to nominate him, I don’t know. The role makes sense, but it’s not like he’s markedly better here than he ever is. I’m definitely not opposed to it though. Totally fine with it. Though he is at best a third choice in the category. Definitely would take Crawford and Peck over him.

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The Reconsideration: Crawford stands tall, and none of the others come close to what he achieves. Peck almost comes close, but he’s a fairly distant second. Wayne is solid, but can’t compete at all, and the other two — nominations are the reward there. Crawford is the choice. You see the performance, you get it. He’s the winner.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men
  2. Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High
  3. John Wayne, Sands of Iwo Jima
  4. Kirk Douglas, Champion
  5. Richard Todd, The Hasty Heart

Rankings (films):

  1. All the King’s Men
  2. The Hasty Heart
  3. Twelve O’Clock High
  4. Sands of Iwo Jima
  5. Champion

My Vote: Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men

Recommendations:

All the King’s Men is a classic, and essential. It’s a Best Picture winner, and those should be considered essential. But Crawford’s performance is one of the great performances of all time, and the film is just terrific on top of that. No reason for any film buff to skip this.

Twelve O’Clock High is a great film. High recommend. Really great, somewhat classic war film. I’d say film buffs should see this, but don’t necessarily need to. Still, you want to because it’s a really great film.

Champion is a classic noir. Solid recommend for most, high recommend for those into noirs and fans of Kirk Douglas. Not essential, but probably something you should see eventually.

Sands of Iwo Jima is a solid war film that is definitely worth a watch. It’s no classic, and it’s not something you need to see, but who would want to pass up a good war film starring John Wayne?

The Hasty Heart is one of the great hidden gems of the Oscar Quest. A great and forgotten film. Sure, some might see it as a cloying tearjerker, but I think it’s great. I recommend it highly and I think the majority of people who see it will be very surprised by how good it is relative to how little people have heard of it.

The Last Word: Crawford is the choice, and is one of the better decisions of all time. The performance holds up. He was the choice here. Peck was a good alternative, but only if Crawford weren’t in the category. He wouldn’t have held up as a winner better than Crawford. Not for this performance. They absolutely made the right choice here.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1950

Louis Calhern, The Magnificent Yankee

Jose Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac

William Holden, Sunset Boulevard

James Stewart, Harvey

Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride

Analysis:

The Magnificent Yankee is a biopic of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

He was a Supreme Court Judge. For the majority of people who didn’t pay attention (or weren’t taught) American history.

Calhern plays Holmes.

I’m not gonna spend too much time on this, because this is a by-the-numbers biopic with a by-the-numbers performance. At least with The Jolson Story there were musical numbers. Here, it’s pretty much just straight formula.

Calhern is fine and acquits himself well. This is one of those where, of course he was gonna get nominated, but he doesn’t get any sort of traction for a vote. Even now. Easy fifth in the category.

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the most coveted, showy roles in all of theater. They’ve made it directly twice, and basically told the story a couple of other times under different titles. No film really ever captures it particularly well, including this one.

The story is about (insert title here), a charismatic fellow who is a wizard with words and with a sword. However he has an abnormally long nose. He falls in love with a beautiful woman, but knows there’s no chance she’ll ever love him because of his nose. Meanwhile, there is another man attempting to woo her. He is handsome, but not particularly suave. So Cyrano uses his words to woo the woman, while the other man uses his face. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well.

Ferrer is really good here, but the issue with the performance is singular: the film and the performance are too theatrical. The film is basically a play on screen, and Ferrer’s performance is basically stage work. This isn’t the kind of performance that should win this far into the Oscars. The fact that he did tells me that, like a couple of other winners in the early 50s (like Shirley Booth), they valued an actors stage work and gave them the Oscar because of that more than anything.

The performance is good, but maybe he gets third for me? The film is too theatrical, the part is too on the nose, and as good as he is, it’s like someone doing Hamlet really well — I’m not gonna take it unless I have to. Because it feels too easy and it’s only impressive when done well. You don’t feel the extra spark of wanting to vote for it.

Sunset Boulevard is one of the all time classics. Everyone knows this movie.

William Holden has the leading role in the film, and the thankless one. Since clearly Gloria Swanson was gonna get all the acclaim. Holden, however, does a really great job keeping everything held together. You have to go back and watch him specifically to see all the nuance he’s putting in there, and it’s a performance where, while I do appreciate it much more than those who only look at it at first glance (and those people would either take him purely on film stature alone, or dismiss him as being second banana to Gloria Swanson), I also don’t love it enough to want to take it unless I have to.

Fortunately for us, this is a category where I just might have to. This isn’t a very strong one at all.

Harvey is such a wonderful film.

This is the one everyone knows — the giant rabbit only one character can see. It’s great.

Jimmy Stewart is a local eccentric drunk (a character I gravitate toward) who constantly talks to his friend Harvey, a six foot tall rabbit only he can see. His sister thinks he’s crazy and tries to get him committed, and screwball insanity ensues.

The film is hilarious, Stewart is great in it, and this is one of his more amusing performances.

Did he need to win for this? No. Would I take him? Maybe. The category is weak enough to where I would consider him top two for the vote. Objectively, Jose Ferrer gives a better performance, but when I factor in all the other stuff (theatricality, etc), I probably end up taking Stewart over him. So he’ll definitely contend for me, even though most years he’d be fourth on performance, third for a vote and on entertainment value.

Father of the Bride is a wonderful film. I dismissed it as lighthearted fluff before I watched it, and after I did, I realized why they nominated it for Best Picture. I can’t say it’s a particularly weighty film, but it’s definitely really engaging and well made and well acted. Much more so than I gave it credit for going in.

Spencer Tracy is the (insert title here). His daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, is getting married. And the film is about him dealing with that. He’s losing his little girl, and there’s all this insanity going on with planning the wedding and all that. It’s a really fine film.

This is Tracy approaching his fatherly period, and he really acquits himself very well. There’s a lot of subtlety and nuance here, and he has a lot of quiet moments that really resonate when you go back and rewatch it. That said, this isn’t nearly something I can vote for. But I can consider him a solid fourth in the category and a very underrated (at first glance) performance in the category.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I don’t love this one. Calhern is fine, but too on the nose and by the numbers. Tracy is solid, but doesn’t rate more than a fourth choice. Love Jimmy Stewart, and would take him over Ferrer, but still don’t know if I really would want to based on the performance. Ferrer I almost have to take, but really don’t want to. That leaves me with William Holden. I love his film, I like his performance very much. And while I’d prefer him to be a solid number two behind a deserving winner, I think he does enough in his film to warrant my vote in what is otherwise a very weak and forgettable category. So, rather than have a singular choice, I’ll take the choice I feel best about overall.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. William Holden, Sunset Boulevard
  2. Jose Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac
  3. James Stewart, Harvey
  4. Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride
  5. Louis Calhern, The Magnificent Yankee

Rankings (films):

  1. Sunset Boulevard
  2. Harvey
  3. Father of the Bride
  4. The Magnificent Yankee
  5. Cyrano de Bergerac

My Vote: William Holden, Sunset Boulevard

Recommendations:

Please don’t require me to tell you to watch Sunset Boulevard.

Harvey is essential. You should know it’s essential without me having to tell you. Also, it’s incredible.

Father of the Bride is amazing. High recommend. Really great film. Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. See this. It’s fantastic.

The Magnificent Yankee is a straightforward biopic. Only worth it really for people wanting to get a sense of history without actually reading a book. TCM watch at best. Moderate recommend, not something you ever really need to see if you don’t want to.

Cyrano de Bergerac is only essential for Oscar buffs. It’s a bad film. It looks cheap. It looks like they shot it at night on the sets of more expensive movies. The performance is fine, but it doesn’t hold up and is very theatrical. I can’t do anything but give it a light recommend and say you only should or need to see it if you care about the Oscars.

The Last Word: Ferrer doesn’t hold up as a winner. He’s good in the film, but no on remembers the performance and the film is totally forgotten. Definitely a top five or ten in terms of forgotten Oscar winners. Stewart would have held up on pure notoriety. Him winning two would be okay (though for the wrong two, of course), and everyone knows the film, so it would look okay on paper. Outside of that, William Holden seems to be the all around best choice when you consider everything. He’s good, he’s a star, he had another solid performance this year, and he’s in one of the best films of all time and an instant classic. Oh, and one more thing — both Judy Holliday and Gloria Swanson, the two leading Best Actress candidates from this year? He was their leading man in both films. It says a lot about an actor when a lot of the people you work with get nominated for Oscars. He feels like he was the best choice in a category that’s pretty much forgotten and probably would have been forgotten anyway.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Keith Kotay

    “Twelve O’Clock High” review: “It’s about a fighter squadron in World War II.” It’s about a B-17 bomber group (the fictional 918th), which is composed of multiple squadrons…

    October 31, 2016 at 2:06 pm

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