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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1951-1952)

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.

1951

Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen

Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire

Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun

Arthur Kennedy, Bright Victory

Fredric March, Death of a Salesman

Analysis:

The African Queen is a classic. Just a wonderful movie all around.

Katharine Hepburn is a spinster living in Africa with her missionary brother. He dies right before the Germans come and she is rescued by Humphrey Bogart, a drunk riverboat captain who delivers the mail. They start traveling up river together, and eventually make a plan to try to stop the Germans by turning his beloved boat, (insert title here), into a projectile to blow up a gunship.

Bogart is pretty awesome here. I can’t say it’s a true masterwork of acting, but because he’s such a big figure in film history, and the great performances he gave before this (one could always argue that this was a makeup for In a Lonely Place), this isn’t the worst decision in the history of the Oscars. It’s just… Brando.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most famous plays and films of all time.

Marlon Brando plays Stanley Kowalski, and even if you haven’t seen this movie, you already know this is one of the most highly regarded performances in the history of cinema.

The way everyone reconciles this category is always as follows: yes, Brando gave the best performance. But Humphrey Bogart is awesome. So it’s not the worst decision in the world. And then they go on to rationalize that Brando would win two later and it’s okay. We’ll deal with that part later. For now, clearly this is the best performance in the category and the automatic winner based solely on that criteria.

A Place in the Sun is an all-time American classic.

Montgomery Clift starts working for a factory. He’s got a girl, he’s got a life laid out for him. Until he catches the eye of a sociality. And pretty soon, he wants more. Which leads to tragic consequences.

Clift is pretty great here. A definite star performance. It feels like the kind of performance that’s a solid contender most years, but probably ends up as a solid #2 behind a definitive winner. He might be the second best performance in this category, but, all respect to him, he’s not Marlon Brando, and he’s not Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire. So he ends up maybe second on performance and third for a vote for me after Bogart.

Bright Victory is a completely forgotten movie that’s nearly impossible to find now.

Arthur Kennedy is blinded by a sniper during the war and is sent home. Now he has to learn how to live without sight. He’s also kind of a racist. Which doesn’t help his temperament. One day, he befriends another blind man. They become fast friends. Only he doesn’t know the man is black. It’s a good film. I like it quite a bit.

Kennedy is good here. But Kennedy always felt like a character actor and not a leading man. So great, he got his one lead nomination, but he doesn’t hold the weight of the other nominees. He had to have been #5 in 1951, and here, he maybe gets fourth and that’s about it. He doesn’t come close to being the choice, even though he’s solid in a solid film.

Death of a Salesman is one of the most famous American plays ever written. Everyone should probably know what it’s about.

The key with this play is that it’s never really been made into any great film version. The best that they maybe had was a TV version at some point. Which automatically puts him behind the eight ball with Brando.

Fredric March plays Willy Loman. It’s the kind of role that would have been an automatic nomination in 1951, especially for someone of March’s stature. The one knock on March is that he’s prone to overacting, and that’s what this feels like. It’s a very theatrical performance that goes a bit over the top at times. And it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it doesn’t hold up. It’s a kind of performance that was of its era. So I get that and won’t knock him for that. But I will say, of the five in this category, he’s fifth for me and I wouldn’t take him at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Brando. We can parse all we want about him later winning two and Bogart being Bogart and all that. But my purpose here is to pick the best performance. And in terms of the best performance, this is one of the most unanimous categories in all of the Oscars. There’s only one choice, and it’s Stanley Kowalski.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire
  2. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
  3. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun
  4. Arthur Kennedy, Bright Victory
  5. Fredric March, Death of a Salesman

My Vote: Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire

Recommendations:

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the 100 most essential films ever made.

The African Queen is essential for all film buffs. I’ve yet to meet a true film buff who doesn’t love this movie. It’s Huston, it’s Bogart, it’s Kate. What more do you need?

A Place in the Sun is essential. If not one of the 100 most essential American films ever made, it’s in that next set of 50. Must see for all film buffs.

Bright Victory is a solid film. Definitely worth a watch. Solid recommend. Though very difficult to find. If it’s on TCM, I think you should check it out, because it’s really well done and a lot of people are gonna like it.

Death of a Salesman is one of the essential plays of all time, but they never quite got it on screen. See this, don’t see this. You’re fine without it.

The Last Word: It’s Brando. In terms of what the best performance is, was and always will be, it’s Brando. Is the result awful? Not entirely. In terms of performance — not great. Bogart is just a good performance that gets actor and entertainment bumps. Brando is the one that holds up. Logistically, it’s not as bad as it could be. Bogart being the one that won helps, and Brando winning two is the other part. So, you have to parse the specifics, but there is a narrative in which this is somewhat acceptable. Thoguh I think we can all agree Brando was the choice here if we’re going based on what the true criteria of this category should be.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1952

Marlon Brando, Viva Zapata!

Gary Cooper, High Noon

Kirk Douglas, The Bad and the Beautiful

José Ferrer, Moulin Rouge

Alec Guinness, The Lavender Hill Mob

Analysis:

Viva Zapata! is a biopic of Emiliano Zapata. Starring Marlon Brando.

The film is very solid and Brando is very good as Zapata. But… he’s playing Mexican, and I just don’t condone that. On pure performance, yeah, he’s fourth, maybe even third here. Very good. But I can’t take this performance purely because he shouldn’t be playing it.

High Noon is one of the five most famous westerns ever made.

Gary Cooper is a sheriff getting married and retiring. Right as he’s about to leave town, he gets word that a man he put away has gotten out of prison and is coming on the noon train to kill him. The town urges Cooper to leave and go be happy, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. So he’s faced with going to face the man and his gang (alone, since no one seems to want to help), despite wondering if he’s making the right choice and if he should bail. All time film. It’s perfect.

Gary Cooper has one of those star performances. This is a performance by an actor who somewhat gets taken for granted. Yes, he isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis. But he does what he does well, and what he brings to this role here is unquantifiable. And sure, maybe some of those pained expressions on his face were the result of stomach ulcers, but this is one of the most iconic performances of all time, and this is a performance (as are quite a few of Cooper’s perforamnces) that I compare to Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks has given over the past couple of years several performances that at first I thought were just “Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks.” But then when I went back I realized just how much performance was actually there. We’ll talk about at least one of them in a couple of weeks. But I think that’s what the case is with Cooper here. He’s really good, and I think he’s much better than people give him credit for. I think he’s a top two choice in the category for sure, and while I’m not sure if I’m gonna take him, he is gonna be right there in the end.

The Bad and the Beautiful is one of the great films about Hollywood of all time. It also holds the record for most Oscar wins without a Best Picture nomination. Which tells you what they thought about it at the time. I think its reputation has only grown.

Kirk Douglas is a Hollywood producer who has alienated everyone around him. The film begins with his associate calling three separate people to his office. One is a director, one is a writer, the third an actress. Douglas has fucked them over in some way, shape or form. I won’t get into each of the three stories, but Douglas features prominently in all of them, using each person to his own advantage and tossing them aside when it’s convenient. You see a lot of different sides of him over the course of the stories, and it’s a very well-rounded performance.

I completely get why he didn’t win this, given the lack of likability of the character and him going against one of the most iconic heroes in all of cinema. But that doesn’t mean I won’t take him. This category usually comes down to Cooper versus Douglas, and I’m gonna go back and rewatch them again before I decide which I’d take. Either way, he’s definitely gonna be top two in the category for me, as I’m sure he is for most people going over this category.

Moulin Rouge is a biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec. A dwarf, alcoholic painter who created the famous image of the Moulin Rouge to pay for his bar tab.

It’s a really good film. I like this one quite a bit. But it’s very… well, he wasn’t a very happy guy. And it doesn’t end well. It’s a weird film for John Huston, but I like it a lot.

Jose Ferrer does what he usually does, which can be considered overacting. I think he does a great job here. I much prefer this performance to the one he won for. And I might even consider the performance second best in the category. But I still would only take him third and I still love the Douglas and Cooper performances over his. In another year, he might stand a better shot. Here, solid third, but wouldn’t take him. Really impressive work though.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a great British comedy. One of the ones that has a lot of American appeal as well.

Alec Guinness is a bank clerk who has been in charge of millions of dollars of gold deliveries over many, many years. He’s the most trustworthy person in the bank. Though secretly, he’s been planning a heist for many years, and plans to carry it out so he can retire… as soon as he figures out how to smuggle the gold. One day, he happens upon a man who has the perfect way… turning the gold into Eiffel Tower statues and posing them as paperweights. And the rest of the film is about them committing the heist… and then trying to get away with it. One of the great endings in film history too.

Guinness is great here. He was always a master at crafting complex, memorable characters on screen. Though unfortunately, the nomination is more than a reward here. He’s fifth in the category and stands no chance for a vote, even over Brando, who does deliver a better performance but is disqualified for personal reasons.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’ve thought long and hard about this one. Because it’s easy to make snap judgments, populist judgments and just plain stupid judgments that reflect what you want to believe rather than what you do believe. Here’s how it shakes out:

Alec Guinness is lovely in The Lavender Hill Mob. Not sure I’d go so far as to even nominate him, but he’s here, and that’s fine. That’s his reward, though. I wouldn’t take him at all.

Marlon Brando is quite good in Viva Zapata. Two things. First, this isn’t as good as Streetcar. Not a dealbreaker, just an observation. The thing that is the dealbreaker is the fact that he’s white and playing a Mexican. That’s a no-no for me no matter what year it is. So he’s out.

Jose Ferrer — I love this film and this performance. I still wouldn’t take him higher than second at most. I just wouldn’t. Maybe, five years from now I can go back and really try to make a case for this, but as much as I love the performance, I still wouldn’t do it.

So we have the two top performances that most people would choose between: Cooper and Douglas. And I rewatched both of them before picking this, just to make sure I felt the way I did.

Last time, I took Douglas straight away because Cooper had won and because it would have been a best case scenario for me had either of them won and I still went with my favorite performance.

Having seen both again, here’s how I shake out on this: I love Gary Cooper’s performance. It’s everything you want out of an actor and a character, and it’s a perfect blend of everything in one. And Kirk Douglas — I love his film, and I love his character and I love everything about it. But, the more I watch that movie, the more I think the performance isn’t really one that needed to win Best Actor. I’d have been happy if he did, but I keep finding myself much more impressed with the Cooper performance than the Douglas performance. I can’t explain why, but that’s how it is for me. And when you factor in just how iconic the Cooper performance is — I gotta take that.

In essence, this is what this reconsideration is about — rather than me making decisions based on factors like, “Oh well I’m gonna vote for this person in this other category, and they had an Oscar already and this person never won, plus I love this film more so I’m gonna take them,” I can go, “This performance is the best/is my favorite, so I’m taking that one. End of story.” It cut through all my bullshit and let me just pick what I think is best. And I think the Gary Cooper performance is best here.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Gary Cooper, High Noon
  2. Kirk Douglas, The Bad and the Beautiful
  3. José Ferrer, Moulin Rouge
  4. Marlon Brando, Viva Zapata!
  5. Alec Guinness, The Lavender Hill Mob

Rankings (films):

  1. High Noon
  2. The Bad and the Beautiful
  3. Moulin Rouge
  4. The Lavender Hill Mob
  5. Viva Zapata!

My Vote: Gary Cooper, High Noon

Recommendations:

High Noon is so essential you shouldn’t need me to recommend it.

The Bad and the Beautiful is 150% essential for all film buffs. Not only is it essential but it’s also a film all film buffs love. Because it’s that good. Must see.

Moulin Rouge is not essential, but it is very good. It’s John Huston, and I think we can agree he made some pretty worthwhile movies and knows what he’s doing behind the camera. And the great performances — it’s not as fun as the Baz Luhrmann musical, but it’s a really great film. High recommend. I really like this movie.

The Lavender Hill Mob is one of the great British comedies of all time. Essential on that front. Otherwise just a high recommend. Very entertaining, very much worth seeing, and I think most film buffs should see it. Closer to essential than not.

Viva Zapata! is Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn and Elia Kazan. So… yeah. I think that about covers where it should stand in the eyes of a film buff. As a film, I give it a high recommend. I guess you could skip it if you wanted to, but given those three people, I would think most film buffs would go, “I love all three of those people and want to see this immediately.” So I leave that one to you.

The Last Word: Cooper holds up. He was the best choice. I know a lot of us would have loved a Douglas win, but there’s no denying that the Gary Cooper performance is one of the most iconic in screen history and completely has held up over time. 100% the right choice, as much as we’d like to think there was another, just as good choice to be had as well.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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4 responses

  1. Here’s why I think Douglas didn’t win:

    A. This point was made on another blog—he’s not in the final scene of the film. Which for me blunts the ending, not seeing him making the pitch that we know will win over the people he’s shafted along the way. Because he’s not in that last beat of the film, it undercuts the performance, especially as a lead.
    B. Maybe this intentional, but I feel like we’re supposed to view this guy as an utter bastard, and it doesn’t really pan out that way. Sure, he pulls some dick moves, but I feel like he’s described more as a prick than he actually is onscreen.

    In any case, I think 1956 was probably his best shot to win, and the fact that he didn’t looks pretty bad in retrospect.

    November 1, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    • Oh but see, I love that he’s not in the final scene. Because you can feel his presence all over it. That he’s such a great salesman that he can get these three people who despise him to listen to what he has to say. I think that totally works, even though I understand how, visually, it undercuts the strength of the performance.

      I just wrote up 1956 over the weekend. That probably was his best shot to win, and was the one of his performances I should have voted for. I didn’t, but that’s more of a personal bias than anything.

      I’d have loved to see him win Supporting for this one. That would have been awesome. I’d have completely been okay with (slight) category fraud on that one.

      It’s been real difficult not to give into the urge to talk about potential alternate nominees for each year or potential alternate scenarios. But I think it’s keeping my decision making honest, so I’m fine with it.

      November 1, 2016 at 4:49 pm

      • That reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you:

        A while back you did a series called “My Oscar Nominations” where you tweaked the nominees for the major categories to your liking. But for a lot of them you admitted that these were rough drafts that you published sooner than you really wanted to, and that you’d do more definitive versions of them in the future. Is that something we might see in the next few months?

        November 1, 2016 at 5:05 pm

      • I really want to. I probably could do much more in depth versions with the amount of stuff I’ve watched in the last five years, but I think I’m gonna wait a bit longer, just because there’s so much more stuff I want to watch. (Plus I’ve scheduled a bunch of other stuff for myself instead of that.) There’s a chance it could happen, but I’d really want to sit down and put real thought into it, and I think what I’ve got planned instead of that is going to go a long way to making that a whole lot easier to do when I get around to it.

        November 1, 2016 at 5:24 pm

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