A few weeks ago, Daniel Day-Lewis made Oscar history when he became the first male actor to earn three Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (Katharine Hepburn still holds the record for any performer–four Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That be my girl.) We all woo-hoo’d and hallejuah’d ’round here–not only because every superlative in existence could be applied to his performance as President Abraham Lincoln (or just one superlative: P-E-R-F-E-C-T) but also because no other actor in recent memory could be deemed more deserving of such an honor than Daniel Day-Lewis. This is, after all, the man who played Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, the movie I watched countless times and the character I proudly told anybody I had the courage to speak to as a four-year-old I would someday marry. Yes, I had a normal childhood.
Inspired by Day-Lewis’ historic win and a few other things (but mostly Daniel Day-Lewis), I decided to examine and rank previous Best Actor Oscar winners and nominations. Who won? Who should have won? I decided to first take a look at 1951, mainly because I was very familiar with three of the five nominated performances but also because it was an interesting year for acting with the arrival of Method Acting, perfectly executed by two its nominees. But before I delve into those actors and their performances, let’s establish some criteria that will direct my evaluations and rankings:
- Is this a believable performance? Or, rather, is the actor utterly captivating, pulling me into their performance for the entire duration of the film? Do I forget that this actor is…well, acting?
- Does the actor and his performance make (…or break) the film?
- Would I watch this film again? Would I recommend it to other people?
- The complexity/depth of the performance. Let me clarify this through an example: In 1973, Robert Redford was given his only (!!) Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in The Sting. Now, ya’ll know how I feel about Robert Redford. And if you don’t, I will tell you right now: I love Robert Redford. A lot. And The Sting is one of my favorite movies. And he is great in it. But I’m not sure that he really deserved the nomination for this role. More deserving that year was his performance as Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were. But let’s not talk about The Way We Were because I’m starting to dissolve into a puddle of tears just thinking about it. Your girl is lovely, Hubbell! Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just rocking back and forth in my desk chair here, quietly sobbing. And not just because Hubbell belonged with Katie but because I’m thinking of Barbra Streisand brushing Robert Redford’s hair across his forehead…and I’m just really envious. I’m continuing that whole “normal childhood” thing into my adulthood.
Without further ado (or gushing about Robert Redford and his immaculate hair), here are my rankings of the Best Actor in a Leading Role nominees of 1951:
5. Fredric March in Death of a Salesman **/*****
This was Fredric March’s fifth and final Oscar nomination. He did not win. He previously won in 1931 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ) and in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.
In this production of Arthur Miller’s play, Willy Loman (Fredric March) is portrayed as a complete lunatic, something which disgusted the playwright. I spent much of the film wondering if I was supposed to feel something for this character or see some depth in him beyond the fact that he is insane? Because I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t see it. The film also inserts the flashbacks sloppily. I suppose that these flashbacks were supposed to demonstrate Willy’s descent into insanity, but they were integrated (or, rather, not integrated) into the story in such a way that they were frustrating. Regardless, this performance is lifeless and, quite frankly, boring.
Ultimately, I felt nothing watching this film, save boredom, and I would not watch it again. If I were in a high school English class reading Death of a Salesman and the teacher showed us this film, I would probably throw darts at a picture of that English teacher.
Just for fun, of course.
4. Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory ***/*****
This was Arthur Kennedy’s first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He did not win. He received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role throughout his career but never won.
I had never heard of Bright Victory, which tells the story of Sergeant Larry Nevens, who is blinded by a German Sniper during World War II. Kennedy gives a fine performance as Nevens, who, when we first meet him, is cocky and unlikable. As Nevens comes to grips with his injury, however, Kennedy creates a character whom you feel sympathetic toward and whose fate you care about. Kennedy is especially effective in the first half of the film, before Nevens becomes too comfortable with himself as a blind man, particularly in the scene in which he tries to commit suicide after first learning of his permanent blindness and a later scene when he calls his parents and finally tells them the seriousness of his injury. Less effective, however, is the film’s subplot dealing with racism. While traveling to Valley Forge Hospital with other wounded soldiers, Nevens converses with another black soldier. When he realizes the soldier is black, he asks the nurse to sit by him instead. Nevens’ racism arises again when he befriends another blind soldier (who happens to be black) in the hospital and uses a racial slur casually one day, not knowing the race of his friend. There is silence, and instead of further conversation or exploration of his offense, the scene ends with the two parting ways. While this is later resolved, the entire subplot seems half-formed and leaves you wanting a more meaningful exploration of the issue.
Overall, however, this was a good performance in a good film. Good–not great, but by no means poor.
3. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen ****/*****
Humphrey Bogart received his second Oscar nomination for The African Queen. This was his only Oscar win. He was nominated two additional times, previously in 1943 for Casablanca and again in 1954 for The Caine Mutiny.
Some detractors may claim that Bogart’s win for The African Queen was the Academy’s attempt to mask a “Best Actor” award as a “Lifetime Achievement” award, thereby remedying its mistake of not awarding him the award for Casablanca. And while I obviously think there were at least two actors more deserving of this award in 1951, I do not think that by any means was this award undeserved. Bogart is very, very endearing and effective in this film. I mean, look at him up there imitating the hippos and monkeys.
Now, let’s get one thing straight here: I initially watched The African Queen for Katharine Hepburn. I was never drawn to Bogart and thus never felt compelled to watch any of his films (although I had watched Sabrina). He was just kind of this old, gruff actor to me. So The African Queen was a pleasant surprise.
Of course, a major draw of this film and Bogart’s performance (for me, at least) is his chemistry with Katharine Hepburn. I love how at the start of the film the two characters have absolutely nothing in common but slowly build a relationship as the film progresses. Amidst World War I, Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Hepburn) are aboard The African Queen, a boat which they plan to convert into a torpedo boat and sink the enemy’s boat downstream–a plan suggested by Rose. Charlie, however, hoped that Rose would soon become discouraged and abandon the plan, but after they survive the first set of rapids, Rose becomes even more dedicated to their cause. She tells him, glossy-eyed, when he asks how she liked the rapids, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! I’ve only known such excitement a few times before, a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him!” Later, Charlie half-drunkenly reveals he never intended to complete their plan and insults Rose, who retaliates by branding him a liar and a coward–and promptly disposes of all the alcohol on board.
Then comes my favorite scene (outside of Bogart mimicking the hippos and monkeys, which is just fun) and one of Bogart’s best in the film.
Charlie attempts to apologize to Rose, by cleaning up his appearance (via shaving) and complimenting her. Rose completely ignores him, silently reading a book. Charlie grows frustrated, apologizes, and explains his actions, saying, “What ya bein’ so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in awhile–it’s only human nature.”
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” replies Rose.
In this scene, Bogart is adroitly conciliatory, frustrated, angry, pleading, and begrudgingly submissive in the space of just a few minutes. Even though (in my opinion) there were more deserving performances in 1951, Bogart earned this Oscar for a very good performance.
2. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire *****/*****
Brando received his first Oscar nomination for A Streetcar Named Desire. He did not win. He would be nominated an additional seven times (six Lead Actor nominations, one Actor in a Supporting Role) and won twice, in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather, an honor (some might call it an offer) he refused.
Update: I am now writing this blog toothless and hairless because I pulled out all my teeth and all my hair trying to rank these last two performances. Now that you have that lovely image in your head, let’s talk about something slightly more pleasant and pretty.
“Oh, those cats. ME-OW!”
(That’s what I say when I see your face.)
What do you say about one of the greatest screen performances of all-time? What do you say about an actor who took a flat, detestable character and made him explosive, sensuous, and vulnerable? And what do you say when you learn that this actor was robbed of the Oscar (co-stars Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden were all nominees and winners in their respective acting categories)?
You don’t “say” anything, per se, you just sort of do this:
It’s really not fair. He should have won.
Still, there’s one more performance that I think was maybe–just maybe–even better.
1. Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun *****/*****
This was Montgomery Clift’s second Oscar nomination. He did not win. He had been nominated in 1948 for The Search, would be nominated in 1953 for From Here to Eternity, and in 1961 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Judgement at Nuremberg. He never won, and that is an absolute travesty.
According to Patricia Bosworth’s biography of the actor, Clift sometimes imitated Charlie Chaplin’s “goofy, expectant smile” in the last frames of City Lights, which a spectator described: “It was fascinating to watch him become a different person without uttering a sound. He could capture the essence of a personality, a character, instantly and not only that, make you experience a rush of emotion–and you had no idea how he did it.” Bosworth quotes a film director later observing this same technique, stating, “Montgomery Clift knows how to use silence and fill it up.”
And this is exactly what he does in A Place in the Sun.
Clift portrays George Eastman, an ambitious young man who attempts to earn his own “place in the sun” by working his way up through his wealthy uncle’s prestigious company. Along the way, though, he falls in love with two women: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a fellow factory worker in the company and Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy socialite. George and Alice’s romance must remain a secret, as it is against company policy, but it quickly moves further into the shadows as George becomes acquainted with Angela. It becomes even more complicated, however, when Alice reveals to George that she is pregnant.
Stop reading if you’ve never seen this film (watch it) and don’t want to be spoiled.
The only solution Alice and George are able to find is to marry and leave town and start a new life somewhere else, where nobody knows them. This plan, however, would thwart George’s designs for his “place in the sun.” He is also unwilling to give up Angela.
And so George plans (or does he?) to take Alice out in a boat on the lake and, knowing she cannot swim, drown her. As the two are in the boat, however, George begins to have second (and third…and fourth…) thoughts. In just a scene lasting just a few minutes, Clift expresses George’s contempt for Alice as she talks about what their married life would be like, then you see his face soften, feeling almost sorry for her, then you see him imagining drowning her, malice shining in his eyes, and he then again crumbles, unable to fathom going through with the murder. Clift faultlessly conveys this wrestling of emotions George has with himself–and he does it without uttering a single word.
It gives me goosebumps. It just might be Clift’s finest piece of acting–and that’s saying quite a lot.
But what follows is perhaps even more compelling and impressive acting by Clift. George is eventually arrested and put on trial for the murder of Alice. The film leaves it unclear whether George truly and maliciously murdered Alice Tripp. During the trial, George testifies that he could not go through with the murder and that he was thinking of someone else (Angela) while he and Alice were on that boat, not of murdering Alice, and that her death was an accident. You believe him. Clift makes you believe him. You believe him so much that when George is grilled by the prosecuting attorney, who declares, “You pushed that poor girl into the lake and watched her drown. Isn’t that the truth?” You sit there, shouting at the screen, “No! No, it isn’t! That isn’t the truth! He isn’t a murderer!” And you get so mad at that stinking lawyer, you just want to stick your tongue out at him. Or something slightly more menacing.
And then you remember…George Eastman is just a character. Montgomery Clift is an actor. This is just a movie.
But that is a testament to the power of Clift’s acting and skill. And that is what ultimately compels me to rank his performance at the top of this list.
But then I have a soft spot for Montgomery Clift.
I can’t believe he never won an Oscar.
I mean, shouldn’t he have at least got a special Oscar for that face?
Lord have mercy.
Well, there you have it. In 1951, the Academy awarded Humphrey Bogart the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But I would have given it to Montgomery Clift. Or Marlon Brando. Or Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Oh, think of all the beautiful photos of those two holding their awards together that could have been!
Now do I not only have no teeth, no hair, but I am officially just a puddle of nothing. Melted by visions of Brando and Clift. I must say, writing this blog post has done wonders for my complexion.
Okay. See ya next time.
(Note: This is a topic I may revisit occasionally–examining and ranking a given year’s nominees in Best Actor/Supporting Actor, Best Actress/Supporting Actress, Best Picture, although I doubt I will ever watch every Oscar-nominated film/performance ever because there are some films I have no desire to ever, ever watch, and I hope to someday have a life. I wouldn’t count on the latter ever happening, though.)