As disappointing as this year's Best Supporting Actress lineup, the Best Actor lineup of 1946 is very enjoyable - stellar, even! The nominees:
Fredric March as Sergeant Al Stephenson
The Best Years of Our Lives
past winner, fourth of five nominations; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actor
Probably the most challenging to play of the central trio, as March does not get to play a completed arc in the same way Harold Russell and Dana Andrews do. Al returns from war with beautiful family and lucrative job still intact, but incapable of comfort or joy unless he's with other vets or getting drunk - and that problem never really gets solved. It's very easy to overdo The Drunk. March doesn't: Al is high-functioning, still loving father, turned-on husband, determined to do the right thing by his clients, even if he has to strong-arm his bosses into it. March clearly demonstrates the difference between blotto, worrisome, and genially lubricated. But that final, sardonic tone he takes in observing the wedding punch is "weak," reminiscent of a tone he took in a two-cocktail convivial interrogation of his daughter's beau - is Al already a little drunk, or is he sober but determined to get drunk, no matter what promises were made? It's March's careful calibration throughout the film that allows us to leave Al with concern, the unhappy knowledge that the boys may come home, but they don't always return.
Laurence Olivier as King Henry V
third of ten acting nominations; National Board of Review's Best Actor of 1946, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actor
Henry the king, Henry the man, Henry the suitor - Olivier shows us all sides, none contradictory, The first half of the film feels more like an ensemble piece, so for me, this performance did not fully "click" until the sequence where a disguised Henry talks to various soldiers freely, peer-to-peer. Olivier shows a man truly listening, weighing what he's heard, debating with himself; he shows how that Gethsemane experience informs his stirring St. Crispins Day speech the next morning. And then he must show us the wily politician, humane conqueror, good-natured suitor to a complete stranger. It's not just that he knows how to deliver the poetry of Shakespeare, he knows who these people are.
Larry Parks as Al Jolson
The Jolson Story
first and only nomination
I'm no great Jolson expert, I can't tell you if Parks is "uncanny" in capturing the man. I can tell you that it's a very good performance, a perfect portrayal of the joy of entertaining. To perform, to see that audience, to be at one with strangers in a room for 2-3 hours every night: Parks makes clear that this is not just a need, but a natural order of things, what he was born to do. There is a boyish quality in his pursuit of it - yes, even his attempts to retire and "settle down" come off like a kid trying to play at being grown up. Of course this guy became a success - look at the joy he brings and derives!
Gregory Peck as Ezra "Penny" Baxter
second of five nominations; Golden Globe winner for Best Actor
Peck's a Florida homesteader keeping his family and ranch going. As far as playing that sturdy foundation, he's physically a match already; the performance itself is, fortunately, also pretty sturdy, surprisingly witty and warm. One gets a sense of the single-mindedness that brought his family to this area - and, honestly, one sees how easily his wife becomes an afterthought, and the charm he possesses that keeps her around. Likable. It's an interesting take on what, in Cross Creek, was a much sterner role.
James Stewart as George Bailey
It's a Wonderful Life
third of five nominations
He is the movie, obviously, but also - he is the movie! Like, years of ctaching scenes here and there as you go about Thanksgiving at your parents' house will not prepare you for the impact of his performance once you finally sit down and watch it without interruption from beginning to end. He sells the young idealist at the beginning, the worn but still ambitious husband and father in the middle, the responsible citizen who hasn't yet seen how his idealism has affected change in his world. He sells the love story with Donna Reed. And that despair that leads to his awful wish, he sells you that, too, that dark night of the soul in the tousled hair, the nervous energy, the simultaneous thirst and revulsion at the bar. But maybe "sells" is the wrong word here. That's what makes Stewart's performance so special, not that he's "selling" you a message or a character, nor that he's "being" George Bailey (Stewart, no matter how great he is, is often undeniably Stewart, that's the appeal). It's that he's expressing so much empathy and understanding for the struggle of the everyman, the family man, the decent man. He's not selling you anything, he's relating to you, and he does it better than anyone else could. It's a masterful performance, a marriage of actor and character that has made this film an enduring classic.
March is one of the more defendable double-winners in the history of the Academy Awards. But 1946? A year of slight disagreements, as my ratings make obvious. My pick for Best Actor is:
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Tomorrow, we finish the week with the nominees for Best Director: Clarence Brown (The Yearling), Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), David Lean (Brief Encounter), Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives).
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