Sunday, May 19, 2024

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Oscar 1940: Best Actor

Continuing the journey through the 13th Academy Awards with the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. At the original ceremony, this was the final award of the night - indeed, the four acting awards capped the evening, after Best Picture (which we already covered). In that spirit, we're doing things completely out of order.

So here we are, with five leading men. Charles Chaplin makes his return to the screen after a four-year absence. Henry Fonda, unnominated the previous year for Young Mr. Lincoln, reunites with that film's director John Ford and gets his first nomination. Raymond Massey recreates his Broadway hit. And Laurence Olivier and James Stewart return for the second year in a row, having both lost the previous year to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (they would face each other again in 1946, losing to Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives).

The nominees:

Charles Chaplin as A Jewish Barber & Adenoid Hynkel
The Great Dictator
only nomination for acting; National Board of Review honoree for Best Acting, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actor

In 1939, advertisements cried, "Garbo Laughs!" when the Swedish sob sister made a splash in the romantic comedy Ninotchka. In 1940, they should have shouted: "Chaplin Speaks!" Although he sings a nonsense song at the end of 1936's Modern Times, this was the first time the actor fully committed to the "talkies" format, and you hear a lot of him...when he's Adenoid Hynkel. He snorts, he growls, he shouts indecipherable gibberish; even in quieter moments, he cannot hide his disgust for those around him, his "polite" politician face always sneering at the corner - yet his greatest moment in this role is a solo dance scene where Hynkel twinkle-toes with the Globe, imagining the world fully in his power, the only genuine joy that comes from his face: a frightening scene. The multi-hyphenate, in addition to directing, writing, producing, contributing to the score, and playing the villain, also plays the hero, an unnamed Jewish Barber who is the exact opposite. He speaks softly, when he speaks at all, a mild-mannered sort who gets to be more physical than verbal in his comedy, whether shaving to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 or  vainly attempting to man a cannon during WWI. His greatest moment, of course, comes when he finally has a lot to say, ending the film with a rousing speech appealing to the best of mankind. That speech clinched the nomination, and looking back, it's surprising that it didn't clinch the win.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad
The Grapes of Wrath
first of two acting nominations

It isn't so crazy that Fonda was only nominated for acting twice and only won when it was obviously his last chance to do so. Fonda has such a natural, easy presence on screen, plays his roles so organically, he appears to hardly do anything at all. Of course, he is, you just don't see him sweat, you don't see him perform. Tom Joad is, I think a very challenging character to play: a hero with determination, a certain amount of patience, and a lot of anger being held tight within him. You have to root for him - want to root for him - believe he is a Good Man - but you must also detect within him the capacity to kill a man, even if it is in self-defense. Fonda hints at that coiled attack through his body language (watch and you'll see how he balls his fists here, angles himself for a stance or even to avoid a stance there...but never broadly done), the pauses he takes, the way he looks at people...that's also where we see his love for his family and his sympathy for other people, by the way, his eyes. He's so perfect at conveying these very definite emotions that it makes his occasional confusion at things he doesn't fully understand - his arrival at home, his reunion with Casy - so heartbreaking, almost childlike, a fully open and honest face, mask off. He nails his final speech, too, another soliloquy that clinched the nomination (though, for me, it's when he dances with his mother to "Red River Valley").

Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
only nomination

Massey gets to deliver a number of speeches playing Abraham Lincoln (just a year after Fonda was passed over for his Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln!). Not just in his debates with Stephen Douglas, not just on his platforms, but also in his conversations with his wife or his meditations on dreams and mortality. Massey played the role on Broadway, he wears Lincoln like a second skin. Not a bad performance, but I've also never been particularly excited by Massey. Here, the rhythms of his halting cadence tend to over-foreshadow Lincoln's place in history, an issue, too, with the script and directing. Lincoln relating his prophetic death dream - while rooted, if memory serves of a For Young Readers biography of Lincoln I read in first grade, in fact - is delivered with a level of sobriety that is so over the top because it is so under the top, determinedly so. This is Massey, rarely satisfied unless he's underlining his intent.

Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter

Another deceptively difficult role, Maxim de Winter, a figure that goes from romantic to mysterious (threatening?!) to...if not sympathetic, at least more understandable, which is as good to for why you should dislike someone as it for why they should get the benefit of the doubt. I think ultimately Maxim is unlikable, for the same reasons why he's so attractive at first. He's somewhat spontaneous, he's attentive, he can shake someone off politely but firm, not too worried about how rude people will think him. And then Olivier reveals that that boyish charm is actually too boyish, infantile almost. He's a spoiled brat who has never seen a need to explain himself or his motives because, well, who would question him? He's Lord of the Manor! He has flareups and avoids questions and gives nothing emotionally - because, as Olivier plays him, he is a toddler who throws tantrums. Unfortunately, the Production Code of the era prevented Olivier from being able to play the logical conclusion to this role he's crafted, and he seems to physically deflate having to play those scenes near the end. A shame, because he's given us something great up to then.

James Stewart as Macaulay "Mike" Connor
The Philadelphia Story
only win, second of five nominations

The unlikely winner, though Stewart was having a good year between this, Destry Rides Again, and The Shop Around the Corner - all comedies. As the journalist reluctantly doing a spread on Tracy Lord's wedding, he brings that seen-it-all, above-it-all cynicism convincingly, though for a while one thinks, while it's very good, is it Oscar-worthy? Ah-ha! But then! He warms to the ex-husband, creating a terrific on-screen partnership with Cary Grant; he warms to the subject, creating a terrific on-screen partnership with Katharine Hepburn; and this is all after he's already established camaraderie with his photographer, creating a terrific on-screen partnership with Ruth Hussey. His cynicism doesn't abate, but you see him becoming less dismissive, more open to these people. He plays drunk very well, hilariously - I might even say it's the best drunk acting I've seen in a film, it looks and sounds so familiar! And the way he and Hepburn play off each other in the moonlight, oh, for a minute you really do want them to run off together. He's as sexy as he is funny, a perfectly executed performance.


Stewart's win is an underrated one, as it turns out. But I give my vote to:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Supporting Actress: Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath), Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story), Barbara O'Neil (All This, and Heaven Too), and Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path)

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