Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Nitpicking about a piece on Oscar-winning actors

Happened to read this piece about "10 actors who won Oscars for the wrong movie". I know this is the sort of lightweight list thingie you’re supposed to just glance though and not analyse (and it was probably written to a brief because of the Leo DiCaprio hullabaloo this year), but being in a nitpicking mood I was amused by the contemporary-film bias on view here. (By “contemporary film" I mean pretty much anything from the 1970s onward.) Not such a big issue overall, but look at this patronising bit in the entry for Henry Fonda:
As far as performances of the time go, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad rivals the best of Brando and Dean, with 'Grapes of Wrath' acting as a cornerstone for realism in cinema and novel adaptations, the idea that Henry was robbed of the award when the winner that year’s performance has all but faded into distant memory seems shocking in the modern eye.
From this, one may gather that:

1) Brando-like “realism” is the main standard to aspire to (I’ll leave poor James Dean out of this - doesn’t seem fair to compare his truncated career with that of heavyweights like Fonda and Brando)

Very dubious assertion, to put it politely. Also, perceptions of realism are massively subjective and change with each decade: a case can be made that the best work of old-school actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper now looks more natural than Brando’s showy understatement in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront (even though one can see why his performances were so energising and zeitgeist-defining in the early 50s).

2) This "realism”, which is so appealing to “the modern eye”, automatically makes Fonda’s Tom Joad his best performance

(I wonder what the writer would feel about his pratfall-and-double-take-filled turn as the dopey comic foil in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, a film that was gloriously unconcerned with being “real” in the Grapes of Wrath sense.)

3) The actual best actor winner for 1940 is now practically forgotten

Um, no, not if you know anything about old cinema. That winner was James Stewart as the reporter in The Philadelphia Story - a super performance in an all-time classic. (Pssst: I thought Cary Grant in the same film was even better - and predictably he wasn’t even nominated - but that’s another debate.)

Speaking of which, Stewart himself should have been a frontrunner on this list, because most people felt his win for a second-lead role in The Philadelphia Story was intended as compensation for not winning for Mr Smith Goes to Washington the previous year. But it’s all about the “modern eye”…


  1. I've never watched the Grapes of Wrath, and return to the Philadelphia Story whenever I'm feeling particularly moody, so that probably suggests bias. :-)

    But honestly, it really isn't a Jimmy Stewart movie, so that nomination has always seemed mysterious to me, until you cleared that up with your post. Will now go and check who "robbed" him of the Oscar for Mr. Smith. and the cycle will continue. that's probably the point, right?

  2. Vk: ha, yes. More often than not, once you get into the business of analysing who "robbed" who, it becomes a deep and complicated hole. Robert Donat, who won best actor for 1939, was superb in Goodbye Mr Chips, and the other nominees that year included Gable in Gone with the Wind and Olivier in Wuthering Heights. (And others in that great year who weren't even nominated include Laughton in Hunchback of Notre Dame, Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln, Grant in Only Angels Have Wings, and Wayne in Stagecoach.) Bit silly beyond a point to assess who was the "best", right?

  3. Brando's performance in A Streetcar.... is so bad that I wondered what made people like it so much. Besides, his character, to me, seemed to be written to ensure he gets no sympathy from audience - not a good thing to do. And the movie was so boring. I reckon many Hindi movies of 50s and 60s have more "realism" than this film

    1. Okay, well, I have to say I disagree with most of this! Also, why is it a problem if a character is written to get no sympathy from the audience? Much of Tennessee Williams's best work had characters like that.

    2. Yeah - that per se shouldn't be a problem. Just that I think this thing about Brando's character made him far more annoying, to me. But, yes it's not always a problem. For example, Dev's character in Dev D was difficult to sympathise, yet it worked for me, so did the movie.

  4. And I remember watching East of Eden, a terrifyingly boring movie with awful colours. Its sense of morality and theatricality exhibited by most actors was cringe-inducing to me. On the other hand, the book East of Eden is a very engaging read without these faults. James Dean in this movie was so bad.

  5. "The actual best actor winner for 1940 is now practically forgotten "

    Not too sure about this. Stewart is still very popular and is an American icon. There are others from that era like Cooper who are not as well known anymore even among movie aficionados. But Stewart remains a giant I think.

    1. Yes, that's pretty much what I said too. Though I think what the article-writer meant was that the performance that won best actor for 1940 is forgotten - not the actor

  6. By the way that was me in the previous comment.

    Talking of Philadelphia Story, it is interesting how a film can grow big in the popular imagination in retrospect isn't it?

    One reason why it remains a high-profile movie is because it stars three of the greatest Hollywood stars ever - Stewart, Grand and Hepburn. But back in 1940 at the time of its release, I am not sure if they were such major stars. Stewart was starting out. Hepburn was still box-office poison. And Grant was not quite numero uno. But history has been kind to the film as all three went on to have great careers.

  7. Also even in 1940, Stewart I think had a better performance in "The Shop around the Corner" which I don't think was even in contention for an Oscar that year!

    Nor was Cary Grant's turn in HIs Girl Friday, a great performance, in the same year!

  8. "I wonder what the writer would feel about his pratfall-and-double-take-filled turn as the dopey comic foil in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, a film that was gloriously unconcerned with being “real” in the Grapes of Wrath sense"

    Haha. Yes. It's hard to single out a single defining Fonda film isn't it?

    If I have to, I will probably go with Young Mr Lincoln and My Darling Clementine.