Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 86-81

A few years ago, I did a ranking of the Best Picture Winners for the Oscars, and while not enough time has passed to go through that exercise again, I wanted to do something similar – and settled on ranking the Best Actor winners. I have seen all but two performances who have won this Oscar – one is Emil Jannings in The Way of All Flesh, at the first Oscars, and the only one that allowed an actor to win for more than one performance. While I have seen The Last Command – which some sources incorrectly claim is the only performance he won for, I have not, and will never see, The Way of All Flesh, as sadly it is one of the far too many “lost” films of the silent era. The other unseen performance is George Arliss in Disraeli, at the third Oscar ceremony for 1929. As far as I know, it has never been released on DVD, is not legally obtainable on any download site, and I have never come across either a VHS copy or seen it on TCM (they air it every February as part of their Oscar month - but always at some ungodly hour like 4am). But I have seen the other 86 performances that have won, and so I thought I’d rank them.

I must say that looking at the list, while I find many of the winners “unworthy” (simply meaning I think someone else delivered a better performance that year), I do not find very many of the performances outright “bad” either. Many of the performances, even the ones that rank rather low are fine – nothing special, but okay – quite a few are good or very good, and once you hit the top 40 or so, most are downright excellent – even if they would not have been my choice. Some of the “unworthy” winners won because they had weak competition, or their films seemed timely when released and have become horribly dated now or the Academy felt bad about overlooking one or more excellent performances the actor had delivered in the past or because the winner was a movie star they liked or because a film they loved swept the actor up in its momentum or their biggest competition had already won one or more Oscars or because the Academy is sometimes just plain dumb. But sometimes, they actually do get it right.

Anyway, starting with the “worst”, here are the Oscar winners for Best Actor.

86. Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928/1929)
In the Oscar’s second year, the studios decided that they had to go only with talkies – not nominating any silent films in the top categories, and even taking away the nominations Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus received to give him a special award. The results were among the most embarrassing winners in Oscar history. By 1928, filmmakers had perfected silent films, and had no real idea how to use sound. In Old Arizona is a creaky Western, notable for being one of the first sound films to be shot outside, where the sound was much harder to obtain (the advertisements apparently thought audiences would flock to the movie because they could really hear crackling bacon). Baxter, a silent star moving uncomfortably into the sound era, is embarrassingly bad as the villain in this movie – I believe he really does twirl his mustache at some point. Out of the nominees, Chester Morris was better in Alibi – but really, the Academy could have picked any number of great silent performances to award here. But to them, silent was the past, sound was the future, and they rushed to award the future before it was worthy of such awards.
Is It Their Best Work: I really cannot say – I don’t know much of Baxter’s work. I hope not.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I cannot really say, because I’ve only seen one of the other nominees – Chester Morris in Alibi, and while I would hardly describe him as brilliant in it, he would rank a little higher than Baxter.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Buster Keaton delivered a great performance in both Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman in 1928 and Spite Marriage in 1929 – and any of them would have been a worthy winner.

85. Cliff Robertson, Charly (1968)
I have always said the reason why Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar (other than his richly deserved lifetime achievement award) was mainly because of bad luck. If you look at who he lost to every year he was nominated, he never had a chance – losing to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird, Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady, John Wayne for True Grit and Marlon Brando for The Godfather to name but a few. The one year where that doesn’t hold up is 1968 – when his brilliant performance in The Lion in Winter, which was one of the most nominated films of the year, lost to Cliff Robertson’s awful performance in the truly horrific film Charly. The film is about an idiot janitor who is used as a science experiment – and becomes a genius and finds love, only to realize the effects of the experiment are temporary, and soon he’s dumb as a post again, and lonely. What’s more confusing is that Robertson wasn’t exactly a big star in 1968 – he had a solid career as a character actor – and the Academy wasn’t making up for snubbing him before, so you honestly have to believe they actually thought this performance was the best of the year, which is just bizarre. The only reason to watch Charly today – other than to say you have seen every Best Actor winning performance – is to see the worst example of an American film trying to be hip like its European contemporaries of the time. This is the one year that Peter O’Toole was clearly robbed.
Is It Their Best Work: No – Robertson delivered some great performances in his career – my favorite probably being in 1963’s The Best Man – a great political film.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I think I pretty much already made the case for Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter – a brilliant performance by a brilliant actor.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: I think the best lead actor performance this year may just be by George C. Scott in Petulia – an ever strange movie as “modern” as Charley – but one that hasn’t aged badly – in fact, it’s gotten better.

84. Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou (1965)
I love Lee Marvin. The Academy could have given him an Oscar for any number of great performances – in leading or supporting – over the years, and I would have been happy (The Big Heat, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Point Blank for instance). Instead, his Oscar is for this embarrassingly bad Western comedy, where Marvin played a dual role – one as a hopeless drunk, who was once a gunslinger, and one as a villain with no nose. Really other than the pleasure of seeing a young, gorgeous Jane Fonda in the title role, there is nothing of value in Cat Ballou – although for reasons that remain a mystery to me, some love it beyond all reason. To make matters worse, the Academy nominated at least TWO great performances that year – Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker and Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Marvin certainly deserved an Oscar – but not for this.
Is It Their Best Work: Not even close. I named three great performances above  - and could list a lot more. My favorite is probably Point Blank, but there are many great choices.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees):  I would say the Academy would have better served by giving Rod Steiger the Oscar for The Pawnbroker – which also means they could have given it to someone other than Steiger in 1967. For added measure, Steiger was great in Doctor Zhivago this year as well.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: They nominated Samantha Eggar for her performance in William Wyler’s The Collector, but not the creepy collector himself – Terrence Stamp? They should have.

83. Wallace Beery, The Champ (1932)
I really do love King Vidor – he made some great films over the course of his career, and was one of the few who were able to navigate from the silent to the sound era. But this sentimental tearjerker, with Beery as a big oaf of a boxer, and his relationship with his son is not one of them. The film is manipulative in the extreme, and quickly grows tiresome as it progresses from one scene trying to ring tears out of you to another. Beery had a decent career as a character actor – and delivered some very good performances. But this one isn’t really among them, even if it’s one of his more famous roles.
Is It Their Best Work: Again, I haven’t seen enough of Beery’s work to really know – but I liked him in Grand Hotel more than this.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): They only nominated three actors this year – and two of them won – and Frederic March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see later on) was one of them. Since I haven’t seen the third nominee, I guess that means Muni.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Herbert Marshall delivered one of the best screen performances of its kind in Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful Trouble in Paradise – and should have easily won. That doesn’t even mention Paul Muni’s great performance in Scarface.

82. Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
Paul Muni was a big star in the 1930s – and he played in everything from gangster movies to social policy movies. His best performances are films like Scarface, where he played a thinly veiled Al Capone or I Am A Fugitive from the Chain Gang – where he was appropriately enough a fugitive from a chain gang (that movie helped prisoner’s rights quite a bit). But his work in The Story of Louis Pasteur is quite honestly boring – and the movie itself is just as boring as his performance. They seemed to like making these sorts of biopics in the 1930s – ones that lionized its protagonists, but there is a reason why most of them are all but forgotten today – much like this film, never released on DVD, pretty much is. When you consider the great performances nominated that year – Walter Huston in Dodsworth, William Powell in My Man Godfrey and Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – it becomes clear that this was an attempt to give a talented actor, and a big movie star, an Oscar for a “respectable” movie.
Is It Their Best Work: No – I’ll go with his work in Howard Hawks’ Scarface as his greatest performance – although I wouldn’t argue with those who think it would I Am a Prisoner from the Chain Gang either.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): This is a tough one – because I could easily say Walter Huston in Dodsworth or Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – but since they both won Oscars later, I’ll go with the great William Powell for My Man Godfrey.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Charles Chaplin delivered one of his great performances of all time in his masterpiece Modern Times – too bad the Academy was anti-silent film back then.

81. Bing Crosby, Going My Way (1944)
Bing Crosby was a big movie star – in addition to being a big singing star – but I don’t think anyone would really claim he was much of an actor. Other than his work in The Country Girl (1954), where he played second fiddle to the beautiful Grace Kelly, I cannot think of another performance of his I would call great. Sure, he had an easy charm, and it’s hard not to like his laid back singing, but in Going My Way – another feel good drama where he plays a Priest (he would reprise his role the next year in the much more famous The Bells of St. Mary’s) I just felt bored – not just by Crosby but the whole movie in general. Director Leo McCarey made some great films, but this wasn’t among them. Perhaps it was the weak competition that gave Crosby the Oscar this year, but either way, it’s not a film that you need to go out of your way to see.
Is It Their Best Work: No – I don’t think Crosby was a great actor, but as the aging star in The Country Girl, he was better than he was here.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees):  I haven’t seen Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart nor Alexander Knox in Wilson – and I wasn’t a huge fan of Crosby, co-star Barry Fitzgerald (who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for the same performance he was nominated for the lead Oscar for) nor Charles Boyer for Gaslight, so I guess I have abstain.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Take your pick – Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, Fred Macmurray in Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window or Eddie Bracken for either Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. They did not choose wisely this year.

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