February 27, 2010

0 My Oscar Picks, Part 2: 1940-1944

In this post I'm continuing the process of comparing my own Oscar picks from among the nominees with the real winners. As before, the opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and are not intended to be taken as objective judgments.


The Winner: Rebecca
My Pick: The Philadelphia Story

The Winner: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
My Pick: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath

The Winner: James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
My Pick: Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath

The Winner: Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

The Winner: Walter Brennan, The Westerner
My Pick: Walter Brennan, The Westerner

The Winner: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
My Pick: Judith Anderson, Rebecca

Another impressive year for Hollywood, a worthy follow-up to 1939. Of the ten best picture nominees, I would rank five as masterpieces. Two other movies I consider masterpieces, His Girl Friday and The Shop Around the Corner, weren't among the ten nominees and in fact didn't receive a single nomination. In the end I went for the picture I like the best. The lead acting categories exemplified two trends that I find lamentable. Stewart's win was another example of the Oops, We Made a Mistake Syndrome like Bette Davis's win in 1935, in which a superior performance is ignored in the rush to atone for a previous oversight. Henry Fonda would have to wait forty years for his Oscar. Rogers's win was an example of what is referred to as a Career Achievement Award, in which a popular actor giving a good performance in a good part is rewarded for years of hard work as a tireless trouper. There's nothing wrong with that except that it vitiates the notion of recognizing the year's best performance. This year the competition for best actress was fierce, and the nominees didn't even include Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday or Margaret Sullavan for The Shop Around the Corner. For best actress I went with Kate Hepburn for her best and most typical performance. Darwell's award is attributable to a combination of the Career Achievement Award and the One Big Scene Syndrome (that speech at the end about the indominability of The People). I went instead for Judith Anderson's deliciously malevolent Mrs. Danvers. Biggest omission: Cary Grant for either The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday.


The Winner: How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Citizen Kane

The Winner: John Ford, How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

The Winner: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
My Pick: Walter Huston, All That Money Can Buy (The Devil and Daniel Webster)

The Winner: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
My Pick: Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

The Winner: Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon

The Winner: Mary Astor, The Great Lie
My Pick: Mary Astor, The Great Lie

What can I say about the best picture and directing awards for this year? The incomprehensible wrongness of these awards speaks for itself. How Green Was My Valley presents in sharp contrast John Ford's strengths and shortcomings: sequences of great emotional and visual pull alternate with sequences of cloying sentimentality and awkward staginess. There is no way that this movie is in the same league as the rightfully legendary Citizen Kane. My contrariness continued with all but one of the remaining awards. The Maltese Falcon was at least nominated for best picture and supporting actor, but evidently John Huston and Humphrey Bogart didn't then enjoy the respect they would later have. Mary Astor, so memorable in Falcon as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, was nominated for best supporting actress and won for a more flamboyant (actually a lead) performance in a different picture altogether. Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for Ball of Fire, not The Lady Eve, as I would have expected. If she had been, she might well have gotten my vote. Under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Fontaine gave one of the best performances of her career (maybe voters were still thinking of her equally fine performance for Hitchcock the year before in Rebecca) and took home the Oscar, but I preferred Bette Davis's controlled monster Regina, for me her best performance of the thirties and forties. Biggest omission: Sullivan's Travels—for picture, director, or actor.


The Winner: Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: The Magnificent Ambersons

The Winner: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver

The Winner: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
My Pick: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Winner: Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year

The Winner: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
My Pick: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager

The Winner: Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons

For best picture I chose Orson Welles's melancholy contemplation of loss and change—even in its truncated form, a masterpiece—over the meretricious Mrs. Miniver. Lillian Hellman tells the following anecdote about Mrs. Miniver: Seeing her in tears after a screening of the film, William Wyler asked if she was really that moved by the experience. "I'm crying," she answered, "because it's such a piece of shit." I can see her point: it might have been what those involved thought America needed to spur it to join the war (although by the time the picture was released this was a moot issue, since the US was already in the war), but today it feels awfully sanctimonious and manipulative. Still, I went with Wyler for best director because Welles wasn't nominated, because Wyler did his usual professional job, and because the other nominees were so weak in comparison. James Cagney trounced the competition for best actor with his energetic impersonation of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. For best actress I again chose the divine Kate in her first teaming with Spencer Tracy, as a self-centered, independent woman whom the gruff but patient and down-to-earth Tracy humanizes by teaching her to control her ego (and enjoy baseball too). Biggest omission: Orson Welles, best director for The Magnificent Ambersons.


The Winner: Casablanca
My Pick: Casablanca

The Winner: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca
My Pick: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca

The Winner: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
My Pick: Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

The Winner: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
My Pick: Jean Arthur, The More the Merrier

The Winner: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier
My Pick: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier

The Winner: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls
My Pick: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Every time I watch Casablanca, I grow more fond of it and am more impressed by Curtiz's masterful direction. Why, then, did the Academy not see that Bogart's Rick was a performance that would last, whereas in time Paul Lukas's Nazi-fighter would fade? Lukas's award is an example of the recurring practice of rewarding a sincere performance more for the nobility of the character being played than for the actual best performance of the year, something that seems to happen especially during times of national stress, particularly when the alternative is someone playing a morally ambiguous or outright monstrous character. (Adrien Brody's win over Daniel Day-Lewis in 2002 is a recent example.) Although the Academy has traditionally been chary of recognizing relatively unknown young actors for breakthrough performances, it has seldom shown this same reluctance toward actresses, and this year gave the award to 24-year old Jennifer Jones for her first major picture, The Song of Bernadette. I think Jones was a better actress than she is generally given credit for (especially considering her troubled personal life and her Trilby-Svengali relationship to David O. Selznick), but I see her Oscar as a duplication of Lukas's for best actor, an award that put the nobility of the character before the quality of the performance. For best actress I went with the shamefully ignored Jean Arthur, who received her only nomination for this, her best and most charming performance. Biggest omission: Henry Fonda, The Ox-Bow Incident.


The Winner: Going My Way
My Pick: Double Indemnity

The Winner: Leo McCarey, Going My Way
My Pick: Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity

The Winner: Bing Crosby, Going My Way
My Pick: Bing Crosby, Going My Way

The Winner: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
My Pick: Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

The Winner: Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
My Pick: Clifton Webb, Laura

The Winner: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart
My Pick: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart

I like Going My Way; it's an enjoyable, lightweight sentimental heart-warmer. But I have no doubt that Wilder's pitch-black Double Indemnity is the best picture of the year. I also like Bing Crosby as the easygoing Father O'Malley in Going My Way and chose him over Barry Fitzgerald (who was simultaneously nominated for best supporting actor for the same role and won). I think Fitzgerald is a great character actor, but I have a low tolerance for this kind of cornball blarney and believe he gave better performances than this one. For best supporting actor I went instead for Clifton Webb's delightfully campy Waldo Lydecker. I like Ingrid Bergman too and think she was very affecting in George Cukor's florid take on Gaslight (which contrary to much critical opinion I prefer to its rather enervated 1939 British version). But in Wilder's nasty Double Indemnity Stanwyck gives the best performance of her impressive career, the definitive film noir femme fatale. Biggest omission: Meet Me in St. Louis—best picture, director, or actress (Judy Garland).


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