When looking over the long list of Oscar-winning Best Actors, the Siren was struck by two things. First, she's seen nearly all of the movies. Second, a big chunk of the list is awfully dull. Not bad, just boring. Well-meaning. Earnest. Didactic. Sidney Poitier isn't bad in Lilies of the Field, he's very good, but the movie is a snooze. Ditto Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, Ben Kingsley in Gandhi...just nothing the Siren wants to sit down and watch again.
So for her Best Best Actor list, the Siren used this single yardstick: which five performances, if shown on TCM tonight, would likely glue the Siren to her couch, no matter what she had to do? So, with that alone in mind, here are the Siren's top five, in reverse order.
5. Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII. The Siren doesn't expect to find this one very high on the final list, due mostly to its age. But god is Laughton good, so much so that our collective memory of Henry is neither Shakespeare nor Holbein, but rather the lusty, impulsive figure that Laughton creates here. He is, as Simon Callow says, "more Henry than Henry."
4. Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Courageous, pigheaded, utterly bonkers, Guinness carries the weight of a script that has him standing in for all the mythical glories and bloody illogic of imperial Britain. His performance is so superb that the moment you glimpse Nicholson's madness is the moment of his greatest heroism, as he is carried out of the hotbox--the colonel is still fighting for that crisp self-discipline. And you realize, looking at Guinness's wobbly yet triumphant walk, that a sane man would have snapped.
3. James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy. As George M. Cohan, the flag-waving showman and songwriter, Cagney steals everything but the floorboards in the most sheerly enjoyable biopic of all time. The Siren never gets tired of Cagney turning a tuneless voice and a weird, high-pockets dance style into the movie's greatest virtues. That final walk down the White House staircase, which gradually becomes a hoof-step expressing all the joy of Cohan's patriotism and his vanished theatrical world, was reportedly improvised on the spot by Cagney.
2. Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives. March is usually described as a flashy, scene-stealing actor, but his two finest moments in this movie are played in silence. There's March's expression as he walks into his home and sees Myrna Loy, flesh and blood instead of the image he yearned for through all his time at war. And then there's March's face, tired and hung over, trying to find himself in the picture on the mantelpiece, a photo of a man he will never be again.
1. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront. Brando had to be number one, but which to pick--this one, or The Godfather, in which he is equally brilliant? Well, The Godfather is the better movie but like a judge at the Olympics, the Siren is awarding extra points here for degree of difficulty. Simple human decency will never have the glittering, seductive fascination of greed, power and violence. Brando gives us an ordinary man of somewhat less than average intelligence, and makes that man's struggles with his conscience not only interesting, but moving.
With the exception of No. 4, the Siren probably wouldn't watch these again even if she were snowed in and without other entertainment at the Missoula International Airport.
5. Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou. Here we have the major, major problem with the Academy Awards: Rarely has the Academy known what to do with comedy. On the infrequent occasions that it honors a comic performance, it picks the wrong damn one. This example isn't as egregious as the Siren's number one, but it still hasn't aged well, assuming you ever thought it was all that great. Listen, the Siren finds Marvin appealing too--the man had cool to spare. But when Cat Ballou is viewed dispassionately, without all the awe at his incredible Lee Marvin-ness, the fact is that his timing is leaden and overall his drunk routine isn't a patch on W.C. Fields. Somewhat amusing in spots but the best actor of 1965? No wonder Richard Burton's drinking began to get worse at this point.
4. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous. To a younger generation the once-unquestionable reputation of Spencer Tracy as the best actor in Hollywood is sometimes understandable, and then again, sometimes not. "You never catch him acting!" said his enraptured colleagues. True enough in something like Bad Day at Black Rock. However, not only can Tracy be found acting in Captains Courageous, he can be found indicating, mugging and just plain hamming it up. The accent is inexcusably dreadful but it's only the most obvious manifestation of Tracy's phoniness as a Portuguese fisherman. Freddie Bartholomew is a good deal more truthful in his transition from sniveling brat to nice kid. The Siren maintains that Bartholomew is the one who gives Tracy more believability, not the other way around.
3. Bing Crosby, Going My Way. The story goes that Noel Coward, at the peak of his popularity, one day found himself surrounded by a large group of reporters shouting questions. "Mr. Coward! Mr. Coward!" bellowed one. "Have you anything to say to the Star?" "Certainly," replied Coward. "Twinkle." Bing Crosby here takes that admonishment, and turns it into an entire performance.
2. Al Pacino, The Scent of a Woman. The intelligent, carefully calibrated actor of Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather movies hides behind a wall of shouting, tangoing, full-throttle mannerisms. The mere thought of watching the movie again gives the Siren a headache.
1. Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful. The Siren left the movie with her lace hanky soaked to the hem with her tears, ready to snatch Roberto Benigni bald-headed for this nauseating exercise in audience manipulation. The man has an enormous talent for slapstick but no taste whatsoever. He's so busy being touching and humane and the endearing character whose comic eccentricity makes him the island of sanity in an ocean of madness that he can't be bothered to REact to anyone, including his beautiful, ghost-eyed son.
NOTE: The Siren hasn't seen Ray, Capote, Gladiator, The Last King of Scotland, The Last Command, The Way of All Flesh and In Old Arizona.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Tom Watson's excellent brainchild, Newcritics. As a celebration, all this week we are contributing posts on the one bit of media that touched our lives in the past year. You will not be surprised to hear that the Siren's post is still under construction, but meanwhile do mosey over to Newcritics and have a look around.