Thursday, January 31, 2008

Best and Worst of the Best Actor Oscars

It's that time of year again, when Edward Copeland, hardest-working man in Film Blogdom, puts together another Oscar survey. This year, the extravaganza of second-guessing extends to the Best Actor category. Which five performances represent the best the film world had to offer? With which five did the Academy get it forehead-smackingly wrong? The Siren has compiled her list, and you should too. The deadline is tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 1, at the stroke of midnight. This is a huge service that Mr. Copeland performs for us each year, offering a constructive outlet for carping that we would otherwise have to direct at our office mates, our spouses or the television set (and maybe not even the TV if the strike continues). Details are here.

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.

The Best

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.

The Worst

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.


Patrick Wahl said...

We had one actor in common on our lists - Alec Guiness, one of the all time greats I think. Being the kindly soul I am, I only put two in the bad performance category. One was Gary Cooper who I think is easily the worst actor to ever become a major star. I did mention Crosby's performance in my comments to Ed. I don't think it was a difficult role, not best actor worthy, but I think he probably did what the part required fairly well, not the same thing as a bad performance. I saw Captains Courageous so long ago I didn't feel I could comment on the performance in the voting, but I've gotten more sensitive to bad accents over the year and have a feeling I would probably have the same reaction you did.

Gloria said...

Nice list! I don't know if to participate in Edward's survey, as I have missed a significant number of performances, yet I wholeheartedly agree on Guinness, Cagney and March (yes, the world needs to re-discover freddie March!).

As for our boy Charlie, I have the handicap that, good as I think he is as Henry, my favourite "Oscar Performance" of his is "Mutiny on the Bounty" (alas, he didn't win), or "les Miserables" (Which even didn't get nominated, alas).

Yes, I likewise don't understand that Tracy did got as many Oscars. I am not meaning that I don't consider him great, but... Three oscars? For those performances? Hum (I have similar feelings about Tom Hanks).

OK I'm pretty Oscar-skeptic: even if Anna Magnani got an Oscar, Hideko Takamine never did

Karen said...

Nice list! I probably would have put Pacino's Scent of a Woman in the top spot, myself, but why quibble? I think the sound of my wail of outrage when he won is still penetrating deep space, possibly passing Mars even as we speak. I remember watching that film in slack-jawed horror, aghast at how completely over-the-top and cartoonish that performance was.

That the character was supposed to be sympathetic, and at some level charming, is a source of amazement to me. It reminds me, in a way, of the characters William Haines plays in those early silents--the wisecracking, practical joke playing fellow with a heart of gold (not entirely analogous, and probably prompted by recent viewings of The Smart Set and West Point), who nevertheless wins the affection of his peers and of the ladies. Those characters are the kind of person I would flee in a heartbeat, would actively loathe.

But I just went back and looked at Ebert's review of Pacino's performance, and he writes that this is one of Pacino's best and riskiest performances, and that the movie displays intelligence and skill, so maybe I was just missing something.

The Siren said...

Patrick, Guinness was a fine actor. I used to feel the same way about Coop but as I get older his laconic style goes down easier with me. His Sergeant York won more for expressing what people were going through at the time--accepting that they too might soon be dragged into war--than for his skill but I relish him in the movie. As for Crosby, longtime readers know I have a borderline-irrational dislike of Going My Way but I do think another actor might have found a way to add some salt to the saccharine. There's just no relief and he isn't skillful enough to bring you any. His chemistry with Bergman makes all the difference in Bells of St. Mary's. Crosby is most enjoyable when he's being duplicitous, as in the Road movies.

Gloria, I figured the Laughton would please you. You should go ahead and vote, Edward likes all contributions and many voters will have big viewing gaps, I'm sure. Notice my viewing seems to have stopped around 2001, eek!

Karen, it really was bad. I mean, there were moments--the tango was nice, there were some funny lines--but Pacino was creating no recognizable human.

The Siren said...

editing - I used to feel the same way about Coop that YOU do.

J.C. Loophole said...

Two of my favorite actors of all time are on your lists, but on different sides: Laughton and Tracy. Some of the absolute best understated on film came from those two, but early in their careers they both had a tendancy to ham it up. (To wit Jamaica Inn and Courageous).
However I probably would have to pick Witness for the Prosecution and Advise and Consent for Laughton as my favorite. And why not Night of the Hunter for Charlie in the Best Director's category?
As for Tracy- I would include Bad Day at Black Rock- but quite frankly one of my favorite performances is Adam in Adam's Rib.
Alright, now maybe I might contribute a list as well.

Karen said...

By the way, I forgot to say--tho' I bet you knew it already--that I was thrilled to see by boy Jimmy on your best list. Tomorrow night one of my twin nephews come in to the city for a sleepover (I'm taking him to see "The Fantasticks"--he's a total musical theatre geek), but on the Saturday morning schedule I actually already had Yankee Doodle Dandy. The twins (they'll be 10 next month) have already had a pretty good cinematic schooling on past sleepovers: most of the Marx Brothers oeuvre, Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, and Fred-and-Ginger in Top Hat.

After all, an aunt has certain responsibilities, right?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I finally saw Laughton last night. What funny, saucy film! I didn't like the film as much as Rembrandt though which I found visually more interesting in trying to duplicate the lighting.

Points of agreement: Brando, Pacino and Benigni. I also think that Tracy won for the wrong performances. I did see In Old Arizona which was sort of fun, but finally left me scratching my head over the choice of Warner Baxter as Best Actor.

Exiled in NJ said...

When I tried to choose 'Worst' it was often more because the winner was the worst possible choice that year!

I could not resist putting Borgnine on worst for playing Borgnine, or Wayne for playing Wayne and Nicholson for playing Nicholson growing old.

I ranked my best chronologically and we agreed on 4 of 5; I have not seen Brando's Malloy in years so chose Scott for his portrayal of a very complex man, though I can see also that he ripped off some of his Buck Turgidson work.

Ginger Mayerson said...

I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but that's never stopped me before: Gary Cooper, like Clark Gable, is sex on legs, so acting...yeah, .

Sometimes I think the Academy gives out gift Oscars, like the one to Lee Marvin. I like Lee Marvin but he was funnier in "Donovan's Reef," which really sucked.

Great post, as usual, C.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Gutsy choice on Laughton, and I agree he should be on the Best Best Actor tally...I just couldn't make room for him in my Top Five. I'm not as mesmerized by Guiness as a lot of people, but I do think he won the statue for the wrong performance; his best is as Gully Jimson in The Horse's Mouth (1958).

I put Cagney and Brando on my Best Best list, and Pacino on the Worst...I couldn't seem to make room for Tracy but I agree with the consensus that he won Oscars for the wrong movies (I'm particularly partial to The Last Hurrah over Bad Day.)

The Siren said...

J.C., I hope you voted in this thing! My favorite Laughton performances are the ridiculously hard-to-find Ruggles of Red Gap and Hobson's choice, but I also adore the two you mention. The other thing about the Oscars: actors constantly winning for the wrong role. If I had my pick of Tracy's 1930s work it would be Fury.

Karen, my kids are still working on Disney films but I should get cracking on introducing the good stuff.

Peter, Rembrandt was indeed more visually striking and Laughton's performance is maybe even better than Henry. I am trying to think if I have seen Warner Baxter in ANYTHING and I am not sure I have!

Exiled, Marty was a weird win, another zeitgeist-y picture, though I do like the movie.

Thanks Ginger! I agree, Cooper was one of the most beautiful men ever and given the right role he could be very effective. I love him in Desire, yet another Borzage held hostage.

Ivan, good to see you as always. I don't remember much of The Last Hurrah, but another one I like him in is Libelled Lady. I will say that Tracy's characters in his movies with Hepburn sometimes rub me the wrong way and it would be a worth a post to one day analyze just why.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Brando was my #1 Best and Pacino was my #5 worst, otherwise that's all we share in common.

I'm starting to get worried that I may be the only person on earth who finds Tom Hanks impossible to watch in anything. I bashed the guy without remorse on my ballot.

I was also pretty nasty about poor Gary Cooper, who is lovely to look at, but his acting leaves me cold and bored.

The Siren said...

I doubt very much that you are the only one who listed Hanks. I will be amazed if Forrest Gump doesn't make it high on the worst. dashing over now to see your thoughts ... seems as though Brando and Pacino must be shoo-ins in their respective categories, judging only by the lists I have seen so far!

Karen said...

Warner Baxter tended to end up in kind of stuffy roles. Rarely was he a real romantic lead; even when he was, he was blinded by professional concerns at first, as in "Vogues of 1938" (with the lovely Joan Bennett). Sometimes he got a real chance to show his chops: if you get the chance to watch him in "Prisoner of Shark Island," about the doctor who was imprisoned for unknowingly treating John Wilkes Booth's broken ankle, you should.

But if you know him only as fairly stodgy but less-George-Brent-ish, you REALLY ought to see 1928's "West of Zanzibar," in which he plays an alcoholic doctor looking after an insane (natch) and really creepy Lon Chaney. There's a scene where he starts dancing madly to the African drums that will open your eyes:

Dume3 said...
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Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I didn't post my picks in my blog but I'll share them with you here Campaspe. I'm afraid I really didn't think too much about it since I tend to never agree with the Academy's winning picks. It was hard to narrow down my favorites but my worst selections came pretty easy.

1. Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)
2. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird)
3. Ernest Borgnine (Marty)
4. Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
5. James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story)

The last one was tough to choose (I almost picked Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and I also like Laughton's performance in Henry VIII a lot too) but I love The Philadelphia Story and never get tired of watching it, plus I will confess to having a big crush on young Jimmy. Comedic performances tend to get overlooked by the Academy so I also felt like highlighting one from a film I like a lot.

1. Tom Hanks (Forest Gump)
2. Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man)
3. Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets)
4. Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
5. Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman)

I couldn't resist putting Nicolson on my Best and Worst lists since I really dislike how he's become a caricature of himself over the years. I actually really like Hoffman and Pacino in their early films a lot, but in recent years I'm just baffled by the films they make and their acting skills seem to have really suffered.

Noel Vera said...

Greatest male performance ever: Peter Lorre in M.

Worst male performance (difficult category, but let me make my case): Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Anti-semite ham painted toilet duck blue. Freedom from egomaniacs like these would be nice.

Not Oscar winners, sorry--but as Campaspe noted, they often get nominated for the wrong performances.

Agree re: Tracy in Fury. There he was great.

Dume3 said...
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Kaya Kelly said...

"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".

I have read several times in several plces that it was totally improvised. I get chills ever time I see it.

Paper Battleships said...

i agree with the siren's "best" list but unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately) i haven't seen most of the films mentioned on the siren's "worst" list with the exception of "life is beautiful." you're right, benigni isn't even acting, he's just being himself and his vulgar, over-the-top exhibitionism brought down an otherwise potentially great film.

Unknown said...

Just discovered your blog!! Great post!!!

xox Girl and the City (in Paris)

camorrista said...

Campaspe, I'm overjoyed that you included Frederick March's performance in your list.

I too admire the scenes you mentioned, but I'd add the moment at the tribute dinner, where he's drunk, and can't express his horribly conflicted feelings; or the moment--so filled with heat that it used to embarrass my prim & proper sister--when he and Loy together make their double bed.

A nostalgic footnote: in 1948, I was a little lad in London; every Saturday afternoon, I walked to the local movie palace and begged a grown-up to take me in (unless the movie was for All Audiences, kids needed an adult minder). Usually, Saturday matinees weren't crowded (except for Disney) but on this day, when I reached the theater, the lines stretched for what seemed like miles. Yes, BYOOL. When I asked the very stylish London housewife who took me in, why the theater was so crowded, she looked away, back at me, away again, and burst into tears. "You're too young to understand," she said, "but we all lived this. We're still living this."

Back then, "The Best Years of Our Lives" wasn't just a movie.

moondancer said...

Pacino has been chewing scenery since Scent of a Woman. Amazing to see a once good actor turn into an impossible ham.