Mickey Rooney: Babes in Arms
Clark Gable: Gone with the Wind
Robert Donat: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (winner)
James Stewart: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Laurence Olivier: Wuthering Heights
I’m tempted—only tempted, mind you—to suggest that John Wayne’s performance in Stagecoach should have been nominated and just leave it at that. I do like Wayne’s performance and I could see a nomination for him over at least one of the real nominees, but he’s not the choice I’d make. I’d be more inclined to suggest Cary Grant’s performance in Only Angels Have Wings. Grant turns in his trademark great performance in front of the camera, and does so in a role that (at least in my opinion) has influence over modern action movie heroes. The Rules of the Game, unfortunately, has so many roles of importance that I’d be hard pressed to determine who should get the nod. The same could be said of the male roles in The Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, if I was going to add anyone, it would be either (or both) Burgess Meredith or Lon Chaney Jr. for their work in Of Mice and Men. For those who want to say it, I still haven’t seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I can’t mention it with any legitimacy.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: Of all the nominees, Mickey Rooney seems the most out of place. There were too many great films in 1939 for one of five nominations to go to a performance in a film that is little more than “Let’s put on a show!” fluff. I have no problem with Mickey Rooney and I even understand the appeal of a film like Babes in Arms even if I don’t share it. But compared with some of the great performances of 1939, Rooney’s being sat next to Gable, Stewart, and Donat is a complete headscratcher. Of all the nominations, this is the one I’d pitch first.
4: I understand the desire to put Laurence Olivier on the dais as well. While he might not be my pick for the title, there are plenty of people who will happily suggest that Olivier was the greatest actor of his generation. A part of this might be his talent at adapting Shakespeare, but no matter—the man had the goods. My problem here isn’t so much Olivier, but the film itself. I’m not at all a fan of the story of Wuthering Heights, and that fact may be what’s holding me back from rating the performance higher. It’s true that he’s my favorite part of the film, but it’s still a film I dislike.
3: Robert Donat won this Oscar for his role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It might seem strange for me, a writing professor, to put a heartfelt story about a teacher third. I like this film pretty well, and I liked Donat’s performance in it. The problem is that I don’t see it as an exceptional performance. It’s a good one, but a lot of Donat’s likability here comes not from him but from the screenplay. This is a role I can see a lot of other people doing and doing just about as well as Donat did, and that very much counts against him. Good, yes, but hardly unique.
2: I think a case could well be made for Clark Gable and his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Much of the appeal of that film comes from Gable. Butler needed to be played as a rogue, but as a charming rogue. Errol Flynn might have been able to pull it off, but it’s hard to imagine someone other than Gable playing the part. He’s got everything the role needs. He’s good looking, he’s charming, there’s a touch of the pirate about him, and there are moments when he’s on screen that you keep your eye on him even if he’s not the focus. I could be persuaded to give him the statue, but it’s not the performance I’d pick.
1: As it happens, I like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington probably more than it deserves. It’s a goofy, sappy, naïve little film, but it also demonstrates the real qualities of James Stewart in front of the camera. Because it is so naïve, there’s a real danger of this film becoming an unintentional comedy. It doesn’t, and one of the main reasons it doesn’t is because of Stewart’s completely earnest performance as Jefferson Smith. Stewart is the one who keeps us caring about what happens. He’s the reason (although Claude Rains and Jean Arthur help) that we stick around to the end. James Stewart is the movie and is the reason it’s still regarded as a classic today. He should’ve won.