Charles Boyer: Algiers
James Cagney: Angels with Dirty Faces
Spencer Tracy: Boys Town (winner)
Robert Donat: The Citadel
Leslie Howard: Pygmalion
As almost always seems to be the case, there’s plenty of room for improvement here. I might consider Michael Redgrave for The Lady Vanishes even if I’m convinced that film is thought of more highly than it deserves. The same is true for Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, which should have been one of Grant’s better chances for a competitive Oscar. I’d definitely consider adding Henry Fonda for Jezebel, although that may have been more of a supporting role. Errol Flynn was definitely robbed for his work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The biggest miss, though? Jean Gabin, both for Grand Illusion (released the previous year but nominated for this one) and La Bete Humaine.
Weeding through the Nominees
4. For the second time in three days I’m going to talk shit about James Cagney. That makes me sad because I genuinely like Cagney in almost everything I’ve seen him in. I’ll even go so far as to say that I actively seek out Cagney movies I haven’t seen. My issue with Angels with Dirty Faces is less Cagney than it is the film itself. I genuinely don’t like the film and I think it has an ugly message. Cagney’s performance is decent, but it doesn’t match his truly great ones, and he had plenty of those. I’d rather see him rewarded for a role that really deserved a nomination, and this one simply didn’t, at least compared with a few of the snubs.
3. No one is more surprised than I am that Leslie Howard, who I tend to think of as the cinematic equivalent of unbuttered toast, is landing in third. The truth is that Pygmalion is about the only film of his that I’ve seen where I actually like him more than simply have to tolerate him. Wendy Hiller is the real reason to see this, though, but Howard is good in the role, which is something I have trouble saying about him in pretty much every other context. I wouldn’t want him to win, but I actually don’t mind this nomination too much.
2. The Citadel worked better than I thought it would, and some of that credit goes to Robert Donat. It’s a lot closer to three short movies about the same person, but Donat makes it work and makes it believable. It’s a bit of a ballsy film and a risky performance in the sense that despite claiming it doesn’t want to disparage the medical profession, the film (and Donat) proceed to disparage the medical profession mercilessly for the entire running time. I’m not convinced this is required viewing, but it’s not a bad film, and Donat is the reason to see it.
1: Given the five nominations we have to work with, I’m satisfied that the Oscar went to the right person. Boys Town isn’t close to my favorite film from this year. It’s too gooey and sappy for me to really like, but Tracy is the heart and soul of the film, a role he manages without making it maudlin or as gooey as the rest of the movie. He’s easy to like and natural in the role of Father Flanagan. Oscar did the best it could with what it was given. In the real world, though, Tracy shouldn’t have been able to get closer than third place.
The kid in me would give this to Errol Flynn in a heartbeat. Flynn’s Robin Hood is the stuff that screen legends are made of, the sort of legendary performance that is greater than the actor and greater than the film. It’s iconic for a reason, and for it not to be nominated is almost criminal. The adult in me hands this to Jean Gabin for two performances (admittedly, one from the previous year) that each could have handled a nomination. Nominating and awarding a villain character in a French-language film was probably beyond the Academy’s scope in 1938, but it shouldn’t have been. Either Flynn or Gabin would have been a better choice than anything the Academy decided to put up.