Humphrey Bogart: The African Queen (winner)
Arthur Kennedy: Bright Victory
Fredric March: Death of a Salesman
Montgomery Clift: A Place in the Sun
Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire
1951 is a decent year in film, one perhaps better than it looks based on Oscar nominations. That’s true across the board, not specifically for Best Actor.It would, I admit, be a huge stretch for Oscar to consider Claude Leydou for his work on Diary of a Country Priest for 1951, but I can consider him. The same could be said of Michael Rennie and his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still because early science fiction was never much in Oscar’s wheelhouse. The fantasy elements of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman may have kept James Mason off the list, which is a damn shame. The real miss for me, though, is Kirk Douglas. I could see him nominated for Detective Story and I could see him more easily nominated for Ace in the Hole. To see him nominated for neither is crazy.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. Putting Arthur Kennedy in fifth here for Bright Victory is much more about the film than it is about Kennedy. Despite his five nominations (this was his only one for a leading role), I don’t think he’s every really gotten the respect he deserves as an actor, and today he’s pretty much forgotten. What I’d like is a better role for him to be nominated for. So much of Bright Victory ends up feeling cobbled together, like the sort of role that was designed to be nominated for awards. Throw in the odd racism of the film and I’m not sure it plays.
4. I like Fredric March as well, and I have a fondness for this version of Death of a Salesman. I get the feeling here, though, that it’s the role being nominated and not so much the actor. There are few American stage roles more iconic than that of Willy Loman. And yet for me, Biff Loman (played here by Kevin McCarthy in his only Oscar-nominated role) is the central character of the drama, even if he’s not the biggest role. In a lot of ways, this is McCarthy’s film so much more than it is March’s.
3. Bogart earned only three Oscar nominations and The African Queen was his only win. Both of those facts are mildly tragic. I’m a huge fan of Bogart; I like everything about him. His persona worked really well for him and because of that, he played against type just about perfectly. I just don’t like The African Queen that much. I’d be so much happier with Bogart winning for Casablanca or The Caine Mutiny or one of about a dozen other films. It feels like a career win in the guise of competition, and Bogart deserved better.
2. Had you talked to me about this half a decade ago, I’d have never believed that I’d be putting Monty Clift in second in an Oscar race and putting him above Bogart and Fredric March, and yet here we are. I’m actually a little surprised at the nomination because of the subject matter of the film. But, regardless of how much we might hate his character in this, it’s impossible not to respect what Clift does with his role in A Place in the Sun. It’s hard for me to really love a hateful character, and Clift is a hard sell for me, and yet I’m happy to have him in second.
1. Willy Loman might be one of the most famous American stage roles, but Stanley Kowalski is in that same company. More importantly here, someone could play Willy Loman without reference to Fredric March, but anyone playing Kowalski since 1951 is referencing Marlon Brando. Few people have become that completely connected to a role that is considered that formative and important. A Streetcar Named Desire was Brando’s coming out party, and while he get his Oscars in later years, there’s no way anyone else should have walked away with the statue in 1951.