Monday, August 14, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1954

The Contenders:

Humphrey Bogart: The Caine Mutiny
Bing Crosby: The Country Girl
Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront (winner)
Dan O’Herlihy: Robinson Crusoe
James Mason: A Star is Born

What’s Missing

Well. The Best Actor nominees for 1954 are pretty remarkably strong all the way around, with four performances that could probably have won in other years. I don’t really have any major complaints here about what we’ve been given, although there is a little room for improvement. 1954 was still a year when Oscar didn’t show a lot of love to non-English language films, which almost certainly prevented a nomination for the great Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. Humphrey Bogart, nominated already for The Caine Mutiny, also did both Sabrina and The Barefoot Contessa in 1954, giving him a hell of a good year. I didn’t like Carmen Jones that much, but it cannot be denied that Harry Belafonte is a force on screen. The big miss, though? James Stewart in Rear Window.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. In a year as strong as this one, coming in fifth is no shame, and that’s where I’m putting Dan O’Herlihy and Robinson Crusoe. This isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, and O’Herlihy is good in his role, but it’s also the least compelling of the five films and the least compelling performance of the five nominations. I don’t really feel a need to go back and watch this again, and as I think back on all of these films, it’s the one I remember the least despite (I think) having seen it the most recently. I’d much rather have James Stewart here.

4. And now things get tough. I almost feel as if I could put the “My Choices” banner here, because I think I can legitimately make a solid argument for the four who remain and I don’t want to put anyone fourth. Your placements of these four performances will likely differ from mine, and I’ll just say now, I don’t disagree with your placement. It kills me a little to put one of Bing Crosby’s great performances in fourth, but on the strength of all of these performances, it’s where he goes. The Country Girl was such a stretch for him and he nailed it so well, that in a lot of other years, he’d be my winner.

3. Similarly, I hate putting James Mason in third place in anything. I love Mason as an actor and will watch him do just about anything. To see him tackle this difficult role so brilliantly is one of the joys of watching film from this era. Mason is staggering in this film, one of the great performances of a career absolutely filled with great performances. He is tragic and wonderful, and not a moment of him on screen doesn’t feel real. As with Crosby, I’d give Mason’s incredible turn in A Star is Born an Oscar in a lot of years.

2. Humphrey Bogart had one of the all-time great years in 1954. With Sabrina and The Barefoot Contessa, he played interesting roles. More to his credit, he played three incredibly diverse roles when you add in the nomination for The Caine Mutiny. I love The Caine Mutiny, and given the choice, it’s the one I’d nominate him for, and he’d win in almost every other year in this decade for this role. He just had the misfortune of being nominated in 1954, and he’s not my winner (although that pains me).

My Choice

1. No, it’s all about Brando and On the Waterfront. If A Streetcar Named Desire was Brando at the height of his sexual magnetism and power, On the Waterfront is Brando truly commanding an entire film not just with charisma but with every bit of his talent. Other films made Brando a star, but this is the film that cemented him as being one of the most compelling and fascinating actors of his generation. This is not merely a great movie, it’s a statement that Marlon Brando (at least before he got weird) could do anything on screen.

Final Analysis


  1. ’54 was a great year all the way around and Best Actor was no exception.

    Funny though when I saw the year and category and the list of nominees without even glancing down I knew Dan O’Herlihy would be the first to go. I’m in total agreement there as well that neither his film nor he was bad...but I just watched the film for the first time about two weeks ago on TCM and outside of knowing the story I’d be hard pressed to offer details on the picture.

    There as you predicted we come to a slight parting of the ways. Actually it’s more a straight swap. Even though I’m not the biggest Brando fan I willingly acknowledge that he is very fine in Waterfront, perhaps the best he ever was but he’d be my third with Bogart staying in place and James Mason taking the prize for his half jovial half anguished Norman Maine.

    Brando has some real competition in his film with Steiger, Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint all giving him a run for the money but Mason goes up against Judy Garland at her musical and acting peak and doesn’t just hang in there but excels and manages to linger in the memory and add so much texture to the film. When Judy walks up to the microphone at the end and says “This is Mrs. Norman Maine” it really means something because of all that Mason has given us before.

    However I can’t carp that Brando won nor would I if Bogart had taken it.

    The omission of James Stewart for Rear Window is just crazy but then the academy for some reason was resistant to all the work in that picture. Perennial Oscar favorite Thelma Ritter was inimitable in it and yet they bypassed her so it must have been some sort of consensus that saw the film as a genre picture and little else or simply Hitchcock’s achievement in direction since the picture didn’t receive a nod either.

    For others who might have been in the running outside of Stewart I think the other big miss is Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice. He’s brilliant as was his custom. But Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance, Jack Lemmon in It Should Happen to You and Robert Mitchum in Track of the Cat are all worthy of consideration.

  2. It really is such a strong category in a very strong year. It was surprisingly difficult. I have no objection with handing this to James Mason. I literally had Crosby, Mason, and Bogart in fourth place at least once when writing this.

    Naturally, I haven't seen anything mentioned in your last paragraph. But really, Stewart should have been here, and that would have so completely muddied the waters that I don't know if I'd have just said "throw a dart--they all pretty much deserve it."

  3. Jimmy Stewart was also my first thought, but I am actually not that taken by his performance here. This is very much Hitchcock's film and everything that works here is because of him. The same can be said of Seven Samurai although it pains me because it is an all-time favorite of mine.
    At the end of the day Brando is so strong in On the Waterfront that there is little arguing him taking this one.

    1. That's pretty much where I am here. Stewart should be here (replacing O'Herlihy) and I might argue Mifune (taking Crosby's spot, although it's hard to argue against Crosby), but I'm sticking with Brando.

      Again, though, I could easily see Bogart or Mason winning
      and not complain.

  4. I'll go for Stewart and, perhaps, Mifune (in a true ensemble picture) for the nom but its Brando all the way for the prize.

    1. As I said above, Mifune would be a great nomination, but it's really hard to argue against Crosby, who plays against type as well as anyone ever has.

  5. I recently caught up with The Caine Mutiny, and Bogart's work in the final scene is incredible. I'm inclined to agree with you, though. Bogart's performance is almost a supporting role (despite its importance in the movie), and Brando in On the Waterfront is a classic performance. One of the great ones.

    1. It's such a good year all the way around. I really like The Caine Mutiny a lot, though. I love when actors play against type and do it well. Bogart, as he proved in this and in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre played a craven really well. It's the same reason I love Bing Crosby's performance in The Country Girl, which is also worth your time.