Monday, November 6, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1950

The Contenders:

Jose Ferrer: Cyrano de Bergerac (winner)
Spencer Tracy: Father of the Bride
James Stewart: Harvey
Louis Calhern: The Magnificent Yankee
William Holden: Sunset Boulevard

What’s Missing

There is a surprising number of good leading performances from 1950 for both men and women. It’s an almost obscenely good year for actors, making a nomination or two complete head-scratchers. In the “never nominated in 1950” group, Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon jumps out. An odd little noir like Gun Crazy was easily overlooked, but it’s a great John Dall performance. No Way Out May have been too racially raw and controversial, but I think it’s one of Richard Widmark’s great roles. The same could be said of Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle. 1950 was a career year for James Stewart. He was nominated for Harvey, but could just as easily gotten the nomination for Broken Arrow or Winchster ‘73. Marlon Brando’s first major role was in The Men, and it’s a doozy. Kirk Douglas absolutely kills it in Ace in the Hole and seemed nomination-worthy. Humphrey Bogart seems woefully overlooked for In a Lonely Place, which may have been just a touch too brutal for consideration. Finally, while The Third Man was a 1949 release, Carol Reed was nominated in 1950, which means Joseph Cotten could have been nominated as well.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Based on the huge number of genuinely great performances from actors in 1950, I have absolutely no idea what the hell Louis Calhern is doing here for the snore-fest that is The Magnificent Yankee. The life story of Oliver Wendell Holmes as a Supreme Court justice is far less exciting than it sounds, and it doesn’t sound very exciting. I could barely stay awake for this, and while Calhern is fine in the role, he’s not the shadow of anyone I mentioned in the paragraph above. There’s no excuse for this nomination.

4. As much as I tend to like Spencer Tracy, I can say the same thing about his role in Father of the Bride. Tracy seems in some ways like the Meryl Streep of his day—let’s nominate him because he’s Spencer Tracy and damn good at what he does. True, but when it comes to this movie, there’s not nearly enough going on here to warrant a nomination, particularly with those others I’ve mentioned being left off the ballot. I like Tracy. I’m happy the man won some Oscars in his career. He had no business being in this set of nominations in a year this strong.

3. Sunset Boulevard has been my go-to movie for 1950 Oscars in general. I think it’s one of the great movies of all time, one of the best of its decade, and arguably the best of its year. So why is William Holden in third? Well, it’s because I like the other two performances better. In an open field, I’m not sure I nominate Holden, although he’d probably be at the top of the list for those just missing the cut. It’s a damn good performance, but he’s overshadowed (as is pretty much everyone on the planet) by Gloria Swanson. He’s just not the most interesting thing on the screen.

2. There was pretty much no way to avoid James Stewart getting a nomination in 1950 with three (at least) powerhouse performances. Of the three, I appreciate the raw power of Stewart in Winchester ‘73, but Harvey is the sort of film for which he is better remembered. For a story that is light and breezy and where Stewart plays an amiable eccentric, the performance is surprisingly nuanced. It’s sweet, and it manages to be so without being cloying or diving too hard into being syrupy. It’s clearly a fantasy film in many ways, and yet Stewart manages to be beautifully real and human. I love him being nominated, and I love him being nominated for this. He’s just not my winner.

My Choice

1. Jose Ferrer’s version of Cyrano de Bergerac appears to be forgotten in the main, and that’s a damn shame because he’s just about perfect. In an incredibly strong year, the Academy managed to not only nominate the right person, but pick the right person for the award. My own list of five nominees would be very different, but it would still end up with Ferrer on the top. His Cyrano is equal parts panache and pain, playing the role exactly as it was meant to be done. Steve Martin did the comedy Cyrano well in Roxanne and Gerard Depardieu played the role spectacularly in his version of the film, but it’s Ferrer who gave us the complete package of comedy and tragedy, style, wit, and grace. He was the right choice.

Final Analysis


  1. Never seen this version of Cyrano. I guess it is a miss.
    Considering the movies I have watched my favorites for the award would be Kirk Douglas and Bogart. I know this is not Bogart's most famous role, but I think this is the best acting he ever did.

    1. Cyrano de Bergerac is a decent movie, but Ferrer is so good that I think it's worth tracking down.

  2. 1950 is one of my favorite years in cinema, there’s just SO much great quality in it. So how did this category end up with so much filler?

    I’m a big fan of four of the five of these nominees as performers, I find Jose Ferrer completely risible most of the time-smug and annoying, but only one would actually make my personal ballot. That would be Holden. It’s so true Gloria Swanson sucks most of the air out of the room but still for Von Stroheim and he to be able to bear the brunt of full force Glo and make such a terrific showing means something. In an open field though he won’t be my winner.

    As to the others, Calhern was nomination worthy many times throughout his long career but I’m with you in not thinking Magnificent Yankee was one of those times.

    I love Stewart and if he had been here for Winchester ’73 I wouldn’t squawk even if I personally wouldn’t have included him for it but Harvey? God I hated that movie!! I saw the play and didn’t mind it but the movie turned me off…the same thing happened with Guys and Dolls.

    I see your point about the Tracy/Streep connection. I liked Father of the Bride more than you and his performance is very fine but not one of his masterworks like Inherit the Wind or Bad Day at Black Rock.

    So with Ferrer out, I didn’t like his work and struggled through the picture, my winner out of the actual nominees is Holden. But as much as I like both him and his work in the picture it’s a weak win because of who’s missing.

    So glad to see mentions for both Bogart and Widmark (he had an awesome year in ’50 just like Stewart), both would make my ballot but I have many to add including my winner in a film I suspect you might not have seen but I highly, highly recommend-The Breaking Point. It’s a wonderful film with three dynamic performances by John Garfield, Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter at its center.

    I agree that Kirk Douglas absolutely deserved both a nomination and a win for Ace in the Hole but it’s a ’51 release.

    This is how my ballot would have stacked up this year with the worthy runner-ups following.

    Humphrey Bogart-In a Lonely Place
    John Garfield-The Breaking Point-Winner
    William Holden-Sunset Blvd.
    Edmond O'Brien-D.O.A.
    Richard Widmark-No Way Out

    Runner-ups: Dana Andrews-Where the Sidewalk Ends, Marlon Brando-The Men, Kirk Douglas-Young Man with a Horn, John Garfield-Under My Skin, Toshiro Mifune-Rashomon, Vincent Price-The Baron of Arizona, Spencer Tracy-Father of the Bride, James Stewart-Winchester ’73, Clifton Webb-For Heaven's Sake and Richard Widmark-Night and the City

    1. I don't have enough experience with Jose Ferrer as a performer to have a firm opinion on him. That sort of smug performance, though, is what works for Cyrano as a character. I think it's a genuinely great performance, far better than the rest of the movie. We'll have to agree to disagree on that, though.

      There are a few movies where I get conflicting release dates, which would explain my inclusion of Ace in the Hole here.

      The Breaking Point is one I'd need to see. Fortunately, I'll watch pretty much anything with John Garfield in it, so that's not much of a strain.

      As for Harvey, I find it rather sweet. Winchester '73 is probably an objectively better and more important movie, but Harvey really does work for me. Not many movies of this stripe do, but it does, and a lot of that is Stewart.

    2. The Breaking Point will be no strain at all. It's a much better and true version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not with what I think is Garfield's best performance. Since I don't think he ever gave a bad one that's a high bar to hit.

      He did give another wonderful performance this year as a jockey father in trouble with gangsters and worshiped by his son in the hard to find drama Under My Skin. It would also rate a nomination but in a year this rich there's just too much greatness to double dip.

    3. It really is a great year all around. While not all of the nominations across the categories I cover here are necessarily the right ones, they sure as hell could have been. 1950 is a top year for film all the way around, much like 1939.

  3. Second the recommendation for The Breaking Point. Garfield is great and Patricia Neal is his match.

    1. It's on the un-list. I'll keep an eye out for it.