Monday, January 7, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1942

The Contenders:

Walter Pidgeon: Mrs. Miniver
Monty Woolley The Pied Piper
Gary Cooper: The Pride of the Yankees
Ronald Colman: Random Harvest
James Cagney: Yankee Doodle Dandy (winner)

What’s Missing

When we’re in the heart of World War II, the choices are particularly interesting. There are a lot of movies from this era that I love, though, and that’s certainly going to color some of my suggested nominations. Case in point is Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager. Truthfully, Henreid is likely a better choice for Supporting Actor, but I’m going to mention him anyway because I love the film. Fredric March is charming in I Married a Witch, but that’s really Veronica Lake’s film. Joseph Cotten was never nominated, but he certainly could have been for the butchered remnants of The Magnificent Ambersons. Finally, Jack Benny really deserved some recognition for To Be or Not To Be. Two other movies I like from this year, In Which We Serve and Went the Day Well? feel too much like ensemble casts.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Ronald Colman well enough, but Random Harvest is some pretty thick goo to get through. He’s also a bit miscast. Actually, he works pretty well for the second half of the film (although he is far too old for his paramour), but he doesn’t fit for the younger version of his character at all. It’s also not a great film in general, although it is a decent one. But it’s also ridiculously melodramatic. I suppose in some part I am punishing the performance for the sins of the film, but hey, I’m human.

4. I like Walter Pidgeon, too, but I’m not entirely convinced of his nomination for Mrs. Miniver. In this case, it has virtually nothing to do with him and pretty much everything to do with Greer Garson, the start of the film. Garson is magnetic in this film, and while Walter Pidgeon is good, there isn’t a moment where he holds a scene over Garson. I find it difficult to seriously consider someone for an acting award in situations where that person doesn’t command the screen as much as possible. Pidgeon doesn’t, and that’s why he comes in fourth.

3. Monty Woolley is the sort of actor who is instantly likeable. He is just about everyone’s idea of a curmudgeon from this era; the sort of character actor who regularly had a collection of lines about children or animals, but ended up being a softie by the end of the second act. This is exactly the role that he plays in The Pied Piper. In truth, it’s not a great movie, but it is a heartwarming one, and Wooley (as always) is a magnificent Scrooge equivalent. This is a fine performance, but it’s nothing new and it goes right where you think it will.

2. I have no serious issue with Pride of the Yankees. This is the sort of role, one filled with a sort of mild, noble humility that Gary Cooper was born to play. And he does. It would be incredibly easy for this to be maudlin, but it never does. It could get clinical, which it also doesn’t do. It is instead a very human film, and a human portrayal of its lead character. In a lot of years, this sort of perfect marriage between great star and great role would win without question. But not this year.

My Choice

1. This had to be Cagney’s Oscar. I rather love the fact that Cagney, who spent the bulk of his career playing tough guys and mobsters, won an Oscar for a portrayal of George M. Cohan. There’s a sense of wonderful…not quite irony, but certainly celestial humor at this. But this is not a career Oscar in the guise of a competitive one. No, this is Cagney doing the sort of thing that not everyone knew he could do. It’s bold and fresh in so many ways, and frankly, just as exciting and fun now as it was in 1942. It was the right choice, and Oscar made it.

Final Analysis


  1. I agree on Cagney. You would not believe he had it in him, being type cast as a gangster. And musical in it self is actually one of the better ones.

    1. It's one of the reasons I love it so much. It seems so out of character and yet it works so well.

  2. It's interesting that the Academy considered Casablanca a 1943 release instead of a 1942 release despite it having a limited release late in the year. I think that would have changed this category for sure but I'm not sure Casablanca had enough momentum and timeliness to win this year as it did the following year. But that's another story.

    1. This is a case where I specifically didn't mention Casablanca as a 1942 release because of its nominations the following year.

      It's a pretty interesting "what if?" question, though.

  3. For the five nominees we have to work with my lineup would be pretty close to yours overall but juggled a bit.

    I’d flip Ronald Colman and Walter Pidgeon. I like both actors very much but as you said Pidgeon doesn’t dominate any of his scenes in Mrs. Miniver. He’s not quite a prop for Greer Garson but the film is so rightly slanted her way that even when he returns from that night reconnaissance mission she slyly steals his thunder by having captured a Nazi in their kitchen! He’s the solid brick she needs to hold her up but not dynamic. Colman no matter how silly some of his story is does carry the weight of his film and does it well.

    I love Monty Woolley and liked his performance in Pied Piper but I’ll be damned if I understand why he was nominated for this instead of the same year’s The Man Who Came to Dinner! Sheridan Whiteside is an insufferable ass but that’s what makes Woolley’s playing of him so perfect. Despite how smug and controlling he is he never wears out his welcome (for the audience certainly not for the Stanleys!) and that is wholly thanks to Monty.

    Here’s where we disagree the most, I’d go with Cooper over Cagney in this instance. A couple of reasons why. Perhaps because I saw Cagney’s earlier singing and dancing performances in Footlight Parade, Something to Sing About and one or two others before Yankee Doodle his proficiency at those things wasn’t such a revelation to me and the other is that I can barely stand the film. To me it’s a sugary glug fest that I struggled to get through. Cagney is good in the film but that’s his norm. I would have rather seen him win for White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, The Public Enemy or one of his other great gangster roles.

    In an open field I probably wouldn’t choose Cooper as the winner but he’d be awfully close if for nothing else but that last scene though the performance is very rich throughout.

    I couldn’t agree more about Jack Benny. In retrospect it’s a huge miss but the film wasn’t particularly embraced critically nor a huge hit on its release. I’m actually somewhat more surprised that Carole Lombard didn’t receive a nom as a sort of honorarium than Benny.

    I also love Fredric March in I Married a Witch, he’s wonderfully loose, somewhat unhinged and completely swept up by Veronica (a real testament to both of their skill since they positively detested each other) but you’re right it’s her picture. On the other hand is a stronger asset to his film than Walter Pidgeon is to Mrs. Miniver.

    I think like Henreid Joe Cotton would make more sense in support for Ambersons since Tim Holt (who could have been considered a contender as well) is really the lead but he should have received something.

    The two big misses that I would make my list before Colman or Pidgeon are Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire and especially Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels. I don’t venerate that film as much as many do but McCrea is rock solid in it and would probably be my winner.

    1. I have a hard time disagreeing with a lot of this. I don't love Yankee Doodle Dandy a ton because, as you say, it is pretty glurgey. The rumor is that Cohan himself saw the film and quipped that he liked it and wondered who it was about. But Cagney is unstoppable in it, and for me, he overshadows a lot of the film's problems.

      Honestly, McCrea didn't cross my radar here because I typically see Sullivan's Travels listed as a 1941 film.