Monday, January 28, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1943

The Contenders:

Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca
Gary Cooper: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Mickey Rooney: The Human Comedy
Walter Pidgeon: Madame Curie
Paul Lukas: Watch on the Rhine (winner)

What’s Missing

There are some very interesting possibilities with Best Actor 1943. As usual, it’s a race where there are a couple of solid contenders and a number of also-rans who don’t belong. And, naturally, there are some real snubs. We’re going to start with one I think is worth mentioning even though I don’t like the film: Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait. It’s also incredibly surprising to me to give praise to the bland Franchot Tone, but I really like him in Five Graves to Cairo. There are three who genuinely belong here and who I can’t understand being left off. The first is Henry Fonda for The Ox-Bow Incident. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was oddly received for this middle-of-the-war year, but Roger Livesey deserved a lot more credit than he ever received for it. The biggest miss, though, was Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt. His role as a villain may have prevented the nomination, but the fact that he was skunked for his career is something Oscar will have to life with.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Walter Pidgeon as an actor, but I can’t understand why his performance for Madame Curie is here. He had great chemistry (no pun) with Greer Garson, and he’s fine in the role here, but this is absolutely Garson’s film. Her power over the role and the narrative makes him feel supporting at best. The story is a good one, and it’s well told, and it’s undeniable that Walter Pidgeon is a part of that, but there’s no good reason he should be here. It’s a shame, because it’s not close to me least-favorite performance or movie here.

4. Mickey Rooney’s nomination for The Human Comedy is another one that doesn’t quite feel earned. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it. Rooney was a likeable actor in most of what he did, and Homer Macauley is a likeable character. The story doesn’t really go anywhere or have much to say, though. It’s almost painfully idealized, and because of that, Rooney doesn’t really have to do much. He’s able to get by in the film by simply being himself. Worth a nomination? Not really.

3. Paul Lukas was your winner here, and I’m not exactly sure what I have to say about that. It says something about the previous two that I’m putting them below Lukas. The problem here is that I don’t remember a great deal of this film or of Lukas specifically, and that doesn’t bode well. Watch on the Rhine has an excitement problem, and that’s a real issue for a movie that is essentially about people fleeing the Third Reich. While I can’t place all of the blame on Lukas, he has to get some. It feels like this won for the role and the situation, not the performance.

2. This puts me with Gary Cooper and For Whom the Bell Tolls in the first runner-up position. And here’s the thing: I’m going to be predisposed to liking a Gary Cooper performance in general, and this is a good one. Even in the weakest of years, though, it’s unlikely that Cooper is going to get the nod from me. The reason for that is simple: Katina Paxinou dominates every scene she is in. She single-handedly forced me to reevaluate the position I have on Hemingway’s women characters, a position I had held since my undergraduate days. Cooper can’t compete with that.

My Choice

1. Is there a shock here? I’ve said in the past that Casablanca is, in my opinion, the best of the Best Picture winners, and there is no Casablanca without the equal parts tough and tender performance of Humphrey Bogart. I think we could probably talk about Roger Livesey here and we could absolutely discuss Joseph Cotten as being deserving of this Oscar and I wouldn’t disagree with either of those positions. But Bogart is iconic in this role and always will be. When you have someone who cannot be separated from the performance, it’s hard to go elsewhere.

Final Analysis


  1. While my conclusion would be the same my lineup would be slightly different but only slightly.

    Our biggest difference would be the placement of Gary Cooper. I like Cooper a great deal and in High Noon and Pride of the Yankees he gave award level performances but I detested For Whom the Bell Tolls, though Paxinou was a saving grace, finding its running time an arduous trial and Cooper both horribly miscast and dull in the extreme. He’d be dead last for me and shouldn’t have been here at all.

    Likewise Madame Curie tested my patience. It had so much potential, a compelling story about a fascinating woman and one of the best screen teams of the 40’s in the leads but it moved at a snail’s pace boring me terribly. The fault lies in the direction not the performances but I wasn’t deeply moved by those either and if anyone deserved a nomination (they didn’t) it was Greer not Pidgeon.

    Rooney’s tendency towards unctuousness often turned me off to his performances but in The Human Comedy his keeps a handle on it juggling brashness and tenderness pretty well. I would never have nominated him but I thought he made more of an impact than the previous two so he manages third.

    I love Watch on the Rhine, although I admit that it reveals its stage origins and is at time verbose but its cautionary tale about the insidiousness of evil and the dangers of complacency remains a timely one. Lukas’s worn down world weary performance is the first one I’d consider keeping though he’d never be my winner and in an open field wouldn’t make it to second place.

    But this should have been Bogart’s all the way. A perfect melding of actor and role. That he won for the middling African Queen instead of this is another example of Oscar’s fallacy.

    I agree with all your alternate suggestions, even Livesey though I wasn’t much of a fan of Colonel Blimp.

    While Bogart would always come out on top the competition could have so much more heated with Ameche (I LOVE Heaven Can Wait-sorry to hear you don’t-I think the story is charming and the performances by all wonderful…Laird Cregar’s urbane devil is a marvel of what a talented actor can do with what could have been a throwaway nothing of a role) and Cotton in the mix.

    My list would run this way and in this order:

    Humphrey Bogart-Casablanca
    Joseph Cotton-Shadow of a Doubt
    Don Ameche-Heaven Can Wait
    Henry Fonda-The Ox-Bow Incident
    Paul Lukas-Watch on the Rhine

    With Franchot Tone (never better) in Five Graves to Cairo & Charles Laughton in This Land is Mine very close behind.

    1. I found Heaven Can Wait to be a piffle. That said, Laird Cregar is absoultely the best thing in it. I'd watch it again for him.

      It shocks me that I might actually put Franchot Tone in the running, since I find him dead boring in just about everything, but that's a good movie and, credit where it's due, he's good in it.

      Once again, this was a better year than the nominations indicate. If they'd gotten it right, though, it would have forgiven a lot of sins.

  2. Joseph Cotton was great in Shadow of a doubt and in a standard year he could have won. 43 however belonged to Casablanca and Bogart. In my book it could have won most of the awards at stake that year.

    1. I'm pretty much on the same page.

      Of course, I think Cotten should pretty much have always been nominated. I can't fathom how he never was.