Monday, March 11, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1948

The Contenders:

Laurence Olivier: Hamlet (winner)
Lew Ayres: Johnny Belinda
Montgomery Clift: The Search
Clifton Webb: Sitting Pretty
Dan Dailey: When My Baby Smiles at Me

What’s Missing

What a strange year for this award! I get some of these nominations, but some seem absolutely bizarre based on the year. Sorry, Wrong Number could have possibly given us a nomination for Burt Lancaster. Rope is one of those rare movies that could have had as many as three nominations for, in whatever order you like, Farley Granger, James Stewart, and John Dall. Montgomery Clift is here for The Search, but could probably have been here (along with John Wayne) for Red River just as easily. Films out of post-war Italy might not have been high on the radar, but Lamberto Maggiorani’s work in Bicycle Thieves seems to be a miss here. The biggest miss, though is why Humphrey Bogart was overlooked for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is probably true of Tim Holt as well.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. The crazy thing about this year is that I actually like these performances that were nominated even if I might not nominate them all. I’m dropping Lew Ayres first not for anything negative about Ayres or the performance but because this is so much Jane Wyman’s film that it’s difficult to remember the presence of anyone else. I tend to like Ayres in most of his roles and I liked him well enough in this, but based on what was left unnominated for this year, I wouldn’t put him anywhere near being in the running.

4. Dan Dailey is surprisingly good in When My Baby Smiles at Me, and there are moments where you can see exactly why he ended up with this nomination. The film itself is so strange, though. It doesn’t know what it wants to be—is it a musical? A drama about alcoholism? A romance? Dailey does his best to give the performance of his life, but it feels like the movie is really set against him. It’s a valiant effort. I understand the nomination even if I don’t agree with it, and because of that, he gets no higher than fourth.

3. It probably wasn’t a huge shock that Lawrence Olivier ended up with this Oscar. He was widely considered the greatest actor of his generation and Hamlet is considered the greatest drama ever written. Based on that, the Oscar was all but his. The problem in my opinion is that regardless of Olivier’s status and Hamlet’s status, this is really nothing more than the play. I mean, I get it. I get why the Academy lost their shit over this, but I’m not sure I’d bother to nominate this.

2. When I started this blog, I was not a huge fan of Montgomery Clift. The more of him that I have seen, the more I realize that that opinion must have started with a bad impression from a film I watched a long time ago. In The Search, a film that appears to be pretty much unknown in general these days, Clift is perhaps the most sympathetic he ever was. Based on the number of times his notable roles made him disagreeable (The Heiress and A Place in the Sun come to mind), this was almost remarkable. It’s also perhaps the film that made me realize how good he could really be.

1. Given the choices, it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that Clifton Webb should win for a nothing of a film like Sitting Pretty. He is, however, the single reason that Sitting Pretty is worth watching at all. This is a film and a screenplay that absolutely plays to his talents, and while Oscar is loath to appreciate comedic turns at all, Webb is near-flawless in this role. He plays it perfectly straight, which makes the entire thing all the funnier. Webb wouldn’t be my choice in a completely open field, but for these nominations, he wins.

My Choice

This was such a strong year that, while I don’t dislike any of these nominees that much, I would probably come up with an entirely new set of nominees. Humphrey Bogart, playing so far against what had become his type would be my first choice in most cases, but I could be persuaded off him for James Stewart or Lambert Maggiorani. Honestly, Oscar didn’t do that badly this year in a lot of ways, even if I ultimately think their nominees were better for a top-10 than a top-5.

Final Analysis


  1. To get the character Webb plays in Sitting Pretty just right-exasperating without being obnoxious, fussily smug but still sympathetic-requires great skill and he does it without seeming effort. He'd be my pick out of these five as well.

    Even though I'm not as fond of Sierra Madre as most Bogart is still a huge miss and I'd say Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours is worth considering even if the film is a bit scattered. The Fallen Idol came out this year in the UK but didn't premiere in America until '49 so Ralph Richardson wasn't eligible, if he had been he'd be my winner. But without him my vote would go to Bogart but Webb would have definitely stayed in the running.

    1. I'm guessing when I hit 1949 that Ralph Richardson will be mentioned for this category. Unfaithfully Yours is one I don't know.

      That Webb should merit this much consideration for a thin nothing of a film suggests just how much he really did with that role.

    2. I think if you ever wanted to explain to someone what is meant by a pure star vehicle Sitting Pretty would be a perfect example.

      That's one of the glories of the studio system though. Webb was such a unique personality that in any other period he would have been a major supporting actor at best but thanks to that studio focus and resources they crafted scripts to his specific talents and made him a top line star.