Kirk Douglas: The Bad and the Beautiful
Gary Cooper: High Noon (winner)
Alec Guinness: The Lavender Hill Mob
Jose Ferrer: Moulin Rouge
Marlon Brando: Viva Zapata!
It’s an interesting mix for Best Actor 1952, and as usual, I have a few suggestions. In 1952, Oscar knew about foreign films, but wasn’t often keen on nominations. This is going to be the best reason we’re not seeing Takashi Shimura’s performance in Ikiru, and also a good explanation for the absence of Carlo Battisti’s work in Umberto D. I’m always going to put James Mason out there when he’s worth mentioning, and while The Five Fingers isn’t his best work, it’s not bad. The inexplicable win the previous year of An American in Paris is why Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were ignored for the vastly superior Singin’ in the Rain. Honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between them.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I genuinely attempt to watch these films not with modern eyes but through the lens of the time period as much as I possibly can. That’s not always easy to do when there are such bizarre cases of brownface, like Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!. For all of the clear and obvious racial insensitivity here, Brando isn’t terrible. But his presence in the title role begs a particular question. Anthony Quinn, born in Mexico and with three Mexican grandparents was in this movie. Why not put him in the title role? It just seems so weird.
4. I didn’t dislike Jose Ferrer in Moulin Rouge. In fact, I think his performance is a pretty good one despite the fact that there are clear moments in the film where his portrayal of Toulouse-Lautrec is either a double or him walking in a trench. My problem here is less about Ferrer than it is about the fact that this film is painfully dull. That’s not Ferrer’s fault most of the time, but it’s impossible for me to overlook. As good as Ferrer might be, he doesn’t make the film worth watching, and that’s a real strike against him winning.
3. I rather like that Alec Guinness was nominated for The Lavender Hill Mob. It’s a sweet little comedy, one where it’s very easy to root for the “bad guys,” who are actually cute and entertaining. Guinness was a cinematic chameleon, capable of playing virtually any part that was offered to him, including our timid little man in this film. Ultimately, Guinness won for the role he should have, and while this is a nice nomination, this is a film where the screenplay is really the best part of what’s happening.
2. The same could be kind of said about The Bad and the Beautiful; it’s a film where much of the success comes from a truly great and worthwhile screenplay. It comes with a towering performance from Kirk Douglas, though, which makes it more of a character study than a plotted story. Douglas is absolutely the reason to watch this. It’s easy to forget just how good and compelling he could be when given good material. In other years, I wouldn’t mind giving him the Oscar for this, but not for 1952.
1. This is another case where Oscar made the right pick. The reason for me is dead simple—I can’t think of someone else who could handle the role of sheriff in High Noon with the same combination of resolution, humility, despair, and grim determination as Gary Cooper. High Noon is one of the great westerns, not merely of its day but of all time, and it’s Cooper who makes the movie what it is. If we as the audience don’t sympathize with him entirely and completely, it doesn’t work. And we do, giving us one of the most memorable performances in any genre of its decade. He was the right choice.