Monday, July 15, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1952

The Contenders:

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!

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. While personally, I would've gone with Takashi Shimura for Ikiru yet it can't be denied in how great Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor were in Singin' in the Rain. I also agree with you on Carlo Battisti yet it can't be denied in how great Gary Cooper was in High Noon.

    Another performance I felt gets overlooked is Charles Chaplin in Limelight. Especially for that scene of him and Buster Keaton doing a sketch that is so damn funny. Mainly for Keaton just underplaying it and almost stealing the show from Chaplin.

    1. It's a good year for this category. Assuming O'Connor gets a lead nod (although he's honestly more supporting), Cooper, O'Connor, Kelly, Shimura, and Battista are probably my top five. Put O'Connor as supporting, and I probably add Douglas.

      I haven't seen Limelight. It's one of the bigger holes in my viewing history.

  2. Out of the actual nominees mine would stack up exactly the same way.

    Cooper and Will Kane are one of the most perfect meetings of actor and part in cinema. Jonathan Shields is a great part for Douglas and a good match for his skills but its no Ace in the Hole or Spartacus.

    They are the only two out of these five that I'd keep on my own list. I've yet to see Ikiru but the mentions of Carlo Battisti and James Mason are terrific and while Gene Kelly is a force in Singin' in the Rain he wouldn't make my shortlist. Donald O'Connor however would be my winner in Supporting Actor (he's borderline but it's Kelly & Debbie Reynolds stories that are the primary focus. Speaking of such, as much as I love Gloria Grahame Jean Hagen was ROBBED of her rightful Supporting Actress trophy.

    Despite my admiration for those you mentioned my three open slots would be taken by Cary Grant in Monkey Business, Aldo Ray in The Marrying Kind and Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men and he not Cooper would be my winner. In Jeff McCloud he has a character that is as perfect a fit for him as Will Kane is for Cooper.

    1. I really need to see The Lusty Men one of these days.

      While Douglas is great in The Bad and the Beautiful, if I wanted to give him an Oscar, Ace in the Hole is what I think is his best performance. Something similar is true of my mention of Mason. Had he somehow won for The Five Fingers, it would feel like a career Oscar in the guise of a competitive one. There are far more great Mason performances that could have earned him a legitimate Oscar.

  3. I agree with your ranking. Gary Cooper was the perfect cast for High Noon, itself one of the best westerns ever made. The question is where would Kelly and Shimura fit in, had they been nominated?

    1. Shimura would probably fight for second with Battista in my own set of nominations. Kelly would be there in the top five, but he'd be in one of the bottom two positions.

  4. Kirk Douglas never winning a competitive Oscar is one of the Academy's greatest oversights. I'm not sure if The Bad and The Beautiful was the one, but there were plenty of others. I like Jose Ferrer very much. A very overlooked film he was in that I rarely hear mentioned is The Great Man (1956). That being said, I haven't seen it in a very long time.

    1. It is an oversight, but when you look at the people who have been (or were) never nominated, the list is staggering.

  5. No disagreement here. Cooper is iconic. Hard to imagine anyone else in the role. I mean John Wayne could have played it but not with the world weary stoicism and integrity that Coop brought to the part.

    1. Wayne would never have played this role--he was morally opposed to the message of the film and made Rio Bravo as a response to it.