2011 OSCAR FAREWELL, OR: THE MYTH OF CARY GRANT’S OSCAR

Cary Grant never won an Academy Award. It is easy to deplore what appears an inexplicable injustice, and critics and commentators often have and still do. It is not easy to name a film in which Grant was better, THAT year, than the performer who won the best actor award.

Cary Grant’s nominations came with PENNY SERENADE, 1941, and NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, 1944. Was Cary Grant better than Gary Cooper who received the best actor award for SERGEANT YORK? Better than Orson Welles in CITIZEN KANE who did not win? Did Grant himself give a more consistent performance that year in SUSPICION?

1944. Was Cary Grant’s performance in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART better than winner Bing Crosby’s in GOING MY WAY? Perhaps. Better than Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, neither of whom was nominated for outstanding performances in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?

Barbara Stanwyck, who WAS nominated For DOUBLE INDEMNITY, is another Oscar-less name that usually surfaces when those bemoaning such gaps have not thought through the losses that her winning would have caused. Barbara Stanwyck instead of Ingrid Bergman? Instead of Olivia de Havilland in THE SNAKE PIT, now a dated film but containing still a fine performance. Stanwyck herself in a public statement suggested to Academy members that they award De Havilland. At the time I agreed with the Academy’s voters that Jane Wyman’s portrait in JOHNNY BELINDA was finer, subtler than both. It is questionable if Barbara Stanwyck was enough an actress ever to give the best performance of any year. If she ever deserved a nomination it was for 1933’s BABY FACE.

So on to Garbo the Great. Instead of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara? Really? Instead of Luise Rainer’s unforgettable, heartbreaking O-Lan in THE GOOD EARTH? — with apologies to CAMILLE idloators.

I am largely reflecting here on the also-nominated in a GIVEN year. Let’s bear in mind that we all know that many remarkable performances go unnominated. Garbo’s best performance is in a routine unimpressive film called CONQUEST.

One of the problems we are dealing with is the belief that it is possible to choose one performance as best. It is unlikely in most years that one performance is superior to every other one. We need more testicular fortitude like that of the National Board of Review, the year of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, giving its best actor award to William Hurt AND Raul Julia. It would have been great — and fair and just — if the 1989 best actor and best actress awards had gone to the four stalwart principals of “sex, lies and videotape.” I admire the Screen Actors Guild for having an ensemble award category and regret that reporting on it always describes it as the Guild’s best picture award. I regret even more that no Guild representative has ever called any journalist on this or tried to clarify what the award means.

Why just one director, one movie, one performance? I was Vivien Leigh’s greatest fan all her life and I still am, all my life, but in 1951 even I could have accepted a tie: Vivien Leigh in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Katharine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

Just one award? How in the world can Laurence Olivier be nominated along with Yul Brynner? The Golden Globes have (at least) more intelligence. Current Academy rules will not allow an actor to be nominated for more than one film in a given category in a given year, possibly ruling out, automatically, a great performance. Why? And why a restricted number of nominees when there are sometimes more, sometimes fewer than five bests? I like 1935 which saw the nomination of four actors and six actresses. The once serious, once sophisticated Tony awards now find themselves in the Broadway desert nominating clearly undeserving work in order to meet the standard number of nominees per category. As the last line of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI has it: “All is madness!”

Winners are presumed to be those giving THE best performances of THAT year. We all know that winners are often chosen for a career’s work (Rex Harrison, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock). These are excellent and talented performers. Did their work that year surpass that of everyone else nominated — and not nominated?

Perhaps the most notorious of the sentimental awards for a life’s work is Humphrey Bogart’s for THE AFRICAN QUEEN — not, to my mind, instead of the usually cited Marlon Brando but the real best actor of the year, Arthur Kennedy in BRIGHT VICTORY. And again I would have gone for a tie with unnominated Oskar Werner in DECISION BEFORE DAWN.

One determination Academy voters are sometimes good at is distinguishing performance from material. It is the conventional wisdom to decry the Academy’s choice of Elizabeth Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8. How could the award go to a performance in such a lousy movie? Movie aside, the performance in BUTTERFIELD 8 is excellent, especially the long opening solo scene which is a silent pantomime. The fact that writing and directing are not Oscar-worthy does not mean that a performance is not outstanding. The failure of otherwise perceptive filmgoers to break through the material to the actual performance continues to astound me. Think of the extent to which Judy Garland consistently elevated routine material. Garbo, for heaven’s sake. How many good movies did she make? Elevation of material: Alfred Hitchcock.

Greta Garbo, Charles Chaplin, Richard Burton, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Peter O’Toole, Glenn Close, Alfred Hitchcock. You were marvelous. You ARE marvelous. You were surviviors and are still survivors and you will survive many winners.

NEXT POST April 10
See you at the movies,
Rick

One thought on “2011 OSCAR FAREWELL, OR: THE MYTH OF CARY GRANT’S OSCAR

  1. Thanks for your thought-provoking article. Sometimes I wonder if the Academy Awards are more about politics and popularity than acting? For example, why has Jack Nicholson won the Academy Award three times? He’s a good actor but I wouldn’t call him versatile. Sad that Orson Wells did not win an Academy Award for “Citizen Kane.” Of course, it was a controversial film at the time, and William Randolph Hearst was particularly upset (and not without reason). I loved Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Although Cary Grant was great in “Suspicion,” I prefer the remake with Anthony Andrews. My favorite Cary Grant film is “North by Northwest.” He and Eva Marie Saint were dynamite on screen, and the plot was filled with suspense and a surprise ending. The movie was Hitchcock at his best, and Cary Grant should have walked away with an Oscar.

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