Oct 14, 2013

Wallace Beery, The Champ

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Wallace Beery will forever be in the annals of Oscar history for being "tied" with Fredric March for Best Actor, the first and only tie the category has seen in its 85 year history. The strange thing is Beery isn't the true winner--he actually had one less vote than March, but for some reason 81 years ago the Academy had a rule that stated having 1 less vote than a winner meant that you too were a winner. And with that, Beery got an Oscar, even though he ought to have been a runner-up, which is rather contextually ironic given that he'd won for playing a drunken loser and former champion in a movie called The Champ. With March's excellent turn, you'd think that Beery's performance would be just as great, no?

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I'll just start off by saying that Wallace Beery does not look appropriate for his role whatsoever. On paper, the character of Champ is a former heavyweight boxing champion who became an alcoholic and is now itching for a comeback. Wallace Beery is fat, out-of-shape, and rather old looking--I took a gander at the trailer for 1979's remake and could already tell in a few minutes that Jon Voight was a much better choice for the role. I bought him as the silly companion to Marie Dressler in Min and Bill, I bought and even liked him as the Russian(?) General in Grand Hotel. But there isn't a moment where you see Beery in The Champ and think that he's convincing as a former boxing champion, nevertheless one who would succeed at regaining his title. Beery's performance is horribly one-note and lacks a lot of emotional charisma for a film that's trying to make all of us cry. Even still, the camera doesn't seem to care about him, clearly seems to draw our attention to Jackie Cooper instead.

 photo ScreenShot2013-10-08at85055PM.jpgA key moment in the film is when Champ is jailed and emotionally ordering his son to go stay with his mother. We don't see much of him, and he is pushed to the side for the camera to focus on Cooper instead. Even as he lays dying, Beery is denied a close-up and Cooper is given the spotlight. It's this lack of emphasis on Beery that made me feel so detached from him--if we aren't able to look into the man in his most pivotal scenes then it should be no surprise that we eventually just don't care about him. There's a layer of harsh, tough-guy machoism to Beery that doesn't allow him to connect with the audience. Again, when the film you're in is one that relies on emotional connections, this creates a big problem. Even when Beery plays a drunkard, it's in a comedic kind of way--for a second I thought I was watching him in Min and Bill all over again. There's major inconsistencies in his approach and I can't help but wonder how fellow winner March or Paul Muni would have handled the role. In a way, the performance and the role are similar to one another--both try to be something they aren't, both end up falling flat, and both ended up winning prizes even though they shouldn't have.

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