November 27, 2013

Frank Morgan, The Affairs of Cellini

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I believe I'm in the minority when I say that I love Frank Morgan's nomination for The Affairs of Cellini (not that there are many people out there who are writing about--much less have seen--the film), and let me tell you why. My first reason is that The Affairs of Cellini is a comedy, a much underrepresented genre of film at the Oscars. My second reason is that The Affairs of Cellini is really quite a delightful film, with delightful performances across the board. My third reason is that Frank Morgan is not top-billed, a la Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter. It always tickles my fancy when a male actor nabs a Best Actor nod when he isn't top billed, because it goes against the very concept of top-billing. You are top billed if you are either the bigger star or the male (often times, both go hand-in-hand), and to be top-billed suggests that you are the reason people should see a particular film. At the same time, an acting nomination in and of itself is an even bigger suggestion to see a film, and thus when these schools of thought conflict, it suggests that even though a lesser star isn't technically the main draw for the film because he's not the bigger name, he still holds his own and manages work that's good enough to procure attention. Approach a person on the street and chances are he or she won't be familiar with the name Frank Morgan--interestingly enough Inside Oscar says that the prior year, after actors like Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, and Jeanette Macdonald withdrew from AMPAs, they had actually gone over to Morgan's house to form the Screen Actors Guild. Morgan also ended up being "narrowly defeated" by Clark Gable for the Best Actor trophy in 1934, so there seems to have been a great deal of industry respect for him at the time, despite whether or not he was a box office draw or the highest paid Hollywood actor at the time.

 photo ScreenShot2013-11-25at12603AM.jpgMy fourth reason is that Morgan's Duke of Florence character is not at all your typical macho/masculine figure. He is supposed to be a cruel ruler who has the power to take a person's life as he sees fit, of whom everyone is supposed to obey, and yet his is actually a rather weak and feeble man with rather feminine characteristics (distinctly evident in the film's conclusion when his wife calls him milady and he in return calls her milord). At times his tone of voice and mannerisms are rather flamboyant and one wonders if this is a question of sexuality given that the Duke and Duchess sleep in separate quarters and are not in a monogamous relationship. (Some trivia: the real Alessandro's rule was considered by many as cruel and incompetent, though he had died at the age of 26 and Morgan was 44 at the time of the film's release) Still, this is such a refreshing departure for the Best Actor category, which more often than not is loaded with conventional manly macho men, which is why I normally don't care for the category as I find that many of the characters nominated often lack the fragility and vulnerability that make the Best Actress nominated characters so interesting. His nomination is an energizing presence on the Actor shortlist, and it helps that his performance is actually quite a hoot.

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Alessandro is like a child playing dress-up. He is totally unfit to be a ruler, and as Fredric March's fiery Cellini goes head-to-head in a battle of big balls against Constance Bennett's Duchess, Morgan is only supposed to be the supporting character who provides comedic relief. But he does such a good job at making his Duke charming and absurd that he ends up stealing all the scenes he's in. He is, for lack of a better word, a goofball. And a lovable one at that. When he enters you know that the picture is going to get more ridiculous than it already is (and I say ridiculous in the best way possible). He is a total joy to watch even as a stuttering incompetent mess. He had me smiling throughout the entire film with his comedic timing--I guffawed at his delivery of "What's that? There must be some mistake, she looks like a goat!" Given that the Duke is more of a supporting character, there isn't much dimension to his story arc and I can see how some people may think that Morgan's performance is a bit one-note. This is arguably a bloated supporting performance that's flashy enough and has a large enough stake in the film's plot to successfully be sold as leading (looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence!). And had supporting categories been already established in 1934, I'd bet that Morgan would have gotten a nomination and he probably would have won. This isn't a masterclass in acting, and while I've read that Morgan would basically rehash this type of performance again as the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz*, I think kudos are to be given to a man who lights up the room throughout the duration of his performance and manages to remain supremely entertaining, especially given that the film he's in is pretty damn entertaining itself.

*and yes like all other freedom loving Americans I've seen it...I just haven't watched it since I was a kid and can't quite recall his part..

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