Dec 5, 2013

William Powell, The Thin Man

as NICK CHARLES
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When analyzing William Powell in The Thin Man, the late great Roger Ebert said that Powell "is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he's saying."I think this perfectly sums up my own feelings about Powell's work as well. There is a mesmerizing quality to the way Powell speaks--his diction, his tone...all of it drips with intelligence, is assertive yet relaxed all at once, and blends so well with the dark wit that The Thin Man's screenplay offers. He is a perfect leading man in every possible way, and I'd wager that the subsequent five Thin Man sequels spawned not just from the strength of the story or the chemistry of Powell and Myrna Loy, but also because Powell is so good, so in his element, at being a charming sleuth.

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I've been struggling to evaluate Powell's performance in the days since I've watched The Thin Man. The best parallel I can make for this situation is that of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. Both are suave leading men to the nth degree and so inherently charming it hurts. Both play iconic characters as well. But I ask: just how much does embodying the quintessential leading man go into determining just how good a performance actually is? Rhett Butler is arguably just as renown as Scarlett O'Hara, but the former is nowhere near the latter in terms of acclaim and overall acting excellence. I say this because while there's no doubt in my mind that I enjoyed Powell's work, this is a very simple kind of performance that I'm not so sure I would reward with a Best Actor Oscar.

 photo ScreenShot2013-11-26at14802AM.jpgWilliam Powell doesn't have a money scene or anything that screams "Oscar clip". There's no impassioned argument between him and his wife, no moment of vulnerability, not a single tear shed. This is a performance that works because the role requires a charismatic protagonist, for which Powell fits the bill perfectly. It's that charisma that creates a connection between you and the character, and it's that charisma that squeezes a couple of chuckles out of you. Charisma isn't something that just comes naturally to any actor (see Richard Dix) but for me there's more to a performance than just a supremely charming star. There is no range here a la Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde--and in retrospect the performance in its entirety is a little static and one-note. Powell is witty and sharp from beginning to end, but that's just about all there is to it. As I mentioned before, Powell has a way with speech that's really cognizant and rich--the way he handles the rapid spitfire dialogue in his climactic dining room scene with such ease is nothing short of astonishing. I could hardly catch every single thing he was saying but as Ebert mentioned, I didn't care. It all seemed right. And that's worth applauding, because it takes a certain level of innate ability and talent to be able to act well and have a total mastery of the spoken word. Does he do a good job with what he's given? Yeah. Hell yeah. But is this a performance that moves me, one that really resonates with me long after I've finished viewing it? Hardly.


4 comments:

  1. I can't believe that I never saw this movie yet...I really have to!

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    1. Fritz--it's really great! Check it out when you can. I'm still looking forward to your year 1 Best Actress profiles.

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  2. A very late comment, but I'd still like to add that he was nominated three times and no win. I'm biased in his 3rd, which I feel he truly deserved. However, that wasn't the case, but my biggest problem isn't that he lost his three times nominated, it's that he was never honored in any way by the Academy. I would say just his outstanding work in 1936 alone makes him worthy. Who has ever put out that much quality of work in one year? He possibly should have won for The Great Ziegfield had he been nominated for that. Even in Libeled Lady he was award worthy. After the Thin Man was terrific. The man should be honored!!

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    1. Thanks for the reply, and welcome! Shame indeed--there are loads of deserving actors that haven't achieved Oscar glory. But your comment has made me a little more excited to watching him in Life with Father!

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