January 13, 2014

Paul Muni, Black Fury

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-08at20540AM.jpg

Paul Muni ended up placing second in the Best Actor tallies in 1935, which was a surprise seeing as he, like Bette Davis the prior year, wasn't an official Oscar nominee. This naturally piqued my interest--surely this is notable work if, despite not being on the shortlist, the performance still managed to secure enough votes from the industry to upend the Mutiny boys and almost strike gold. As it turns out, Inside Oscar noted that because the Academy allowed write-in votes again that year, Warner Bros' head Jack Warner "sent out a memo to all the Academy members at his studio "suggesting" they write in votes for Warners' movies all the way down the ballot." This politicking ended up working quite well, as fellow non-nominee Hal Mohr ended up winning Best Cinematography for A Midsummer's Night Dream, Bette Davis ended up with the Best Actress statue for Dangerous, and snubbed director Michael Curtiz ended up placing third for Captain Blood. So was Muni's inclusion a result of these Academy members/Warner employees collectively selecting a performance because they were suggested to or was it justice for a truly deserving piece of work that had been wrongfully snubbed by AMPAS?

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-08at20938AM.jpgWe are first introduced to Muni's Joe Radek when the lady whose home his character is staying at wakes him up for work. He then utters his first line, "...wat time is?" and in that moment I immediately knew that I wasn't going to enjoy the next hour and a half. As it turns out, Joe Radek is what one of the characters in the film calls a "hunyak", and with that comes an accent via Muni which I can only describe as cartoonish. This is an accent you'd expect in some terrible comedy, sitcom, or hell, even a children's show where the kids watching wouldn't give it any thought. But in a serious drama with a mature intellectual audience watching, it is painful and absurd. Completely devoted to his craft, Muni incorporates broken english into his spoken word, thus making him not only extremely jarring to listen to, but also difficult to understand. I get what Muni was going for, really I do. Realism was hardly what Hollywood was aiming for back in the thirties and given that this year's Best Picture winner starred two American actors playing English seamen with suspiciously American accents, it ought to be respected that Muni would put forth the effort to be ethnically accurate. But I just cannot admire it because everything about it is so comically bad. What's more baffling is that Muni was actually born in Austria-Hungary, so he of all people should have had the faintest idea what a European would sound like. Yet his attempt to convey European is so amplified, so contrived, so in-your-face-look-at-me-no-more-wire-hangers-I-AM-ACTING, that the sheer audacity of it all is too ludicrous to be taken seriously. There's a moment in the film where Muni utters, "they don't can't do this to him!...they no can't go back!" Now I can't speak for the Europeans of the 1930's, but I have quite a few friends from Europe with varying levels of English proficiency and even the worst ones don't speak like that. This isn't a European man, this is an exaggerated caricature of a European man constructed for white audiences that didn't know any better. This entire performance is exaggerated.

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-08at20834AM.jpg
Further, as if his accent wasn't terrible enough, Muni felt it was necessary to utter all his lines in an upper register. So for much of the film he is yelling, as if by being louder we as an audience are to be more and more convinced of his ethnicity. It's sad because there are a few select moments where Muni is silent with emotion and is so effective. But half a minute or so of profound screen time does not outweigh the atrocious overacting that looms over much of the film. It is discouraging to know that this performance was close to winning the Best Actor prize. This is a performance that has no business being near the adjective "best". To say that he is acting is to disparage the art; instead, he is mocking. There's a line early on in which a proud Joe exclaims, "Joe Radek, he like everybody and everybody like Joe Radek, no?" No. No. No. I can say very matter-of-factly that this is hands down, the worst performance ever nominated affiliated with the Academy Awards--at least out of the 100+ that I've seen thus far.


  1. Well this sounds just awful. How could such a bad perf get through in a write-in vote of all things. Yikes.

    1. the power of studio politics I guess...if ever you're in the mood for bad acting or to have your ears attacked for 90 minutes give it a watch!