January 14, 2014

Victor McLaglen, The Informer

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

When Victor McLaglen makes facial expressions, all the lines and wrinkles on his mug are so vivid and harsh. There's a bit of wear and tear on that face of his, and it looks as if he's been through it all--and that may have just been true. Prior to his Hollywood career, he had worked in a circus, was a successful heavyweight boxer, and also fought for Britain in World War I. The latter two work experiences alone ensures that he's got just the right amount of machismo for the role of Gypo Nolan. But I couldn't help but wonder if McLaglen had to channel any wartime memories for his performance, as it's certainly one of the most distraught and vulnerable pieces of work from a male actor I've seen since I began plowing through the nominees of Oscar's earliest years.

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Gypo is so many things. He is desperate, for starters. It's the actions he makes out of this desperation that drives the entire picture, and he spends the last act of the film desperate to keep his life. We would soon find early on that he isn't nearly as hardened a man as his stature and size would suggest; he's actually a gentle giant of sorts. He is a man who spends a lot of the film scared. And he's also not very bright--quite dumb at times, actually. Most importantly, Gypo is human. He is a man of regret. He commits a crime of betrayal and is wracked with heavy guilt--and this all blends together to form a character who is amazingly fleshed out and real. You and I can instantly relate to him while watching the film because we're well aware what it's like to succumb to emotions, and we've all done something terrible that we so wish we hadn't. It's not often in the thirties you get a male lead performance that has so much vulnerability to it. Gypo isn't a glossy hero like Fletcher Christian. He isn't a storybook romantic like Peter Warne. Nor is he a stoic, restrained tough guy like the Champ. He doesn't even command attention like King Henry VIII. Gypo wears his heart on his sleeve, Victor McLaglen plays all of this out very beautifully, and I was captivated by him because I saw many things about him I could identify with.

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-07at80726PM.jpgIt's stunning at times to see such a statuesque individual like McLaglen reduced to such fragility--partly because it is ingrained in our conventions that a certain type of man has to act a certain way. We can sense he is a man of many layered feelings from the moment we see him emote to Frankie McPhillip's wanted poster. When Gypo first sees Frankie, there is a great display of conflicted emotion, and later on after he has informed on Frankie, McLaglen brings a layer of guilt-ridden pain that's beautiful to watch. We shouldn't like Gypo. He's not that smart. He betrays his friend and subsequently gets the guy killed. But there's something simultaneously tragic and endearing in how simpleminded and imperfect the man is. You watch him soak in all the glory from strangers as he flaunts his wealth, and you realize that he's probably never experienced this much adoration before. We cringe as we watch him self destructively guilt-drink himself into a stupor, and we can only hope that he makes it out alive even though his own faults ensure that he won't. Gypo is a tragic character and McLaglen does an excellent job at illustrating the many different facets of this flawed man. We want him to succeed--deep down we know he had nothing but the best intentions and he merely didn't know what he was doing. In the future when I reflect on this film and this performance I will always remember the haunting images of him in the church, flushed with tears, begging Frankie's mother for forgiveness. The beauty of this performance is that it's filled to the brim with weakness--not often seen in men or in filmic representations of men.

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