July 16, 2014

Emil Jannings, The Last Command

Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Back in 1929, the Academy didn't choose to go after popular American star Richard Barthelmess or popular English comedian Charlie Chaplin for their first Best Actor recipient, instead opting for the Austrian/German Emil Jannings. I recall years and years ago, flipping through the pages of my Academy Award Handbook and seeing Jannings' name as the very first Best Actor winner...and thinking to myself "who?!" And even though we may never be able to watch the conjointly nominated The Way of All Flesh, The Last Command is as superb a debut for the Best Actor category as one could ask for. What was interesting while revisiting this particular film and performance was that I found the film to be a bit duller and the performance a lot more natural. It's not without a few slips, but for the most part this is a performance that doesn't have the pantomiming histrionics we're so used to seeing in silent films. Jannings is very clearly an expert at emoting, and he is able to craft such expressive emotions with such effortless flair, namely the scene in which the Bolsheviks seize Alexander. But in regards to thinking about this film, I'll always remember Jannings' final scene, wherein a showcase of explosive acting culminates in a final heartbreaking smile and a perfectly orchestrated tear. He's masterful, to say the least, and it almost doesn't matter if Jannings' other performance is lost, because his performance here alone is worthy enough for gold.

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