August 12, 2014

Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Every few years or so a performance like that of Robert Donat's in Goodbye, Mr. Chips comes along and like clockwork, people can't help but pay attention. Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club are just a few recent-ish examples of acclaimed performances that nabbed Oscars and generated buzz in part because of the makeup and prosthetics. By 1939, a 12 year old Oscar had already shown signs of fascination with the transformation--and it's a word that you'd be hard pressed not to use when talking about performances where makeup plays a huge role in delivering a certain character. Say what you will about Warner Baxter's Portuguese bandit, Fredric March's monstrous brute, Helen Hayes' grandmafication and Luise Rainer's Chinese peasant, but it's hard to deny the impact of makeup in shaping our perceptions of an actor's work. But does a makeup-heavy performance really equate to a great one? Transformation talk aside, how much does visual stimulus really translate to quality?

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Facing stiff competition for an Oscar against Clark Gable in a massively successful epic and James Stewart in a film that caused a big fat splash in Hollywood and Washington D.C., I think it's fair to say that what set Donat apart--and what likely propelled him to a win--was the makeup. Aging 50+ years onscreen might certainly seem more significant than just looking as you normally would. We first see Donat, aged 83 via cosmetics, waddling across the Brookfield campus. The transformation is undeniable right from the start, as is Donat's commitment to becoming this very bashful and often times awkward educator. He looks nothing like his jaded doctor in the prior year's The Citadel, and the same could be said about Donat's acting. He's much more obvious here--jutting his eyes and mouth out, wrinkling his forehead when reacting to something, and dealing with a mustache that's quite an attention grabber in and of itself. My first thought was that this was a hammy performance, but gradually I began to realize that all the exaggeration could also be seen as staunch dedication towards becoming the shy and uneasy Mr. Chips. But strip away the makeup and the metamorphosis and it's evident that Mr. Chips isn't written as a terribly complicated character. Heavier moments in the film involving Chips are introduced and then pushed aside for the next development in the story without much extrapolation--so what we have left is Donat essentially reacting to and babysitting a bunch of schoolboys for two hours with some tears, solemnity, nice monologues thrown in here and there. Still, I thought the tears and solemnity was profound at times--such as when Chips quietly asks not to be fired early on and when he shows up to class following the deaths of his wife and newborn baby. Donat handles Chips' shyness and transformation from awkward introvert to awkward somewhat-extrovert quite well, and after rewatching some of his scenes I noticed small details that he puts into completely embodying the polite and traditional gentleman--such as a lift of his hat when greeting a female peer--showing a total persistence to his craft. What's more, he infuses Chips with a delicacy and tenderness that is endearing and totally believable. But overall I was underwhelmed; I expected more following Donat's explosive and passionate turn in The Citadel. It's certainly not bad work by any means, but I feel that the screenplay relies a lot on the visual and ignores substance in the process. It's an admirable turn which I respect more than love, and for which I give a solid


  1. I was expecting a 4, I think Donat and the movie are very enjoyable.

    Now I am curious about your thoughts on Garson.

    1. Yikes, I didn't think the movie was enjoyable at all! I thought it was so boring...and yet it was the 7th highest grossing picture that year...go figure.

  2. Replies
    1. You and I have a very lopsided track record in terms of mutual likes :)

  3. I really disliked the film, but I think you were maybe spoiled by Citadel. :)

    He's good with what he has and, yes, with the help of the makeup. But the film would literally be unbearable without him, so I think it'd be more like a 3 1/2 from me or 4.

    1. It's true--the film would be worse without him, and he's definitely good (esp. in the younger scenes), but it just felt like there was too little for him to work. He's not particularly great in any of the scenes where he's older, seemed like we were watching them for the sole purpose of being wowed by how convincing the makeup is.