September 28, 2014

Oscargasm Honor/Dishonor Roll!



Before I bid adieu to the period in which I lovingly call Oscar's Dark Ages, I'd like to put out my first Oscargasm Honor/Dishonor Roll, in which I will be recognizing both good and bad highlights of 1927-1939. Performances I loved and hated, actors whom I loved and disliked, some math, and a slew of great performances that didn't get Oscar's attention (but still deserve a bit of recognition) lie ahead!


I first want to preface this post by writing a bit about the overall quality of the nominees over 1927-1939. The men's scores are pretty much normally distributedwith more threes than any other score. They also scored the most ones and the most fives, suggesting that when they sucked they really sucked and when they were great they were really great. The women were a little more interestingthey received the same number of threes as the men (meaning meh was about equal between both genders) and scored the most twos and fours, suggesting that when they were bad they weren't quite as bad as the men, and that the they were consistently great over the course of 1927-1939 but not quite transcendent/next level great. Overall the ladies averaged 3.2 statues and the men averaged 3.15 statues, so it looks like the women are the ones who run away with Oscar's Dark Ages (although barely)!

So with that, let us see who snatches some of my personal awards:

FAVORITE ACTOR/ACTRESS OF 1927-1939
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Fredric March easily takes the top spot in my heart as my favorite actor of 1927-1939. I first crossed paths with him while watching Sarah and Son, an atrocious little film in which he was the most tolerable performer. And then came Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a performance that I initially liked and eventually grew to love. But my affection for him was completely accidental; I was essentially forced to see more of him as he'd pop up in many films of the nominees I was reviewing, from Sarah and Son to The Barretts of Wimpole Street to The Affairs of Cellini to The Dark Angel. As someone who obsesses over actresses, it was nice to see that March was a reliable leading man, able to step in as the onscreen lover to practically all the major actresses of the era such as Shearer, Garbo, Hepburn, Lombard, Colbert, de Havilland, Bow, etc. He could take on a thankless male role in a female-geared vehicle (Barretts, Anna Karenina), but he also avoided typecasting by being independent from the studios, allowing him to select more challenging roles such as the alcoholic Jerry in Merrily We Go to Hell or the embattled Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He was adept at riotous, physical comedy (The Royal Family of Broadway, Nothing Sacred) just as much as he was at drama. He inspired me to run out and watch multiple films of his which had nothing to do with awards, not to mention the fact that he's my first male actor to nab two Oscars (as well as the first to nab them back-to-back) In summary: he's the bees knees, he's eye candy, and he's wrongly underrated, and had I not done this reviewing business in chronological order I wouldn't have been able to discover his greatness andas it would turn outhis prevalence as one of the most charming and talented actors of the 1930s.

RUNNER-UP: Katharine Hepburn, who, despite particular limitations and Hepburn-isms, still managed to go above and beyond my expectations of her and crank out consistently great performances in both drama and comedy genres. Box office poison my ass. She is easily my queen of the 1930's.

LEAST FAVORITE ACTOR/ACTRESS OF 1927-1939
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With the runners-up nipping at his heels, I ultimately chose to go with Spencer Tracy for my least favorite actor of 1927-1939. Food for thought: all three consecutive performances of his came in dead last, and all three accumulated an average of 1.3 statues. That's a pretty awful number, and bitch as I might about the acting abilities of Garbo and Muni, they still managed to get better averages (3.25 and 2.2 respectively) over the course of their nominations. Even Ruth Chatterton scores a 1.5 between her two performances. So statistically speaking Tracy bombs with me, but it also doesn't help his case that I straight up hated Captains Courageous and Boys Town (and he won for both!!) not to mention he's barely even in San Francisco. I definitely don't understand all the love the Academy was tossing his way during this time...clearly this was a celebration of his being a top box-office star, but the three performances they elected to nominate him for just suck (for instance: he's much better in 1936's Libeled Lady and why they opted to pick his cameo in San Francisco is baffling). Let's hope his next three performances do better once I get around to the 1950's.

RUNNERS-UP: Greta Garbo, who was impressive in Camille and Ninotchka but the epitome of dull in just about everything else I watched her in over the course of the decade (Queen Christina, Grand Hotel, Anna Karenina, Romance, Conquest). Paul Muni, who was either boring me in his many social issue prestige pictures or going way too overboard with his crazed ACTING! tics, and Ruth Chatterton, whose poor scores from her two nominations are partly due to her being just plain bad and partly due to her being a victim of untimely circumstances.


MOST IMPROVED

NORMA SHEARER: The lady who was the Queen of M-G-M and ever the omnipresent force to be reckoned with with Oscar in the 1930s didn't impress me much initially. I wasn't crazy about her winning turn in The Divorcee (and even less so with sister-nomination Their Own Desire), and then I quite liked her in A Free Soul before not liking her again in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. But then I liked her again...in Romeo and Juliet (of all films), and I loved her in Marie Antoinette. My newfound fondness only grew when I watched her in The Women and Private Lives, both perfectly entertaining pictures in which she turns out great performances. So she's not all badin fact, she's pretty greatand she gets the award for being the sole performer of 1927-1939 to do a complete 180 in changing my perception of her. 


WORST MALE PERFORMANCE
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PAUL MUNI, BLACK FURY (1935): Just terrible, terrible, terrible. With a heinous "European" accent on hand, Muni chews up every inch of scenery there is, regurgitates it up on your face, and then proceeds to lick it off, all in the name of acting. Just cringeworthy. Showboating at its worst.


WORST FEMALE PERFORMANCE
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RUTH CHATTERTON, SARAH AND SON (1929-1930): Literally the female equivalent to Muni's performance, with a dash more horridness. Chatterton's godawful "European" accent mixed with her cumbersome elocution is not helped whatsoever by the clumsy early sound technology. Add in the usual awkward early talkie acting and what you have is this performance. A total trainwreck.



FAVORITE MALE PERFORMANCE
FREDRIC MARCH, DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1931-1932): One part smooth, charming, and romantic, and one part crazed, virile, and histrionic, with angsty panic thrown somewhere in between, of all the other male performances this is the one that my mind goes back to most often.

RUNNER-UP: gun to my head, I couldn't tell ya. It's just about a tie between March, James Stewart, Robert Montgomery, and Robert Donat. To be perfectly honest, I can envision myself swapping March out for either of these guys at any point in the future. Each are fascinating in their own way. 


FAVORITE FEMALE PERFORMANCE
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VIVIEN LEIGH, GONE WITH THE WIND (1939): As if I really need to explain why this one is my favorite.

RUNNER-UP: I suppose I would choose Shearer in Marie Antoinette for a runner-up, but there's really no comparison. Leigh is so above and beyond any other nominated female performances of 1927-1939. 


THE SNUBBED
If you haven't already noticed, I ended up discontinuing my Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda series (in which I reviewed the performances that I felt should have been recognized their respective years) because a boy can only write and review so much before he goes bat-shit insane. You can click here to take a look at the lucky few I reviewed before hopping on the lazy train. I may go back to reviewing non-nominated performances in the future if I'm especially in the mood for it or if a certain performance is especially astounding to me, but as of now I am challenged enough by my usual routine. Until then, I want to take this space to point out performances that should have been nominated, arranged by score and chronological year. This is just based off of the films I've seen from those nominated and the ones I elected to see in my spare time. (Keep in mind that there are still quite a few films and performances that I haven't seen and that this list is a work in progress, so I may add more later on):


1927-1928: JAMES MURRAY AS JOHNNY SIMS IN THE CROWD 
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1927-1928: GEORGE O'BRIEN AS THE MAN IN SUNRISE
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1927-1928: ELEANOR BOARDMAN AS MARY IN THE CROWD
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1928-1929: LILLIAN GISH AS LETTY IN THE WIND
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1929-1930: LEW AYRES AS PAUL IN ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
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1929-1930: CHESTER MORRIS AS MORGAN IN THE BIG HOUSE
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1929-1930: JEANETTE MACDONALD AS QUEEN LOUISE IN THE LOVE PARADE photo ScreenShot2014-07-07at308.jpg
1930-1931: JAMES CAGNEY AS TOM POWERS IN THE PUBLIC ENEMY photo ScreenShot2014-09-25at101914PM.jpg
1930-1931: CLAUDETTE COLBERT AS JULIA IN HONOR AMONG LOVERS photo ScreenShot2014-09-26at23409AM.jpg
1931-1932: NORMA SHEARER AS AMANDA IN PRIVATE LIVES
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1932-1933: BARBARA STANWYCK AS LILY POWERS IN BABY FACE photo ScreenShot2014-09-25at82526PM.jpg
1932-1933: KATHARINE HEPBURN AS JO MARCH IN LITTLE WOMEN
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1934: FREDRIC MARCH AS CELLINI IN THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI
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1934: CHARLES LAUGHTON AS EDWARD IN THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET
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1935: FREDRIC MARCH AS JEAN VALJEAN IN LES MISERABLES
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1937: CARY GRANT AS JERRY IN THE AWFUL TRUTH 
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1937: KATHARINE HEPBURN AS TERRY RANDALL IN STAGE DOOR
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1939: NORMA SHEARER AS MARY HAINES IN THE WOMEN 
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1928-1929: MARIA RENEE FALCONETTI AS JEANNE IN LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC
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1931-1932: JACKIE COOPER AS DINK IN THE CHAMP
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1932-1933: PETER LORRE AS HANS BECKERT IN M
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1938: CARY GRANT AS DAVID HUXLEY IN BRINGING UP BABY
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1938: KATHARINE HEPBURN AS SUSAN VANCE IN BRINGING UP BABY

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1939: MERLE OBERON AS CATHY IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS
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Aaaaaaaaand so that wraps up my first ever Oscargasms Honor (and dishonor) roll! Yipee!

UP NEXT: Entering the 1940's.

10 comments:

  1. Awesome post! I love tis kind of insider info! :)

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  2. Great post!
    Katharine Hepburn is truly a queen, great performance in all decades, what's surprising since she has a very unique style.
    I really like Fredric March, but Gable and his tremendous performance in It Happened One Night are in my heart. I also think that Leigh gave the best performance of this era, and my runner-up would be Claudette Colbert.
    Also I always ask me why Spencer have so much hate from his nominated performances, I liked him a little bit in his not-nominated performances.
    I also agree about the worst female performance and how overwhelming Shearer can be when she wants.
    I liked the snubbed performances you mentioned, and I would give O'Brien a perfect five. But am I the only one who prefer Grant in The Awful Truth over Bringing Up Baby?!
    And... what do you think of Chaplin in City Lights and Modern Times?

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    1. I've come to adore Kate! Not sure if the 40s will have as many great Kate performances though...

      Well I haven't seen much of Tracy outside of his 3 nominated performances. Have you seen them? I liked Tracy a lot in Libeled Lady and I haven't gotten around to seeing him in Fury, which I hear he's great in. But strictly from what I've seen from him, he's by far my least favorite.

      I think Grant is excellent in Bringing Up Baby, and he does a great job etching out David's transition. I think he has more to work with in Baby than Awful Truth, but that's just me!

      As for Chaplin...I liked him in both City Lights and Modern Times, but I don't know if I would give him nominations. He does pretty much the same thing as the Tramp, so while I do appreciate him in these films, I don't really think they're distinguishable or special enough to give nominations to. Kind of like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, where the first one is nice and special, and while he's fine in all the subsequent sequels, no one's necessarily striving to nominate him again.

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  3. I'm going to be friends a long time with a man who suggests there is something award recognition-worthy about Norma Shearer as Mary Haines. And ironically, if Norma could interrupt, she'd probably tell us both we're a little touched.

    She didn't think Mary was worth much, and she didn't want to do The Women. According to legend, and if it really happened, a brief but dangerous sexual liaison had developed between 36 year old Norma and 16 year old Mickey Rooney, that Mayer found out about and quashed immediately. It also put him into a position to apply a little pressure, and Norma to make 'amends' by yielding.

    It's not hard to understand her hesitancy. Considering her role pitted her between the flashy husband-stealing Crystal (real life rival, Joan Crawford) and motormouth Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), Shearer had to be wondering how she was going to make Mary compelling.

    But in fact the moment was perfectly ripe. After the gilded excess of Marie Antoinette, and her outrageous fake countess Irene in Idiot's Delight, The Women provided a superb opportunity to reveal how well Shearer could also bring a light touch, and skilled underplaying, while still creating a character we'd very much like to meet.

    Or, as her biographer Gavin Lambert perfectly assessed it, "...Norma gives an effectively spare performance. Warned by Cukor the character could easily appear a worthy bore, she brings a minimum of weight to the pathos of betrayal and concentrates on the struggle not to betray her feelings. With impeccably restrained technique, she gains sympathy by never playing for it."

    The behavior of Crystal and Sylvia may be more instantly jaw-dropping and immediately memorable, but repeated viewings of The Women remove any lingering doubt that Shearer's contribution is of fully equal importance.

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    1. light touch, skilled underplaying, creating a character we'd very much like to meet...you put it better than I could. It's not as showy a performance but it remains the central nervous system to the film, and I suppose her sweetness and tenderness is made all the more apparent in between Roz Russell's scenery chewing and Joan Crawford's bitchery. Have you seen/do you have any thoughts on Shearer's work in Private Lives?

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    2. Mick LaSalle, in his "Complicated Women," noted that the more pre-Code a movie was, the safer it was from the censorship hacking it would face if it wanted re-release after the installation of Joseph L. Breen as czar of the Hays Office in mid-1934.

      "Private Lives" was never allowed re-release under Breen, because it's very theme, how sexy familiarity can be so offended him. (Elliot tells Amanda, "There isn't a single particle of you that I don't remember, and love, and want." - pretty sexy talk if you can imagine yourself in a 1931 theater.) Otherwise, a bastardized version might have appeared, with the original negative destroyed, as happened to many a pre-Code.

      I first saw it when I was in my late 20s, and did not expect too much from it, and thus was wonderfully surprised. Shearer breaking a record over Robert Montgomery's head, kicking him in the ass(!), and her divine hysterical screaming - I mean, I was roaring.

      The (eventual classic) TV series "Cheers" was just finding its legs about that same time, and Elliot and Amanda might well have been the spiritual grandparents of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers. Both couples are terribly vulnerable to one another, but drive each other mad equally. Lock them together and it's 50/50 whether they'll make love all night or kill one another. Like "Cheers," "Private Lives" dances a sublime battle-of-the-sexes. I like it very much.

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  4. I totally appreciate your take on Norma Shearer. I've seen all of her sound films except two, and I've also seen two of her silent films. I thought she was the emotional core of the film "The Women" and found her subtle underplaying very persuasive. The character seems real amongst the caricatures elsewhere in the cast.

    I also think "Private Lives" is one of the best things she ever did. She makes Amanda's maneuverings quite entertaining without ever being off-putting. She lets you see the wheels turning as Amanda's on to her next scheme but can shift just as quickly into a blunt honesty that's so direct it's hilarious. I love where she's pretending to cry but when Robert Montgomery says "Sybil's an ass", she stops everything, turns around and with a look of glee chirps "Yes, she is isn't she." I also love the tantrum she throws in the fight scene. Norma Shearer could let herself go in scenes sometimes with an abandon that's almost shockingly real.

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