Oct 20, 2014

James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story

Won - Academy Award - Best Actor

Sometimes actors put out several top-notch, heavily acclaimed performances and will consistently lose the Oscar until finally, one year, everything falls into place and they achieve their moment of golden glory for a performance that doesn't hold up to the excellence of their prior work. Or sometimes actors get recognized for one amazing performance, lose the Oscar for that year, and are handed one the next year. The latter is the story of James Stewart, who, after earning much praise from critics and yours truly for his fine work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and who would go on to have a storied career filled with many other iconic performances, somehow managed to nab his only Best Actor Oscar for...The Philadelphia Story, a film that doesn't revolve around his character, a film that's much more strongly associated with his female costar, and a film in which there's arguably no male lead. It's kind of screwy how our beloved Academy Awards go about their business.

One thing's for sureas a performer, Stewart possesses an undeniable soulful passion that will always keep me interested in whatever he's in at the very least. He has an honest to goodness small-town genuineness about him that seeps through every word he says, so there is a deep likability to him that is hard to ignore (the fact that Stewart gave his Oscar to his dad to display in the family hardware store is a perfect example of Stewart's sweet and squeaky-clean American boy image). And he has some of that passionate energy here, but that alone isn't enough to make his subordinate character really flourish. This is because The Philadelphia Story isn't all that concerned with Mike, and it's my belief that Mike isn't written (or meant) to be an a marquee character. Thus, much of Mike's contribution to the film is purely functional, and it's up to Stewart to do the best he can with the part. The one scene that is very clearly Stewart's sole chance to shine is the one in which Mike is blasted drunk and dawdles on over to C.K. Dexter Haven's house. I'll say this: I adore that scene. It is expertly acted, Stewart's comedic timing and delivery is top-notch, and it's one of the most joyful and uninhibited examples of drunk acting I've yet to see. In fact, he's at his most interesting in those scenes where he's drunk, perfectly silly and gleeful ("Whee!"), and excitedly romantic with a dash of virility...and it's a nice contrast from the cranky and cynical Mike from the film's first act. But beyond the film's middlewhat is there exactly to applaud about Stewart's performance? Nothing really. I wasn't exactly engrossed by early sassy Mike or morning-after Mike, nor did I find Mike's reaction shots to Tracy, the Lords, and Dext versus Tracy all that substantial. That's not to say this is a bad performance or even a boring one...it's just basic in its makeup and it completely serves its purpose to the fullest extent. So Stewart's win is very much in keeping with other Best Actor wins from the era...I neither hate it nor love it for what it's worth, I'm more disappointed in it being a winning performance. Because as much as Oscar likes to think he's celebrating the "best" of the year, he more often ends up celebrating the "adequate", and this win, while acceptable, is not really one to get excited about.


  1. I am a fan of Jimmy and I agree he has his moments, but in the end it's a very annoying performance, the worst I've seen from him. He's way better in The Shop Around Corner the same year.

    Also, are you a fan of Moulin Rouge! or at least a admirer of Kidman's performance like me?

    1. I thought he was pretty good in The Shop Around the Corner as well! Though I don't know if I would nominated him for that one either. I think him winning for this performance is more disappointing than the actual performance itself.

      As for Moulin Rouge!, yes! She's awesome! It's been awhile since I've watched it though so I don't know if my opinion will change for better or for worse on a rewatch..

  2. I think this is one of Stewart's worst performances. Aside from his role being a glorified supporting part, there is nothing unique or special about his performance and I cringed during his drunk scene, meaning I didn't buy it for a second. When the character wisecracks or is supposed to be hung over, Stewart seems utterly out of his element. Hepburn, Grant and Hussey act rings around his totally un-award worthy performance.