December 24, 2015

Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives

Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Fredric March appears in The Best Years of Our Lives much older and seasoned than the Freddie I had gotten to know so well the decade before. And with this age comes something new that hadn't been there prior--a profound sense of translucence, the ability to make the simplest of expressions into exhaustive significance.

At first glance, this is a very peculiar Oscar-winning performance. It is a mere piece in a very interwoven ensemble, one that's secondary to that of Dana Andrews. The character lacks a hook (pardon the pun) that would make you remember it, a la Harold Russell. The performance itself captured no prior precursory award. But the most baffling thing to me is that Al Stephenson isn't at all a driving force in this film. This performance doesn't command attention to itself as does Al Jolson or King Henry V. What's more, it doesn't exist to warm your heart like Penny Baxter or George Bailey. If you were to eliminate the character of Al from the film altogether, I believe there'd still be enough there to tell a truncated story. But Academy members for whatever reason paid attention, not only singling him out over Andrews but giving him a second statue, and I think that's solely due to March's talents as an actor in breathing life into a character that by no means was written to linger on the mind. But when I watched him in this film, I was struck by March's skill in communicating so much with mere glances--in his very first scene, he looks utterly fatigued by the war that has just finished up. He later dances a fine line between exuberance and intensity in his drunken scenes at the bar--all the while providing comedic relief. He is vehement and hard in his one-on-one with Andrews later on in the film. In other words, he brings a simultaneous effortlessness and zeal with material that doesn't allow gimmicks (unless you count all his drunken scenes), material that is dwarfed by what Andrews and Russell get to work with in terms of overall dramatic power. And yet there he is, dominating his petite role with subtle prowess, making his male counterparts look like amateurs in the process. It's impressively persuasive work by March, and yet another reason for me to adore him.


  1. I love this film and I think it works on so many levels (see the comment for the film itself). That said, I don't think March deserved an Oscar for this performance at all. To begin with, the part doesn't warrant it. Al Stephenson starts the film as a key figure only to kind of fade into the background as two other central male characters (Andrews and Russell) grapple mightily with adjusting to their return to civilian life after the trauma of WWII. I think March's character is essential to the functioning of the film because he adds a steady gravitas that centers a world which has become topsy turvy for everyone else, but it's really more of a supporting role as the film progresses. And while I think March does a lot with slim material, sometimes its too much. I find many of his drunken scenes (and there are many) overdone and bordering on hammy because he's trying to be funny. There's even a shot of him in the backseat of the car where he opens and then crosses his eyes to show how stuporous he is which, sorry, is a very obvious way to 'show' drunkenness and is a cheap laugh as well. It doesn't belong in the film.

    March has some nice moments where his character comments sardonically on the once familiar, now utterly changed world he finds himself in but these are just moments that don't really take him anywhere. He functions almost like a one man 'Greek chorus'. Still, as I said, he's essential to the story because he's a steadying force and March plays his part with a quiet strength that anchors the film as other characters and storylines spin out of control. It's nice work in a mostly ensemble piece, but it didn't deserve an Oscar.

    I'd have chosen Andrews over him for a Best Actor nod because that character truly evolves over time and requires more range, which Andrews displays wonderfully.

  2. I think he is OK but I agree that Andrews should have been the one singled out from the movie...