• Academy Award: Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront
Sure, go ahead and give the Oscar to the dude who revolutionized screen acting like nobody before or since. Nice one, Academy members. Maybe next time you’ll somehow find a way to—oh, wait, did they?
Maybe there’s somebody out there who can find fault with Marlon Brando’s legendary performance in On The Waterfront, but I don’t have the wherewithal. There were certainly scores of brilliant actors prior to this historical moment—indeed, one school of thought considers the advent of the Method a largely destructive force, and pines for the days when a certain degree of artifice was commonplace. But there’s no denying that Brando’s commitment to the truth, even when that involved performing actions or expressing emotions not called for in the script, changed the craft and the audience’s expectations. The film’s most famous dialogue scene is its climactic “Coulda been a contender” confrontation between Brando’s Terry and his brother, but its most enduring revelation occurs when Eva Marie Saint’s Edie drops her glove during an otherwise standard walk-and-talk. There was a time when that mistake would have led to the cry of “Cut!” and another take; Brando’s genius was the instantaneous decision to accept that it happened and incorporate it into the scene, paying more attention to the glove than to Edie herself. He’s also uniquely vulnerable as Terry, unafraid to appear weak or confused even when those qualities aren’t necessarily intended as setup for future bravery or cleverness. (Though that strategy exists in the film as well.) Giving the Oscar to anyone else would have seemed insane. Not even AMPAS could screw up this one.
• New York Film Critics Circle: Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront
Of the three major critics’ organizations I survey for this column, only the NYFCC existed in 1954, and and it too recognized Brando’s greatness. Had On The Waterfront never been made, however, I suspect the year’s big winner would have been Humphrey Bogart, who received an Oscar nomination for his work as the tyrannical, paranoid Captain Queeg in Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. (He’d just won Best Actor three years earlier for The African Queen, though, so that would surely have been a factor.) In one sense, Queeg is a terrific part, providing the actor playing him with plenty of juicy speeches; from the perspective of a star seeking to preserve his image, however, it’s a potentially disastrous role, as Queeg is neither the hero nor precisely the villain—just a mentally disturbed man whose profession lets him disguise his neuroses. Bogart doesn’t hesitate to embody the character’s sadism and cowardice, apparently unconcerned that viewers might project those qualities onto him. What’s more, he manages to suggest at times that Queeg’s absolute discipline has an important function, which is crucial given the unexpected shift in allegiance the film ultimately takes. Bogart arguably overdoes Queeg’s breakdown during the court-martial sequence, signaling his loss of control a bit too emphatically. This is a performance that should be somewhat difficult to watch, though, and it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without an icon of Bogie’s stature being so willing to make himself look bad. It’s a superb portrait of weakness masquerading as strength.
• Los Angeles Film Critics Association: N/A
The L.A. critics hadn’t banded together yet, but if they had, they might well have given their prize to James Mason, playing a washed-up movie star in Hollywood’s greatest act of self-examination. For my money, George Cukor’s remake of A Star Is Born (which was already pretty terrific back in 1937) is one of the greatest movies ever made, and Mason probably doesn’t get as much credit for its triumph as he should, simply because he happened to be working opposite a strong candidate for the single greatest performance of all time (by Judy Garland, about whom I’ll likely rhapsodize in a future column). Like Bogart’s Caine Mutiny performance, this is a remarkably ugly depiction of human nature. Mason’s Norman Maine is first seen drunkenly wandering onstage in the middle of a show and molesting chorus girls, and he proves to be proud, vain, jealous, controlling, and generally a walking (or stumbling) train-wreck of a human being. At the same time, though (and it’s often literally at the same time), he’s also willing to stake his reputation on his belief in Esther’s talent, someone capable of love, respect, generosity, and ultimately sacrifice. Mason walks a thin line between noble and pathetic, and graciously allows Garland to walk away with the movie; just as “Vicki Lester” wouldn’t exist without Norman, however (as she acknowledges in the film’s famous final line), Garland would have been lost without Mason’s crucial mirror image to reflect her.
• National Society of Film Critics: N/A
Despite Brando’s blatant awesomeness, there’s at least a marginally plausible alternative for every critics’ group in 1954, whether that group actually existed or not. The NSFC, founded in 1966, did not, but it’s easy to imagine them indulging their preference for the offbeat and foreign by handing Best Actor to Dan O’Herlihy, who played the title role in Luis Buñuel’s Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. (Somewhat surprisingly, he was nominated for an Oscar as well.) It’s a pretty deranged performance, closer to Tom Hanks at the tail end of Cast Away than to the character as written by Daniel Defoe, in large part because Buñuel was more interested in Crusoe’s spirituality than in his survival strategy. Alternately, the NSFC might have plumped for Toshirô Mifune in Seven Samurai, representing another variety of derangement. He’s unquestionably deserving, but there are two issues with that scenario: 1. According to the IMDb, Seven Samurai didn’t open in the U.S. until 1956; and 2. While Mifune gives the film’s most memorable performance, he’s really playing a supporting role. (It isn’t clear that the film even has a lead role, being an ensemble piece.) In any case, I can’t see them endorsing the remaining Oscar nominee, Bing Crosby, whose work in The Country Girl suffers by comparison to Mason’s. Both play fading actors beholden to their wives (and Grace Kelly won the Oscar that was denied to Garland; again, that’s a future column), but Crosby remains on the surface of his character’s flawed nature rather than digging deep.
You know who wasn’t given so much as a how-do-you-do by anybody, though?
• Performance Review’s Most Overlooked: James Stewart, Rear Window
The Academy did realize Rear Window was a notable picture. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, and the film also got nods for Screenplay, Color Cinematography, and Sound Recording. Stewart, however, was completely ignored, as he was again four years later, for his equally stunning work in Vertigo. If nothing else, people should have been impressed by the challenge the role presented: L.B. Jefferies (a.k.a. Jeff) spends the entire film stuck in a wheelchair, from which confines Stewart has to convey a constantly increasing level of excitement, suspicion, and alarm. Think about how many classic Stewart performances involve him pacing around a room while thinking out loud; he liked to be in motion whenever possible. Trapping him in a wheelchair forced him to use a whole different set of muscles, and much of Rear Window’s considerable tension is derived from the disjunction between Jeff’s still body and his constantly racing mind. On top of which, Stewart pulls off a trick that seems nearly impossible, given the nature of movies and our expectations: He sells the possibility that Jeff’s wild ideas about what happened in the apartment across the courtyard might be wrong. This isn’t medium-altering, Brando-level work by any means, nor even necessarily one of Stewart’s finest performances, but it was clearly taken for granted at the time. Had Grace Kelly dropped a glove at some point, maybe his agonized struggle to retrieve it would have made the difference.