By John H. Foote
The art of acting evolved slowly throughout the 1940s, but in 1947, it was forever altered when Marlon Brando stepped onto the New York stage as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. His gritty, explosive performance changed the very fabric of acting more than it had been changed in 30 years. While critics fell over themselves looking for superlatives with which to describe Olivier, Brando was changing the very face of stage acting in America.
Film was evolving too, becoming more realistic. The stories were connected to what was happening socially and politically, especially after the war.
James Stewart left to fight in WWII. He had built a reputation as a fine actor, but he returned a darker, brilliant actor because his life experience had altered him. His performance in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was nothing short of miraculous and remains such today. A fighter pilot in the war, he returned with a darker edge to his work. Something dangerous lurked under the surface of his performances, which completed his evolution.
Though Laurence Olivier mastered speaking iambic pentameter, he brought no soul to his work, leaving me flummoxed as to why critics loved him so. Ordinary at best. And as he got older, it got worse. In the 40’s and 50’s, as acting became more and more realistic, Olivier could always be “seen” acting, and by the 80s was an old ham, an embarrassment to the art form. Watch him in The Boys from Brazil (1978), Dracula (1979), Inchon (1981) and, worst of all, The Jazz Singer (1980) to see what I mean. Hailed the greatest of all time, he was nothing of the kind. Beautiful diction does not an actor make.
Bogart, on the other hand, dominated the 40’s with an array of fine performances, emerging as a towering actor who would rule the box office in America for the next 20 years. And how about John Wayne? Seeing his performance in Howard Hawks’ cattle drive epic Red River (1948), his good friend and director John Ford snorted, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” Wayne would go on to do the best work of his long career for Ford.
Onstage in New York, the Method was quietly shaping the future of American performance. Brando’s work in the latter half of the 40’s would begin to galvanize the art form, and by the time he began film acting, every actor at work in movies sought what he did—the truth. Only Olivier resisted.
1. JAMES STEWART IN IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) – As George Bailey, a gentle dreamer who longs to see the world, who dreams his entire youth of getting out of his small town, only to remain in that same town all his life. Beaten down by life and the vile town millionaire Mr. Potter, George decides one night to take his own life, convinced the world would be better off without him. Clarence, a bumbling angel, shows him what the world would have been without George Bailey. He moves through these visions unknown to his family and friends because to them, he never existed. The scene where his child is playfully placing tinsel on his head, and he suddenly grabs her into a tight hug as tears cascade down his face still breaks my heart. A remarkable heart breaking yet life-affirming performance.
2. BARBARA STANWYCK IN DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) – Stanwyck fearlessly portrayed an evil woman out for money in this powerful film noir from the great Billy Wilder. Bad to the bone, brilliant, and sexy as hell, Stanwyck portrays a woman who masterminds an insurance scam and convinces a poor sap to murder her husband in the process. She of course has every intention of doing him in once she has her money. Watch her move, like a deadly black widow spider and when she pleads her innocence, damn if you do not want to believe her. Women figured her out right away, but we stupid men allowed this dangerous creature to lead us right by the nose down the path to hell.
3. HUMPHREY BOGART IN THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) – Bogart was never better than he is here as Fred C. Dobbs, the wayward American drifter who joins up with two other men and heads into the Sierra Madre mountains to mine for gold. Not heeding the words of the older man, portrayed by the superb Walter Huston, he allows the evils of wealth overcome him. He becomes paranoid, seething with anger, mistakenly convinced his partners are out to rob him. Dobbs is transformed into a sniveling weak man who meets his end at the hands of some Mexican bandits who do not realize he is carrying with him millions in gold dust. Karma. Bogart incredibly was not nominated despite giving his finest performance.
4. HENRY FONDA IN THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) – Fonda won his only Academy Award in 1981, portraying an old man (hardly a stretch by then) in On Golden Pond, 40 years after his first Academy Award nomination as Tom Joad in this magnificent adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. The Grapes of Wrath might be the greatest novel ever written by an American writer, and John Ford was the perfect director to turn it into a film. His casting of Fonda was genius, recognizing the everyman quality Fonda had that was needed for the film. That final speech to his mother is one of the cinema’s greatest moments, a man realizing he is small in relation to the rest of humanity. An astonishing performance to this day.
5. INGRID BERGMAN IN CASABLANCA (1943) – Torn between love and duty, Bergman is superb in this film, likely her best performance. As Ilsa, she arrives in Casablanca with her husband, a freedom fighter against the Nazis, and encounters her ex-lover Rick, portrayed beautifully by Bogart. The wound in llsa’s eyes is apparent throughout the film in Bergman’s haunting, sensitive performance. The pain in her voice when she asks Sam to play “When Time Goes By” is so clear, we feel it. And the scenes between her and Bogart are brilliant, the love so clear, so deep. This was her finest hour.
6. ORSON WELLES IN CITIZEN KANE (1941) – Welles was an extraordinary 24 years old when he came to Hollywood tasked with doing any film he wanted by RKO Studios. After conquering both Broadway and radio (the latter with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which fooled and terrified many Americans), film loomed. After a dinner with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Welles co-wrote Citizen Kane, which has been hailed as the greatest American film ever made. That is no longer true, but it has many astonishing achievements including his performance as Kane, aging from 30 to mid-80s. Despite the obvious make-up job to age him, Welles depicts Kane in every way. Time has not dimmed the brilliance of his performance; he remains remarkable.
7. JOHN WAYNE IN RED RIVER (1948) – As mentioned, Wayne did some of his best work with John Ford, but his career as a true artist began here. As Thomas Dunson, a career cattleman, he adopts a child he finds and raises him as Matt (Montgomery Clift) and they begin a cattle drive on the famed Chisholm Trail. There the film becomes a sort of Mutiny on the Bounty, with Dunson as the cruel and often savage Bligh character. Wayne gives a towering performance as a man older than he was. His career took off and he went on to be an icon in American cinema.
8. CHARLES CHAPLIN IN THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – Under-estimated as an actor for most of his career because he played a variation of his character the Little Tramp, Chaplin was actually a magnificent film actor with the uncanny ability to merge comedy with pathos in a single eye movement. Fiercely aware politically of the state of the world, he feared the rise of Hitler in Europe long before anyone (except Winston Churchill) was aware of the German leader. Hollywood was nervous about doing a spoof of Hitler, but the fearless little artist marched on, and the result was this powerful black comedy satire. It was the first time audiences had ever heard Chaplin speak, and he portrayed two characters, a diabolical dictator and an identical gentle little barber. Not surprisingly, they switch places and the comedy and pathos ensue. Chaplin received the only Best Actor nomination of his career for this performance, superb and often frightening, but in the end, hilarious. Hitler was not amused.
9. OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND IN THE HEIRESS (1949) – Portraying the daughter of a wealthy man, De Havilland’s character falls in love with a man who may be a fortune hunter. One thing is clear, she loves him, deeply, enough to pass on her father’s fortune. De Havilland was best known as the milquetoast and pure Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), but through the 40s she established herself as a great actress. In 1948, she was remarkable in The Snake Pit, but surpassed that with her Oscar-winning performance in this William Wyler directed film. She was never better.
10. JAMES CAGNEY IN WHITE HEAT (1949) – As Cody Jarrett, a career criminal, James Cagney gives an electrifying performance, which might be the finest he ever gave on screen. Small in stature, but enormous in presence, Cagney is overwhelming in the film, dominating the film in every way. He had won his Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) but was astounding as Jarrett and should have won again for his performance here. Jittery, shattering, frightening Cagney dominates the screen with a ferocious performance of a villain who knows he is bad and loves it.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.