Screenplay by Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, story by Leo McCarey
Starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald
Here’s an intriguing question: What does it take for an actor to win an Oscar? Leaving the little matter of politics out of it, my curiosity is over what kind of performance does it take for an actor to win an Oscar? Is it better to play a showy role where the scenery can be chewed in all it’s glory, or at least one where we know a part is being played? Or, is it better to play a role that rewards the naturalistic, showcasing the kind of acting where the actor doesn’t’ even seem to be acting?
In recent decades, the answer to the question invariable seems to be that playing the showy part is the way to get an Oscar, and the showier – read: more handicapped – the better. After all it worked for, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, Charlize Theron in Monster (serial-killing is definitely a handicap in my book), Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (psychotic cannibals are not normal), Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Hilary Swank in Boy’s Don’t Cry, Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.
Obviously, this is just a little taste of them all, because this list could go on and on.
But when a role doesn’t call for a handicap, an accent will do just as well, any accent at all, as long as it’s not the actor’s original accent. Just ask Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, Martin Landau in Ed Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.
Obviously, that list can go on and on as well.
Given how many actors win for completely playing against who they are, it’s no shock that the completely natural performance rarely wins, and by completely natural I mean the part where the actor doesn’t even look like he’s playing a part. Looking back over the years there were only a few of them that jump out as being completely natural performances – Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine being one, Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips being another – which, of course, raises questions itself. Specifically, if an actor doesn’t look like he’s playing a part is it safe to assume he’s not, and is merely playing himself? And if it’s safe to assume he’s not, should Oscar’s really be given to actor’s who are merely playing themselves?
This whole discussion really occurred to me upon watching Going My Way, specifically about the performance of Bing Crosby. You might not know it, but Der Bingle is an Academy Award winner, taking home Best Actor in 1944. But he was far from a one shot deal, taking a nomination the following year as well.
In Going My Way, Crosby is the essence of humble, easy, charm. He never seems to do any heavy lifting to make his Father O’Malley liked and sympathized with, despite the fact that if he fails to do so, the film falls apart around him. It just comes natural – effortlessly natural. But does that mean we should give a guy an Oscar just for not falling flat on his face? Or, for a performance he would play again in White Christmas, Holiday Inn, and a host of others? The answer would seem to be no, but does it have to be?
Of course, any discussion here presupposes Crosby wasn’t performing at all, that he and Father O’Malley were when and the same, when such a presupposition may not be true. After all, after Crosby’s son wrote a memoir called Going My Own Way, in which he described his father as physically and psychologically abusive, it’s hard not to think that maybe Crosby was really giving one of the greatest performances of his life. After all, if this man, who it was claimed could terrorize his children as he did, and then turn about and give a kind and sympathetic performance as Father O’Malley – well, perhaps in a weird, upside down way, he was chewing the scenery as much as any other actor, only in his own, specific way.
Does Crosby deserve his Oscar? I can’t say. I haven’t seen enough of the films out from 1944 to make a statement one way or another. Deserved or not, Crosby carries the movie and is the glue that holds it together. Even so, he’s not the best thing in it. If you came to see Going My Way at all, it’s really to see Barry Fitzgerald – he’s the man who puts the spice in the stew as Father Fitzgibbon. As the aging priest, looking more and more out of touch with his flock with each passing year, Fitzgerald gets all the good scenes, showing fear, bemusement, disappointment, stubbornness and finally happiness. Crosby might be the name above the title, but Fitzgerald is clearly the real draw, at least purely in cinematic terms.
Questions of acting aside, and I can’t quibble with Crosby and Fitzgerald getting the gold, I can argue with the film taking Best Picture. Though it might be a feel good movie, and generally genial, showing Catholics as less gloom and doom, and more praise and hallelujah, Going My Way had definite bouts of interminability. The problem with the film is that, while it started off as a fairly light-hearted drama, which it gladly clung to for an hour or so, at about that one hour mark it suddenly became a musical showcase for Crosby. Now, I know he’s got a golden-voice and everything, but did the last hour really need four musical numbers (or was it five)? I understand the music was a part of the plot, to some tacked-on degree, but in this case it was just overdone. I’m not even sure he had that many musical numbers in White Christmas, in which he actually played a singer.
Barry Fitzgerald isn’t the only man to receive to acting nominations for the same part – Crosby did it with O’Malley, Pacino did it with Michael Corleone, and Cate Blachett did it with Queen Elizabeth, among others – but Fitzgerald was the first to do it in one year, being nominated in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories for the same role in the same film. This is the only time in Oscar history such a thing happened, a rule oversight changed a year later.
For the other winners and films left to see, click here.