Bestowed by an industry upon itself, the Oscars are primarily self-congratulatory, often operating on a scale in which ”serious” wins awards and ”entertaining” is nominated only if it made serious money. (This year’s nominations were scheduled to be announced Feb. 13.) While home video makes it possible to discover or compare performances that have taken Best Actor or Actress honors throughout the years, it also points up how often Hollywood mistakes high-mindedness for high quality.
Nowhere is that demonstrated more clearly than in the latest releases in MGM/UA Home Video’s ongoing Oscar-Winning Classics series: The Champ (1931), The Divorcée (1930), A Free Soul (1931), Lilies of the Field (1963), Separate Tables (1958), and The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931). Of the six films (all in black and white), only The Champ remains entirely free of the stiffness that comes with taking high moral ground; the rest are frozen in various degrees of propriety. It makes you wonder what The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, 1978) is going to look like in 30 years.
Generally here, the older the movie, the more its political or moral importance has faded, leaving only affectations specific to its era. The Sin of Madelon Claudet, The Divorcée, and A Free Soul were all made when Hollywood was still adjusting to the talkies, and since Broadway was considered both the height of sophistication and an easy source of scripts, the three movies are little more than filmed plays, right down to the fake potted plants.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet even features an actual Broadway star in her first major film role. At age 31, Helen Hayes was already the ”First Lady of the American Theater,” but Claudet offers little beyond her star power: It’s a shameless hankie-soaker about a fallen mademoiselle walking the streets to put her son through medical school. Hayes has said she thought the script was ridiculous, but shestill gave it her best shot, and her nimble substance here will surprise viewers who know her only as a twinkly old lady: She suggests a more compact Meryl Streep. But while the film industry immediately served her with a Best Actress Oscar — as if to certify that Hollywood knew class when it saw it — Hayes wasn’t won over. By 1935, she was back reigning over Broadway, where she stayed until 1952’s My Son John.
When the studios couldn’t get an actual Broadway name for their tony stage adaptations, they looked to local talent, and none was more chic, smart, and modern than Norma Shearer. It helped that she was married to MGM’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, but Thalberg was no fool and Shearer was a good actress. What she lacked, unfortunately, was simple charisma. The Divorcée features her Best Actress-winning turn as a career-gal newlywed who challenges her husband’s double standard on adultery; it’s a talky drawing-room comedy in which the star works overtime to be witty and elegant but remains haplessly dull.
A Free Soul is damning proof of Oscar’s early preference for stage acting over movie acting. Playing the boozy father to free-thinking Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore won his Best Actor award on the strength of a courtroom speech that seems like one fat piece of ham today. The real reason to see Soul, though, is for Clark Gable, sinuous and brutal in the role that made him a star. ”You’re a new kind of man,” Shearer says to him in one scene; too bad they didn’t have an Oscar for that.
Separate Tables has everything that made Academy members’ mouths water in the late ’50s: a script adapted from a prestigious play, heavy dialogue coupled with virtually no action, and glamorous actors playing repressed nerds. Bon vivant David Niven won a Best Actor Oscar as the fraudulent, pathetic Major Pollock here, but the award really honored the audacity of his change of pace: Despite a heartfelt performance, Niven is plainly miscast.
By the early ’60s, Hollywood’s good intentions were fully in line with the burgeoning civil rights movement, so Sidney Poitier was a shoo-in as Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Poitier was the first black person to win the award, a fact his acceptance speech eloquently acknowledged (”It has been a long journey to this moment”), but while the film remains a quiet charmer, the star is as fundamentally miscast as Niven was in Separate Tables. Always an intelligent but limited performer, Poitier seems too cerebral as Homer Smith, the itinerant handyman who helps a group of nuns build a church in the Arizona desert — you can see him working from his head instead of his heart. It’s a classic Oscar irony: Hollywood may have been so justifiably concerned with breaking down barriers that they failed to notice that this particular black actor may not have been the right actor for the role.
Not surprisingly, the film that holds up the best out of these six is the one that had nothing to prove. The Champ’s plot is of the highest corn — scrappy urchin Jackie Cooper looks after lovable no-good boxer dad Wallace Beery — but the film plays against easy tears until the very end, gazing instead at poverty-line existences without blinking or grandstanding. Beery, in the part that won him a Best Actor Oscar, is a gruff wonder: He was the closest the human physique has yet come to Yogi Bear, but his acting had a genial subtlety that endeared him to audiences while awing his peers. (Jon Voight’s soggy performance in the 1979 remake shows how skillfully Beery skirted sentiment.) When, near the end of the 1932 awards ceremony, a vote-counter realized the actor had actually tied with Fredric March (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Beery was belatedly given a statuette, the audience burst into spontaneous cheers — relieved, perhaps, that Oscar was willing to recognize something as simple as natural talent. The Champ: B+ The Divorcée: C- A Free Soul: C+ Lilies of the Field: B Separate Tables: B+ The Sin of Madelon Claudet: C