Van Johnson, who died today at age 92 in Nyack, N.Y., was a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be. Like most 1950s heartthrobs — Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue — his career is pigeonholed with B-grade romances, cornball WWII fighter pilot adventures, and beneath-his-dignity television guest appearances (indeed, he may have pioneered the cheesy sitcom walk-on by playing himself in a famous Hollywood episode of I Love Lucy). His corn-field reddish-blond hair, sky-blue eyes, and blandly earnest charm won him loads of parts as the all-American boy, usually opposite all-American girls like June Allyson (Two Girls and a Sailor, Too Young to Kiss) and Esther Williams (Easy to Love, The Duchess of Idaho), although he also shared screen time with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris and, in his most memorable romance, Deborah Kerr in The End of the Affair.
But there is at least one performance in which Johnson’s true talent is impossible to overlook — in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny. Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer chomp up all the scenery in this maritime courtroom drama, but it’s Johnson’s character, the painfully ambivalent, not-too-bright Lieutenant Steve Maryk, who binds the whole movie together. For the scene in which he relieves Captain Queeg from command during a typhoon, Johnson manages to convey both panic and determination in his eyes. And when he takes the stand at his court-martial for mutiny, you can read his character’s racing mind from the symphony of expressions on his face. Everybody remembers Bogart playing with his ball bearings in The Caine Mutiny — including the Academy, which nominated him for an Oscar — but it’s Van Johnson who gave the film its most nuanced, impressive turn.
Johnson never won an Oscar. Never even got nominated. But he did prove he was capable of an Oscar-worthy performance, and that’s more than most movie stars can claim.