Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Top 10 Male Performances of the 1950s

Have I ever given a good reason why I love doing lists? For one, you can always update and change them as time goes by, and use them as a good gauge for what all you have seen, and what you still need to see. Secondly, because they are SO easy to do. Thirdly, they give me a great opportunity to show off how much time I've wasted watching movies; because I like showing off and I love watching movies.

For a fourth and more minor reason, they give me a great way to avoid creativity and make giant sets of lists like this for my blog. So, I now present to you my top 10 best (and favorite) male acting performances of the 1950s.

#10 - James Stewart in Harvey

If you read my previous post of my favorite male performances of the 1940s, seeing his name on this list shouldn't be much of a surprise to you. The man is completely charming, and even more than in any other performance, James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey is him at his most lovable. With a character who is impossible not to find endearing, Stewart's childlike innocence is played to perfection, never seeming at all forced or sickeningly sweet as it easily could have been with any other actor. Nominated for Best Actor in 1950 alongside other strong performances such as Spencer Tracy in Father Of The Bride and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, Stewart's effortless performance easily stands as my favorite of the group. No he didn't win, but he didn't have to.

#9 - Gary Cooper in High Noon

Coming in at number 9, here is one that's not so much great just because of the performance, but because of the role. Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon. This is not to say Cooper wasn't excellent, but the role of Will Kane is something few actors have been blessed with landing. He is the ultimate movie hero, standing off against a posse of dangerous outlaws out of sheer sense of duty and unbridled determination. Even when the cowardly townfolk refuse to help him and he has just retired as Marshall, he steps up and defends the same people who have alienated him. Cooper, who is usually a bit stiff, makes you feel the full weight of his imminent showdown, giving a great amount of depth in his performance, one that won him a very well-deserved second Oscar in 1952.

#8 - William Holden in Stalag 17

As you might be able to tell from my first couple of selections, I am being really creative with this list. At number 8, William Holden as World War II POW J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17. William Holden is a great actor, and this is easily his best performance (Network and Sunset Boulevard are both great, but this is where he really stands out) and, unsurprisingly, the one he won an Oscar for. His role is very tricky, being one that you both loathe and admire as he makes deals with the guards at his prison camp and exploits every asset he has at his disposal without even the slightest inclination to aid his fellow prisoners. As slimy, dishonest, and two-faced as any protagonist you could expect to find in a movie, Holden's cool, callous performance single-handedly makes Stalag 17 one of the best movies of the 1950s. Any time a single performance can do that, you have to know it was great.

#7 - Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront

Coming in at number 7 is Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning performance as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. Choosing between this and A Streetcar Named Desire was very difficult, but I ultimately went with this one due to these simple facts: A) I liked On The Waterfront much more than A Streetcar Named Desire, and B) this movie was far more reliant on Brando's performance for it to succeed. In both he portrays a damaged character, though as Stanley Kowalski he is much more damaging to those around him. In On The Waterfront, though his character is an ex-boxer, much of his pain is internalized. Giving me another great reason to choose his performance in On The Waterfront over A Streetcar Named Desire, his "I coulda been a contender" dialogue is one of the most memorable moments in movie history. So despite being two incredible performances both deserving of a place on this list, I'll have to go with On The Waterfront, though this could be considered a joint selection between the two. Nonetheless, they're incredible performances that need no explanation for their placing on here.

#6 - Alec Guinness in The Bridge On The River Kwai

And yet another Best Actor winning performance! Isn't my lack of creativity inspiring? But, much like the others, this one is also justified. At number 6, Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in David Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai. Going through physical and psychological changes throughout the film's runtime, Guinness takes his role and runs away with it. Nicholson, a commanding British officer is taken captive along with the remainder of his troops and forced to build a bridge (on the river Kwai), stubbornly taking every action he can along the way to make it as difficult as possible for his Japanese captors. But as the titular bridge nears completion, the line between duty and pride is blurred as he begins to lose site of his priorities and slip into a strange case of what could be defined as Stockholm Syndrome. Guinness, who usually plays posh, snobbish roles is surprisingly raw in this one. Yes, he keeps his traditionally uppity British attitude, but we also see a different side of him altogether; A much darker one - and I like it.

#5 - David Niven in Separate Tables

I know, I know, I'm a veritable fountain of originality. The 5th Best Actor winning performance on my list, and I'm barely over halfway through! But at least this time I chose a performance that not many people seem to have seen. Coming in at number 5, David Niven as Major Angus Pollock in the oft-neglected Separate Tables. What instantly struck me about this performance was how simple it seemed on the surface. He seems like a fairly generic character, the kind that you see in hundreds of movies, but there is much more than meets the eye. Niven's emotionally-driven performance is at its most impressive near the end of the movie, as both the story and his acting slowly begin to peel away layer upon layer before finally reaching the dramatic core of his character. Both a marvel in writing and acting, this is one of the greatest and most overlooked Best Actor winners in history. If you don't believe me, watch the powerful, revealing scene near the end of the movie where his darkest secrets come to the fore. Everything about this performance, from his voice, mannerisms, and facial expressions is simply golden. A dramatic masterpiece of subtlety, and one of my personal all-time favorite performances.

#4 - Robert Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter

And now on to my number 4 choice: Robert Mitchum (in the only good performance I've ever seen of his) as 'Reverend' Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's The Night Of The Hunter. If I were to name the top 10 greatest movie villains of all-time, don't be surprised if you saw him sitting right next to Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. Though this basic character has been worn into the ground ever since, the sheer depravity of Powell combined with Mitchum's coolly collected performance as this murderous "Man of God" makes for one of the most threatening and memorable villains of all-time. Part of what makes him so intimidating is how calmly Mitchum portrays him. He seldom loses his temper, but when he does he completely loses it, making even his quieter moments nerve-wracking to sit through. The fact that he feels he's following the word of God and his complete lack of empathy only add to the chill factor. The character feels like an exceptionally menacing Hitchcock villain; a complete sociopath, and one not easily forgotten. I'm not a fan of Mitchum, but this was perfect casting.

#3 - Kirk Douglas in Ace In The Hole

At number 3, Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum in the underrated 1951 drama Ace In The Hole. Much like William Holden's performance in Stalag 17 (which was coincidentally also directed by Billy Wilder), this is a protagonist that is wholly unlikable. Vivacious, self-centered, ferocious, and cunning, Douglas' miraculously Oscar-less performance as the fiercely dedicated reporter is a marvel. His complete lack of morality is brought to light as he shamelessly exploits tragedy for his own benefit. Picturing anyone but Douglas in this role is difficult to do, as he was one of the few actors at that point in time who could capture the pure malice of a character like this. Though this role isn't much different from Douglas' usual performances, this is the one that best showcases his intensity, and is (thanks to Wilder) easily his best-written character. How he didn't earn an Oscar (or at least a nomination) for this performance is truly one of the Academy's biggest blunders.

#2 - Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell Of Success

Number 2. Though the movie as a whole stumbles at times due to a very forced romantic side-story, Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell Of Success is a total scene-stealer who never takes a false step. Another of the all-time great movie villains, Hunsecker is one who rarely has to do his dirty work, but when he does, he's even more intimidating than you could expect. Burt Lancaster is a hulking presence, and paired with Ernest Lehman-penned dialogue (who also wrote the screenplay for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?) makes him both dominating physically and verbally. A man of high esteem with nearly unlimited assets at his disposal, Hunsecker is not a man you would want to cross, especially not if you become romantically entangled with his younger sister. The fact that he could completely steal the movie away from Tony Curtis is impressive in its own right, but the fact that he was denied an Oscar nomination is even more of a surprise. Every moment he's on the screen your eyes are instantly drawn to him, in a performance I refuse to acknowledge as anything less than mesmerizing.

#1 - Toshiro Mifune in Throne Of Blood
This spot could easily be filled by Mifune's equally spirited performances in Seven Samurai, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, or even The Lower Depths, but I have chosen to go with this. At number 1, the single greatest performance by one of the greatest actors of all-time: Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu in Akira Kurosawa's brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Throne Of Blood. Mifune's ability to convey emotion with great intensity in an instant is a talent rivaled by none. He can express more raw emotion with just his eyes than most actors can do with their entire bodies, and in Throne Of Blood he displays this skill with great effectiveness. If you have ever seen Mifune in a film or read the play this was based on, I'm sure you can picture him in the role, and he really runs away with it. Though his acting may seem over-the-top at times, his lively characterization is energetic, powerful, and impossible to forget. This performance may not have the humor of his role as Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, Mifune's strong dramatic presence as the doomed King is my favorite Shakespearian performance, and stands as my favorite male performance of the 1950s.

As always, special thanks to anyone who read this post. If you liked the list or have anything you think I should have added, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


paul said...

I haven't seen most of these films (though I do plan on seeing them) but interesting list, makes me want to see some of these even more :)

H.A.K. said...

the bottom ones were awesome. the other ones I have yet to see. very good list.


I've not seen most of these but wtf? No Streecar named Desire? No Henry Fonda in 12 angry men? No Stewart in Anatomy of A Murder? Lol. I've been really wanting to see Mitchum in night of the hunter though. I wasn't a big fan of his performance in Cape Fear.

Jeff SC said...

The Brando selection kind of works as a combination pick, I just didn't want to fill up the list with the same actors over and over again. And I have never been too impressed with Fonda, especially not in 12 Angry Men. Lee J. Cobb would have made the cut much sooner. And with Stewart, I just liked him in Harvey much more, so that's what. I still haven't seen Cape Fear, but yeah, you shoudl definitely check out The Night Of The Hunter.