So, if you didn’t catch last week’s edition of Twice a Best Actor, I’ll fill you in for a moment. Our amazing panel of bloggers has undertaken the task of watching, reviewing and grading all of the performances of actors who have won the Lead Actor Oscar, twice. Last week was the first edition of this blogging roundtable, where we dissected and debated Sean Penn’s two Oscar wins, for Mystic River and for Milk. As that post showed, we have a very opinionated roundtable that is also quite varied, with some praising Penn’s performances while others ripped him a new one.
This week we are discussing the Oscar wins of Gary Cooper. Cooper already has a controversial note attached to his first win, where many lament over Orson Welles’ Oscar loss, but honestly not many people even talk about Cooper’s second win, for High Noon.
Well, we’re going to talk about both of them today.
Once again, meet our panel:
Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films (duh)
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually
So, let’s get into this!
Sergeant York isn’t exactly my kind of movie, but I respect what the film, and Cooper’s work in it, did for America. Sergeant York was still playing in theaters when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the film, in all its hoo-rah-rah patriotism, gave America hope. Cooper’s portrayal of York inspired young men to enlist in war and fight the good fight. Cooper is grand in the film, and the Oscar was certainly well earned.
I would’ve given it to the 25-year-old punk named Orson Welles, who changed the game with his little film called Citizen Kane.
My Grade: B+
The legend goes that Hollywood had been trying for years to convince Alvin York, the real-life, highly-decorated US WWI soldier, to make a movie of his life. York finally agreed only when he was guaranteed that Gary Cooper would play him in the film. In 1941, Cooper was one of the biggest and most successful stars and an Academy Award nominee already for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. If you had the chance for an actor of his caliber to play you in a movie, you'd take the opportunity, too. Unfortunately, while Cooper with his stoic demeanor and handsome-faced everyman-ness, may seem like the ideal person to play a war hero, the film's lopsided structure focuses more on his life as a wayward young man that finds religion. And Cooper, at 40 and over a decade older than York was at the time of the film's setting, seems far too mature to be pursuing such a young man's journey. The film's blatant christian and war propaganda (no wonder it was such a huge hit at the time! Give the people what they want - christianity AND patriotism!) also does him no favors when it tells us how conflicted he feels regarding his religious teachings going against the basic principles of war, with Cooper's stoney expressions giving us little insight to the struggle. And what little edge he's given at the beginning of the film (drunkard, potential murderer), is slowly chipped away until we're left with a dull, lifeless hero. But I guess that heroism was just what America needed at the brink of another World War. It's just too bad the award didn't go to the actual Best Actor of the year, Orson Welles as the complex, unlikable Charles Foster Kane (as far from a traditional hero as you can get). Welles never stood a chance against Cooper's inspiring (but bland)...Sergeant York.
My Grade: C-
I’ll be honest, when Sergeant York first started and Gary Cooper rednecked his way out of a bar, I really wanted to just end it all right there. Bullet to the head. I’m not joking, it was so overdone and ridiculously clichéd that I was waiting for a frog to come flying out of his overalls, all Spanky and Our Gang style. I was a little taken aback, considering that loose is never a term I would have used to describe stale faced Gary Cooper before, but he was so loose he was practically spinning in all directions.
I didn’t end it, obviously, and thankfully it got better.
It’s funny, because one of the biggest issues I have with the film (which would be the film’s lack of fluidity, but continued jumping from point to point without developmental segues) is the one thing that saves Cooper’s performance. He starts things off like a raging bumpkin and then, in a few short scenes, he’s kind of normal. All of the drunk nonsense and borderline mental handicaps are stripped from his portrayal and he seems like a simple yet earnest sort, not a caricature.
This isn’t to say that his performance completely redeems itself. The film still fails him (and he, in turn, fails the film) and so the performance feels stagnant in parts and just doesn’t really grip me. He tries to grapple the film’s half-baked ideas on faith and patriotism (the two don’t really mix well on film) and in the end concocts a character that feels kind of stupid and completely unsure of his own footing, and not in a poignant way. Cooper grounds some of the smaller scenes, some of the softer moments, but overall this is just a bland performance that is stilted by a heavy handed script and unprocessed ideas.
Orson Welles and Cary Grant were both leagues better than Cooper…LEAGUES!
My Grade: C-
Cooper won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Sgt. Alvin C. York, a country boy who won the Medal of Honor for his bravery during a battle in World War I. This role seems tailor-made for Cooper, given his Southern accent and on-screen persona as a restrained but strong individual. He doesn't do much in the performance, but he doesn't have to. He's perfect for the role, which doesn't require him to give a towering performance. It's easy to see why Academy voters went for this heroic portrayal during wartime.
Did Cooper deserve to win?
Next to Orson Welles' iconic performance in Citizen Kane, Cooper's work is grossly inferior. I haven't seen Walter Huston's Oscar-nominated turn in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but he's apparently terrific in it. While Welles would be my current pick of the nominees, I would've loved a win for the overlooked brilliance that Humphrey Bogart gave us in The Maltese Falcon. Like Cooper's role, Sam Spade fits Bogart like a glove, and it remains one of my all-time favorite performances.
My Grade: B
Who I was rooting for:
The only film on this list I’ve seen is Citizen Kane, so by default I’d pull for Welles.
Cooper plays Alvin York, backwards goofball who, after finding God, goes on to be an American hero in World War I.
Watch for: The scene where York, after putting on a shooting clinic at the rifle range, is called in to be promoted to corporal.
Yay: Cooper’s gobbling skills are magical. And deadly.
Boo: Does Cooper require that his leading lady be played by someone thirty years younger than he is?
Summary: Seeing Sergeant York after High Noon may have made all the difference in the world, as far as my opinion of the performance goes. Here, Cooper not only gets to occasionally emote, but York is a fairly complicated man allowing the actor some elbow room. Starting as a shiftless loser and over time morphing into Captain America’s hero, Cooper fills the role with the necessary level of affability and hard-headed determination. York is a simple feller, sure, but he absolutely refuses to let anyone or anything deter him. Sometimes Cooper’s epic performance, heavy on the aw-shucks dialogue, actually threatens to choke the life out of York and his story, as it gets more and more incredible. Luckily, we buy Cooper (though he seems way too old [and huge]) regardless, as his relentless determination to deliver a great performance appears to match the dogged dedication of the real-life Alvin York.
My Grade: B
After last week’s double whammy of bleakness (‘Mystic River’) and outspoken liberalism (‘Milk’) in Sean Penn’s performances, Sergeant York comes as a significant departure. Indeed, the film gives off an “old-timey” inoffensive vibe, with the subdued passion that goes along with it. Gary Cooper’s slight performance as the title character fits right in then and to me, it often hampers his effectiveness.
The basic premise of ‘Sergeant York’ is this: a bad boy becomes a reformed Christian after being struck by lightning, only to be drawn back to his violent ways after being drafted in World War I. It’s a juicy role with a huge character arc, but the problem is that the audience doesn't feel the character’s development over time. Cooper’s performance glides along the surface, relying mainly on his natural charisma. He gets away with it to a certain extent, as he is very believable as a simple hillbilly. His face exudes warmth and sincerity and it really serves the character well. It’s a triumph of casting.
I couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed overall though. When we first meet him he’s supposedly a violent pariah, but he never comes across as more than merely mischievous. As a result, his subsequent conversion to pacifist Christian isn’t very affecting. There are further big moments in the character’s life (being forced to leave home, being attacked in the battlefield, the big reveal at the end) and Cooper downplays all of them to a fault. I wasn’t looking for overly theatrical grandstanding, I just expected more nuance from an Oscar-winning performance.
If it were up me then, I would have given the Oscar to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Granted, I haven’t seen the other performances in the field, but Welles is impressive in his own right. His towering performance is a much better example of portraying a rich character arc than Cooper’s.
My Grade: B-
Marshal Will Kane is my favorite Gary Cooper performance. Prior to this film, Cooper was a cowboy’s cowboy. He fought hard and fair and rode off into the sunset. But Will Kane was different. Old, retired, moved on. You always expect Will Kane to give up and start his new life, but instead, he hangs back and stands his ground, alone. It’s a moral dilemma that made for Cooper’s most fully realized performance.
My Grade: A+
There's a lived-in weariness to Gary Cooper's performance in High Noon. 11 years after his first victory with Oscar and starting what would be the last years of his life, Cooper channels the way the worries of the world can weigh on you and seems to infuse it into his role as a soon-to-be retired Marshal that gets pulled back in to fight one last time. His shoulders slope with the weightiness as he shuffles about hopelessly from person to person trying to find someone (anyone) to join him in his fight to save the town from a released criminal. Zombie-like, he seems merely to be going through the motions of standing up to a fight that seems inevitable with every tick of the clock signaling the arrival of the noon train. But as this lone wolf, he seems to be almost acting in a bubble never really connecting with the other actors around him. His marriage to a pacifist (played by the much younger Grace Kelly) comes off more as a convenient plot point (she doesn't approve!) than as a plausible union and his chemistry with Kelly feels more like a father and daughter dynamic. But of the 5 nominees that year, Cooper and the film have endured the most in the test of time reaching icon status. The role has now become synonymous with Cooper's legend and it's hard to imagine any of the other nominees that year taking his place as winner. Cooper had played cowboys before in previous films, but his Will Kane was a different creation - the reluctant hero, not necessarily wanting to save the day just trying to do the right thing.
My Grade: B
So, for the longest time I kind of wondered why I never heard anyone even debate this particular performance. I never really heard anyone mention the movie High Noon. Sure, I knew it existed, and I knew that it was considered a top notch Western that landed at the top of all the lists, but I never heard anyone TALK about it.
I now know why.
This movie is the epitome of dull, boring and completely forgettable. The idea that this was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and won four of those statuettes is just mind blowing to me. WHY?!?! What in the world were people smoking back then? They must have been smoking a lot of it, because at a measly 85 minutes, High Noon is pretty much a long drawn out big fat nothing.
And speaking of nothing; have you seen Gary Cooper’s performance? Yeah, I don’t get this one either. It isn’t even that he is bad in the film, because he’s not really bad here, but he doesn’t do ANYTHING! He broods and stares and broods some more and yet nothing about him is remotely interesting. Maybe expectations were too high for me. Being such a well-regarded (one of the best) Westerns, I expected a lot from this Oscar winning flick and yet what I got was a very hollow and sadly flimsy film with a led character who lacked any real depth of layers. It just felt blank.
The fact that this vacant ‘grumpy man’ performance beat out the likes of Kirk Douglas and the hilarious Alec Guinness is just disgusting. If I wanted to watch paint dry, I’d paint my house (it needs it).
My Grade: F
Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Will Kane, a retiring marshal who must put on the badge one more time when outlaws from his past crash his wedding day. This might be Cooper's best performance, as this western gives him the ideal landscape to be as stoic as he can. He plays the determined, upstanding and brave lawman with ease, and it adds so much to the film, which relies heavily on his performance. It was easily deserving of an Oscar nomination, especially given the overall weakness of that year in film.
Did Cooper deserve to win?
This is a win I have no problem with, though I would've liked to see Kirk Douglas rewarded for The Bad and the Beautiful. Had Ikiru been eligible that year, I'd cry foul on Takashi Shimura's snub, but Cooper is a fitting winner in one 1952's best films. His competition wasn't that strong that year either, so I can't begrudge the Academy on giving Cooper a second Oscar for this performance.
My Grade: A
Who I was rooting for:
Wow, so many great names, right? But, unfortunately, I was negative 26. A very uncultured negative 26.
Cooper plays Will Kane, the recently-married, about to be ex-Marshall of Hadleyville, an unremarkable frontier town full of pussies.
Watch for: The scene when Kane heads to the local church to recruit new (and potentially doomed) deputies. Cooper vs. the town plays as an interesting mix of crushing disappointment mixed with gentle understanding. Ah, it’s great.
Yay: Kane and Harv (Lloyd Bridges!) get into it. Repeatedly.
Boo: Hey, newly appointed Mrs. Kane. How about you chill the f—k out? Your old man (um, literally) is having a bit of a rough one, you know? Cut the man some slack.
Summary: Playing an unpopular, stoic and heavily-conflicted man likely lends itself to an introspective and quiet performance, but decades later it almost feels too guarded to be worthy of Best Actor accolades. At best, Cooper’s range seems limited (obviously intentional), but at worst it comes off as wooden. I understand that Kane is utterly alone and an awful situation, but Cooper doesn’t allow us many chances to see the man struggling under all that pressure. If being a reserved hardass dealing with more shit than one guy can handle is key to being recognized by the Academy, then somebody owes Tommy Lee Jones about a half-dozen more golden statuettes.
My Grade: C+
Cooper’s 2nd Oscar win was a bit of an eye-opener for me after ‘Sergeant York’. ‘High Noon’ is more ensemble-driven and has a more contained narrative, so his ability to stand out is quite impressive. Compared to the former, he’s doing “more with less”.
From our first glimpse of the character, he strikes a strong presence. He’s world-weary but confident. Vulnerable but determined. The role calls for a lot of internal acting to indicate the character’s inner conflict and Cooper rises to the challenge. Especially towards the film’s climax, he broods well throughout the various silent moments. The showdown at noon is well played, adding a hint of apprehension and fear as he waits for a deadly gang all by his lonesome.
On paper, Marshal Will Kane is a simple role but Gary Cooper gives it a lot of subtle nuances that make the character pop. I still don’t consider it an all-time great performance after this rewatch, but I have no problem with this Oscar (although I may prefer Kirk Douglas in ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’).
My Grade: B
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actor).
Gary Cooper received a total of 64 points for his performance in Sergeant York.
Gary Cooper received a total of 74 points for his performance in High Noon.
This is a collective total of 138 points (20 points less than Sean Penn!).
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
So, that ends our second weeks roundtable! I hope you enjoyed this as much as we did. Next Friday we'll be discussing Dustin Hoffman's two contested wins, for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man! Be sure to tune in for that.
And a special thanks to the five incredible bloggers who agreed to attack this project with me! It wouldn't be the same without any of you!