Friday, July 18, 2014

Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable: Fredric March


It's Friday, which means that it is time for another episode of Twice a Best Actor!  I hope you've been following along during this series, but if you haven't, just click the link above for access to all of the previous posts.  We are nearing the backside of this series, and it has really been a lot of fun.  So much fun, in fact, that I'm tempted to ask these amazing bloggers to do this with me again...

;-)

This week we are talking about the lesser known Fredric March.  This isn't to say that people don't know his name, but of all the Two Time Lead Actor Oscar winners, he's probably the one that the least amount of people have seen the films from.  I think what I love most about this pairing is the fact that these two performances are SO incredibly different.  I'm not professing love for either of these performances (you'll have to read through for my grades) but I do love the fact that these performances at least show some range.

Once again, our awesome panel:

Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually


ALEX:
The Performance
I appreciate much of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the POV photography, split screen transitions, breaking of the fourth wall, and so on. With that noted, there’s a lot of acting in March’s work as the titular character(s), which is something I often battle with when watching older films. Theatrical, animated performances play as too extreme by today’s standards, but in 1931, it was essentially all actors and audiences knew. If I scale March’s work, then yes, I think it’s a success and deserves to be mentioned alongside the many other actors who have played the part. But if I compare March’s acting in this film to his restrained performance in The Best Years of Our Lives just 15 years later, then it doesn’t bode too well for his Dr. Jekyll.

The Field
I prefer Wallace Beery’s work in The Champ to March’s performance, but both of them won, so it’s a moot point. But man, I bet Alfred Lunt sure felt like shit after that awards ceremony.
My Grade: B-

ANDREW:
Of all the actors we've covered over the past couple of weeks, the least well-known is this week's actor, Fredric March. I confess, I'd not seen either of his movies previously before this week (I'm also hesitant to admit that I didn't even remember he was a double Best Actor winner. Don't judge! There's a lot of years of Oscar trivia to cover!) and in doing my research about him, kept finding modern critics saying time and time again how he doesn't get the credit he deserves and what an amazing talent he was. But after watching the film that brought him his first win, an early talkie, Pre-Code adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale about the dual nature of man, I was left feeling a bit indifferent. March seemed to have missed seizing the opportunity to showcase his range in bringing to life two very different characters in the same film. Instead we have a portrayal of the bland Dr. Jekyll (oh, and it's pronounced GEE-kull...) and a Mr. Hyde, the supposed embodiment of the evil that lurks within, that seems to be virtually the same performance. If only it had been a conscious choice to illustrate how good and evil are the same in all of us thus showing no difference, but then he wouldn't be outfitted with such elaborate make-up trying to show a difference. He seems to alter his voice, but I feel like that's do to March trying to get words out past the gigantic teeth he's made to wear. (There's also something unsettlingly racist about the darker skin and almost ape-like appearance that's given to Hyde.) Being so completely upstaged by the monster make-up, which is the real star of the film, limits the impact that March himself can ultimately leave and with so little to go on from his Jekyll, the performance is forgotten quickly after it has ended. It was only the 5th year of the awards and March (already on his second nomination) actually tied with Wallace Beery in The Champ for the win. There were only 3 nominees that year, poor Alfred Lunt must've felt left out being the only nominee to go home empty handed that night. 
My Grade: C-

DREW:
There are times in Academy history when it feels painfully obvious that a role is winning an Oscar, and not a performance.  For me, that is what happened here.  March’s ROLE won him an Oscar.  On the flipside, Beery’s performance did.

Yup, I said it.

March, in my opinion, dropped a serious ball here in the opportunity to truly create two distinct personalities.  Instead, he phoned in a very dull and lifeless Jekyll, which anchors so much of the film to the point where his transformation and significantly better second half of the performance (as Mr. Hyde) just can’t rescue the feeling of negativity I’ve already grown for this turn.  The fact that so many other more wonderful performances were born out of 1931 (Lorre, Beery, Chaplin, Cooper, Chevalier, Cagney) only makes this win feel all the more lazy.

Look, he played two characters and acting through makeup!  Fearless!  Oscar!

Look, he bored us to tears and over acted to the point it was uncomfortable!  Missed Opportunity!  Razzie!
My Grade: C-

JOSH:
March won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Dr. Jekyll, an upstanding scientist who unlocks his dreadful alter ego Mr. Hyde. The film performed well at the box office and won over Academy voters. No doubt March's dual performance had something to do with the film's success. He effortlessly inhabits both sides of Jekyll/Hyde. This role requires him to play a character who is mostly dignified but animalistic at times, and March totally owns it.

Did March deserve to win?

He easily gave the best performance, but he did "tie" with Wallace Beery for his performance in The Champ. However, March was more deserving of the win, but he technically won by himself, since Beery actually lost by one vote. (In such cases, Academy rules allowed a tie in those days.)
My Grade: A

MARIO:
Who I was rooting for:  Being that it’s 1932, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I guess I wish Alfred Lunt would have won, too. Might as well split the Oscar in thirds, right?
The role:  March plays Dr Jekyll (that’s Jee-kyll , youngsters), a scientists convinced that the duality of man should be explored and studied. Oh, and he plays Mr. Hyde, too., who is essentially a thoughtless (and murderous) a-hole.
Watch for:  Any of the transformation scenes, as they are pretty frickin’ intense.
Yay:  When Dr. Jekyll intervenes in the affairs of Ivy, a lady of the evening, and they head upstairs, to um, tuck her in.
Boo: Mr. Hyde is relentlessly awful, but especially when he doubles back to surprise Muriel.
Summary: Wow. This was a pretty intense role, especially considering it occurred over eighty years ago. March plays Jekyll as a determined and thoughtful scientist, enamored not only with progress, but the love of his life Muriel. I enjoyed his passion and charisma as the respected and intense doctor. Then out trots a completely different actor it seems, almost hamming it up as the savage beast Mr. Hyde.  While it’s a little over the top by today’s standards, I was very impressed with the role (and the physical aspect to it, as well) and think that March was an exceptional leading man. No matter which character he’s playing, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. [NOTE: I downgraded the performance after seeing The Best Years of Our Lives]
My Grade: B+

SHANE:
The story of 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' is one that should be catnip for any actor. It allows the performer to play two distinctly different roles, which would allow any actor to show their range. As such, I came into this first viewing of the 1931 adaptation with a few expectations of Fredrich March’s performance. As expected, he does deliver two different characters. However, I’m a bit conflicted as to the actual quality of the dual performances.

Firstly, we meet his Dr. Jekyll. As we learn about him, he appears to be an upstanding citizen with an inquisitive scientific mind. We also find out that he is engaged to be married. As I analyzed these aspects, I couldn't shake the impression that he was a bit stiff (perhaps deliberately?). Especially in the romantic scenes with Rose Hobart, there just wasn't much chemistry or passion from March.

On the flip side, he’s much more impressive when he transforms into Mr. Hyde. In fact, I actually had to double-check that it was the same actor! I loved the grotesquerie that he imbues into the character. He’s able to be more loose and expressive and the performance is all the better for it.

Still, I can’t ignore the significant contribution of the makeup. He’s suitably scary but a lot of that is just the outer appearance. Like his Dr. Jekyll, it lacks soul. Yes, he gives a few flashes of strong emotional nuance, but overall the performance isn't as captivating as it should have been. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis is to blame, as he set the standard so high with his physical transformations that this was bound to fall short.

Did he deserve to win? I have no idea. Heck, even the Academy was indecisive. 
My Grade: B-


ALEX:
The Performance
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is endearing but never corny, emotional but never melodramatic. It’s one of the most iconic films about the adjustment of coming home from war, and March fills the patriarchal role of Al Stephenson with sheer grace. There’s a sadness to Al that I find extremely compelling. He’s a man who keeps his emotions guarded, except when released through drink, or a rare moment of vulnerability with his supportive wife. A balanced and understated performance.

The Field
It’s hard to think that March beat out Jimmy Stewart for It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s a just win in my book.
My Grade: A-

ANDREW:
When The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's examination of soldiers coming back from WWII and the aftermath of life after war, won 7 Oscars (9 if you count the special honors it also received) history unfavorably makes it appear like its wins were due to the fact that the war had just ended a year previously and the timely subject matter hitting close to home. But that's a great disservice to the film which, decades later is just as poignant, precise, and fascinating as it was decades earlier. I only wish that Fredric March as Al Stephenson, a Sergeant First Class returning home to his loving wife and two children after years away and finding that they've changed a great deal, contributed more to the film's legacy. As the story focuses on three different men returning from the war, March is saddled with the least interesting storyline (he takes to alcohol to numb his pain and begins his mundane job at a bank again) and he never really makes much of an impression with the little amount of screen time or business that he's given. He does however, bafflingly, try to insert comedic bits (involving a couple of glasses and an alka seltzer and an earlier scene when his wife is drunkenly trying to put him to bed) that feel widely out of place and not in keeping with the overall tone of the film. Even in his big scene, when he gives a speech at a banquet commanding that everyone respect the returning vets and give them a chance to rebuild their lives, is underwhelming and ultimately never reaches the desired effect of patriotism it intends because Stephenson is aided by liquid courage. Looking back now, it seems almost absurd that Jimmy Stewart didn't win that year for what is arguably his most famous role in It's a Wonderful Life, but there was just too much goodwill toward the returning heroes and somehow March got caught up in the mix. 
My Grade: C

DREW:
I don’t hate Fredric March.  I just want to make that clear before I press on.  In fact, he had a rich charisma in the 30’s that made me kind of swoon.  No, not in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but watch his work with Lubitsch to see what I’m talking about.  That said, Oscar rarely rewards actors for their best work, just their most accessible, and Al Stephenson is a very accessible character.  It didn’t hurt that The Best Years of Our Lives was such a poignant and socially/politically important film in 1946.

The film, even by today’s standards, is brilliant.

That said, Al Stephenson is the least fascinating aspect of the film.  Out of the cast of characters and astonishing performances, Loy (as Al’s suffering wife), Wright (as his conflicted daughter), Mayo (as the sultry and spoiled gold digger), Russell (as the suicidal vet) and especially Andrews (as the distraught vet and true LEAD of the film) are far more interesting and commanding in the film.  March drinks a lot and peppers his scenes with unintentional humor, but he never really creates a whole character, especially when everyone around him is working much harder and with much more.

He isn’t bad, and he has a very fluid delivery, but he also doesn’t do much at all.

This win actually makes me rather sad, especially since Andrews didn’t even get a nomination, and his performance is tremendous.  It’s also a shame that Stewart was snubbed for his iconic performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, but much like Citizen Kane, the iconic nature of Stewart’s film was not fully recognized upon its release.  It was years later before it became recognized as the masterpiece it truly is.
My Grade: B-

JOSH:
March won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing Al Stephenson, a World War II veteran who returns home to his small town. The film was a huge box office success, and the Academy fittingly rewarded it with several Oscars. March delivers a fine performance amongst others in the film. As Stephenson, he conveys the subtle changes caused by war and the repercussions it has on returning soldiers. It's a role that couldn't be more appropriate for the time and the voters, and March gives a superb performance.

Did March deserve to win?

I don't mind this win in the slightest, but James Stewart's beautiful performance in It's a Wonderful Life deserved it more. The best performance doesn't usually win, and I'd argue that's what happened this year.
My Grade: A

MARIO:
Who I was rooting for:  The only other performance I’ve seen is Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. But after ten minutes of this film, I’d say I prefer March.
The role: Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, a guy trying to adjust to home life after years away fighting in World War II.
Watch for:  Al confronts Fred regarding his feelings for Peggy, Al’s daughter. I seriously don’t think Al ever looks away from Fred. Or blinks.
Yay:  Al decides there’s nothing more he’d like to do his first night back than to get completely hammered with his wife. And daughter.
Boo:  His speech at the banquet was incredibly awkward, but brilliant. I was just cringing for a minute. Or two.
Summary: This role is such a complete 180 from the cartoonish nature of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -  it’s great. Here, March plays Al as a surprisingly lovable former military big shot, struggling with being (relatively) successful. For the most part, he’s a good-natured guy, quick to help out anyone who needs it. But when one of his buddies falls for his daughter, Al’s smile fades away. Quickly, the once idyllic life that Al appeared to have unravels, and all Hell breaks loose. It’s a great performance in an excellent role.
My Grade:  A

SHANE:
For his 2nd Oscar win, Frederich March showed improvement in his acting technique, playing a WWII veteran in ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. The stiffness I complained about in his early performance is gone and is replaced by a real movie star with great presence on screen. The role seems to play better to his strengths (compared to 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’), as I see March as a leading man more than an effective character actor.

The role of Al Stephenson (successful banker and respected sergeant) calls for an actor with gravitas and March certainly has it. He conveys integrity, wisdom and compassion through his actions and words. The character is a real gentleman and March fits it like a glove. His drunken scenes may provide the most entertainment, but the moments where he demonstrates that self-assurance and fatherly wisdom are the ones I admire most.

Despite all this, I find the Oscar win a bit strange. The film is very ensemble-driven and this performance therefore doesn't feel as substantial as one would expect from a lead role. Among his own cast, I would actually consider Dana Andrews to be the main role (and he’s also very good). So if I were voting I would have given it to Jimmy Stewart for his iconic performance in It’s A Wonderful Life.
My Grade: B

FINAL SCORE
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).

Fredric March received a total of 67 points for his performance in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
Fredric March received a total of 84 points for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives.

This is a collective total of 151 points.

As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.

So this closes our discussion of Fredric March. Next week we’re going to talk about MARLON BRANDO!

Can you tell that I'm excited?

Again, as always, 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!

16 comments:

  1. Good job guys, I was interested in reading this discussion.

    I'm really glad that this roundtable gave me the push to see 'The Best Years of Our Lives' as I found it absolutely fascinating. Especially the phenomenal ensemble!

    I like that Drew agreed with me that Dana Andrews is the true lead and stronger role. It's a shame that he didn't get his deserved Oscar glory since he never had such a big chance for a nomination again.

    Btw, I think I'm closer to C- on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in retrospect.

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    1. It's funny how time, and other performances, can dampen your feelings on a particular performance. When I first saw Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I thought March was a tad bland but overall effective due to the tone of the film itself. The I saw his delightfully 'full' performance in 'Design for Living' and I thought to myself...why didn't he use this charisma? Then I saw the 1941 version, starring Spencer Tracy, and I thought...why couldn't he do THAT? Then I saw 'The Best Years of Our Lives' and I realized that March just phoned his first Oscar in and it really made me kind of hate the performance.

      And GOD was Andrews robbed!

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  2. I haven't watched Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a really long time and don't remember a ton about it. That said 1931 is all about the guy who didn't get nominated- James Cagney. He blew me away in The Public Enemy. I haven't seen The Best Years of Our Lives at all so I can't say much.

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    1. It's sad that Cagney was snubbed in a year with only three nominees. He should have been a lock.

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  3. I'm a big Fredric March fan and feel that he should have been a double winner but not for the two roles he won his Oscars for. Jekyll & Hyde and his performance in it never really did anything for me and compared to his beautiful work in the first A Star is Born, which I thought the first of his two prizes should have been for, it really doesn't resonate.

    I think he's terrific in The Best Year of Our Lives but the role doesn't hand him enough to really be an Oscar role. By the time it was given though not only was there the sentiment for returning vets but March himself was considered one of the GREAT actors, not just a movie star but an enormously esteemed stage actor and those things always come into play. On top of that while Jimmy Stewart was a respected actor with his own Oscar Wonderful Life was his first film back after his military service and he had not yet broadened his aw-shucks boy next door persona as he did going forward so his loss doesn't seem so strange in that context.

    I agree that Dana Andrews is great and gets more out of his role in the movie but like his cast mate Myrna Loy, equally brilliant, they paid the price for always turning in exemplary work, neither was ever nominated for an Oscar. It seems incredible but sadly true when you're always competent it's hard to dazzle.

    Back to March he had another nomination in his future after this for Death of a Salesman, which I've never seen, but he gave at least two more performances that were richer than the one here. His work in both Middle of the Night and Inherit the Wind where he and Spencer Tracy square off magnificently are more worthy of awards recognition than his role in Best Years.

    He could also shine in comedy as was pointed out about his performance in Design for Living but he was also very, very good in I Married a Witch in which both his and Veronica Lake's performances are even more admirable if you know of their off screen enmity. Both bottomless wells of charm and charisma in the film and seemingly completely enamored of each other they fought like cats when the cameras weren't turning. March great actor though he might have been was also a notorious hot pants and when Veronica spurned his advances he proceeded to treat her like dirt under his talented feet for the rest of filming. Veronica retaliated in many ways but probably most famously by sewing rocks into the hem of her gown before a scene where he had to sweep her up and then blowing takes purposely. When they finally got the shot and March was huffing and puffing and remarked that Lake weighed a lot for such a tiny thing, she was under 5 feet, she tossed off that she had big bones. Of course he found out and what had been a tense situation before turned into total warfare.

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    1. Joel, I love when you stop by to comment! You have such insightful comments on cinema. It makes conversing all the more enjoyable.

      I do find it sad that March is so undervalued as an actor, and yet these are the two performances readily accessible and used to show his undervalue. He was better than this, but not many will get past these two performances.

      His performance in A Star is Born was just marvelous.

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    2. Thanks for that Joel. There's always so much background context behind historical Oscar wins that we tend for forget.

      I wonder if Dana Andrews would be more celebrated in the Marlon Brando era. I've read other persons suggest that his acting style was perhaps ahead of its time. I think I would agree with them.

      March's performance in A Star is Born impressed me too.

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    3. One of my favorite performances ever put to film was Andrews' perf in The Ox-Bow Incident. His Oscar snub for that is ridiculous. If that performance/role was handled this decade, it would SWEEP precursors and win the Oscar in a walk. Astonishing performance.

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  4. i reeeeally loved THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (JEKYLL & HYDE is another story...), so i was really disappointed to not be able to give march's performance a higher grade to reflect that love. but, like i said, i just felt like his was the weak link overshadowed by dana andrews' amazing work (whom i agree is the actual lead and would've been more deserving of the nom) and harold russell who was just so effective.

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    1. The Best Years of Our Lives was a film that really took me by surprise, because I kind of assumed I'd find it overrated. It just seemed, on the outset, to be one of those overhyped, stuffy, preachy films that loses all context with such a dated premise, but it was so rich, so poignant and so effective.

      March, sadly, was the least admirable aspect.

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    2. Fisti, I'll tell you know, this comment is going to be essentially a much more succinct version of my entire review. Well said.

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    3. Can't wait to read your review!

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  5. Woah. These might be the most divisive performances yet. At least I'm not alone on March's work in The Best Years of Our Lives. :)

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    1. And still, no one has the same score!

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  6. I have not see the first film and it is on my wish list to see. I love Death Takes a Holiday and even though he overacted in that part I still found that film enchanting. I feel that he probably acted similar in Dr. Jekyll. I love the 2nd film and find it one of the best films about soldiers returning home. It reminds me of my dad's stories when he returned. the acting was great but I would have to give it to my guy-Jimmy Stewart. He gave the better performance overall

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    1. Stewart was exceptional, actually. I think I prefer March's film, but Stewart would probably win my personal award, with Andrews coming up just short.

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