With time winding down to Monday's Academy Awards ceremonies, some movie fans are no doubt rushing to cinemas with their lists of Oscar picks, trying to catch the pictures that all year they've been "meaning to see." But now is also as good a time as any to remember some past Oscar winners that have unfortunately fallen into relative obscurity, and might be languishing on the video store shelf while you see "Ghost" for the umpteenth time.
A good starter for your Oscar-discovery list would be 1935's "The Informer." This film won Best Actor for Victor McLaglen and Best Director for John Ford (who would later direct such greats as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers"). Here, Ford focuses not on the sweeping vistas of Monument Valley but on the tight, dark quarters of strife-torn Dublin. Ford's keen visual style is as visible here on the streets of Ireland as it is on those Western plains.
The story takes place in the divided Ireland of 1922. The IRA is on the rise, and soldiers are everywhere. In this cramped and frightening environment, Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) betrays his best friend for 20 pounds--the price of passage for two from Ireland to the United States. But he never gets to take his girlfriend on that trip. Gypo is a large man, a likable man--but not a very smart man. McLaglen is superb in this role, and if his name is unfamiliar, his face certainly is not--other great performances were in such films as "Gunga Din" and "The Quiet Man."
Skipping ahead to 1943, Paul Lukas netted the Oscar for Best Actor when he played Kurt Muller, leader of a group resisting Nazi rule, in "Watch on the Rhine." You may remember him as the scientist in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," but his performance here just might replace that memory. He rises well above the material given him by screenwriters Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, even stealing his scenes with Bette Davis--by no means a small feat.
In this story, Muller has come to the States with his American wife to gather money for the resistance and recuperate from an injury. Unfortunately, the tendrils of the Nazi empire have snaked their way across the Atlantic and his life is endangered. This film does have its layers of propaganda, but it also (quite remarkably for its time) shows that people with thick German accents are not necessarily Nazis. They, too, have families and loves--and some a hatred for fascism.
(For history buffs, this was the year of "Casablanca." It won Best Picture but left Humphrey Bogart neglected. Nothing against Bogie, but if you're wondering why, take a look at Paul Lukas' performance. It was a tough year.)
Four years later, Ronald Colman (of "Lost Horizon" fame) won Best Actor for his performance in "A Double Life." He portrays an actor who loses the distinction between himself and his roles, which becomes a problem when he plays Othello opposite his ex-wife. If that sounds like the makings of a great screwball comedy, it is not treated as such. Scriptwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin take the dramatic tack--and pull it off. It's sweaty-palms time when Colman starts to lose touch with reality inside the apartment of luckless waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters)--and begins acting out the strangulation scene from "Othello." The film has many fine performances and intelligent, snappy dialogue.
If it's great dialogue you enjoy, there are some absolutely brutal exchanges in 1949's "The Heiress." Olivia de Havilland won Best Actress for her role as a young 1840s woman who stands to inherit a great deal of money. The problem is she is shy and not very skilled in the social graces. Thus her father, played by Ralph Richardson, is very suspicious when young Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) comes calling . . . and proposing, in rapid succession. Is Townsend a gold digger? Quite possibly, but the daughter is not allowed much chance to find out, and in the ensuing power play she discovers that her father never really cared much for her. One can sympathize when the daughter turns cold and vengeful toward him. This is one of those films that draws you in to the point that you find yourself talking to the screen.