The great actor race: 1951

As part of our series of tributes to Oscar's 75th, we view a clash between old and new guards

In 1951, faced with competition from television and a weakening studio system, the industry was at a crossroads. This intersection of old and new Hollywood was nowhere more apparent than in the lead actor category of the Academy Awards. The five thesps, who all cut their teeth on the New York stage, represented both a look back at the classic contract players who hailed from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and ahead to a new breed of fearless, independent-minded actors weaned on the Method.

Although Humphrey Bogart took home the Oscar for his portrayal of the gin-drinking steamboat captain in John Huston’s “The African Queen,” that year the American public at large would finally be privy to what audiences witnessed in 1947 when Marlon Brando’s stage performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire” ignited a revolution in American theater.

Although Brando had made his bigscreen debut in Fred Zinneman’s “The Men” in 1950, it was his forceful portrayal of the brutish Stanley Kowalski in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar” that changed the way moviegoers, and Hollywood, viewed leading men. Brando, directed for both stage and screen incarnations of “Streetcar” by Elia Kazan, represented the apotheosis of what John Garfield and Montgomery Clift foreshadowed in the ’40s, paving the way for such Stanislavski Method-trained actors as James Dean, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro to bring first-hand experience and deep-seated intensity to their characterizations.

Clift, nominated for his role as the star-crossed George Eastman opposite Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun,” represented the more sensitive, intelligent flip side to Brando’s instinctive physicality, which some critics referred to as “the torn T-shirt school of acting.”

Brando’s fellow Actors Studio alum imbued his characters with a rare psychological dimension that critics and the Academy responded to from the moment Clift made his screen debut in 1948’s “The Search.” He would be nominated twice more, for his work in “From Here to Eternity” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Brando, on the other hand, would become a veritable perennial player in the Oscar derby throughout the ’50s, nominated for best actor in four of the next six years, including his winning turn as washed-up prizefighter Terry Malloy in 1954’s “On the Waterfront.”

If “Streetcar” and “A Place in the Sun” hailed a new kind of stark, gritty realism unadorned by preachy sentimentality, “Bright Victory” — in which the Oscar-nominated Arthur Kennedy played a blind war veteran — was more what Hollywood audiences were used to.

Even so, it was a surprise when Brando was passed over for Kennedy by the New York Film Critics Circle, who otherwise named “Streetcar” for best picture, director and actress (Vivien Leigh). Kennedy, a versatile veteran best known for supporting parts in Cagney and Bogart films (“City for Conquest” and “High Sierra,” respectively), was known mainly as a character actor, and his three other Oscar nominations during the course of his career would all be for supporting roles. Even more than Brando and Clift, Kennedy cut his teeth on the boards, and had gained a reputation on stage in plays written by Arthur Miller, winning a Tony for playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman.”

But it was his competition, Fredric March, who was hailed for his role in the bigscreen version of “Salesman” as the beleaguered Willy Loman, rounding out the best actor competition. Daily Variety hailed March’s “Salesman” turn as “the greatest performance of his career,” this for an actor who was already a two-time Oscar winner (1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives”). The Hollywood Foreign Press apparently agreed, bestowing its Golden Globe on the versatile thesp.

Despite Daily Variety’s glowing praise, a poll conducted by the Hollywood trade paper predicted that all four members of “Streetcar’s” principal cast — Brando, Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter — would win in their respective categories. The publication almost got it right, with three of the four cast members mining Oscar gold for their performances. The recalcitrant Brando, however, didn’t exactly aid in his cause, shunning columnists and making it apparent that he wouldn’t be attending the ceremony — foreshadowing what happened in 1973, when he would send Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to accept his Oscar for “The Godfather.”

Brando’s indifference might have helped sway the vote toward Bogart, a sentimental favorite who had never been honored by the Academy and whose only previous nomination was for 1942’s best picture, “Casablanca.”

It was clear that Bogart — entering the twilight of his career — coveted a statuette after many years as one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. The normally modest actor hired a publicist and invested heavily in trade ads. When his name was announced by Greer Garson the night of March 20, 1952, Daily Variety reported, “The crowded house came to life almost for the first time, giving Bogart an ovation as he strode down the aisle.”

Once onstage, the actor quipped, “It’s a long way from the heart of the Belgian Congo to the stage of the Pantages Theater, and I’m glad to say I’d rather be here.”

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