My number one has to be James Stewart. I love his all-American good guy persona, his mannerisms and he just so happens to be in a lot of my favorite films. Between Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Harvey and a dozen others, he’s in more of my top films than any other actor by a mile. Even when he’s in a lesser film like Bell Book and Candle, Rope or Little Shop on the Corner he brings a lot to the table so it’s still an enjoyable experience.
But I want to give a shoutout to three other actors who get a lot less recognition than they deserve. Claude Rains, Lee J Cobb and James Mason. For some reason they don’t seem to be mentioned as often as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Charlton Heston do when discussing the greats of Golden Age Hollywood.
Claude Rains is in a lot of my favorites as well, including Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Casablanca. In the last of those, I honestly believe that he upstaged Bogart, whose performance I find less charismatic. In any case, he played a significant role in making the film better than it would have otherwise been. Humphrey Bogart is really good as Rick, but the character is basically a one-note gruff cynic. It’s how other people talk about him and admire him that makes the character so fascinating for the viewer. And in that regard, Claude’s character Louis is the most openly reverent. (I particularly love how he describes Rick as “the kind of man who, if I were a woman and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.”) The two have amazing screen chemistry together–I particularly love the scenes where they bet on the probability of Laszlo’s escape and later when Louis knows enough about Rick’s habits to realize “a precedent is being broken!” That last line of the film is so iconic because the whole story has been building up to it with their endless banter. I’d even go so far as to say I personally see Casablanca as more of a great bromance than a great romance.
There’s another movie Rains was in–The Invisible Man–which I just saw a few days ago and would also recommend largely due to his performance.
Lee J Cobb is a bit typecasted as the ornery tough guy from my experience, but he’s the highlight of the two films I know him from: 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront. In the former, he does a great job making you sympathize for a miserable person like Juror #3. The entire climax is Cobb’s final monologue where he comes apart at the seams and can’t hide the true motive for his guilty vote–misdirected anger from his estranged relationship with his son–any longer. The mark of a great character is when I want to know more (perhaps even read a fanfic 😉 ) and it was Juror #3’s life I most wanted to delve into after the film ended. I really wanted to know what him and his son fought about and if they ever reconciled. It’s not easy to leave such a huge impression with such a relatively minor part (I say that because all 11 get pretty equal spotlight behind Juror #8 as the lead.)
As far as Waterfront goes, Cobb somehow made me feel sympathy even for a coldblooded corrupt killer like Johnny Friendly at the end. This is despite the fact that he inspired fear up to that point. He’s got such charisma that I actually found myself attracted to him in his first scene where he buys off Terry following the hit on Joey Doyle. In this role as well as the previous one, Cobb does a lot of yelling. I could see some viewers accusing him of being one-note, however it’s far harder to scream get angry in a way that comes off naturally to the audience than one might assume.
As I understand it, Cobb played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in the theater. I’d give anything to have been alive to see that.
James Mason is stellar in every role I’ve seen him in, from the antagonist of North by Northwest to the minor role as Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus of Nazareth. Especially in the former, he does a great job as a sort of proto-Bond villain where he manages to be sophisticated and affable without descending into self-parody as many actual Bond villains do. In Lolita, his mounting jealousy and paranoia throughout the second half of the film is expertly done, and someone I didn’t hate the character of Humbert despite myself. (Another mark of a great performance.) As disturbing as his relationship with Lolita is, you never doubt that Humbert truly does love her…in his own sick, twisted way.
Mason happened to play Captain Nemo in Disney’s live action take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well. Now, that was one of my favorite books as a kid and Nemo always struck me as a larger than life figure. So I’ll admit when my mom got me the film adaptation for Christmas the next year, I was disappointed with Mason’s portrayal. He didn’t have the athletic build, the long face, the deep voice or the intimidating presence I’d envisioned. Over time however, Mason’s take has grown on me a lot. The scene where he rams a ship is incredibly powerful, and it relies entirely on his facial expressions, almost entirely without dialogue. Which brings me to my next point…
This scene. Now, my girlfriend and I saw the latest remake of A Star is Born a few months ago and it blew us away. I would have to say the 2018 version is the overall better film. That said, I really loved Mason’s performance in the ’54 version. In particular, this scene right here where Norman Maine just looks out over the ocean and you know exactly what he’s thinking without having to say a word…