As Hollywood moved away from its focus on the screwball comedies of the previous decade, the 1940s featured some of cinema's great dramatic performances. While some may decry Orson Welles being snubbed for his portrayal of Charles Foster Kane or James Stewart missing out for his George Bailey, the Academy bestowed Oscar upon several worthy performers.
Though passed over the previous years with his iconic performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart won his one and only Academy Award for his turn as an intrepid reporter writing an exposé on a wealthy socialite’s father on the eve of her wedding in George Cukor’s classic screwball comedy. Starring opposite Katharine Hepburn – who many felt was robbed of the Oscar she deserved – and Cary Grant, Stewart was great as the cynical reporter who nonetheless falls in love with Hepburn despite her nuptials and triumphed over the likes of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca.
Starring in one of the greatest biopics of all time, Gary Cooper won his first of two Best Actor Academy Awards for his turn as the real-life Alvin York, a hell-raising farmer struck by lightning who finds God and turns pacifist, only to find himself fighting on the front lines in World War I and transformed into a national hero. Directed by Howard Hawks, Sergeant York featured Cooper in his finest performance, which beat out Cary Grant in Penny Serenade, Walter Huston in All That Money Can Buy, Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
Having been nearly typecast as a gangster for most of his career, James Cagney broke the mold with his winning performance as real-life song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in Michael Curtiz’s classic musical. With energetic renditions of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Cagney high-stepped his way to his only Academy Award over Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver and Monty Wolley in The Pied Piper.
While he was a character actor for most of his career, Hungarian-born actor Paul Lukas delivered his most powerful performance as a German engineer newly arrived in Washington, D.C. who risks everything to fight the scourge of Nazism. Starring opposite top-billed Bette Davis, who played his steadfast wife, Lukas rose to the top for one brief moment and won the Oscar for Best actor over better known competition that included Humphrey Bogart’s iconic turn in Casablanca, Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie and Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy.
Though better known for crooning the title song to the Christmas classic White Christmas, Bing Crosby was capable of turning out quality acting performances and he was never better as Father Chuck O’Malley in Leo McCarey’s feel-good musical Going My Way. Crosby was perfectly cast as the modern-minded O’Malley, who organizes local street toughs into a boys choir despite the objections of his cranky superior (Barry Fitzgerald). He won his career’s only Academy Award over the likes of Charles Boyer in Gaslight, co-star Fitzgerald, Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart and Alexander Knox in Wilson.
Not known for his acting prowess, Ray Milland delivered his career’s best performance as an alcoholic writer whose unquenchable thirst overtakes everything and everyone in his life in Billy Wilder’s unflinching look at alcoholism. Milland was eerily accurate in his portrayal of a man struggling with addiction and was never more powerful than when suffering from withdrawals. He rightly won the Oscar in his one-and-only nomination over Bing Crosby’s reprisal of Father O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom and Cornel Wilde in A Song to Remember.
Directed by Oscar-winning director William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives earned a staggering seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor for 1931/32’s winner Fredric March. March played one of three World War II veterans come home from the war and struggling to get back to normal, realizing that he’s unable to return to his banking job while noticing that his children have grown up without him. March won his second career Oscar over Laurence Olivier in Henry V, Larry Parks in The Jolson Story,Gregory Peck in The Yearling and James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.
After being shut out in 1929/30 for Bulldog Drummond and in 1942 for Random Harvest, Colman finally won Oscar for his portrayal of a tempestuous actor whose portrayal of Othello spills over into real life and leads him committing murder. While his performance might be deemed a bit over the top, Colman nonetheless dazzled audiences as a man descending into madness, beating out the likes of John Garfield in Body and Soul, Gregory Peck in Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, William Powell in Life with Father and Michael Redgrave in Mourning Becomes Electra.
It may surprise some, but the 20th century’s greatest actor, Laurence Olivier, won only one Academy Award in his career despite being nominated a record 10 times for his acting. Naturally, Olivier won for a Shakespearean role, as the actor was simply mesmorizing as the Melancholy Dane. Olivier’s greatest screen performance was far and away better the rest of the competition, which included Lew Ayres in Johnny Belinda, Montgomery Clift in The Search, Dan Dailey in When My Baby Smiles at Me and Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty.
Another actor whose one-and-only career nomination netted him an Oscar, Broderick Crawford was exceptional as Willie Stark, a thinly guised take on Huey Long in Robert Rossen’s great political drama. Crawford’s Stark was a backwoods lawyer who promises to end corruption in the governor’s mansion of a Southern state, only to toss aside his ideals and become just another crooks. Broderick’s sterling performance won him the Academy Award over Kirk Douglas in Champion, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima.