Best Leading Actor 1916
Screen actors in the silent era had to learn to communicate their inner worlds effectively without the use of dialog. In an era in which showing emotions was still somewhat suspect in men, they needed to have visible feelings – yet still retain a “manly” self-control to be seen as heroic. Silent film actors learned to show power and control while still sharing what their character was going through, a talent that is often over-looked by audiences accustomed to different styles of acting.
This year, a number of performances showed that strength in different ways. In “Sherlock Holmes,” William Gillette gave the world its first authorized screen appearance of the brilliant detective, and established tropes with his gestures and facial expressions that would inform future generations. Charlie Chaplin, the one comedian in this year’s nominees, brought a pathos and depth to his familiar “Little Tramp” character by giving him a more serious romantic involvement in “The Vagabond.” As the title character in “Homunculus,” Olaf Fønss expressed frustration and genius side by side. The character arc of Henry Edwards in “East Is East” takes him from youth and poverty to comfortable middle age, all the while maintaining his deep feelings for the girl next door. Finally, William S. Hart gives a powerful performance as a man who transforms from rowdy gunslinger to defender of decency in “Hell’s Hinges.”
The nominees for best actor in a leading role for 1916 are:
- William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
- Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond”
- Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
- Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
- William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”
And the winner is…William S. Hart!
I felt that the quiet dignity and authenticity that Hart brought to his Western tough-guy put this movie into a category over and above the typical genre picture of the day. Hart is always in control, yet you know when something is going on inside of him. He demonstrates love-at-first-sight through the simple act of removing his hat before the lady when she arrives. He shows his boiling anger at seeing the church burn by hardening his eyes a little, so that the menace from him is palpable. There are multiple close-ups in the film, any of which could be an iconic image of the American West. For me, this was the performance of 1916.