Acting underwent a major transition during the silent period. When all performances had to be given on the stage, actors relied on their voices, and the ability to project clearly was often more important than to be able to emote subtly. The film camera made the actor’s voice a complete irrelevancy, what was important was to act with one’s face, one’s hands, indeed one’s entire body, which is why it was sometimes easier for slapstick comedians and acrobats to make the transition to the screen.
The actors chosen for 1914 Century Award nominations also generally had non-traditional backgrounds. Charlie Chaplin, whose role in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” was as a villainous seducer, had made his name doing funny drunk routines on vaudeville stages. Dustin Farnum’s work on the stage emphasized the Western roles he would become famous for in Hollywood, including “The Squaw Man.” Henry B. Walthall’s stage career had just gotten started after his release from the army when he was discovered by D.W. Griffith, who ultimately directed him in “The Avenging Conscience.” Stanley Hunt and Joe Goodboy were both Native Americans (or First Nations citizens), who happened upon filmmakers looking for “authentic” native people to use for their movies, “In the Land of the Head Hunters” and “Last of the Line.” Hunt would never appear in another film.
The nominees for best leading actor in 1914 are:
- Dustin Farnum for The Squaw Man
- Henry B. Walthall for The Avenging Conscience
- Stanley Hunt for In the Land of the Head Hunters
- Charlie Chaplin for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
- Joe Goodboy for Last of the Line
And the winner is…Joe Goodboy for “Last of the Line!”
In general, I was underwhelmed by the male actors of 1914, the beginnings of the star system notwithstanding. The women were, on the whole, more memorable. However, Joe Goodboy stood out to me as a man who brought considerable reality to his part and also was capable doing much more with less. Where other silent actors relied on broad gestures and obvious pantomime, Goodboy’s stoic face portrayed pain and determination through simpler expressions. He saved more visible gestures for moment of surprise or other times when the character’s guard would be down. His performance is remarkable, and deserves to be honored.