Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Lead Actor

Best Leading Actor 1917

Leading men in movies can be smooth, handsome, funny, debonair, sophisticated, mysterious, brooding, and sympathetic. Sometimes all at once. The movie business had by 1917 set up certain actors as powerful stars, and bidding wars were leading to what seemed insanely high rates of pay for certain actors. Others worked more humbly, but still effectively, giving directors and audiences what they wanted, solid performances that turned good scripts into great movies.

The best performances I saw in 1917 were a mixed bag. Charlie Chaplin gave a very funny performance infused with pathos in “The Immigrant.” He showed confidence, fear, love, determination, and hardship all in the course of a 25 minute run time. Douglas Fairbanks gave a less nuanced but still powerful performance in “A Modern Musketeer,” emphasizing screen presence over range. His noted enthusiasm and “pep” shines throughout the movie. On the more somber side, Victor Sjöström gave a classically Swedish performance as a man lost at sea who returns to find that his life has been taken away in his absence. He shows multiple layers of anger, pain, and frustration, and struggles with those emotions against his character’s basic decency when “A Man There Was” reaches its climax. Andrej Gromov is also a tragic figure in “The Dying Swan.” He plays an insane artist who becomes fascinated by the suffering face of a mute woman, but the moment she finds happiness, he goes mad and strangles her to get the image he wants for his painting. Finally, René Cresté established the superhero by taking on the role of Judex. In “Love’s Forgiveness,” his character is finally able to resolve the dark revenge motives he’s been carrying throughout the serial with his love of the daughter of his main enemy.

The nominees for best actor in a leading role are:

  1. Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant
  2. Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer
  3. Victor Sjöström in A Man There Was
  4. Andrej Gromov in The Dying Swan
  5. René Cresté in Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

And the winner is…Victor Sjöström in “A Man There Was!”

While it was far from an upbeat movie, Sjöström’s performance in “A Man There Was” surpassed the material and built it into a powerful screen experience. As I suggested above, there’s a lot going on here, and expressing all of it without recorded dialogue is an impressive trick. All the moreso when the Intertitles were limited to the words of the poem by Henrik Ibsen on which this is based. Sjöström had to convey everything that was going on inside of him, using his face, but maintaining the stoic expression of a Swedish sailor. He did a great job, and thus he is honored with this award.

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:

  1. William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
  2. Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond”
  3. Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
  4. Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
  5. William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…William S. Hart!

Hells Hinges3

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.

Best Leading Actor 1915

Some say that when you act, you put on a mask and pretend to be what you are not. There’s a counter-theory, however, that really good acting comes from the ability to take off masks and show sides of yourself that no one knew were there – maybe even including yourself. We all have many characters within ourselves, and an accomplished actor works from within to bring out their best performances.

This year’s nominees for best actor in a leading role all went beyond the simple process of masking themselves to find inspiration from life and their own emotions, and brought that to a screen audience that was newly interested in understanding the feelings of the characters on the screen. Henry B. Walthall gave a tortured performance as Edgar Allan Poe in “The Raven,” showing how he suffered as a writer and as the husband of his much-younger cousin. Charlie Chaplin reached deep inside himself to bring pathos and believability to his long-standing “Little Tramp” role in “The Bank.” Rockliffe Fellowes brought both the hardened criminal and the repentant sinner to life from Owen Kildare’s book for “Regeneration.” George Beban brought out of himself the struggles of an immigrant in an unfriendly new world for “The Italian.” And finally, Vitold Polonsky gave a haunting vision of a man who spurns his true love and must live with the consequences in “After Death.”

The nominees for best Leading Actor for 1915 are…

  1. Henry B. Walthall for “The Raven
  2. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank
  3. Rockliffe Fellowes for “Regeneration
  4. George Beban for “The Italian
  5. Vitold Polonsky for “After Death

And the winner of the Century Award is…Vitold Polonsky in “After Death!” The key to Polonsky’s performance is precisely his own suppressed passion and his inability to communicate his emotions. In that sense. Polonsky is playing against his own feelings in this role, but still has to transmit the feelings he dare not show to the audience – while also showing his own frustration and inability to understand them! In that sense, his performance goes beyond the more straightforward, if also powerful, examples of his competition in this category. Polonsky’s performance is nuanced to a degree still rare today, and nearly unheard of at the time.

Best Lead Actor 1914

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:

  1. Dustin Farnum for The Squaw Man
  2. Henry B. Walthall for The Avenging Conscience
  3. Stanley Hunt for In the Land of the Head Hunters
  4. Charlie Chaplin for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  5. Joe Goodboy for Last of the Line

And the winner is…Joe Goodboy for “Last of the Line!”

 Joe Goodboy

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.