Tag Archives: the great dictator

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

In case you haven’t heard, the Academy Award nominations were announced this morning with The King’s Speech leading the nods with 12.

While looking over the nominees in the category of Best Actor, I noticed something interesting.

Should Jeff Bridges win for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a role that won the Oscar for John Wayne in 1969, it would be the first time in history the same role would produce two Best Actor winners. (The role of Vito Corleone did win Oscars for two men, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, but only Brando’s award was for Best Actor. De Niro’s came in the Best Supporting Actor category.)

Interestingly, two men were denied accomplishing this same feat by Wayne’s win in 1969. That year, Peter O’Toole was nominated for playing Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a role that won Robert Donat the Oscar in 1939. Richard Burton was nominated for his portrayal of Henry VIII that same year, which had previously won the statuette for Charles Laughton in 1933.

A win would also make Bridges only the third man (along with Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks) to win the award in consecutive years, following his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart last year.

Of course, the other nominees this year – Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco – will be hoping to create some history of their own. None perhaps more than Firth, who was also nominated last year for A Single Man, but lost to Bridges.

The award in the category goes to the best screen actor of the year, not the best person of the year.

This proved lucky for Emil Jannings, the first man to win the award in 1928. The heavily-accented Jannings failed to make the transition to talkies and returned to his native Germany where he became a major supporter of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies entered Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar everywhere to curry favor with the invading troops.

Another interesting piece of Oscar trivia is that Robert Downey, Jr. is the only man to be nominated in the Best Actor category for playing a man who was once nominated for a Best Actor Oscar himself. This happened in 1992’s Chaplin, when Downey was honored for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, who was nominated for a Best Actor award in 1940 for The Great Dictator. (We will be showing Chaplin as the kick-off to ChaplinFest on Friday, February 4 in Newhall.)

Should Bridges win for True Grit, it may help to remove some of the stigma attached to John Wayne’s Oscar, which was thought by many  to have been awarded to honor Wayne’s entire body of work, rather than his actual performance in the film.

Chaplin’s “The Great Speech”

If only the real dictators were this great.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the release of Charlie Chaplin’s first all-talking motion picture, The Great Dictator, which was a comedy that satirized the very un-funny Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. While praised for hilariously ridiculing the Nazis and bringing the world’s attention to the plight of the Jews in Europe, The Great Dictator has its share of critics.

Chaplin plays the dual roles of a poor Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania. The portrayal was a very thinly-disguised slam against Hitler, who looked remarkably like Chaplin’s character “The Little Tramp” in real life. (The similarities didn’t end there: Chaplin and Hitler were both born in poverty only four days apart to weak mothers and alcoholic fathers.)

Chaplin took a huge gamble with the film, investing much of his own money. He made it to bring attention to the Europeans, especially the Jews, who he felt were being overlooked by an isolationist America where many feared the film would stir up trouble with the Axis Powers. Chaplin wrote it in the late 1930s and began filming just two weeks after Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II. By the time it was released, the Nazi blitzkrieg had laid waste to much of Europe and France had fallen.

It turned out to be a huge hit, especially in Chaplin’s native England, which got a much-needed morale boost from the film. Despite the fact that it was banned in all the countries that were controlled by Germany at the time, it became Chaplin’s most successful film. (Hitler secured a copy which he watched on at least two occasions.)

The Great Dictator has its share of hilarious scenes, like Hynkel’s dance with the globe, and the “duel” in the barber chairs between Hynkel and fellow dictator Napaloni (a caricature of Mussolini) to see who can rise the highest.

But the scene that is most often scorned by critics is at the film’s conclusion when the barber, disguised as Hynkel, delivers a 747-word attack on totalitarianism. Many felt the speech to be too wordy and preachy, and definitely not the way to end a comedy.

I personally love it.

The speech is a “diatribe for peace” – a timeless stirring plea for humanity in the midst of insanity. In fact, I believe it’s one of the great wartime speeches in history. Here is an excerpt:

“The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls – has barricaded the world with hate – has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”

For a man who spent so much of his career being silent, this is pretty good stuff.

Hynkel with his favorite dance partner.

Here is a link to a recent video that juxtaposes Chaplin’s speech with video of the freedom movements currently taking place in the Middle East.