James Stewart received his third Oscar nomination for playing George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life.
One of the biggest reasons that the film is successful is because of Stewart's performance. I find this performance fascinating because Stewart sort of incorporates elements from his best performances into this single performance. There is the aw shucks romantic part of Stewart seen in many films including the Philadelphia Story, there is the good man fighting for what is right seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the darker Stewart seen in films like Rope and Vertigo.
Stewart excels perfectly in this role because he puts all these elements perfectly together to create George Bailey as a fully realized person. In the early scenes of the film Stewart plays the George who is still ambitions and wishes to leave Bedford fall. Stewart shows the ambitious of George very well, his desire for "greater" things and his wish not to have to stay in the small town for the rest of his life. Also in these early scenes Stewart does his romantic aw shucks routine which work well, and creates a nice scene with Donna Reed. All the romantic scenes with Reed are very well handled by Stewart. He makes the scenes warm and nice just as they should be.
There are also the scenes of trouble in the town and Stewart's attempt to always save the town from the hands of the greedy Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Stewart puts the perfect amount of passion and power into every scene. He really shows a true feeling that gives strength to all of these scenes from the scene in the great depression or the scene where he tells Potter that he is a warp frustrated old man. Stewart is helped by the fact that Barrymore is so good as the villainous Potter. Every speech Bailey makes Stewart infuses with the right amount of energy to give it true feeling and make these scenes as effective as possible. Bailey is so important to Bedford falls because Stewart makes Bailey that way. He never seems pious but just a good man who must do what is right.
Finally the greatest part of Stewart's performance is the darker side of it. Bailey is not a perfect guy at all, and certainly has his problems and regrets as every man has. Bailey could have been played as a one dimensional nice guy but Stewart does not do this, and adds a perfect shading to his character. Throughout the film there are always glimpses of the darker side who regrets having to spend his whole life just saving one small town. Stewart handles these small indications perfectly subtly, and completely effectively. An example being when he is told he has to stay at the Bailey Building and Loan or else it will be dissolved. Stewart's reaction to being told this is just right, showing he knows what he has to do, but also that he really does not want to do it. All the way through Stewart shows the regrets just right, until the scenes just before the fantasy part of the film where Bailey breaks down. Stewart is just brilliant in these scenes showing all the pains and the frustrations of the man full view. His scene where he yells at his family is so well handled. Stewart is emotionally raw in this scene and it really shows the way a man can be when all is against him.
Equally effective scenes though appear when he sees the world if he had never been born. Stewart reactions to the way the town has changed to the way the people have changed, are perfectly emotionally tuned. For example his dark face after his mother does not recognize him to his crazed reaction when his wife does not recognize him. His slow realization to how important he was hits all the right emotional notes thanks to Stewart. Then the final joyous scene where he lives again is just greatness. Stewart joyed passion in the final scenes is again perfect. His emotional joy really transfers to the audience and Stewart was instrumental in making the ending as memorable as it is, and making the film as memorable as it is. A truly great performance.