Thursday, 2 June 2011

Best Actor 1951: Fredric March in Death of a Salesman

Fredric March received his fifth and final Oscar nomination for portraying Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

This version of Death of a Salesman is rather strange in that it portrays every flashback, as something Willy is currently seeing, no matter what the situation.

After just speaking of Stanley Kowalski it is interesting to jump to Willy Loman certainly two of the most famous leads of the modern theater. Where Marlon Brando would reprise his role, the original Willy, Lee J. Cobb did not, leaving March in the role. Also what should be noted is the original director of Streetcar Elia Kazan directed the film version, Kazan did not direct the film version of Death of a Salesman, even though he was the director of the original production of the play.

I think all these changes most certainly lead to this bizarre interpretation of both the play and the character that is found in this film. A film that the movie company had so little respect for they almost put a short film "Life of a Salesman" before the main film, to basically contradict everything the film was going to say before it said it. I think with that little piece of trivia, one can see why this film does not work at all, because it seems the people who made it had know idea what the play meant.

This is the most true because of the character of Willy Loman in this film, that is suppose to be a beaten down salesman, beaten down due to his failure to live up to the dream he made up for himself, as well as his disappointment in his son Biff's inability to do the same. In this film though I certainly felt he was on the end of his rope, but I felt what got him there was not so much the failure, but the fact that Willy is plainly insane, not just slowly losing it as the play seems to say, and he just continued to become even more insane as time went on, with the failure simply contributing to that.

Now I do not think the filmmakers meant this really, and the original play most certainly did not mean this, but it comes out this way because of the odd direction, and March's performance. March plays basically every scene as basically a manic insane man, who only comes down on occasion, but only for a short while. It is an odd performance most certainly because of this, and I do not think it is all March's fault since it is the film who always has him talking to himself out loud, thinking he is talking to someone.

I suppose one could say this is how March is trying to show how much of a defeated man Willy is, but even that would seem an odd way to show Willy's defeat. Also he basically plays Willy in this insane fashion in many of the past remembrance scenes as well. March still plays each of these scenes in too manic of a fashion, especially his scenes with his brother Ben. Willy sees Ben as successful, and wants to achieve in the same fashion. March though does not make it like this is an idea Willy has that is extremely important, but instead just a completely insane obsession.

March is an actor I do like, but here the direction makes him go off the deep end. Now I think this is quite the misinterpretation on March's part, as well as the directors. This is an incredibly hammy performance, but Willy here is basically insane, so the hamminess is not entirely misplaced. A misinterpretation that does not work, but I must say a misinterpretation that March is quite consistent about. He seems to be entirely insane, and March's moments of clarity such as his quiet talks with his wife, or his talk with Biff, after Biff sees Willy is having an affair are sort of well handled.

This is a performance I really do not know how to rate. I most certainly can't rate it highly because this is such an odd, and frankly incorrect way to play the part, but really the direction definitely wanted him to play this part in this way as well, so I almost want to say it is not entirely March's fault, they wanted him to play it insane so he did, I guess. I don't know really, his insanity is not exactly poorly done as it very well could have been, but it does work incredibly poorly for the story and the character. All I really can say about March is watch at least part of this one for yourself, it most certainly is something, that is for sure. I will say this is one of the hardest performances I ever have had to judge just due to the strangeness of the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

I remember liking March's performance in this when I saw the film on TCM a few years back so i'll have to locate a copy and see it again soon.
My two favorites from this year are definately Montgomery Clift and Arthur Kennedy so i'll just have to see how you rate them :)
also if you ever go back to 1929 best actor performances I actually discovered you could locate copies of Paul Muni in The Valiant and George Bancroft in Thunderbolt (I liked Bancroft in The Docks of New York so i'll have to order this sometime) at:

they sell both movies for $10.
Unfortunately Lewis Stone's oscar nomination that year was for The Patriot which is a lost film. So until a copy turns up in an archive the film and Stone's performance will remain lost.
just thought I'd pass this info along and keep up the great performance reviews!!

Anonymous said...

Terrible, I didn't like anything about this movie anyways.

Henry Myers said...

I just watched this version of the play and found March's performance worthy of his Academy Award nomination. I would replace the description of his performance as "manic" with "intense". It was the type of intensity you would find in a man who has reached a point of desperation. I think what is important about this is that the play is basically over a 24 hour period. This is what makes his temperament, not seemed out of, particularly since it occurs on a stream of consciousness state. An exploration of the mind in this would be closer to the character's repressed emotions, which would deviate from what would be expected.
If an adaptation is an interpretation, this version accomplishes what it sets out to do. That is to create a compelling character. It would be hard to argue whatever your opinion of March in this role, it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. He makes a connection with a part of the consciousness we are hesitant to admit exist within us all.