Ed Begley won his Oscar from his only nomination for portraying Boss Tom Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Ed Begley portrays a southern political boss apparently a liked Oscar type character since it also brought Broderick Crawford a win for best actor in 1949. Now I was not the biggest fan of Broderick Crawford's lead performance in All the King's Men and I think Ed Begley's performance as Boss Finley actually succeeds in a few ways with the same type of character where Crawford failed.
Begley just as Crawford did succeeds quite well in showing the brutal as well as pompous nature of the political boss, but I think Begley does it better. Begley always shows that Finley is the boss of any room, even when he is not talking always having an strong presence in any scene forcing one to notice him. Begley always has the right attitude in the part he is the political boss and he knows it, he knows it so well that he does not mind flaunting it as much as he feels like.
My major problem with Crawford was although properly cruel as the political boss he was always too obviously evil, Begley outs on the facade quite well. Begley even with thinking of various acts of cruelty usually likes to come off as a nice old man while doing it. There are moments where he is not an exacts his cruelty directly, but since Begley combines both types of moments with ease which are essential in showing how Boss Finley is able to be a political boss not just a crime boss.
Begley is effective in both types of moments of cruelty. He is appropriately gentle but with always that little evil glint in his eye, and that deliciously fake smile that goes with it. Begley knows how to make the facade of of Finely that allows him to keep power as well as mistress. There is a little charm, a perfect politician's charm, there in the boss that makes this believable.
In his scenes of more direct evil Begley is rather chilling, and properly brutal. Begley shows that when Finley facade goes away it is only when he means absolute business, when it something that angers him off in the just the right way it makes him go over the edge and the full force of who he is comes out. Begley shows him a pathetic bully, whose cruelty who shows no empathy for his worst actions.
I think most important to his performance though are his out in public scenes that establish his nature as political boss. Begley is very friendly in these scenes almost fatherly in his few moments with Chance that are set in the past when they were on good terms. Begley apparent warmness, and charisma in these scenes act perfectly to show exactly how Finley became the boss, and stayed as one. The role of the boss is not an original one by any means and Begley does not try to take some whole new entirely style to it, but he certainly meets all the challenges of the character.