James Dunn won his Oscar from his nomination for portraying Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
There are many types of Oscar winners particularly in the way their win seems to stand. There are those which it just stands as part of an already great career like Laurence Olivier, than there are those who only seem to go down from there like George Sanders, as well as those who it acted as just a nice near the end of their career tribute like Henry Fonda, as well as the sort like Haing S. Ngor who did not have great success as an actor afterward, but they weren't actors to begin with than there are those whose whole career highlight is summed up in their win like James Dunn.
James Dunn did not have too much of a career before or after his Oscar winning role here, and just like Johnny Nolan he suffered from alcoholism. Dunn though like Johnny clearly had some greatness in him even if it was muted by drink, and perhaps it is his similarity to his character that allowed Dunn to have this moment of greatness in his career suggests just who Dunn could have been just as Johnny Nolan's best moments suggest much of the same sort of greatness. It is perhaps this undeniable connection that allows Dunn to give as moving of a portrait of Johnny Nolan as James Dunn does.
Johnny Nolan is the father of the Brooklyn family who spends his time in small waiter jobs unable to support his family by himself even though he attempts to do so, as well has a sort of dream to become a singer as well. Johnny Nolan only wishes the very best for his family, but is flawed in his troubles with alcoholism. Quite often during the film Johnny is talked about, in fact there is even a bit of a build up toward his eventually appearance, but James Dunn when he eventually appears makes Johnny well worth this.
James Dunn from his first scene makes Johnny one of the most genuinely heart warming fathers ever depicted on screen. Dunn has such an enthusiasm in the part that is absolutely endearing. He makes Nolan's kindness completely truthful there is not a moment where you doubt his love and affection for his family, Dunn simply could not be better. It is easy to turn a character such as this into just a falseness that feels faked, but Dunn makes it all made true to the heart with his endearing portrayal.
His chemistry with Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Johnny's daughter is perfect. There is an undeniable warmth toward one another that is only ever genuine. Their scenes together are an incredible combination of both being some of the most heartwarming moments in film as well as the most heartbreaking because of how honest their love is. Dunn makes Johnny's pride and affection for his daughter this way through the joy James Dunn in every second he is on screen with Garner.
Dunn is equally effective though in his sad moments as his happier. What works so well about Dunn's performance though is the way he never overplays an emotion as actors commonly do when portraying alcoholics. In all of his scenes, everyone Dunn infuses the same soft spirit into his performance even when Johnny faces his troubles directly, and is discouraged by his wife. Dunn even in these discouraging moments still always has that same glint of optimism of Johnny that is the heartbreaking tragedy of his character.
Dunn never wastes a moment in his performance always create a notable emotional impact in each scene he is in, and emotional impact so strong that you can't forget him even when he is off screen. Dunn creates such a beautiful portrait of Johnny that shows his history and his life struggle in his face. He establishes the whole history of Johnny in his portrayal of a potential great man unable to completely appear due to his place in society. Dunn always is able to realize both the strength and the weakness of Johnny flawlessly.
I would say what might be Dunn's best scene as Johnny, and I say might because Dunn only has great scenes is when he sings Annie Laurie on the piano. It never seems an achievement to simple be able to sing in a performance since it is acting not singing, but a musical moment can be something very special for an actor if they are capable of presenting more of the character's soul through song which Dunn most certainly does in this scene. Dunn in the single song shows the potential greatness in Johnny with how he is both wonderful and chilling in the moment showing exactly what Johnny is capable of but never able to forget the troubles in Johnny either.
This is just a amazing emotionally powerful performance from James Dunn which after he exits the film you really feel a genuine loss and heartbreak when he is gone. Dunn never tries to force us to feel for Johnny but brought it out naturally with his charming warmth, as well as with his realization of the tragedy of the character. Although Dunn career did not have a resurgence because of his Oscar win he most certainly proved with this exceedingly deserving performance that, just like when Johnny Nolan's sing Annie Laurie, the greatness was there.