Charles Bronson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Paul Kersey in Death Wish.
It is interesting that apparently Sidney Lumet was going adapt the novel Death Wish with Jack Lemmon in the lead. I must say I think Lemmon possibly could have given a great performance and he certainly would have been much more of an everyman since vigilante is not something that quickly comes to your mind with Lemmon. Charles Bronson on the other hand it might be one of the first things you might think of. I will admit that is probably helped greatly by the film series of Death Wish, but Bronson even before this film was usually an on screen tough guy.
Due to Bronson's previous screen credits his eventually becoming a vigilante does not seem like much of stretch, in fact
Bronson seeming the happy family man seems more unnatural than being the
killer. This is not against Bronson's performance as he believable
enough in his family scenes. He has a strong enough warmth and what not,
but rather it has to do with Bronson's type which always comes across
as tough guy, not a former conscientious objector. Bronson is really an
actor who showed mostly this very specific range in his performances.
This is not say that Bronson might or might not have been able to tackle a more complex form of this character, but it seems that the director really cast him more on his reputation as a badass than an actor. In fact there are many scenes where the direction in the film takes an approach for us to feel what Paul is going through by the the film rather than specifically by Bronson's performance. Two scenes in particular express this one being Paul's grief over his wife it cuts away from Bronson so fast you barely even know he is going through his heartbreak.
That first scene I write of more of shows all the aftermath such as her funeral, and we only see a small glimpse of Paul's reaction. Bronson is fine in his quick expression of Paul's disbelief and sadness but it is too short to be particularly powerful. His other scene is when Paul goes home after killing a man. Again we briefly get a glance at Bronson's expression but only for a second as he quickly goes and vomits. The film shows us the emotional consequence through the noise far more than with Bronson's performance, although again the brief moment is handled well enough by Bronson.
Bronson more fully comes into his own in his scenes what were the reasons why he was probably cast. The scenes being where Paul kills every mugger he happens to run into. Bronson in these scenes shows his particular skills as a performer well in these fast but intense moments. Bronson make Paul an incisive killer and he has a strong control over the moments. He makes Paul's killing something that is very much to the point. He shows that Paul does not intend to play around only kill those who he believes deserve to die for their criminal actions.
Of course the whole vigilantism aspect seems like a bit of a missed opportunity since being Charles Bronson there is not a learning curve. He instantly becomes a completely confidant killer, and is instantly imposing. He also instantly shows Paul to think himself quite cool in a way from the idolization the mysterious vigilante receives from some people. An actor like Jack Lemmon might have been able to bring about a slower, but more powerful portrait of an average man transforming into a far less ordinary killer. With Bronson it is less of a transition and more of just a realization.
I should say I never do feel that Bronson is bad in the role. He is consistently confidant, and when required he shows the appropriate emotions. My only problem comes in that the character of Paul Kersey could have been so much more, and could have been a fascinating delve into the psyche behind a vigilante. Instead Bronson settles with just making Paul into a watchable action hero who went on to appear in a total of four more films after this one. I really could give Bronson less but really this is an entirely effective performance that does use the strengths of Bronson's onscreen persona well, even though I can't help but wonder if Paul could have lead to a truly amazing performance in another set of hands.