James Stewart did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying John 'Scottie' Ferguson in Vertigo.
James Stewart in the 30's and the early 40's was best known for portraying the romantic aw shucks or the passionate young man fighting for a good cause. After his service in World War II Stewart's choice in roles changed considerably, and the whole process of his career can be seen through his performance in It's A Wonderful which starts out relatively light but goes into darker territory as the film proceeds. Stewart would continue into darker roles in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock such as Rope and Rear Window as well as his collaborations in Anthony Mann's westerns where he would play bitter deeply cynical characters. Stewart's darkest role though perhaps came in his final collaboration with Hitchcock in this film Vertigo, where it was not just the film around him that was bleak in nature, but also Stewart's own performance.
Technically speaking Stewart's performance does contain some of his mainstays such as his considerable charm in his scenes with Scottie's ex-fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who he is still on good terms with. Stewart mediates well though and does not overplay his hand, and is always completely fitting to the tone that Hitchcock creates around him. Stewart brings just enough of his charm really to make it so he kind of grounds Scottie in these early scenes. At first Stewart perhaps even shows us that Scottie is a likable enough guy and perhaps not completely unlike perhaps the reporter he played in Call Northside 777. This actually adds considerably to the overall effect of his performance because Stewart gives us the Stewart style we know and love to show Scottie as a normal guy who we can invest our interest in but the genius of this performance is that this is all perhaps a ruse once we begin to follow Scottie down his investigation.
Vertigo is an interesting film in not only the way the mystery unfolds, but as well by the way that changes one's perspective on the film on re-watch. In the first viewing, without knowing the twist of the film, we follow Stewart as he follows the wife of his client Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) as she visits various odd places around San Francisco. Stewart's performance here is especially reactionary in nature yet he does so much within these confines. Stewart's is excellent in portraying as Scottie starts out the case as just a confused observer of the odd behavior that Madeleine does. The whole thing seems to become stranger though as it seems Madeleine is visiting places that were important to a woman who died the same age that Madeleine happens to be. This whole concept seems particularly absurd but on first watch Stewart grounds it through his performance that shows the whole way Scottie is processing the odd behavior.
What Stewart does especially well in these early scenes is reflect what the case does to Scottie as he continues to follow Madeleine and even eventually begins to interact with her after he must save her when she jumps into a river seemingly in a trance. Stewart mainly just through his reactions develops this interest in her as he basically is allured by her in every way. Stewart is effective by playing it as almost something primal in him. Stewart completely becomes overwhelmed of this quality in his performance even though there interactions are more than a little sparse they never seem lacking because of the way he expresses Scottie almost entrancement with the woman. Stewart's performance work especially well for the film because in the first viewing Stewart brings so much investment in his portrayal that the whole possession by the dead woman seems plausible in some way, but his performance works in a whole different fashion when you learn the truth about this story.
The truth being that the whole Madeleine story is completely false in nature and Scottie is merely being strung along by it. Stewart's performance works equally well as we are able to see it as the cruelty it is, particularly since Stewart honestly portrays how thoroughly Scottie is swept into the tale. Stewart's performance becomes more than simply a man stricken by the confusion of what going on and instead we see a man being slowly driven to a madness by this trick that is being played upon him. The whole idea only becomes worse when it appears Madeleine commits suicide off a high bell tower and Scottie is unable to prevent it because of his vertigo. Stewart's portrayal of the vertigo itself I think perhaps is one of the most memorable reactions in film history. Stewart's portrayal of the vertigo is flawless in creating the absolute fear in Scottie. Stewart gives it so much power though by as well suggesting his realization of his failure along with the petrifying terror as Scottie can do nothing but watch as Madeleine commits suicide.
Stewart's performance continues to be quite powerful by honestly creating Scottie's damaged psyche as he continues to live even with his failure and Stewart is fantastic in expressing how basically broken Scottie is by the events that transpired. It is not simply a man left to be confused by happen that Stewart shows, but rather he brings the true weight of the even through his performance as we see that Scottie could never be the same after what has happened to him. Stewart shows this Scottie as a man truly lost in the event himself, and even though the film is rather swift in dealing with both Scottie mental breakdown and recovery Stewart never loses his step. In the breakdown, which could have been a time to overact, Stewart is absolutely haunting in his was of internalizing the pain in Scottie, Stewart never yells once yet you can feel him screaming inside as Scottie remembers what happened. Stewart even manages to make the recovery believable, simply by showing that Scottie has hardly gotten over what has occurred.
The final phase of the film shifts as Scottie is surprised to find a woman who greatly resembles Madeleine named Judy. It was said that Stewart was miscast in this role as he plays the romantic lead with Kim Novak who was half his age. The thing is though I don't find this to be a romantic performance in anyway, least of all the way that Stewart plays the part. Scottie claims to have fallen in love with Madeleine and perhaps that is what he believes, but Stewart does not show this to be true love by any means. Rather Stewart gives a much darker portrait of instead a obsession after all the woman he thinks he loves was merely playing a part, and he seemed to have fallen in love with only an image a false image. Stewart is quite startling as he brings his performance into the depths as Scottie forces this other woman to change everything about her to suite his image of the only woman he could love which is the image of Madeleine.
One of the best moments in the film is when Scottie finally finishes sculpting Judy into Madeleine. Stewart's reaction again is perfection as his eyes suggest that of a man whose seen a ghost come back to life right before his eyes. In the moment that he embraces her is especially powerful as Stewart brings out so much desire and the full extent of Scottie's unshakable obsession as he has re-created what he never truly had. It is a curious moment and even rather unsettling because Stewart intensity is so great and he never makes a romantic moment. It is always something far more unsettling as Scottie has not made the woman he has loved, or even recognized Judy as the woman he has loved, but merely made his false memory come back to life for him. This is a phenomenal performance by Stewart as he gives such a profound depiction of both the creation of Scottie's 'love' and the terrible result of the way it twists his mind. Stewart never compromises his character giving such a tragic yet chilling portrait of this man's delusion.