James Stewart did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps Ford's most introspective western as it is no way about merely the good people defeating the bad elements in the west. After all we know right from the title that the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is going to die. Although the basis for much of the story alludes to this confrontation is seems far more interested in the examination of the historical interpretation of the event. The film actually begins only reinforces the inevitable all the more as we appear to meet the titular man as he arrives in the town where the event took place, now a much older, and very successful United States Senator. Oddly enough these scenes have Stewart actually nearer to his actual age, than the scenes set in the past. In these scenes though Stewart reflects a man who has been created from a life of rich reward. He truly is the politician he was meant to become now as Stewart carries himself with certain grandeur about himself, and that anytime in which he speaks to people, who are not old friends, he does it with strong voice which has clearly made more than a few important speeches in its time. He appears to the great man the local press wishes him to be, though when mentioning why Ransom has returned to the town, the politician begins to fade away.
Now Wayne's performance here is very intriguing example of Wayne's onscreen persona, because actually of the limited view we are given to Doniphon in the film. Now this raises a point of order whether or not Wayne is actually co-lead with Stewart, or in fact supporting. I'll admit this is a case where if one were to decide on either choice I would not disagree with them. After all there is only really one major scene where he is alone without Stewart, though many of the scenes where he is with Stewart he is given equal importance. I'll just say it's up for an actual debate, but for the moment I'll have in him in lead. The position in the film Wayne takes though enables for Wayne to actually give one of his most assured performances in the traditional Wayne style. If one were to ask the appeal of Wayne onscreen it would be best to point to this performance. Wayne is terrific as he is just in his element here and in turn makes Doniphon a man who is absolutely in his. Wayne's command of the screen here is truly effortless as he makes Doniphon the great man that everyone already believes him to be as the film begins. Wayne carries himself so precisely here in that you completely believe the status given to him, and like Stewart some how overrides the fact that he's too old for the part.
Stewart is not to be forgotten though with his performance as Ransom as Stewart so effectively depicts Ransom's attempt to get a grasp on the nature of life in the west. Stewart brings a bit of that aw shucks enthusiasm here in the scenes where Ransom attempts to offer what he believes that he can offer that being his knowledge of the law and education. Stewart depicts this with a likable earnestness though also alludes to Ransom's naivety in terms of the situation he happens to be in. The ideas of the east are clearly well kept in Ransom, and Stewart brings an appropriate straight forward quality to the man as he points out a law that should put Liberty Valance behind bars, the problem is no one cares the local Marshall included. This makes Ransom the constant victim of abuse from Liberty in particular, but also others due to his manner that does not fit to the exact limits of masculinity expected in the west. Stewart is very good in providing a gradual emotional breakdown of sorts in Ransom as he stands for himself his own way though is repeatedly beaten down and disrespected nonetheless. This partially even comes from Doniphon himself as the two are connected mainly by two things.
The first being Liberty Valance as Ransom is consistently ridiculed by him, and brings Doniphon into the mix as well. There is a great scene between Stewart, Wayne, as well as Lee Marvin when Liberty trips Ransom on his way to deliver a steak dinner to Doniphon leading to a face off. Wayne is exceptional in bringing such palatable intensity as Doniphon stares down Valance and makes it believable that even Liberty could back off from the stare. Although the two are in such a showdown of powerful personalities that leaves Ransom. Stewart is not lost in the scene, but manages his own place brilliantly in depicting Ransom's outrage at both men for seeming so eager for violence. Stewart's intensity is the equal of both his co-stars, but he makes it on a different wave length of them as though it is impossible for him to connect to this sort of duel. Due to this Doniphon attempts to educate Ransom on this, somewhat harshly at times. Stewart and Wayne are pitch perfect together as they find such a clear divide between the two as they are very different men, yet within that they are convincing in developing the unsaid understanding between the two that is pivotal for the film.
Now their other connection concerns a mutual love interest Hallie (Vera Miles). Hallie is treated simply as a certainty by Doniphon, but Ransom calls this into question. I don't know if anyone other than Stewart could make Ransom's "stealing" of Hallie from Doniphon work as well as it does. Stewart's charm is so natural that he makes his interactions with Miles, to not have an even slightly problematic intent. Stewart makes it that Ransom manages to win her over, but does not even for a moment intend to do so, he just happens to. Of course these two connections ultimately come to a head when Liberty attempts to stop statehood, supported by Ransom to the point he is made a delegate to an important conference, through any violent means necessary. This leads to Ransom confronting Liberty in a duel. Stewart is amazing in the scene as he portrays a definite fear as he takes the fateful steps towards Liberty, but also a tremendous determination as he faces down the man. It appears he kills Liberty, and is hailed a hero by most. Stewart is fantastic as he portrays an overwhelming guilt in Ransom, showing a man who believes he's betrayed himself by using violence to stop problems. He is shaken out of this daze though by Doniphon. Wayne is equally strong as he shows a man perhaps even more haunted by something as he reveals he in fact saved Ransom by shooting Liberty from a distance. The result which lead Doniphon to destroy his own home, which he prepared for his life with Hallie. Wayne is heartbreaking in this scene, as he loses the qualities of that persona revealing a far more sensitive man honestly torn apart by the sacrifice he made. The sacrifice being that Doniphon murdered Liberty to save Ransom because knew Hallie loved him, and in turn lost her himself. The film then comes back to Ransom many years later successful due to the lie, while Doniphon is dead, alone, and having fallen into obscurity. Stewart is outstanding in proving such a poignant yet somber moment, as he presents Ransom without a hint of the politician. Stewart instead portrays a man almost defeated knowing that his life was not only made by a lie, but also that it was at the cost of the happiness of another. Both give two of their best performances Stewart in his portrait of a normal man made into a legend, Wayne in his portrait of a legend made into a man.