Robert Shaw did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Steven Ledbetter in The Hireling.
Although I've been an enthusiastic supporter of all of Robert Shaw's many memorable supporting turns until this performance I have never reviewed any of his leading turns. This is the first and a rather different side of Shaw given we are usually left a bit more of distance given he's not the lead. This is also Shaw in a very different role, far from his say his villainous turn in The Sting also in 73, or even the other leading turns I've seen him in which have been "men on a mission" films. We are introduced to Shaw's Ledbetter as the hireling, used to drive the Lady Franklin (Sarah Miles) who has recently been released from a mental clinic for her crippling depression after the death of her husband. Shaw actually rather quiet in the early scenes of the film as Ledbetter fulfills his duties with a proper "yes, my lady" at the end of every confirmation. I will say it took just a bit of getting used to this Shaw as this driver, though no fault of his own, as Shaw just has that certain look about him as though he's planning on killing someone even though he's not, though I should note this quality in Shaw actually ends up being an asset to his characterization in the end.
Before all that though we get this other side to Shaw as Ledbetter drives around the Lady Franklin. Shaw isn't surprising, it's Robert Shaw we're talking about here to begin with, but it rather remarkable to see Shaw in this more unassuming role. Shaw's approach though is atypical even in a part like this, that being the working class "friend" helping a wealthy person become a better person in some way. The reason being Shaw actually keeps the idea of class in mind in his work. In that Shaw, rather than making Ledbetter some free spirit from the get go, still shows the certain stilted quality in the interactions particularly through the unnatural delivery of "My Lady" at the end of every response. What makes this so effective in developing the relationship is the way Shaw is able to convey essentially the concern in Ledbetter, in just his slight glance Shaw is able to reveal a bit of empathy towards her suggesting the way Ledbetter comes to understand that the Lady needs support.
Shaw is excellent as he carefully works in this warmth in Ledbetter's words towards the lady, and begins to try to get to help her recover from her losses in some way. He even offers his own support by comparing the Lady to his wife and naming his children. There is such a strong affection as he speaks these words though it is towards the Lady not towards his wife and children. This is just the subtle touch though in Shaw's work though as there is such a genuine charm that Shaw brings in Ledbetter's general encouraging spirit towards the Lady. As the Lady slowly becomes more outgoing and seems to be recovering from her depression, Shaw mirrors this interestingly by offering Ledbetter as becoming all the more outgoing towards the Lady. He still keeps some of the structure of class requirement but Shaw reveals all the more of generosity in Ledbetter. This sort of culminates as he takes the Lady to a boxing matches, by students he teach, and Shaw reveals such endearing joy from Ledbetter as he not only sees her happy as well but is able to spend time with her.
Unfortunately Ledbetter is not all that he seems, though this is not to reveal some truly duplicitous sort. We are shown Ledbetter's real life where he works at his dirty garage and is alone besides the occasion liaison with local waitress, having made up his wife and family. Shaw here reveals not the real man or the false man, but rather what Ledbetter is without the Lady by his side. An underlying theme within the film is the trauma of World War I though that is not often brought up. Shaw's brilliant though because he shows that those experiences are merely a part of Ledbetter's existence. Shaw uses that through his usual intensity but this time adjusting it to reveal this internalized pain that is almost a constant. Shaw is careful in that he shows that Ledbetter is not constantly in anguish, rather though there is this discomfort of mind and soul that alludes to the horrors that the man had to experience. Shaw shows that this leaves him unable to find solace with the exception of when he is with the Lady Franklin, and that is where Shaw so effectively reveals a true happiness.
Ledbetter though finds his services less and less required, to the growing health of the Lady, and her finding a companion in an unfaithful upper class sort. Ledbetter in turn attempts to find any way back to the Lady, which includes faking a car breakdown and random service calls. This is no romantic comedy though where this behavior will turn out well for all. Shaw is horrible to watch in these scenes, and no that is not a criticism. Shaw makes it more than a little painful to watch at times as he exudes this burden in these moments. This tension of a man basically waiting to hear the woman he loves to say the words. That sense of waiting is there and Shaw places these moments of hesitation as though Ledbetter is leaving gaps hoping she will say the words within them. There's one particularly powerful scene where Ledbetter says nothing but names his false ill-fortunes. This scene is a little curious in some of the director, Alan Bridges, choices but Shaw is on point. Shaw speaks the words that are meaningless to Ledbetter, yet in his face there is such a terrible longing as he wants to say more yet cannot bring himself to do so. The most moving moment though of that scene actually is when the Lady asks Ledbetter's first name, and Shaw expresses such agonizing realization as Ledbetter the distance between them since she does not even know his full name.
Unfortunately again the film is not done ripping one's heart out as Ledbetter finally does decide to express his love to the Lady Franklin. The scene is incredible for Shaw as he portrays such a desperation and is absolutely heartbreaking by being such miserable mess. Shaw though makes the emotion absolutely raw and honest in his declaration of love though making it all the more painful as she rejects him. Shaw in that scene showed a man basically at his end, though still with love in his heart, but this changes in his final scene where he crashes a date between the Lady and her rich unfaithful suitor. Shaw's a different kind of mess here, and it's fascinating scene as he depicts another breakdown though this time defined by hate rather than affection. Shaw is outstanding though as he presents a man lower than rock bottom flailing around drunk on alcohol, but also through his intense sorrows at seeing that his chance for happiness was a lie. This is an amazing performance by Robert Shaw giving such tragic yet tender depiction of this lonely man, that is another angle of his immense talent.