James Cagney did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces.
James Cagney was obviously no stranger to the biopic having most famously played George M. Cohan in his Oscar winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Although this film is certainly still a biopic of its time, it does differ from that earlier film in delving into some darker material fitting to the famed horror actor. What may seem less fitting is perhaps the casting of Cagney who was about ten years older than when Chaney died when this film was made. Cagney overcomes any such second thoughts though just by being what he is, which is a great actor. Cagney though is particularly tailored made for the role as in some ways Cagney was a silent leading man, even in his great success in sound. Cagney though missed the silent era basically by just a year or so, however the sort of physicality needed for a silent actor was often one of his greatest assets as an actor. Cagney very much has what are the tools to play Chaney even if from the outset he doesn't seem like the first choice for the role, Cagney makes himself the first choice, just as quite honestly what he did with Cohan as a well. In that Cagney's way of specifically performing a "performance" is particularly important for this role as Chaney, as it was for Cohan.
Now part of this performance is just fulfilling the elements of a more typical biopic, although with some unique elements at least for the time. This gives Cagney very much the chance simply to deliver an, as per usual, terrific charismatic leading turn. The personal side of the story mostly involves his relationships with his two wives which also extend towards the relationship with his parents and later his son. His first relationship being problematic with his shallow first wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone) who is troubled by Chaney's parents who are both deaf. Cagney is fantastic in these interactions in portraying effectively an understood infatuation with his wife in the early scenes though that quickly develops to this growing frustration. He properly makes this more overt in the moments where she directly questions his "biology" essentially due to his parents, which Cagney's reaction realizes the sense of harm this does to Chaney. This further realized through the moments between Chaney and his parents alone which are brilliantly played by Cagney. He brings such a direct and pure sense of love for both parents. Obviously these are purely silent moments of sign language, and in each instance Cagney conveys the earnest care Chaney has for both of his parents.
That creates the problematic relationship with his wife, who can't get over Chaney's parents, which Cagney illustrates so well in each successive scene by slowly realizing this underlying distress towards her behavior. He creates the right inherent tension, and this sense of betrayal in every interaction to essentially realize the divorce in Chaney's mind even before it is realized. This is in stark contrast to the relationship between Chaney and his second wife Hazel (Judy Greer). In their scenes Cagney strikes up just a far unassuming yet much more genuine in a way sense of love between the two that both actors establish well as this simple given through their quiet yet potent interactions. This is similarly found in Chaney relationship to his son Creighton. Obviously there are many stages of this however Cagney is terrific in portraying actually more depth towards this than to even be expected from this type of biopic. In that in part he is very good in bringing such a sense of tenderness in the interactions with his son early on, bringing so much warmth in his eyes that he manages to make rather moving when Chaney briefly loses guardianship of him. That is not simplified though as Cagney later just as firmly portrays a real distaste, and anger, that he portrays as a reflection of his old frustrations when Creighton decides to see his biological mother against Chaney's wishes. Cagney doesn't hold back in these moments offering a proper intensity that is fitting towards the earlier troubled relationship, that in turn makes the later unconditional reconciliation with his son all the more moving.
As good as Cagney is in the more traditional narrative elements of the film, what makes this performance standout though is his recreation of what made Lon Chaney the titular man. Obviously Cagney is aided by some proper recreations of Chaney's old makeup but this performance goes far beyond that. Cagney's immense physicality as an actor heavily plays into this as he has that certain energy of his very being that essential to bringing Chaney's creations to life. Although I think the film itself would have benefited with a deeper delving into Chaney's career, nonetheless Cagney is brilliant in recreating the every specific scene depicted within his career. Cagney's physical work is outstanding as he never simplifies any of the creations we see. This includes his moments as this vaudeville clown, which is not a simple thing, but a fully bodied performance. He is both entertaining as seen, but also so good in creating this distinct style of performance so naturally. The same becomes true for Cagney in creating some of Chaney's famous roles including the Phantom of the opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Cagney brings to life, albeit briefly, these characters so effectively to the point one could have imagined Cagney perhaps should have done more of such overly mannered physical turns in his own career. In each he creates the "creature" as a character more than just an image. My favorite single moment of this is Cagney's depiction of Chaney's portrayal of a handicapped man walking again. It is just a brilliantly performed piece of physical acting by Cagney as he creates the whole scene just within his own work, and is compelling just to see him perform this act. Although I obviously would have loved to have seen the film delve deeper into the man's life and career than the film does, Cagney is more than up to the task of the man even in this somewhat limited perspective. He is gives a striking turn that not only is a moving portrayal of the man, but a convincing depiction of what made him famous.