Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Fredric March won his second Oscar for playing Al Stephenson in William Wyler’s best picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives.

I think I have mentioned this before, but I am a huge fan of William Wyler. I really love his movies in general (maybe except Ben-Hur), and I really like his directing style, which is fairly simple and straightforward, but effective in its storytelling. He clearly knew how to handle his actors and stories very well, and I more often than not find myself drawn into his movies, even the dated ones like Jezebel.

I did have my reservations about The Best Years of Our Lives (TBYOOL) because it’s…well, a war-themed film and I often find them depressing to watch. And considering that it was from the 40s, that made me not want to watch it even more. However, there was this other part of me that wanted to find out more about Fredric March and his films, hence I decided to go ahead with it. Thankfully, I found TBYOOL to be a pretty great movie. It’s so free of the cheesiness from this decade, and I think it’s largely because Wyler based a lot of its elements from his own experiences in the war. He wanted to tell a story about the difficulties war veterans have in adapting to their civilian lives again, and I think he succeeded. The film is very engaging and draws you into the lives of the 3 war veterans, with strong supporting performances by Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright. I especially liked how Wright did so much with such a thin role, and I might actually have given her a nomination myself. Couldn’t really stand Virginia Mayo (and I mean her acting, not her character), but strangely enough, I actually found myself sympathizing with her character. In terms of characterization, the film really succeeds – other than the three main characters, I found myself feeling for the supportive wife/daughter and even the (arguable) bitch of the film. Harold Russell more than deserved his Oscar,though I can’t decide whether him or Claude Rains is more deserving. As a whole, I’m not sure whether I prefer TBYOOL over It’s a Wonderful Life and Brief Encounter (which wasn’t even nominated), but overall, it’s a solid and deserving best picture winner.

And I guess I can say the same for Fredric March’s performance as well. In my mind, the 1946 best actor Oscar belongs to Jimmy Stewart for his almost iconic performance, but March gave a solid performance in this film as well. As many of you who have read reviews on this performance would probably have known, March really isn’t the focus of this film. He is definitely not supporting either, but rather a secondary lead in comparison to Dana Andrews, who definitely should have been nominated for his really touching performance. It is a bit strange, I admit, and while I am very sure I have seen such secondary lead performances being nominated (can’t think of any off the top of my head right now…Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables, maybe? Or Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point, even though I felt she had more weight over Maclaine?)…having a performance of such nature win is indeed strange. But if we were to put all these aside, I would say that March still manages to do a lot with what he had, leaving a deeper impact than expected.

It is not uncommon to compare Andrews to March, but to me I actually find them pretty equal in terms of performance quality. Which probably says a lot about March’s work, considering he had less to work with. What I liked was how he made Al such a multi-faceted character with personal demons to struggle with. The opening scene where the three veterans were returning home was terrific – even though there was nothing overly dramatic or Oscar-y about their conversations, he managed to portray such exhaustion in his face that I found him the most convincing out of the three of them. However, I’ll admit that I didn’t think the following scenes where he got heavily drunk were that good – it’s not bad either, and I blame it more on the direction for choosing a comical tone, but I felt that they were too light to suggest how troubled Al really was. It was all implied through Loy and Wright’s worried expressions, which just wasn’t enough for me.

One can say that March has the least dramatic heavy-lifting to do, since his character arguable has the best life out of the three veterans. There’s Homer with his struggle to fit back in, and Fred with his difficulties in finding a job and managing his overly-demanding wife. Al’s worries seems relatively trivial in comparison, since he has a fairly stable job as a banker and a highly supportive family. I liked how March still succeeded in introducing some dramatic conflict within his character, like his decision to go against the bank’s policy and grant high-risk loans to war veterans. And the increasing dependence on alcohol was also fantastically portrayed, never too in your face but very naturally handled. I especially loved the speech he gave at the dinner scene where he essentially screwed the bank over for not sympathizing enough with war veterans – it was so heartfelt, passionate, and naturally delivered at the same time.

We also get to see Al as the caring father that he is, and I thought March was great in these scenes. I liked how he portrayed his concern for his daughter, and the small scenes where he gave her life advice were really well-handled. The scene where he sternly told Fred to leave Peggy alone was also one of the highlights of this performance.

I guess the main complain I have for this performance is that it could have been more drawn out and heavy in nature. We catch the glimpses of greatness here and there, and he does have some strong speeches/monologues, but most of the film’s focus is still on Andrews. Still, I liked what March did here, and it can be largely attributed to his strong presence and talents as an actor. Overall, a solid effort. 4/5.

P.S. As usual, I am going to put my 1977 best picture marathon on hold. I was actually going to watch The Goodbye Girl yesterday, but I was just in the mood for 40s-60s film (Simone Signoret, Room At The Top coming up next FYI). SIghs, I know I shouldn’t be procrastinating but I will definitely get back to this personal project as soon as possible.

 

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2 comments

  1. I agree! Though I may have liked him more than you. There’s something very watchable about him and I wholeheartedly agree on what you say about him in his opening scene–he doesn’t appear to be doing much, and yet if you focus in on him it certainly reads as though he’s putting in a lot of effort / masterfully presenting himself while doing the simplest of actions.

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