Charles Boyer in Algiers
James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces
Robert Donat in The Citadel
Leslie Howard in Pygmalion
Spencer Tracy in Boys Town
And the Winner Was:
Spencer Tracy in Boys Town
I find this the most baffling decision of the decade. James Cagney's NYFCC-winning performance is far more interesting than any of his competitors, and he does everything asked of a Hollywood leading man i.e. have tough, masculine presence, a soft(ish) interior, and die a hero. The only missing link was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces, which has its faults but is far more competent than some of the nominees (I'm looking at you, Capra and Taurog). I imagine this is the kind of decision that saw Katharine Hepburn win in 1967 and '81 and could have seen Jack Nicholson's touching but hardly worthy Warren Schmidt tie Kate's four-win record seven years ago. Cagney and Donat may have been close but both end up cigarless.
My Ratings (in order of preference):-
**** James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces
*** Leslie Howard in Pygmalion
I like Algiers much more than any of the films nominated in this category, but certainly not for its acting. The tone of the film lunges violently but Boyer stays pretty much the same, and the role requires similar things of him as the previous year's Conquest. A gangster in a much different sense to Cagney he's an elusive, no-nonsense figurehead that crumbles into a songster at the sight of Hedy Lamarr (who can blame him, huh?). But Boyer captures the tragedy of a man trapped in a district, top dog in a prison, bound by limitations, much more successfully than he ever captured Napoleon's ambition.
* Spencer Tracy in Boys Town
Tracy sidles around as a mentor figure who, unlike Cagney's Rocky, has no flaws to speak of. Father Flanagan is at the head of Boys Town's admirable but lightweight advertisement for juvenile reform, and has to sort out the restlessness of Mickey Rooney et al. He does this through the occasional lecture, which Tracy can dole out in his sleep, and he is thoroughly incapable of contributing any grit or bite to the character. A bitter disappointment.
***** Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (& Holiday)
** Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood
This is silly fun: Flynn is such a poser, and uses his bravado to craft Robin Hood into a dastardly commodity. The film is really all a technicolour confection, strewn with velvet and laden with pretty faces. Flynn is the prettiest though, and his snarls, smirks, and come-to-bed eyes are the intoxicating essence of a hero. It works perfectly for the film, but it's limited, and that's all he has to offer.