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Oscar Horrors: A Two Faced Oscar Win

Oscar Horrors Continues

Here lies... Fredric March’s charming Dr Jekyll face, devoured by the monstrosity that is Mr. Hyde. Though his Hyde face didn’t manage to scare all the other nominees away – March tied for the Best Actor award that year, and in a field of only three nominees – when you stop to think about it, his win was still quite a feat. 

Hollywood’s idea of what constitutes a good performance has changed over the years so it’s almost inconceivable for a performance of such exaggerated expressionism in a horror film to stand a chance of winning today. (Although, give this to Robert and I’m sure he’ll prove me wrong by drawing parallels between March and Natalie Portman’s Nina.) Oscar-y or not, however, the performance is a marvel; perhaps the only thing that remains so fresh about the film 80 years on.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is a horror film, but to the desensitized eyes of my generation – for whom horror means gore and brutality and 12 people sewn together ass-to-mouth – it plays more like a campy horror comedy. What keeps the film grounded (and serious-minded) is its sensitively realized performances, particularly that of March, who gets every note right.

The Jekyll to Hyde transition, with no CGI!

As Jekyll, March is handsome and charismatic; as Hyde he’s hideous and violent. The two characters are purposely the opposite sides of the coin. They share nothing in common and March plays both of them really well, but the real reason the performance is so great is the way he connects the two. It’s key to the narrative, as it is in the original book, to imply that these two wildly different characters can exist within the same person. As Dr. Jekyll announces in the opening:

My analysis of the human psyche leads me to believe that man is not truly one, but truly two ...the good self... and the bad self.

March manages to capture that in his performance. As Hyde, he shows an aggression that can be reflected in his self-distrust as Jekyll. All of Hyde’s uncontrollable cruelty can be traced back in Jekyll’s internal conflict. And the duality can be seen in his eyes the whole time.

Hyde with his favoured prostitute. Sexuality is a major element in this pre-Code film.

Rumour has it, when the 1941 remake was released and universally panned, Spencer Tracy, who played the leading role, received a telegram from March. In it, March apparently thanked him for the biggest boost of his career. Tracy’s portrayal paled in comparison. I haven’t seen the remake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I agree with the consensus. March’s performance is one for the ages.


Other Oscar ACTING Horrors...
Rosemary's Baby - Best Supporting Actress

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane -Best Actress in a Leading Role
The Exorcist -Best Actress in a Supporting Role 
Carrie - Best Actress in a Leading Role

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Reader Comments (9)

Amir thank you for that post; this is one of those films I keep "meaning to see" but haven't gotten around to doing so. I admit I really did not realize how handsome March was.

I had read that when the 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy was to be released by MGM, MGM bought the rights to the earlier film and recalled all prints, and it was thought to be lost for decades? So it's a very happy development that not only was it "found" but apparently the 8 minutes cut in 1936 due to the new Hays Code have also been restored.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I'm also glad Amir did this post. I love Fredric March since finally getting around to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. what an actor he was. seriously.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Janice - Yes, I read that story too. It's amazing how in our time it's impossible to recall films like that anymore. And the version I watched definitely had the material restored. Lots of naughty bits :)

Nathaniel - I knoww!! Two well deserved wins. He's so good in that one too!

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

You definitely would agree with the consensus when it comes to one of Spencer Tracy's few really bad performances.
In fact, Fredric March did manage to score all the other Best Actor nominees away that year, cause he had one more vote than Wallace Beery, but the rules at the time considered anyone with one or two votes less than the leader as being in a tie. So, the tie actually was declared.
But Best Actress for 1968 (Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand) had the exact amount of votes.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Nat - I had completely forgotten he was in Best Years of Our Lives; it's been a long time since I've seen that one. Need to revisit.

Amir - it's more difficult, but not entirely impossible, I think, to make another studio feature film "disappear". ("Indie" films are another matter of course.)

BTW, I have a Netflix instant-view-only account (I miss DVD's but we couldn't afford both once they hiked the price), and the 1931 and 1941 versions of Hyde are DVD only, packaged together on one disk - which is extremely ironic, given the history. (The silent 1920 version with John Barrymore, which was a hit in it's day, is available in instant view so I guess I'll be starting with that version.)

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- i feel for you with the DVD pricing. I kept both because i need it for this blog but ouch that price hike. Still, it's cheaper than renting by the title as we used to have to do "back in the day". I don't want to think about how much money i spent renting movies in the 90s!

as for packaged together... i saw that once with both Imitations of Life and they were REALLY fun to watch back-to-back.

October 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was going to post what Willy already posted, i.e. that Fredric March actually had the highest number of votes that year and if the rules were the same as a few years later, he would have won the award outright rather than "tying" with Wallace Beery who recieved one to three votes less than March.

Oh, and yes, Fredric March was a knockout and even this role was a little past his prime.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I remember loving Miriam Hopkins in this too: very vivid in a small part.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

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