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.
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.
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