William Holden (Stalag 17)
The Nominees: Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser), Richard Burton (The Robe), Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity), Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity)
Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot's Holiday)
My Nominees: Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser), Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity), Vincent Price (House of Wax)
William Holden was an intense actor, the kind that almost always had you on his side. He was one of those actors who seemed to appear in every other film, and yet you can never point to any of his films and say that he gave a bad performance. He did, however, have moments when he wasn’t at the top of his game.
Take, for example, his Oscar-winning performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 in which he plays Sergeant J. J. Sefton, a POW accused by his fellow prisoners of being in league with the Germans and thwarting their every escape attempt. Holden wasn’t terrible in Stalag 17 but matched amid his range of work in Sunset Blvd., The Bridge at Toko-Ri, Sabrina, Picnic and Network, this one seems kind of mild. Amid the nominees for Best Actor, William Holden's was the only performance from 1953 that I didn't like. That's too bad, because I have liked him in most everything else.
For 1953, I was stuck between Marlon Brando’s performance as Julius Caeser and Mongomery Clift’s underrated work in From Here to Eternity. I was about to choose them both, until the other night when I was introduced to the work of French comedian Jacques Tati. Watching several of his films over the course of an evening, I was happily introduced to one of the most unique talents I have ever experienced. Discovering his work is like watching the sun come out. You feel with his films the same as you did when you were first introduced to Chaplin.
Tati only made a handful of films over the course of his career and my selection for Best Actor is rewarding him for the role for which he is best remembered, that of the odd little man known only as Monsieur Hulot (so far as I know he was never given a first name). He made a handful of features in which he plays Hulot and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is where he began. There are no complexities here, no broad or overblown comic mishaps. Hulot’s lot in life is that he is alone and invisible and only exists within the natural order – which, in this film, he often upsets.
The story involves his misadventure on a beach vacation in Brittney. He arrives in a car fit for Mr. Magoo, squeezed behind the wheel in a space that seems about a size four. He’s an odd man, tall, with a lurching walk that would suggest he left the hanger in his pants. When he isn't walking, he surveys his surroundings with his arms on his hips and his elbows slung back. Dressed in short pants with a long-stemmed pipe sticking out of his mouth, and his fishing hat, he would not stand out in a crowd. His face is unremarkable, with chubby cheeks and a pleasant smile. He is, seemingly, offensive to no one.
What I expected from Mr. Hulot was a kind of natural disaster in short pants, the kind of man who could crumble walls by looking at them (something along the lines of The Money Pit). I was relieved that this is not the case, Hulot specializes in minor irritations as when he opens the door to the hotel and a gust of wind blows in, aggravating the patrons who are trying to relax. Another scene has a quiet moment in the sitting room that is interrupted by raucous jazz music. The waiter opens a door and finds Hulot sitting with his hands folded listening to the phonograph, apparently unaware of the volume.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is not one of those films that makes your sides hurt with laughter; rather than laugh you smile with a great admiration of what Tati is displaying. Take for example a moment when he is on the beach painting his boat and his paint can is washed out by the tide only to return just when he needs it. Or another moment, (for me, the funniest in the film) when he is driving his little car and stops by a cemetery to change a flat tire. He drops the tire on the wet ground and when he picks it up it is covered with leaves. A pallbearer walks by with a large round flower arrangement and assumes that Hulot is paying his respects by bringing a similar arrangement. The man takes the leaf covered tire and walks away with it. Later, we see the tire hanging on the tombstone just as the tire deflates.
Another smaller moment takes place when an oft seen vacationing blonde disappears inside a changing room on the beach. Hulot tips his hat as she disappears inside the tiny room. At the side of the structure, Hulot notices a man leaning over, apparently spying on the young lady through a hole. Without fail, Hulot kicks the man in the keister and runs away. Another camera angle reveals that the man is not looking into the dressing room but is standing behind it, leaned over his camera taking a picture of his family.
Tati's work has been compared to that of Chaplin, but I think only in terms of technique. Chaplin's Tramp was an outsider who used his wits to survive within a world that had no use for him. Hulot exists within his world but is, for the most part, invisible. He is a simple tenant in God's creation, often bumbling, but not a natural disaster.
As with Chaplin's Tramp, he has sweet moments like an opening shot in which he is driving toward his hotel and stops to interrupt a dog that is taking a nap in the road. It takes a moment, but eventually the dog gets up and moves to the side of the road. Then comes a sweet moment when we see Hulot's arm leaning out the side gently rubbing the dog on the head. Another involves the often seen pretty blonde who, like Hulot, is vacationing alone. Pretty but not remarkable, with Princess Leia hair buns, we assume she will find love with Hulot. It never happens, but there is a sweet moment during a masquerade ball when the two share an awkward dance.
Tati allows us to observe Hulot but not to engage him. Beyond his name, we never learn anything else about him. He never speaks except when spelling his name for the hotel desk clerk. We don't get very close to him, he remains at a certain distance for most of the film. The idea, I think, is that we are put in the position of being another tourist. Like a passerby, we see his behavior, but we are never a part of it. The key word is observance - we aren't watching a circus act, we are observing human behavior from an odd little man who’s every movement is infectious.