Oscar’s Greatest Mistakes: James Whitmore In GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY

Fans of the Academy Awards will tell you that there are only three films where the entire cast were nominated for acting Oscars – Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe? (1966), Sleuth (1972) and 1975’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry. Well, it might not be strictly true for the first two films as there are a few minor one to two line roles that fill out the cast. But for Give ‘Em Hell Harry, there is only one person on screen the whole time and that is actor James Whitmore in the role of former President of the United States Harry S. Truman.

But here’s the thing – Give ‘Em Hell Harry is not a narrative film but a documentary. And therefore shouldn’t be eligible for any acting awards.

Give ‘Em Hell Harry started life as a one-man stage play, written by playwright Samuel Gallu and centering around key moments in the 33rd President’s lifetime. It opened in April 1975 and toured through the remaining spring, before a performance in Seattle was videotaped with a nine-camera shoot. This was then transferred to film and released in September. Although critic Roger Ebert praised Whitmore’s “virtuoso” performance, he noted that the process of transferring videotape to celluloid resulted in a film look that looked like “the equal of a good 16mm. print blown up to 35.”

So in the same way that concert films are documentaries, i.e., a filming of an actual event or performance, so too does Give ‘Em Hell Harry capture and document on film a performance of the stage play. Now it may seem as if I am splitting hairs here, but I do think there is a larger point here. Stage acting is different from movie acting. Stage acting happens in a straight, uninterrupted continuum for the length of the performance. Movie actin is done in small concentrated chunks, almost always out of chronological story order.

Now I am not saying that one is more difficult than the other. Merely that they are different variations of the same discipline. But as such, neither can be judged by or held to the standard of the other, even if the end is result – in this case the performance as seen by an audience – is somewhat the same. And so, Whitmore’s performance, how ever good it is, is not really a film performance and should not have been under consideration for an Academy Award any more than a live telecast to theaters of a Metropolitan Opera performance should be.

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About Rich Drees 7040 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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Ellen O'Brien Sherry
January 29, 2018 6:54 pm

Curious. Why?