Richard Widmark, Best Actor in Any Decade

Richard Widmark

Richard Widmark, Best Actor in Any Decade

Here's the first column for 2002. Hard to believe, no? We're two years into the 21st century but few things have actually improved. Movies and popular recordings are worse than ever. (Let's not even discuss air travel.) The past looks rosy for good reasons. It was better all the way around.

The best interview I conducted in 2001 came at almost the very end of the year. Two weeks ago I went up to rural Connecticut to see the legendary Hollywood actor Richard Widmark. Some people under the age of 40 may not know this name. What a shame if so. Widmark, now 87, could mop the floor with any one of today's so-called movie stars. Tough guy? Sex appeal? Intelligent? He had it all.

Widmark's most memorable movies are scattered through the available video library, but his best ones — just a coincidence — were made at 20th Century Fox in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. You can buy or rent them — Pickup on South Street, Night and the City and Panic in the Streets are among his must-see performances.

Unlike other stars, Widmark did not employ a publicist, and did little to promote himself. He was nominated for an Oscar once — for his first movie role, as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. He didn't win, and he was never nominated again.

This is a horrible mistake on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it can be corrected. Even though Widmark himself is ambivalent about Hollywood and happy in his retirement, I think it's high time he received the honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. The Academy governors meet shortly to decide who will get this year's nod. It's my fervent hope that we can start a campaign here and that it will spread.

To look at Widmark's performances now is to see unadorned acting at the very highest level. Like Robert De Niro he inhabits his roles fully, disappearing into them and emerging as them. De Niro no doubt knew this when he remade Night and the City ten years ago with Jessica Lange.

Blond-haired, blue-eyed Widmark as Harry Fabian, the ne'er do well who tries to become the Don King of wrestling, just blows away any of the anticipated five actors who will vie for an Oscar this year. This is not to take away from hard workers like Russell Crowe, Tom Wilkinson, Denzel Washington, Sir Ian McKellen, or Guy Pearce (these are just my guesses). Of them all, only Denzel in Training Day comes close to matching Widmark's spontaneity. Washington should win for that reason alone.

But Widmark — who told me for Talk magazine's Oscar issue that in his day it was unseemly to campaign for the Oscar — seems never to be considering his career in his acting choices. He wasn't worried about playing the bad guy. In real life everyone knew he was the goodest guy around.

Placed in his roles by Fox's mogul Darryl Zanuck he had no option but to go to work, do the best job he could and collect his minimal paycheck. There was no back end in those days, no points on net or gross. So Widmark was free simply to show up, and impress. He never ever failed to.