The press, in a thousand headlines, routinely identified Humphrey Bogart as "Movie Tough Guy," mainly because he had first come to wide public attention playing Duke Mantee, the gangster-on-the-run in the film version of the risibly poetic "The Petrified Forest" in 1936. He was no more than all right in the part, but Warner Bros. couldn't think of much else to do with him, so he was kept on the criminal margin, sometimes ludicrously so (see "The Roaring Twenties"), for something like five years while, off screen, he brawled and squalled, notably with his third wife, the alcoholic actress Mayo Methot.
Many of his performances in this period were poor and unfelt. He tended to overact gangsters — too snarling on the one hand, too sniveling on the other, and he was also bad as a straightforward leading man (see him sing-songing the idealism of a crusading D.A. in "Marked Woman").
That's because he was not, by nature or nurture, a hard case. He had been raised in privilege in New York and had drifted into acting — much as other young men of his class wandered into the brokerage houses; it was a not-too-arduous way of supporting a family that had suddenly lost its money — a small, dapper youngster, said to have been the first person to utter the immortal question, "Tennis, anyone?" on stage.
When Bogart was already over 40 — in his first truly memorable role, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in "High Sierra" — he played an escaped con "rushing toward his doom," as another character describes him. He wants to make one last criminal score, but he's distracted by a handicapped girl (and her adorable dog).
Something almost soulful emerged in this performance. He was touching on emotions he understood in his bones and could express in silence as well as through sardonic dialogue.
His endemic ruefulness implied a disappointed knowingness that, by a hair, avoided cynicism. In "The Maltese Falcon," everyone thinks he's a shady private eye. But he cautions people not to understand him too quickly. The man has a code, which he refuses to articulate until the very end. And why bother? It is sufficient that he knows what it is and acts out of its principles, which are instinctive to him.
All he needed now was what every star who hopes his image may outlive his moment needs — a defining role in a movie everyone loves and goes on loving forever. That, of course, was "Casablanca." Rick in his "gin joint," nursing his lost love and misplaced ideals, is a very fair projection of Bogart at that moment — especially the lovelessness.
|1951||Best Actor||The African Queen||Win|
|1954||Best Actor||The Caine Mutiny||Nomination|