Everyone agrees that Boris Karloff (1887 - 1969) is the iconic representation of the horror film monster thanks to his starring role in Frankenstein (1931). The film was a sensation and made him a star, typecasting him as monsters and mad scientists for most of his lengthy film and television career. He went on to solidify his place in film and horror annals with two more great horror portrayals in The Mummy (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
His portrayal of Mary Shelley’s monster is truly a revelation as he exquisitely conveys such a staggering range of emotions, veering from scenes of great tenderness and wonder to those of raging malevolence. All without dialogue and thanks to some fabulous closeups by director James Whale. (Karloff and Whale would work on a total of three films together.) Karloff’s performance continues to challenge movie-goers as they question why such a murderous creation is so fully engaging their sympathy. Many of us find ourselves rooting for the Monster against those rabid torch-bearing villagers. (“He didn’t mean to kill the little girl…”)
We may have to go all the way to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs for a similar duality of emotional response. Tellingly, Anthony Hopkins was nominated and won Best Actor, whereas no one seriously considered Karloff for such accolades. Oscar was only a few years old when Karloff’s performance captivated the nation. Too soon to embrace such a character, perhaps. Or perhaps we like our monsters with combed hair, crisp white straitjackets, and fava beans.
When I once suggested to a waggish colleague that Karloff’s performance was one of the most undervalued of all time, his response was “that wasn’t great acting; that was great makeup.” My anger at his dismissiveness was rooted in a realization that critics and Hollywood have been dismissive of the horror genre forever. Karloff’s performance is simply one of the most glaring examples.
For a more comprehensive examination of his 60-year career, catch Boris Karloff - The Man Behind the Monster, on Paramount+. The excellent documentary includes commentary by directors Guillermo del Toro and Peter Bogdanovich as well as some wonderful clips of Karloff in makeup and out.
(This begins a series of articles that will highlight fine actors and/or performances that received no recognition from Oscar. Not a single nomination. It’s our small attempt to honor their excellence and draw attention to these tragic oversights.). #oscarsnubs #boriskarloff #frankenstein
Next time: Joel McCrea