There is no one performance that stands out in the acting career of Joel McCrea that feels like an outrageous snub, and that’s the problem. In a career that spanned fifty years — from the mid-20’s to the mid- 70’s, McCrea demonstrated incredible range and most noticeably, likability. Audiences must connect with an actor for a career to successfully span so many years and so many societal changes. One trait that most audiences appreciated about McCrea was his not taking himself or his acting too seriously — at least outwardly. His “aw shucks, I just fell into this gig” attitude was in direct contrast with the Hollywood machinery supporting most film stars. His humility impressed American audiences, but may have kept him from being considered for serious Oscar recognition.
McCrea had already appeared in several dozen films before he broke into starring roles with the scandalous Bird of Paradise (1932). This pre-Code South Seas potboiler caused a major outcry due to co-star Dolores del Rio’s seemingly nude swimming scene. McCrea displayed a lot of skin in the film, too, and solidified his future as a sexy leading man.
If the Academy would ever take McCrea seriously for a nomination, it would have been in the early 1940s when he starred in three excellent films that showed his star power and acting range. An underrated Hitchcock spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), has McCrea portraying an earnest American reporter traipsing across Britain in pursuit of German agents who were hell-bent on hastening European conflicts that would lead to world war. With several memorable set pieces (the umbrella/assassination scene is one of my all-time favorites) and a great supporting cast (Herbert Marshall, George Sanders and Albert Basserman to name a few), McCrea never fails to maintain our attention and drive the film. (Poor Laraine Day, his co-star, is almost erased in many of the scenes, but it has to be considered that she was 19 at the time and just starting out.). The film was nominated for six Oscars, including a Supporting Actor nod for Basserman, but none for McCrea.
Probably McCrea’s best shot at an Oscar nomination was 1941 as he starred in director Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. His understated performance as a Hollywood insider-director impersonating a rail tramp so he can observe first-hand what America’s have-nots were truly experiencing is fresh and surprising. The film and the performances may not have wowed many critics at the time, but they certainly hold up well today. Along with the chemistry between McCrea and co-star Veronica Lake, the film has gained more and more fans and critical praise through the years.
Finally, McCrea continued to show his range in one of the best romantic comedies ever — The More the Merrier (1943). The film received six Oscar nominations, including acting nods for his co-stars Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn. (Coburn won best supporting actor for his great comic turn.). McCrea received some of the best reviews of his career for his unselfish and charming performance. But no Oscar nod.
Editor's Note: This is the second in our series of performances and performers who have never received an Oscar nomination.
Next time: Maureen O'Hara