Oscar Actors: Crawford, Broderick–Winner for All the King’s Men (1949)

All the King’s Men, a political drama about the corruptive nature of political and personal power and the danger of populist dictatorship in America, won the 1949 Best Picture Oscar.

The movie drew on Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer-winning book about the life of Southern Senator Huey Long, adapted to the screen by Robert Rossen. (There’s a very good documentary about Huey Long that played at Sundance and other film festivals).

Broderick Crawford gives a forceful performance as Willie Stark, a self-styled demagogue, who begins as a self-made rural Louisiana lawyer and ends up building a fraudulent political empire, which ultimately results in his assassination.  

Produced, written and directed by Robert Rossen (“The Hustler,” “They Came to Cordura”), the movie features a bravura performance by Broderick Crawford (also known for his turn in Cukor’s 1950 comedy “Born Yesterday”), who won the 1949 Best Actor with his stunning portrayal of bull-headed, backwoods lawyer Willie Stark,

John Ireland (“Spartacus,” TVs “Rawhide”) garnered an Oscar nomination for his role as Stark’s tortured right-hand man, while Mercedes McCambridge (“Giant,” “Suddenly Last Summer”) won Supporting Actress as Sadie Burke, Stark’s callous, conniving political aide.

A somber but realistic chronicle of raw, brutal power in force, “All the King’s Men” was brought to the screen by producer Robert Rossen, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film. The story was inspired by the rise and fall of southern bigwig Huey Pierce Long, the infamous “Kingfish” who was Louisiana’s governor and one-time senator. Long’s cunning tactics of building public works during the Depression to serve his own needs more than those of his constituents eventually brought about his own assassination in 1935.

As Sadie Burke, Mercedes McCambridge won the Supporting Actress Oscar, playing Stark’s tough, unscrupulous secretary-mistress. Described as a “hard-boiled henchman in skirts,” she is seething with impotence and suppressed rage as she watches Stark get out of personal control.

A compelling story of a self-made, self-styled politician, it was politics that almost prevented Rossen from making “All the King’s Men” in the first place, when he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 for having Communist sympathies. Rossen’s denial of this to Columbia chief Harry Cohn enables him to continue work on the film. Nonetheless, his earlier radicalism eventually surfaced and Rossen made only one more film (“The Brave Bulls”) in the next five years.

Context Alert

“All the King’s Men” competed against four other films, each critical of some aspect of American life. They included two realistic analyses of men at war, “Battleground” and “Twelve O’Clock High;” an adaptation of Henry James’ tale of a greedy courtship, “The Heiress;” and a satiric examination of bourgeois suburban life and marriage, “A Letter to Three Wives.”

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Robert Rossen

Director: Robert Rossen

Screenplay: Robert Rossen

Actor: Broderick Crawford

Supporting Actress: Mercedes McCambridge

Supporting Actor: John Ireland

Editing: Robert Parrish, Al Clark

Oscar Awards: 3

Picture

Actor

Supporting Actress

Context

Nominated as Director and Writer, Rossen didn’t win in either category; the winner was Joseph Mankiewicz, as the writer-director of “A Letter to Three Wives.”

 

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