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Oscar Profile #98: Arthur Kennedy

Born February 17, 1914 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Helen and J.T. Kennedy, a dentist, John Arthur Kennedy studied acting at Carnegie Institute of Technology and made his Broadway debut in 1938 as part of Maurice Evans’ Shakespearean company, the same year he married his wife, Mary.

Moving to Los Angeles later that year, he was discovered by James Cagney who cast him as his brother in the 1940 film, City for Conquest, which led to a Warner Bros. contract and important roles in such films as High Sierra; They Died With Their Boots On and Air Force. In the U.S. Army form 1943 ot 1945, he served as an actor and narrator in Army training films, many of which are still in use today.

After the war he received critical acclaim for his roles in Broadway’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. His screen career took off with his sympathetic portrayal of a man suspected of murdering a priest in Elia Kazan’s 1947 film, Boomerang!, followed by his Oscar nominated portrayal of Kirk Douglas’ lame brother in Mark Robson’s 1949 film, Champion.

His portrayal of a blind war veteran in Robson’s Bright Victory won him the New York Film Critics’ Award as Best Actor of 1951 and his second Oscar nomination, his first and only one for a lead role.

In 1952 he excelled in three legendary westerns, as the protagonist-hero of Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and as the sympathetic villains of Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River and Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men.

In 1955 he had a pivotal role as the deputy sheriff in William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours in support of Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March; his second sympathetic villain in an Anthony Mann western, The Man From Laramie and as the smarmy lawyer in Mark Robson’s Trial, for which he received his third Oscar nomination.

Playing one of his nastiest villains, Kennedy received his fourth Oscar nomination for a Mark Robson film, 1957’s Peyton Place, followed by his fifth nomination for 1958’s Some Came Running, directed by Vincente Minnelli.

Actors’ actor Kennedy continued at the peak of his craft over the next few years in such films as A Summer Place in which he was another nasty villain; Elmer Gantry and Lawrence of Arabia in which he played memorable reporters and Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man in which he played Richard Beymer’s sympathetic father.

After his Hollywood career dried up in the late 1960s, he alternated his time between TV work and an occasional Italian film.
Arthur Kennedy died January 5, 1990 of a brain tumor, his wife Mary having died in 1975. His daughter Laurie Kennedy is an actress best known for her numerous appearances on TV’s Law and Order franchises, most often as a judge

ESSENTIAL FILMS

CITY FOR CONQUEST (1953), directed by Anatole Litvak

You couldn’t ask for a better mentor than James Cagney who discovered young Kennedy on the stage in L.A. and promptly cast him as his younger brother in one of his best films.

Cagney plays a truck driver who enters the fight game to earn money to put his brother (Kennedy) through music school. Blinded in the ring, he listens on his radio from his newsstand as the brother, now a successful composer, dedicates his sympathy to him in an emotionally powerful scene that all but guaranteed Kennedy a long career in front of the camera.

RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1953), directed by Fritz Lang

Lang’s one-of-a-kind western was a showcase for Marlene Dietrich playing a role quite close to the one she previously reignited her career with in 1939’s Destry Rides Again. Into her life comes rancher Kennedy searching for the man who killed his fiancé during a botched bank robbery. Kennedy and Mel Ferrer as his newfound friend both excel even though the spotlight is clearly on Dietrich.

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), directed by Anthony Mann

Had Kennedy not been Oscar nominated for the same year’s Trial in which he played a two-faced lawyer exploiting his client, he would surely have been nominated for his better known work here as the tragic adopted son of stern rancher Donald Crisp in his second Anthony Mann-James Stewart western. Kennedy, Crisp, Alex Nicol as Crisp’s weak son and Aline MacMahon as Crisp’s loyal friend all have unusually rich characters to play in what could have been just another western in lesser hands. As it stands with Mann’s taut direction, Philip Yordan and Frank Burt’s take-no-prisoners screenplay, Charles Lang’s gorgeous cinematography, George Duning’s memorable score, Stewart’s then customary tough western hero and those great supporting performances, it is easily one of the best westerns ever made.

ELMER GANTRY (1960), directed by Richard Brooks

Kennedy had perhaps his most complex role standing in for author Sinclair Lewis as the agnostic investigative reporter who is the voice of reason in this classic film about a phony evangelist played by Burt Lancaster in his Oscar winning role. Lancaster, Jean Simmons as a true woman of faith and Oscar winner Shirley Jones as a preacher’s daughter turned prostitute all had more colorful roles, but Kennedy anchors the film with his sincerity and compassion.

This film, which was seen as an artifact of the past at the time of its release, could also be viewed today as a harbinger of things to come with the rise of false prophets, the money grubbing TV evangelists, who have since come to prominence.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), directed by David Lean

When Edmond O’Brien suffered a heart attack and had to be replaced as the cynical reporter in Lean’s epic, co-star Anthony Quinn recommended his friend Kennedy, who had replaced him as Henry II in Broadway’s Becket. The result was another flawless performance by the actor’s actor whose career as one of the great character actors of his day would soon peter out. He would, however, have another memorable role the same year as Richard Beymer’s father, the put upon Dr. Adams in Martin Ritt’s Hemigway’s Adventures of a Young Man opposite Jessica Tandy as his harsh wife.

ARTHUR KENNEDY AND OSCAR

  • Champion (1949) – nominated Best Supporting Actor
  • Bright Victory (1951) – nominated Best Actor
  • Trial (1955) – nominated Best Supporting Actor
  • Peyton Place (1957) – nominated Best Supporting Actor
  • Some Came Running (1958) – nominated Best Supporting Actor
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