And Here's to You, Mr. Robinson
With the Academy Award ceremonies on Sunday, it’s always a good time to bring up Edward G. Robinson. Again. I wrote this piece in 2007, and honestly, the good fellow is deserving of attention every year at this time. So, I figured, what the heck and try to repeat it every year. It’s been long enough – in many ways, as you’ll see.
There’s a point to all this, by the way. And a remarkable one. Trust me.
Today, there are many people who won’t recognize the name of Edward G. Robinson. Of course, countless others will break into smiles and say, “Ahhhhh…” Almost no one, however, would not recognize his face. (If a man could look like a bulldog with a scowl, that’s Edward G. Robinson.)
For those who can’t immediately put the name with the face, he was one of the great actors in Hollywood history – one of the few who succeeded as both a supporting actor and leading man.
This is not hyperbole. Look his credits up on IMDb here. Give yourself time, though, because there are 112 of them, ranging from 1916 until 1979. In a profession where making it to the 10-year mark is an achievement, Edward G. Robinson’s longevity is at a level even dreamers just dream about.
But that’s just quantity. It’s quality we’re talking about here. Take a look at what some of those 112 credits are.
“Little Caesar,” “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” “The Ten Commandments,” “The Sea Wolf.“
(As I said, there is a point to all this. It’s coming in a moment.)
Along with James Cagney, he was the ultimate movie gangster. His “Little Caesar” defined Robinson’s lasting reputation and the genre. And he added to it with “Brother Orchid,” “The Little Giant” and more. But he regularly spoofed his gangster image in such comic joys as “Larceny, Inc.,” “A Slight Case of Murder” and “Robin and the 7 Hoods.”
However, as easy as it would have been to typecast that mug as a mobster, Edward G. Robinson had wide-ranging versatility – indeed, often playing the very opposite. Witness his moving, gentle portrayals as the discoverer of the cure for syphilis in “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” and the founder of the renowned news agency in “A Dispatch from Reuters” – both remarkably made the very same year, 1940. (Oops, sorry, I used “remarkably” too early: because in 1940, he also made the famous “Brother Orchid.”) He made comedies like “A Hole in Head” and “My Geisha.” And add in such classics as Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” “The Stranger” for Orson Welles and “The Woman in the Window” directed by Fritz Lang.
Okay, hold on, the point is almost here.
Edward G. Robinson’s career started as a young man of 23, yet he was still playing substantial roles into his 80s, when he co-starred in “Soylent Green” and also made “The Cincinnati Kid,” facing down Steve McQueen.
And now we’ve gotten to the point.
Throughout all of this, a legendary, admired and phenomenally-successful 63 years and 112 credits, the number of Academy Awards that Edward G. Robinson won was …zero.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that through his entire career, for all of his many celebrated gems – gangster classics, wrenching drama, high comedy and tender character portrayals – the number of Oscar nominations that Edward G. Robinson received was…
None. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.
Keep in mind that in that one aforementioned year, 1940, he made three classics – and didn’t even get a nomination.
Keep in mind that his performance in “Little Caesar” was so indelible that, 39 years later, the U.S. government’s federal racketeering RICO Act, was named for his character. Rico.
Keep in mind that “The 10 Commandments” was nominated for the Oscar as best picture and got seven nominations, but none for Robinson. “Double Indemnity” was nominated for best picture, too, but not Robinson. “Five Star Final” also got a best picture Oscar nomination, but Edward G. Robinson did not.
Was it all an unfathomable oversight? It certainly appears so, but in any given year there may well have been five other performances that people simply thought even better. It’s the luck of the draw. Over and over and over again. Maybe. But of course, in the end, it’s just an award. Given a choice, would anyone prefer a solitary nomination or admired 63-year career?
Watch any of the movies above to see how wonderful Edward G. Robinson was. But for a crash course in just a single movie, you might instead try one his lesser-known (but tremendously underrated) films, “The Whole Town’s Talking.”
How underrated? Robinson and Jean Arthur star. It’s directed by John Ford. And written by Robert Riskin (“It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town”) and Jo Swerling ("Guys and Dolls," "The Pride of the Yankees"). TV Guide.com gives it five stars. iMDB gives it 7.3 out of 10. That this is one of Edward G. Robinson’s lesser-known films speaks volumes.
And in it, you see the full range of Robinson, because he plays a dual role – a gangster and a sweet, shy clerk who gets mistaken for the mobster and is at first arrested, but later kidnapped by the killer to throw off the police. The movie is often hilarious, yet has a dark side as the painfully shy clerk begins to deal with a sense of power for the first time in his life when he’s thought to be dangerous. The movie is a little-known treat, but in it you get to see Edward G. Robinson in almost every phase of his talent. Gangster, milquetoast, high comedy and dark psychological drama.
Oh. And he didn’t get nominated for it.
UPDATE: But there’s at least a nice P.S. At the very end of his life, Edward G. Robinson did finally get an honorary Oscar, although he died two months before the presentation. (Hey, nothing like waiting until the last minute to honor the guy, ya think?) Happily, he was at least aware of the honor. It was in recognition of having "achieved greatness as a player, a patron of the arts, and a dedicated citizen ... in sum, a Renaissance man." The award was accepted by his widow Jane Robinson
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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