The more I see of Fredric March’s work, the more convinced I become that he’s one of the best actors ever to grace the screen. In an era when even the best actors tended to play strict “types,” March played a diverse array of characters across many genres. Watch Inherit The Wind
, The Best Years of Our Lives
and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
back-to-back-to-back and you’ll find yourself shocked that the same actors appears in all three. He disappears so completely into his characters that you never really know what to expect from him.
In Inherit The Wind
he plays one of his best characters and renders one of his best performances, but went unrecognized for his work. The nominees for Best Actor that year were his costar, Spencer Tracy, Trevor Howard in Sons and Lovers
, Jack Lemmon in The Apartment
, Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer
, and the eventual winner, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry
. If it were up to me, I'd move Howard to the Supporting Actor category and make room for March, who should have at least been nominated, even though he did already have two Best Actor Oscars under his belt at that point.
In the film March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, the conservative antagonist to Spencer Tracy’s heroic civil liberties fighter Henry Drummond. Brady represents the close minded forces hindering social progress, the stubborn old order trying to keep the culture anchored in place. There is never any question, from the film’s point of view, that he’s the villain and it would be easy to play him in a black-and-white way, as stubborn, backwards, and stupid. Certainly he is stubborn, but March plays him with enough nuance and humanity that he never seems backwards or stupid, nor does he seem heartless. He becomes instead a tragic figure, a man who has the world in his hands one moment and nothing in the next, and his sad end is one of the more resonant aspects of the film.
Brady starts the film strong, welcomed into town with a parade, already crowned the conquering hero in the battle between God and science. He passionately defends the Creation theory, preaching to the choir and holding court while Drummond dodges slings and arrows. Brady is sure of himself but not arrogant and in the scenes between him and Drummond there is a palpable sense of respect, of two men who disagree with each other’s politics but don’t take it too personally. March and Tracy play off each other incredibly well throughout the film, each equal to every challenge that the other throws up. Watching these two great actors playing these two strong, distinct characters is one of the film’s great pleasures.
Where March truly excels is at the film’s turning point, when Brady begins to unravel and finds himself unceremoniously knocked from his pedestal. In an instant he goes from being revered to being loathed, all because he has the audacity to be human and fallible. For my money there are few scenes that are sadder or more memorable than that in which Brady attempts to sermonize to the people who have already turned against him and they resolutely ignore him. The same people who once hung on his words now refuse to so much acknowledge his presence and his voice grows increasingly desperate as he practically begs to be heard. No character in the film is more vulnerable, more openly frail, than Brady is in this moment and March’s handling of the scene is expert. It is in this scene that we realize that the villain isn’t Brady after all, but knee-jerk reactionaries and fair-weather believers. Brady is not a bad man, even if you do disagree with his ideas and politics; he’s a man, plain and simple, with good traits and bad and March conveys this simply and effectively in a performance of great power.
I really can’t articulate just how much I love this performance. In a lesser film with this character portrayed by a lesser actor, Brady is a character you wouldn’t think twice about. He’d be a monolithic representation of prejudice, a straw opponent against whom the film could take cheap, easy shots to advance its point of view. When an actor gives a character like this dimension and a filmmaker reserves some of his sympathy for him, then cheap shots are impossible. As he does so often, Tracy carries this film on his noble shoulders, but March is key to the story’s ultimate success. The final moments, when Drummond symbolically demonstrates that science and religion ought to be able to coexist peacefully, would ring absolutely false if March couldn’t make Brady a redeemable and understandable character. As good as everything else about the movie is, it simply would not work without March.