Question: who is the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same performance?
The answer is Harold Russell for his role as Homer Parrish in the William Wyler production of The Best Years of Our Lives.
The movie was recently shown on Turner Classics over the Memorial Day weekend. Best Years has not dated in the slightest: the issues it contemplates are as relevant today as they were 74 years ago when the film was released.
The narrative concerns three servicemen returning to their Midwestern hometown after World War II. Al (Fredric March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer all face significant readjustment issues, but none more profound (or moving) than Russell’s character — in a devastating explosion, he lost both of his hands and now must use mechanical hooks.
In reality, Russell was a double amputee. He lost his hands in 1944 when a fuse malfunctioned and triggered an accidental explosion. Russell, an Army sergeant, was 30 years old. His arms were amputated below the elbow.
Although he had other cosmetically appealing options, Russell chose the mechanical hooks because they offered more dexterity.
He drove himself rigorously to master the hooks — so adept did he become that the Army featured him in a training film. Director Wyler saw the film and immediately sought to cast Russell as Homer Parrish.
Initially, the former sergeant was cool to the idea of appearing in a major movie production. Despite his proficiency with the hooks, Russell felt he had little to offer the part — he was not a trained actor and he thought he would seem stilted, especially when appearing with Fredric March, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished stars.
He eventually accepted, trusting that the meticulous Wyler could guide him through the process.
It was a wise decision: Wyler was a perfectionist who, through the course of his career, directed 14 actors to Oscar wins. Bette Davis said that Wyler turned her into a “far, far better actress” than she had ever been. Wyler taught her what “a great director was and what he could mean” to an actor.
The Best Years story was based on a Time Magazine article which legendary independent producer, Samuel Goldwyn, enthusiastically seized upon. Historical novelist MacKinlay Kantor did the first draft, but it was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Sherwood who was responsible for the final script.
Sherwood was able to perfectly catch the forces in play for a traumatic homecoming. All of the characters have recognition scenes, but none are forced.
An example of how Sherwood deftly conveyed the mood came in a scene where the three lead characters are sharing a taxi — obviously anxious, Russell gets out of the car and heads to the front door of his home. Andrews says to March, “They sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.” March replies: “They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, or stroke her hair.”
Best Years was hugely successful: critical raves, 8 Oscar nominations (including a Best Supporting nod for Russell) and the highest box office returns since Gone with the Wind.
Concerned that Russell’s groundbreaking work may not result in a win, the Tinseltown powers-that-be decided to present him an Honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of our Lives.”
Russell did, however, claim the Supporting category, thus becoming the only two time winner for the same part.
Roger Ebert wrote that Best Years will retain its vitality “as long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded.”
In 2020, the conversation about how servicemen and women are received when they return to their home shores still needs to be advanced. When approximately 20 veterans a day commit suicide, the work is not finished.