With the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon looking at the acting awards this week, it’s worth telling the tales of the two men who are the only non-actors to win an acting award. In both cases, Harold Russell and Haing S Ngor won for Best Supporting Actor, and both drew upon their own history to create memorable roles.
The Best Years of Our Lives is undoubtedly one of the best movies about war ever made. It displays in a profound manner the long lasting impact war has on those brave soldiers who must return home and adjust to normal life once it’s over. These effects are shown not only in the crippling mental ways, but also in physical ways as well. And that’s where Harold Russell comes in.
Instead of focusing on the original plan of a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, director William Wyler opted for someone with physical injuries from the war. For that role, he sought someone who with real physical injuries. Russell had been debilitated by the war, left with two hooks instead of hands. Even with no acting experience, he was given the role of Homer Parrish.
The performance is one you won’t soon forget, and the knowledge that his affliction is real makes it an even more heartbreaking performance. Every single part of his day is a struggle. He demonstrates to his fiancé at one point that once he takes his prosthetic arms off for the night he’s completely helpless, and couldn’t even leave his bedroom if he wanted to.
But the importance of the role Russell plays isn’t just his specific ailment. It shines a light on the general problem that could effect many who come home from war with a terrible injury: he feels inadequate and doesn’t want to burden others. This is a real problem that people face, which is something I personally can attest to from it having occurred in my own family.
The message of The Best Years of Our Lives is an incredibly strong one, and it is Russell in particular that makes that point the strongest. For that, he was given both the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and an honorary Oscar– making him the only person to win two Oscars for the same role. His place in history is well deserved.
Ngor drew open his own experiences as well for his performance in The Killing Fields. A film designed to show the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Ngor survived that himself. After spending four years in a labor camp, he was finally able to flee. Later he told People Magazine: “I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.”
Just like Russell, Ngor made further history as well with his win. He became the first Asian male to win an acting award, and only the second Asian overall.
Their acting careers took very different paths after their award wins. Ngor continued to frequently act right up until his murder in 1996. Overall, he took part in 25 roles in the 18 years of his life following his debut.
Russell, on the other hand, barely acted ever again, likely at least possibly due to his physical condition limiting roles. He overall appeared in only two other films and two episodes of TV shows. It was 34 years before he even appeared in his second ever role.
In both cases, their roles will always be remembered, as their real life experiences brought a gritty realism that made their lack of previous acting irrelevant.
Watch a clip of The Best Years of Our Lives:
This is one in a series of great articles covering acting for the third week of the blogathon. Check out the full list of entries here.