Film Studies: The man who sold his Oscar

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The Independent Culture

On 6 June 1944, Harold Russell was not in a landing craft aimed at Normandy beaches; nor part of some strike behind the German lines – no matter that he had been trained as a parachutist and a demolitions expert. He was at a military camp in North Carolina, training kids. He was demonstrating the fuse mechanism on a small bomb when it exploded. He had to have both hands amputated three inches above the wrists. They asked him then whether he preferred plastic hands or steel hooks. Hooks, he said; it was his decision.

He died recently, aged 88, still with hooks for hands. And no obituary failed to note the remark made by the movie director, William Wyler, that Russell "gave the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen".

You can put that down to Wyler's natural kindness (and the way he had been moved by his own film, The Best Years of Our Lives), but you don't have to swallow it whole. Harold Russell made few other films, for the plain reason that he hadn't dreamed of what acting was, and because there are not many parts for guys with his handicap. But as the Second World War ended, Wyler had a simple, profound and inescapable subject: the way veterans were received.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a film about three men, and Fredric March and Dana Andrews were set to play two of them. But there was a third part – Homer Parrish – a sailor who had lost his hands. And Wyler wanted the real thing. He saw a military training film Russell had made and he thought he could do it. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Oscars. It won for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Direction; it won for Fredric March and for Harold Russell as Best Supporting Actor. Russell even collected a second Oscar (held it in his hooks), an honorary award, "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans". It's a lesson in history. For there's no doubt how, in 1946, people were intensely moved by Harold Russell. In hindsight, and even, I think, in fact, he gives not just the least performance in the film, but the one that hardly exists. Fredric March is quite brilliant (his reunion scene with Myrna Loy remains one of the most touching moments in American film). Dana Andrews is fine. Harold Russell doesn't act: he simply volunteers his presence. But you realise that, in 1946, hardly anyone in America had witnessed such dismemberment. Hooks for hands were a marvel no one had seen before. And one of the few things that always makes the movies come alive is simply showing something new.

Harold Russell gave the rest of his life to working for military veterans, but by 1993 he was so close to broke that he decided to sell his Oscar of Best Supporting Actor. The Academy – from which all Oscars come – tried to prevent this. But he had his mind made up, and he cleared just over $60,000. He kept the Oscar he gathered on behalf of veterans.

What else? Well, we give scant place still in our movies to the handicapped. There is a world of ingenuity and tenderness in the lives of damaged and remade bodies. There are caressings with hooks that may be so much more tender than hurried hands. And we're nowhere near showing it still – it's as if we need someone like the great surrealist, Luis Buñuel, to teach us the eroticism in severed hands and floating breasts, the weird mix of desperate comedy and dignity maintained. Things we've never seen before.