Eileen Heckart received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Hortense Daigle in Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed. The film is definitely a departure from the usual Oscar-nominated films, in that it technically is a thriller film that borderlines on dipping into full fledged horror. It's easy to see why the Academy may have gotten confused though, because the film retains a lot of the theatrical elements from the original play and more often feels like a drama pretending to be a thriller. The performances are across the board solid, and I even liked Nancy Kelly's performance even if it had moments of extreme overacting. The two ladies who were nominated for Best Supporting Actress were Patty McCormack, playing the eponymous 'bad seed' Rhoda, and Eileen Heckart, who has significantly less screen time as the mother whose son dies at the beginning of the film. Heckart has an role that begs for an Oscar nomination--she gets to stumble around drunk, scream her lungs out, change emotions within a matter of seconds, and literally point fingers.
But oh, how well she does with each of those aspects of the performance. It's a role that she clearly knows inside and out, having played Hortense countless times on stage with the exact same cast. It's still no less impressive of an achievement. Hortense Daigle comes into the film at the exact right moment, and from the second Heckart walks in the door you feel a palpable change in the tone of the film. After forty minutes of faux pleasantries from every other character, Heckart ushers in a burst of reality that really gets the film moving. It's clear from the beginning that Hortense is viewed as 'common' by even the teachers at her son's school, and Eileen's lanky physicality and unique vocal quality support that downtrodden 'white trash' persona.
Being that this performance was born on the stage, there is an overt staginess to Heckart's performance, but I think it works completely in her favor. By allowing her free reign to stagger across the room and display her emotions freely, Eileen Heckart gives a performance of emotional devastation that will stick with you long after the film is over. She navigates the swift changes of emotion with ease and grace making some of the most unsuspecting moments, such as a hug with Rhoda both haunting and sweet at the same time. She overpowers every other person she's on screen with, and Nancy Kelly might as well have disappeared when Heckart sauntered on screen. She's like a storm set loose on the Penmark household, and the effect she leaves on both the audience and Kelly's Christine is much appreciated.
Eileen Heckart's performance is one that shows the true greatness a supporting actress can achieve with a minimal amount of screentime. Hortense Daigle is a great tragic figure, and I think The Bad Seed would be much worse off without her presence. Her experience in the role and the general theatricality of the performance make this one just shy of a perfect score, but I can't deny that the mark Eileen has left on will be with me for quite some time. Tackling this role with abandon and force, she manages to be calculated and loose in her performance at the same time, and mostly importantly so memorably tragic. An energetic performance that is not easy to pull off. 4.5/5 Thelmas.