Monday, September 26, 2011

Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind

Dorothy Malone received her first and only Oscar and nomination for her performance as Marylee Hadley in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind. As far as melodramas go, Written on the Wind is at the top in terms of pure trashy soap opera-like appeal, in the best possible way. The film centers around the Hadley family after the heir to the company Kyle (Robert Stack) impulsively marries his secretary Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall). Kyle's best friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who his father prefers to Kyle, is also in love with Lucy, while his sister Marylee (Malone) pines after Mitch. It's all one big love square of sorts, and Marylee is always at the center of it. Of the four main actors, Malone has the juiciest role, as Hudson and Bacall are purposely bland, and Stack (despite earning an Oscar nomination) is almost laughable in that he fails completely at his pitiable role. Marylee is undoubtedly the most complex character, and Malone shoulders the brunt of the emotional weight of the film.

Of the two Hadley children's deep psychological problems, Marylee's is perhaps the most troubling in that she is essentially a nymphomaniac whose unhealthy obsession with Mitch has led her to the point of becoming the town slut. Malone really knows how to use her body, and that level of physicality is important to show that Marylee has a sexual appetite, and isn't just a blandly pretty girl. Malone manages to make even the most garish outfits in the film sensual, and handles that incredibly bizarre lake scene especially well, making it simultaneously orgasmic and painful. To go with her blatant sensuality, Marylee is given all the bitchy lines and attitude to go along with it. She's playful at the most awkward of times, working to increase the tension at all times. Marylee wears all the contempt she feels towards basically everyone besides Mitch on her sleeve, and Malone handles that side of the performance perfectly. She's the perfect balance of Va-va-voom and malice.

It's in the emotions where Dorothy Malone's performance elevates to another level, as she handles the complex emotional makeup of Marylee with a startling proficiency. It takes only a few moments to realize the source of Marylee's pain--her deep love for Mitch, and she doesn't hide that fact at all. Besides openly offering herself up to him and keeping pictures of him prominently displayed in her room, she has her father asking him if he'd reconsider marrying her. Mitch's rejection of her has clearly pushed Marylee to a point of being an utterly pathetic, desperate whore. It's a heartbreaking sight to watch her barrage him with proposition after proposition, most of them only offering to have sex with him as if she needs it desperately. Surprisingly, her and Hudson have a natural chemistry, and the only scene where I saw him coming out of the coma he seemed to be in the entire film was the one in his room. Malone conveys the hurt Marylee feels phenomenally, and at the end of the film when she tries to blackmail Mitch you can tell it's not real because of her skill in laying out the feelings Marylee has for him.

This performance was overall a huge surprise for me, because the first time I watched Written on the Wind, I don't remember being quite as enamored with Malone and the film in general. It's a surprisingly emotionally complex performance, and the melodrama of the film only helps to make her performance better. It's a high difficulty performance, only because of the extreme melodramatic nature of the film, and the fact that it would be easy to make Marylee a one dimensional slutty character, but Malone hits all the right notes in elevate herself out of that stereotype. The only real criticism I can give to her is the fact that her dancing is pretty dreadful, but that isn't much of anything. If you've only seen this performance once, I'd recommend you go back and take another look at it, because you may just find yourself liking it as much as I did this time around. 5/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mildred Dunnock in Baby Doll

Mildred Dunnock received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Aunt Rose Comfort in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll. Films rarely get as unassumingly erotic as Baby Doll was, and as someone who doesn't feel that vibe from movies too often, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed the film. The film is about a poor cotton-gin owner named Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) and his desire to have sex with his wife Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Oscar-nominated for this performance), who he agreed to have sex with when she turned 20. After he burns down a rival's cotton gin, the man gets revenge by attempting to seduce his wife. All the performances were great, but Eli Wallach's performances as the business rival was particularly delicious (I never thought I'd find this guy so attractive). How does Mildred Dunnock fit into all this? She plays Baby Doll's daffy, slightly senile aunt who spends the film doing crazy things and being picked on by Archie Lee.

Of all the performances in the film, Mildred's is easily the one with the least to work with, but she turns her slight role into a completely loveable one with ease and grace. When we first meet Aunt Rose Comfort, it's in a scene where she is afraid to answer the phone because it scares her too much when it rings and from that moment on I knew that I was going to absolutely adore Aunt Rose whenever she came onscreen. Dunnock imbues her with a baby animal-like innocence that makes her hard to resist. The character doesn't actually spend a whole lot of time on screen, though, and when she is she's often in the background of the scenes. I imagine this was a somewhat difficult role to make convincing, and she does it handily thanks to her dedication to the insanity growing in Aunt Rose.

However, I can't help but feel her performance as a little bit slight, especially compared to the hefty roles of her co-stars. Her character is almost an afterthought throughout the film, and there were times that I even found myself forgetting that we hadn't seen her in awhile, which is never good. It's almost as if Dunnock was loveable when on screen, but not so vital a presence that I missed her when she wasn't. There was one notable exception to this overarching feeling I had, though, and that was during the big dinner scene. Aunt Rose, being absolutely insane, forgot to start the stove while cooking dinner (why put you're crazy aunt in charge of cooking?), and is mercilessly attacked by Archie Lee as being worthless. He decides that she needs to move out because they cannot afford to take care of her any longer, and Dunnock's heartbreaking reaction is one of the highlights of the film. The mix of resolve and sensitivity is just right, and it's a touching moment.

Ultimately, Mildred Dunnock's performance is a tough one to fully get a read on. She's at times adorably bizarre and at others forgettable and borderline unnecessary. Her heart-wrenching final scene and overall elegance in the role has me leaning towards the positive in this performance, though I certainly understand the people who do not like this performance. Aunt Rose Comfort is a character that may not be for everyone, but I love me some craziness. 4/5 Thelmas.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed

Patty McCormack received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Rhoda Penmark in Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed. This film (along with the novel and play) is famous for introducing the term 'bad seed' into pop culture, and that it has enduring so many years and is still common today can be at least partially credited to McCormack's chilling performance. Rhoda Penmark has many of the same qualities of iconic villains such as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, in that she has a magnetic, almost seductive quality with a hint of deviousness that makes her off putting and sweet at the same time. Obviously she doesn't quite reach the level that those villains do, mostly because of her (and McCormack's) inexperience and youth, but many time during the film it felt like you were getting a look at at the origins of a sociopath as she learned the tricks of her trade.

The most admirable aspect of this performance is the balance that McCormack strikes between Rhoda's charming little lady side and her cold and heartless side. Throughout the film numerous characters comment on how well-behaved and mature Rhoda is for her age, as she always curtseys when an adult enters the room, and her disinterest in playing with other kids who are 'childish'. But it's her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) who starts to see the cracks in this facade, and as the film goes on we also begin to see Rhoda's is one of the kids who got away with everything as a child because of the obliviousness of the adults around them, but with a darker twist.. Some of her dialogue starts to sound horribly scripted and fake, as she says what she thinks will get herself out of trouble though she doesn't mean it. 'Nice' Rhoda is all an act. It's a difficult aspect of her performance to judge, because she is supposed to sound fake and unnatural, which is usually something that would lose points in my book from a performance. So you just have to take it for granted that this was McCormack's intent, and in that she succeeds.

The intentionally robotic delivery gives way to the real Rhoda, where we see her being a heartless little girl, who seems to have absolutely no remorse in any way for the crimes she's committed. McCormack can't help but be slighty campy in her handling of the character--but that only works to increase the strength of her performance. That camp element is really what makes Rhoda memorable, and lifts the film from banality. There is one particular scene where she finally spills the beans to her mother, and Rhoda's emotions come out for a second in a shocking and bone-chilling way, only to disappear as she attempts to return to the 'sweet girl' persona once more. The way she leaps praise on her mother just moments after revealing that she basically killed a little boy is horrifying and well-acted. The confidence in which Patty handles every scene is surprising considering her age, but she really knows her stuff and commits to every single second of the film.

You don't expect such an unnerving performance to come from Patty McCormack, but she delivers an iconic turn as future sociopath Rhoda Penmark. Her surprising amount of confidence in the role frees her up to give a type of performance that most child actors (such as Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird) would make unconvincing. She handles the duality of the role with ease and authenticity. Yes, the role is one that doesn't quite have the difficulty level as many other nominated performances, but is harder to elevate to the iconic status that McCormack achieves. She's stiff and unnatural in the best way possible. 4.5/5 Thelmas.