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.

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