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.