Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity

Donna Reed received an Academy Award on her first and only nomination for her performance as Alma 'Lorene' Burke in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. It's easy to see why Donna Reed won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1953. Her film won Best Picture, she was a well-established actress, and her role was pure Oscar bait (prostitute!).  From Here to Eternity is about a group of soldiers stationed on Hawaii, eventually building up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The ensemble cast, including Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra, are all quite great but I have to say that Donna Reed is probably the weakest leak of the five main cast members. She plays Alma Burke, a 'hostess' at a gentleman's club (under the name Lorene) that falls for Clift's Private Prewitt.

Her performance has two main sides to it (much like her character)-- the first one is when she is 'Lorene', working at the gentleman's club for. Here is where she really shines, oozing with so much sexuality it's easy to see why she attracts Prewitt. She never overplays her sexuality, however, and instead manages to be quite mysterious and exotic, even. This was clearly a stretch for her, given her usually wholesome image (even though this movie came out well before her television series), and it must have been a shock to voters that Reed could play someone so sensual. Her relationship with Clift at the club is something for us to question, and it somewhat feels like we dont' know where Alma really is at in regards to Prewitt. They have a great chemistry, but it's hard to tell that line between whether Alma loves him or is just doing her job. It's handled well by Reed, even if it is a little unspectacular.

It's when the two get together outside of the club and she reveals her name is actually Alma that she loses all of that exotic mystique and instead becomes bland and unappealing in every way. It's strange how much that black dress worked for her, and how lacking she is out of it. The remainder of Reed's performance is very all over the place. There is one scene in particular where she is telling Clift her plans to return to her home where she seems to be more of an mad scientist than a young woman returning to her hometown. She freezes up and looks maniacal rather than sad or nostalgic. In her final big confrontation scene where she is screaming at Clift not to return to the army during the attack on Pearl Harbor, she is horribly over dramatic and incredibly awkward to behold. She doesn't handle any scenes where she has to display an outpouring of emotions well at all. Watching her cry was one of the most awkward scenes in the film, and not natural.

I don't want to sound too hard on Donna Reed, because in all reality this performance was an average one. She's good at the beginning (not great), and just awkward at the end (not dreadful). In the middle of that she's mostly just there and pretty bland. I just can't help but be disappointed a little in this performance, because it had all the makings of a great one. In a great film with a strong script and phenomenal costars, Reed squanders all that potential and instead gives a shrug-worthy performance. 3/5 Wiests.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Marjorie Rambeau in Torch Song

Marjorie Rambeau received her second and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Stewart in Charles Walters' Torch Song. I suppose that after the phenomenal experience that was Pickup on South Street and Thelma Ritter's performance, I think I sort of needed Torch Song and Marjorie Rambeau's performance to bring me back down to reality. It's not even that I hated the movie, I actually found it entertaining in a 'watch Joan Crawford play Joan Crawford' sort of way, especially her awkward and unnecessary blackface musical number. It's basically about Jenny Stewart, a diva theater actress and her romance with a blind pianist (a very Alan Cumming-esque Michael Wilding). Still, it's nothing revolutionary and was very, very slow. Marjorie Rambeau has 3 scenes, two that are probably somewhere around two minutes and one that is longer and (I'm assuming is the reason she received this nomination) has some emotional weight. 

I'd talk about those first two scenes if I felt that I had something to say about them. At the start of the film, Mrs. Stewart is implied to be taking advantage of her daughter's wealth, but when we meet her Jenny doesn't seem to mind. It is kind of difficult to tell what exactly her purpose in the film is in that way. She's not the horrible mother but also not completely the quirky comic relief either. The only real memorable or funny moment in those first two scenes is a amusing moment when Rambeau has to say "We're just poor people" while flinging a fur coat over her shoulders. Those first two scenes basically give us a slight preview of what is to come in her final scene.

Her big 'Oscar moment' is the third scene, in which Mrs. Stewart helps her daughter to decide to pursue Wilding despite Jenny's trepidations about him. It's a very strange scene, and Rambeau bounces back and forth between awkward actorly mannerisms and an endearing spunk. She overplays each and every reaction with terrible eye-rolling and over exaggerated pantomimes of exasperation. This is the type of material that justifies a performance like Rambeau's, but not the nomination itself. Were she not nominated I might have found her awesomely terrible and perfectly in line with Joan Crawford's melodramatic tendencies. Rambeau obviously knew that she was supposed to be some kind of comic relief or quirky character, and she does accomplish the feat of making Mrs. Stewart likeable in a giddy, adorable sort of way.

But in the end there is no denying that this performance should not have come anywhere close to the Academy Awards. I can only assume that the members of the Academy found her performance endearing and wanted to honor her long career with this nomination, like they so often do. But against three young things and an even more revered screen veteran as her competition, she obviously didn't have a chance. It's a joyfully bad performance if not nominated, but a truly terrible one since it was. 2/5 Thelmas.

Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street

Thelma Ritter received her fourth Oscar nomination for her performances as Moe Williams in Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street. As far as the films that I've had to watch for this Supporting Actress project so far, Pickup on South Street ranks towards the very top of the list, and is truly an engaging masterpiece from Fuller. It is about a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (an excellent Richard Widmark) who steals a wallet from Candy (Jean Peters), without realizing that the wallet contained stolen government microfilm that Candy was unknowingly delivering to a group of Communists. What ensues is both the police and the Communists attempting to retrieve the microfilm from Skip. Thelma Ritter's role is as Moe Williams, a hustler who gives away information to both the police and criminals alike for a price. It's a very different type of role than her other nominated performances, where she usually played either housekeepers (All About Eve, Pillow Talk) or mothers (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Mating Season). Here she gives a complex, interesting performance with so much depth and value.

From the moment she steps onscreen, Thelma Ritter delivers such an interesting characterization of Moe Williams, and fully inhabits the character is every way possible. In her first scene in the police station we see the swagger and shadiness of Moe in a typical but effective way. Even though she wears these flowery dresses and appears to be a nice older lady, the way Thelma moves and speaks indicates the polar opposite. She just reeks of shadiness and underhanded dealings. This part of her performance merely sets up the character of Moe and sets her arc into motion. The scene establishes her as someone with a different sort of ethical code than the rest of the world, one where she looks out for herself because that's what needs to happen for her to live. It also introduces her desire to save money for a 'Fancy Funeral' rather than an anonymous one in a bad part of town. She's entertaining and quite good here, but really takes off in her subsequent scenes.

After her first scene in the film, each time we see Moe again Ritter peels back layers of this woman until finally reaching her tragic denouement. Her meeting with Jean Peter's Candy is where we begin to see the cracks in Moe's harsh exterior, but not too much. She's still appreciably slimy (even going as far as to force Candy to buy a tie) but this encounter has a snowball effect on the rest of the performance. When she meets with Skip at a bar we see the doubts grow within her about this ethical code of giving away information about people she cares about. She cares to much about Skip to be giving information about him. Then comes the real emotional kicker, where Moe is confronted by a Communist in her apartment looking to get Skip's address. It's a scene handled with such a natural delicacy and openness. Moe is fed up with the world and all her double dealings, and in this five minute sequences gives a performance that on its own would be worth an Oscar. She's heartbreaking and effecting to the point that I've teared up each time I've rewatched it in amazement.

What is so great about this performance is the journey that Ritter takes Moe on in the course of her four brief scenes. She gives such a fully realistic and natural performance, even though the role is one that could easily be overacted to stereotyped. I imagine there are a lot of people who will disagree with me, because the part and the accent could be seen as a little over the top and gimmicky. But I didn't see that, obviously. What I saw was an emotional rousing performance from an actress who I never really had seen be this good. A great performance in a great film. 5/5 Wiests.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Geraldine Page in Hondo

Geraldine Page received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Angie Lowe in John Farrow's Hondo. The film isn't one where you'd typically find an Oscar-nominated performance, because it's a pretty standard Western. It's got a generic Cowboys vs Indians plot, but still manages to be fun albeit slight entertainment. John Wayne plays Hondo Lane, a US Army Calvary scout who happens upon the ranch of Angie Lowe (Page) and her son, Johnny (Lee Aaker). What follows is basically exactly what you'd expect-- they fall in love, Indians attack, etc. Geraldine Page is an actress who I've seen very little of, but the two Oscar-nominated performances I have seen (The Trip to Bountiful and Sweet Bird of Youth) both really amazed me. This was her first credited film appearance, and she gives one of the most endearingly normal, unshowy Oscar-nominated performances I've seen so far.

The subtlety that Page brings to the film is almost a necessity when paired with an actor like John Wayne. At this point in his career, Westerns like this one obviously were business as usual and Hondo doesn't have anything particularly special to add to the genre. What is great about Geraldine Page's performance is the balance that she provides to the film. Wayne's performance is one we've seen from him many times--gruff and robotic, and in response Page is subdued and simple. Her and Wayne have a nice chemistry in the film that Page allows to grow stronger and stronger over the course of the film. Angie's interest in Hondo grows as each scenes goes by, which Page shows through a series of calculated lingering stares and smiles. It's those scenes where she is allowed to express her interest where Angie really shines in the film. Page's onscreen charisma and grace is on full display, and you can see where this actress could grow to be one of Oscar's favorites.

However, her film really doesn't do her any favors. Basically everything about her film is a leagues below her level, most notably her fellow actors and the script. There are a lot of scenes were Page struggles to make anything of her character and is forced to act with actors (mostly the 'Indians') who are about as good as charismatic as a block of wood. Oftentimes she doesn't seem to be anything more than a tool for the story, shifting back and forth between different characters like nothing more than a prop. She also has a serious lack of chemistry with the child actor that plays her son, and there is literally no connection between the two. Most of these things are not directly Page's fault, but hold her performance back nonetheless.

The real genius of this performance is how normal and average Angie Lowe is, a rare sight in this category. She just feels like a real person, with no huge dramatic scenes or showy moments to be found. It's a refreshing type of performance for this category, which is so often filled with over the top shrews or sultry ingenues. But as much as I admire Geraldine Page's performance and the fact that the Academy would award such subtle work, the limits placed around Page are too strong for even her to break out completely. It's still a reliable piece of work that is getting 3.5/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Best Supporting Actress 1953

And the nominees were....

  • Grace Kelly as Linda Nordley in Mogambo
  • Geraldine Page as Angie Lowe in Hondo
  • Marjorie Rambeau as Mrs. Stewart in Torch Song
  • Donna Reed as Alma 'Lorene' Burke in From Here to Eternity
  • Thelma Ritter as Moe in Pickup on South Street

The Field: What I like about this year is the diversity of both the films and nominated actresses. This line-up includes two Oscar favorites (Ritter and Page), an actress who would become better known for her TV roles (Reed), an emerging movie star (Kelly), and an old screen veteran (Rambeau). The only one of these films I've seen is the eventual Best Picture winner, From Here to Eternity, so once again I get to go into these performances mostly fresh and without any preconceived notions. Also, with this year Thelma Ritter becomes the first person that I get to write about twice, which is fitting because she's this category's biggest loser. This group of actresses has me very excited, so I'm glad to get started on year #6.

I'll start this year in a few days, but tomorrow or Monday I should have up an announcement about another new project I'm going to be starting. It's going to be one that's very relaxed and I expect to take some time, but I'll keep doing these Supporting Actress years at the same time. I also hope to get some more posts about other subjects going, but don't hold you're breath. I'm notoriously flaky. =)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 1956

#5. Mercedes McCambridge in Giant: If a performance can leave me feeling more ambivalent than Mercedes McCambridge's did, I haven't seen it yet. Luz Benedict in just not an Oscar character--despite the fact that she shouts, is rough around the edges, and has such contempt for seemingly everyone around her. The blame has to be placed on McCambridge for giving her such a lack of presence or any charisma. An utterly pointless nomination, that I can't see very many people fully supporting.

#4. Mildred Dunnock in Baby Doll: An instantly loveable performance that gives Mildred Dunnock a chance to take this bizarre character and have fun with her. Aunt Rose Comfort flutters about the film catering to her family's every whim, so by the time Dunnock gets her heartbreaking dinner scene you feel a real emotional connection with the character that is surprising considering her screentime. Though she doesn't have much to do, there is no deny the quirky charm that exudes from the screen whenever Dunnock enters a room. This is a delightful performance that doesn't quite extend into the realm of truly phenomenal acting.

#3. Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed: As the unlikely sociopath Rhoda Penmark, Patty McCormack is an absolutely terrifying and iconic screen villain. She balances the immaturity and youth of the character with a startlingly haunting side that you wouldn't expect from such an adorable little girl. She works well with Nancy Kelly, and makes you question why this girl has gotten away with being such a spoiled brat for such a long time. It reaches the point where you can tell that she is so bad in the 'good girl' scenes that you realize she is just pretending to be a good girl, and you realize it along with her mother. A confident, technically adept performance that leaves a huge impression on you.

#2. Eileen Heckart in The Bad Seed: In just two brief scenes, Eileen Heckart gives a devastating performance that makes her entire film better. She tackles her role fearlessly and isn't afraid to dip into the realm of overacting and theatricality, and it pays off in spades. Both of her highly emotional scenes require her to be drunk out of her mind, but she doesn't blink twice. Her accusations against Rhoda really moves the film along, and she opens both Rhoda's mother and you're eyes exactly to just how devious this little girl is. Probably the most challenge performance to make convincingly, but under Heckart makes it fantastic.

#1. Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind: The biggest shocker of this group was how much I loved Dorothy Malone's delicious performance as Marylee Hadley. It's one that shows how great melodrama can be, and expresses the complex emotional struggles of Marylee in a powerful way. She has sensuality of the performance down pat, but what is truly impressive is how well she navigates Marylee's complex emotional problems. Her deep sexual obsession with Mitch could have easily come off as simply creepy, but she makes you pity her and realize that her character has some very serious problems. One of the best surprises I've had on a rewatch.

The Year in Review: A very strong year, with all of the top four performances being absolute delights. I thought for sure that Eileen would be taking this one, but Dorothy Malone's victory just proves that I should not come into a ranking with any kind of preconceived notions, even on the performances I've already seen. All four films were very good too, which is a relief after 1983's lack of any really great films. My next year will start in a couple of days, but I'm hoping to get some other posts out before then, and it's only a couple of years away from this one. This time it only took me about a month, so I'm hoping to slow get a rhythm going on these so I'm not quite so slow.

All Supporting Actress Nominees Ranking:
  1. Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker" (1962)
  2. Dorothy Malone in "Written on the Wind" (1956)
  3. Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983)
  4. Anna Paquin in "The Piano" (1993)
  5. Cher in "Silkwood" (1983)
  6. Eileen Heckart in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  7. Emma Thompson in "In the Name of the Father" (1993)
  8. Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed"(1956)
  9. Claire Trevor in "Dead End" (1937)
  10. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  11. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll"(1956)
  12. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate"(1962)
  13. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  14. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  15. Amy Irving in "Yentl"(1983)
  16. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  17. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  18. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill"(1983)
  19. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  20. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)
  21. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  22. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962)
  23. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  24. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant"(1956)
  25. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door"(1937)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mercedes McCambridge in Giant

Mercedes McCambridge received her second and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Luz Benedict in George Stevens' Giant. 1956 seemed to be the year of the epic for the Academy Awards, with three films clocking in at more than three hours being nominated for Best Picture. Giant is the only one of the three I've seen, the other two being The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days, the latter obviously winning Best Picture while George Stevens won Best Director. I can somewhat see why that is, Around the World is the Shakespeare in Love or Chicago to Giant's Saving Private Ryan or The Pianist. The film was just an extremely long one that the Academy obviously respected and admired more than flat out loved. It is about the Benedict family, a filthy rich Texas ranching family and what happens after Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) marries non-Texan Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) on something of a whim. It's a towering achievement, even if it drags its feet a times, and you really get to know this family over the course of 201 minutes.

Mercedes McCambridge plays Jordan's sister Luz, a masculine woman who is used to being in control of the house and is threatened by Bick's new wife. It's an incredibly brief performance, at least in relation to the incredible length of the film. Luz is a very straightforward woman, and McCambridge's performance is also very straightforward. Her brow is furrowed in literally every scene she's in and her voice has that impeccable southern drawl at all times. Luz is often seen only from the back, and it makes you notice how well McCambridge handles her rough physicality. That's....about it. The character is really not much of anything to speak of, so this is an exceptionally difficult performance to write about. Luz doesn't have much of an effect when she's on screen, so it's no surprise that when she inevitably dies, I found myself feeling nothing. I didn't hate her or love her enough to really care. Her death causes not profound effects on any character, and she really is almost never brought up again or spoke about for the rest of the film. I guess Bick didn't feel much for her either.

What I think the film was trying to go for was having us be somewhat happy to see Luz die because she essentially is a horrible racist towards Mexicans, but so is 95% of the characters in the film, so I didn't make much of it. The only major effect she has on the rest of the film is that she leaves Jeff Rink (James Dean), a sort of rival of Bick's, some land for  him to live off of and the other characters make it sound like she had some kind of romantic interest in him. But we never get to see any of that, and there is very little interaction between the two characters besides her screaming at him. Perhaps some more of McCambridge's scenes were cut from the film, but that would have given her some more potential to create a character out of the cliche that is Luz.

I don't really feel much of anything for this performance, either positive or negative. Everything is done convincingly enough, but this is not the kind of acting that I consider nomination worthy by any means. I don't know how McCambridge got the nomination, so I'm assuming she got swept along with the film into one. 2/5 Thelmas.