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.