Margaret Leighton received her first and only Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Maudsley in Joseph Losey's The Go-Between. The film, based on the novel by L.P. Hartley, is about a forbidden romance between Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie) and a farmer (Alan Bates), told through the eyes of a young boy they use to deliver letters between them. It's an absolutely dreary film to get through, as neither Christie nor Bates offer any appealing qualities here and the messenger, played by Dominic Guard is just okay as far as child actors go. Margaret Leighton plays Marian's mother, the harsh and commanding matriarch of the Maudsley family and actually gets very little substantial screentime. For the majority of the film Leighton can be seen somewhere in the background making her presence known in subtle ways but it is the last 15 minutes or so where Leighton (I assume) earned her Oscar nomination.
Mrs. Maudsley is a character type we've seen thousands of times before, and in this category especially. She's a high society woman insistent on keeping her family at the top of the ladder despite what they might think or want otherwise. It's hard to add new depth to a character like Mrs. Maudsley without the help of the script, so Leighton instead sets out to fulfill her "wicked witch" type role beautifully, and actually act instead of camp it up which would have been an easier choice. To be fair, Mrs. Maudsley isn't exactly the same as every other high society woman we typically see in films, and she respects the lower classes (at least on the surface) and isn't so high and mighty to not treat them civilly. Instead she will silently dart them a nasty look or two while watching a game of cricket or at a local gathering. That is essentially the extent to which Leighton operates for the first hour and forty minutes of the film, gliding naturally between superficial genteel hospitality and serving as a silent but strong presence of her family's "superiority". Leighton makes Mrs. Maudsley's projected dominance palpable even in passing.
Her fierce determination to remain societal superiority comes to a head when she catches Marian and the boy in the midst of exchanging a letter and she coolly coerces the truth out of the messenger. We can tell that Mrs. Maudsley is not surprised by this news and may have suspected it all along. This sequence that lasts probably between five and ten minutes is where Leighton exercises her acting ability by releasing all that contempt that Mrs. Maudsley has successfully kept held in while still maintaining some control of herself and acting a as someone "of her class" should. It's a delicate task to pull off, because it requires Leighton to be forceful without exploding into overacting and screaming, and she walks the line beautifully. All of her movements while she grills the poor boy express the anger that raising her voice and shouting would. It's an excellent acting choice by Leighton, and one that makes those last few minutes the most tense and engaging moments of the film. Even though the film concludes with Mrs. Maudsley living up to the tropes that her character type always does, Leighton navigates them like a pro and never takes the easy path.
However, the phrase "too little too late" comes to mind when looking at the overall effect of this performance. There's never a moment where Leighton missteps, but the script only gives her a brief section to really flex her acting muscles. I know this category is supporting, and screentime isn't of paramount importance when judging these performance but Leighton never gets a chance to make an impression like that of other ladies with even less screentime such as Claire Trevor in Dead End or Beatrice Straight in Network. So I commend this performance and give it a solid and respectable 3/5 Thelmas.