Saturday, March 31, 2012

Amy Madigan in Twice in a Lifetime

Amy Madigan received her only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Sunny Sobel in Bud Yorkin's Twice in a Lifetime. As far as marital dramas go, Twice in a Lifetime is a pretty standard and unspectacular film, starring Gene Hackman as a middle-aged steelworker who leaves his wife (an effective Ellen Burstyn) for a sultry barmaid (Ann-Margret). The film treats this central development as an inevitability and thus loses much real drama. It doesn't help that Hackman and Ann-Margret give such insufferable performances that I found myself easily giving my sympathies to Burstyn. Amy Madigan gives the most magnetic and lively performance in the film as Sunny, the couple's oldest daughter who finds herself going through some financial struggles, with the separation of her parents affecting her deeper than her parents might have thought.

Madigan is without a doubt an actress with some interesting qualities, lacking in conventional beauty and having a brusque vocal quality that she can't seem to downplay no matter the role. Dressed in a collection of frumpy soccer mom outfits and a tomboyish haircut she pummels through this film like a bulldog, vacillating between quiet lovability and manic rage. It makes for an interesting combination, as Sunny clearly has positioned herself as the person in the family that protects and watches out for everyone, and is not equipped to handle the situation that the separation has placed her in. After finding out about the affair that her father has undertook with a barmaid, you can feel that Sunny's furious reaction goes farther than pity for her mother and hurts her on a higher level. A key part of her storyline is the financial troubles she and her husband (who she loves) are going through, and Madigan makes it palpable that Sunny hates her father for messing up a life that she desperately wants to have. It's been done before-the children falling apart because of a change in their parent's relationship, which they have modeled their own lives on, but Madigan doesn't make it seem too overdone.

This personal rage culminates in an intense and wonderfully acted scene in which Madigan confronts Hackman at the bar where he is openly flirting with his new mistress. As Ellen Burstyn reacts with passivity and confusion, Madigan takes up the position of being angry for her and delivers as forceful confrontation that is somewhat ruined by Hackman's buffoonish performance. Madigan isn't afraid to overdo it and even though she dips a little too deeply into overacting she comes out on top with the pure force of the scene. After this confrontation towards the middle of the film Madigan is left to pick up the pieces of her now "broken" family, and handles herself with strength and composure for the rest of the film. She's not allowed very much more important scenes, but distinguishes herself adequately by being emotionally available and alert for the rest of the film. By picking up the pieces of the family and putting them back together, Madigan's character grows to become a strong and independent person separate from her parents more than she thought she could be.

I suppose the main detracting factor in the performance is that sometimes Madigan can be a little uneven, but that is something that seems built into her character. As the mediator and central figure in her family dynamics Madigan changes her approach from scene to scene, but remains a rough edge throughout. It's a consistently interesting performance that makes use of her natural talents as an actress and rises about the mediocre material.What I got out of Twice in a Lifetime may have been ever so slight, but Amy Madigan does her best to link together the pieces into something that sort of works. At the very least when she was off screen I always preferred her to the alternatives (Hackman, Ann-Margret, Sheedy). 4/5 Fancy Funerals.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Best Supporting Actress 1985

And the nominees were....

  • Margaret Avery as Shug Avery in The Color Purple
  • Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi's Honor (winner)
  • Amy Madigan as Sunny Sobel in Twice in a Lifetime
  • Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes in Agnes of God
  • Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple 

The Field: It's been a while since I've done a year from the 80's, so I was pleased to see this year come up, even if I was kind of hoping to do a year from the 2000's. But I'm a stickler for keeping it random, and this year is one I'm excited for too. The Color Purple is one of those classics that I'm ashamed I haven't seen yet, so that is easily the film I'm most looking forward to. I've seen Prizzi's Honor but don't have particularly fond memories of the film itself, so hopefully this time around the experience will improve. Amy Madigan is the first up, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 1949

#5. Elsa Lanchester in Come to the Stable: I don't think any actress could have done much with the role of Amelia Potts, though few could have made her as weird and outlandish as Elsa Lanchester. Even though the part is nothing to write home about, I can't help feeling that Lanchester could have made her character a little less strange and more understandable. Well, at least the actress appeared to be having fun with this performance.

#4. Ethel Barrymore in Pinky:  If anything, Ethel Barrymore felt very comfortable in this role, playing a type that fit her well. Perhaps that is why she never decides to take her performance to another level, instead playing her role firmly but lacking in further depth or introspection. She's not by any means awful, but instead just solid in her characterization. Miss Em is crusty, rude, and just a little bit saucy and Barrymore never tries her hand at going past those parts. A solid supporting turn that didn't need the awards recognition.

#3. Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable: I have to admit that Celeste Holm's performance is by no means all that much better than Ethel Barrymore's, but the fact that I enjoyed Holm's weirdness gave her a slight edge. She's everything the slim role calls for--happy, adorable, and wields a perfectly respectable French accent to make her character as much of a joy as she's meant to be. Simply put, this is not Oscar level material Holm was given, so she doesn't get a chance to do anything with it. But man does she play a mean game of tennis.

#2. Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men: Without a doubt the most emotionally complex role of the bunch, and I can see why this performance would strike enough people's fancy that she would get the win, but McCambridge doesn't quite rise to the occasion for me, and instead finds herself trapped in a film that doesn't know what to do with her. Her performance has a very strong beginning, a weak middle (in part thanks to her lack of significant screentime with Broderick Crawford), and an nonexistent end. We don't see a strong character growth as the film progresses, and I wish we had one or two more scenes to flesh Sadie out further. Uneven work.

#1. Ethel Waters in Pinky: I had an easy choice in this very weak year for the Supporting Actress category, with Ethel Waters's soulful work as Dicey Johnson coming out victorious. She leaves a strong emotional impact that lasts much longer than I'd expected. Dicey Johnson is by no means a great character, but it's the simplicity and natural acting style of Waters that makes this a great performance, even if it lacks weight. Even though she's my weakest winner yet, there is still a lot to take from her performance and I'm pleased that she is my winner.

The Year in Review: This was such a weak, dismal year to review. I'm not a huge fan of any of the films, even if I found something to like in each of them. Ethel Waters was an easy choice, though I certainly understand those who enjoy McCambridge's work. Poor Mercedes couldn't quite catch a break with me, as both of her nominated performances did not perform well. Sorry, Mercedes! I can't imagine anybody truly loving the ladies of Come to the Stable, but I'm sure Ethel B. has her fans. This next year will be my 10th, which makes me realize how slow these have been coming along. As always, I'm hoping to pick up the pace but I'm suppose I'm pretty content with my slowness.

All Supporting Actress Nominees Ranking:
  1. Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker" (1962)
  2. Dorothy Malone in "Written on the Wind" (1956)
  3. Thelma Ritter in "Pickup on South Street" (1953)
  4. Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983)
  5. Anna Paquin in "The Piano" (1993)
  6. Cher in "Silkwood" (1983)
  7. Eileen Heckart in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  8. Emma Thompson in "In the Name of the Father" (1993)
  9. Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights" (1997) 
  10. Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  11. Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  12. Claire Trevor in "Dead End" (1937)
  13. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  14. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll" (1956)
  15. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
  16. Ethel Waters in "Pinky" (1949)
  17. Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" (1997)
  18. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  19. Barbara Harris in "Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971)
  20. Geraldine Page in "Hondo" (1953)
  21. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  22. Amy Irving in "Yentl" (1983)
  23. Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)
  24. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  25. Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  26. Margaret Leighton in "The Go-Between" (1971)
  27. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  28. Mercedes McCambridge in "All the King's Men" (1949)
  29. Joan Cusack in "In & Out" (1997)
  30. Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  31. Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
  32. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill" (1983)
  33. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  34. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)
  35. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  36. Celeste Holm in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  37. Ethel Barrymore in "Pinky" (1949)
  38. Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" (1997)
  39. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962)
  40. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  41. Grace Kelly in "Mogambo" (1953)
  42. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant" (1956)
  43. Marjorie Rambeau in "Torch Song" (1953) 
  44. Elsa Lanchester in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  45. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door" (1937)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Elsa Lanchester in Come to the Stable

Elsa Lanchester received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Amelia Potts in Henry Koster's Come to the Stable. If Celeste Holm's Oscar nomination for her performance in this film was unwarranted, I don't even know how you would classify the nomination for Elsa Lanchester. Her character, Amelia Potts, is a famous painter who paints religious scenes and meets the two traveling nuns (Holm and Loretta Young), eventually taking them in and giving them shelter for the course of the film. She never really gets a whole lot of substantial screentime, and with one minor exception never has a scene that really allows us to see to far beyond the surface of Amelia Potts. Lanchester is a very appealing performer who I'm sadly not all that familiar with, but who I see great potential in having some interesting roles were I to continue watching her films. It's just this one that doesn't show her in the best light, and should have come close to an Oscar nomination.

Her performance is filled with an abundance of quirk and strange mannerisms. Amelia Potts always seem deathly confused as to where she is, what she is doing, and perhaps even who she is. I don't know if this was an acting choice made by Lanchester or if Koster wanted Amelia to be an exceptionally kooky lady, but no matter who the blame should be placed on it doesn't work. This flighty personality allows Lanchester to stumble around as the nuns constantly are helping her with even the most mundance of tasks, as she pushes forward with a permanent glazed over look that makes Amelia Potts seem, quite frankly, a little mentally unstable. I suppose this method makes the fact that these nuns railroad her into letting them stay in her home more convincing, but I don't quite understand Lanchester's execution. Her character doesn't seem like a kind old woman but rather a timid and easily manipulated one. It's just a strange choice that doesn't work.

However, it's hard to begrudge Elsa Lanchester too much, because the role is such a slight and unnecessary one that her bad performance doesn't cause any harm to the film. Besides one scene where she yells at Hugh Marlowe for being a selfish man, she doesn't have any other moments that distinguish her from the rest of the film. My guess would be that the director just let Elsa Lanchester loose to do whatever she wanted with the character and she had fun being a total spaz. How the Academy recognized her work as something worthy of awards is beyond me. 2/5 Fancy Funerals.

Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable

Celeste Holm received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Sister Scholastica in Henry Koster's Come to the Stable. On paper, Come to the Stable seems like the sort of crowd pleasing, feel good film that occasionally can gain a lot of traction at the Academy Awards (most recent example: The Blind Side), but hidden underneath it's cheery surface is one seriously bizarre film. It is about two nuns (played by Loretta Young and Holm) who are on a mission "from God" to build a children's hospital in the small New England town of Bethlehem. All that is fine, except these are nuns that use their standing to break into people's houses uninvited, drive at what appears to be hundreds of miles per hour, and just generally take advantage of everyone under the pretense of doing "God's work". All this strangeness comes together in a climactic, match? I found myself laughing in disbelief more than a few times at this altogether strange experience, and I'm baffled the Academy for admiring this weird film enough to give it 7(!) nominations.

Now on to Celeste Holm, who plays the funnily named Sister Scholastica, who is one of the two nuns to undertake this mountainous endeavor along with Loretta Young. They are together on screen in every single scene in the film, though I don't have any problem with Holm being in the supporting category because she really plays the role of Young's sidekick for the entire film. Sister Scholastica is a French nun who does not speak very good English, and thus Young does most of the talking and negotiating for the two of them. This leaves poor Celeste Holm to smile cheerily at her side and occasionally repeat something she says in a French accent. I really had no problem with her accent, which I found convincing enough to work. No, it's not a perfect accent by any means but it's convincing and quite frankly who cares if she got it right? Holm is a good actress for this part because she is just such a charming and affable presence and does the most she can with the part, which usually involves smiling....a lot.

Is this mind-blowing work? Not by any means, because I don't think anybody could give a substantially effective performance with this material. Instead, Holm works it the best she can and has a lot of loveable moments. She gets to be adorable as she hands out St. Jude medals to gangsters, and has a hidden talent for tennis. In this scene, probably her most important plot wise in the whole film, she reveals her "dark" past as a tennis player as if she used to be murderer and God would hate her for playing tennis. It's such a bizarre scene as we watch Holm play tennis in her habit and you can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the game. How Holm got a nomination for essentially being Loretta Young's sidekick I'll never know, but I can't hate on this performance. There is nothing substantial to hate. 2.5/5 Fancy Funerals.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ethel Waters in Pinky

Ethel Waters received her only Oscar nomination for her performance as Dicey Johnson in Elia Kazan's Pinky. With this nomination, Waters became the second African American nominated for an Academy Award after Hattie McDaniel's landmark win in this category in 1939 for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Regrettably, this role isn't anything vastly different from McDaniel's, as Waters plays a poor laundress who spends her time taking care of her elderly neighbor, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). It's a role with a lot of emotional similarities to McDaniel's--Dicey is a simple woman who serves as the heart of her film and doesn't have any aspirations but to live a good life and give one to her daughter, the eponymous Pinky. What this leaves Water to work with is a very stable character that experiences very little change in the film, but also one with huge pathos.

Perhaps the biggest problem Waters has to overcome in the film is being stuck with the absolutely atrocious Jeanne Crain as her main acting partner. Crain doesn't do anything but look sullen in EVERY scene she's in, and it's tiresome and kills the flow of the film. However, Waters does succeed in making Dicey an incredibly powerful presence in the film, using her interesting looks and hugely expressive face to leave her mark on the film. She transcends the stereotypes (overtly religious, unflinchingly caring, sass) by not pushing them to hard and instead using her voice in a quiet way. She never strains beyond what is necessary, and only goes as far as to make her point. By not highlighting these elements and instead relying on her natural gifts she allows the audience to connect with her deeper, fleshing out a real person underneath all the stereotypes. She is masterful in wielding guilt, pity, and sentiment on both Pinky and the viewer. The best way to describe her performance is soulful and lacking in mannerism and actorly moments.

Despite the incredibly ease in Waters's performance, there are very few moments where she truly gets to shine because ultimately Dicey Johnson is a role lacking in big moments. She has a few minor moments, such as the devastated look on her face as she realizes her good friend, Miss Em, is about to die. Another is her masterful use of restraint in a tense courtroom scene where she is ashamed to reveal that she cannot read. These moments don't hold as much weight as they could, but that is all Waters's doing. She keeps her performance at one level purposely, always subservient and minding her own business. It's a performance filled with subsistence.

Ethel Waters does an admirable job with her instinctive and soulful performance in Pinky. She delivers and easy to love performance that uses her natural gifts as an actress and a woman to develop Dicey Johnson into a well-rounded and relatable character. She never presses to hard on her acting talents, calibrating her performance to the appropriate level. Even with some less than satisfactory co-stars, she shines and achieves what she needs to in the performance. It's not a blockbuster or earth-shattering performance by any means, but a solid and reliable supporting turn. Nice work. 4/5 Fancy Funerals.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ethel Barrymore in Pinky

Ethel Barrymore received her fourth and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Miss Em in Elia Kazan's Pinky. This is such a strange movie in a lot of ways, but it also becomes very mundane and uninspiring by the time the credits roll. The film stars Jeanne Crain as Pinky, a light-skinned African-American woman who returns home after pretending to be a white woman in the big city and finds herself mixed up in some legal matters when Miss Em (Barrymore), a wealthy neighbor leaves her home to Pinky upon her death. The film almost collapses under the awfulness of Crain's performance (and the fact that she's white!), but manages to be a least mildly entertaining in an baity sort of way. Ethel Barrymore's performance is in many ways the centerpiece to the film as it is Miss Em's actions that dictate the plot, and she has a huge significance to Pinky and her mother, Ethel Water's Dicey Johnson.

I'm not at all familiar with Ethel Barrymore but just as with May Whitty in 1937 I imagine Miss Em is the type of character she plays frequently, so much so that by 1949 she could give a performance like this one without breaking a sweat. Miss Em is an affluent Southern woman living in huge mansion where Pinky's mother, Dicey has been taking care of her for very little pay for months. The two have developed a strong friendship through mutual hard times, though Pinky still resents Miss Em for being cruel to her when she was a young girl. Pinky is forced by her mother to become Miss Em's nurse in her final days and has to deal with an excess of complaints, orders, and general rudeness until Miss Em passes away. Barrymore handles the unpleasantness of her character with resolve and whip smart flippancy. Her frog-like voice bestows a crustiness that is perfect for the part, and in all actuality she isn't particularly likeable. Physically she never seems to be on the brink of death, but a majority of her scenes are her laying in bed so that is never quite on display.

So what's the problem? I guess the problem is that Barrymore needed to take this performance just a step farther in that at the end of the film we are expected to look back and say "Wasn't Miss Em just swell all along?", and I never felt she was all that swell. We never get anything more than a fleeting look at the heart that Miss Em supposedly has, and in fact Ethel Waters shows us more about her than Barrymore does through her discussions about their friendship. Barrymore doesn't fully show us any of the sides that apparently exist, and I suppose an argument could be made that the purpose of the performance was to show a woman who never let her emotions show but if that is the case then this is just a horribly one note performance. Barrymore's one shining moment was her scene with Evelyn Varden, her gold digging cousin where we see a sly sauciness that never peeks its head out again.

The pieces just don't come together to make Ethel Barrymore's performance special in any way, instead leaving us with a solid turn from an old pro. She's got the meanness of the role down pat, and that's obviously all that she worked towards evoking. She's just altogether a bitter bitch, but plays that part to the best of her ability. Whether the script or Elia Kazan or Barrymore herself is to blame is unknown but it's unimpressive all the same. A physically and emotionally stolid performance that is the definition of a solid supporting turn. I just have very little to say about it other than, what the role sounds like Barrymore is and nothing more. 2.5/5 Thelmas.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men

Mercedes McCambridge received the Academy Award on her first nomination for her performance as Sadie Burke in Robert Rossen's Best Picture winning All the King's Men. In the pantheon of Best Picture winners, All the King's Men is one of the less flashy winners--which isn't a bad thing. It's a perfectly fine movie about the rise of Willie Stark, a small town politician who fights against a corrupt government until eventually he becomes corrupt himself. It's anchored by a charismatic (if scattershot) performance by Broderick Crawford as Stark, and Mercedes McCambridge plays his assistant, the fiery and coarse Sadie. As an actress McCambridge has a lot of similarities to Sadie, with her career spent playing tough broads and never fitting into the typical Hollywood starlet persona. Simply put, these two ladies were in a way meant for one another.

Her entrance into the film is a strange one, introduced as a heartless political savant who is skilled at her job and manipulating situations in favor of whatever candidate she is backing. From the beginning she serves as a sharp contrast to Joanne Dru's dainty Anne Stanton, a beautiful and elegant society girl. She has a strong desire to prove herself every bit as much man's equal, so McCambridge comes on strong with a great presence and an assertive demeanor. It's in these first few scenes that we see a strong and unique performance from McCambridge, who does her best to make Sadie a character constantly in flux, analyzing her options and weighing them against one another to position herself in the best spot. She's a little offbeat in her characterization, but that adds some interest in the performance and makes Sadie more than a one-dimensional bitch. McCambridge dances the line between evil-charming and evil-crazy well and never settles into one mode, which at the very least makes this an interesting performance to watch.

That being said, I wasn't altogether satisfied with this performance, which I think had a lot working against it from the scripting level and a lot of strange and/or distracting acting choices on McCambridge's part. First off is her relationship with John Ireland's Jack Burden. For the first three or four scenes of the two together they form a relationship that we are told is that of good friends, but McCambridge throws lustful glances at him that really confused me (and my roommate, proving I wasn't alone and/or crazy in this assessment). It's just something that never went anywhere and seemed too obvious to not be deliberate.

Secondly, once we flash forward to Willie Stark as governor McCambridge isn't given all that much screentime and doesn't do much with what she is given. Her romantic relationship with Stark is ridiculously undercooked, and consists only of her giving Dru some hateful glances. Neither her nor Crawford have any hint of romantic tension in a scene together. Even her big monologue about not being pretty just seemed out of place and frankly, out of character. The Sadie we've seen would not let Jack Burden treat her this way, and it feels disingenuous. It's as if the strong tough broad we saw in the first hour has devolved into a broken woman because of Willie Stark, but even that is portrayed in a convincing manner. If she wanted to play a broken woman or a changed woman, she needed to commit more to one side and not straddle the fence. It's sort of unclear where Sadie stands at the end of the film, which is sad (and not altogether McCambridge's fault).

When it comes down too it, the script leaves Sadie (and McCambridge) hanging. She pops up looking grim in the background but ultimately amounts to nothing, barely appearing for the last 40 minutes or so. With a mercurial first half of the performance and a wan second half, McCambridge's forceful and unique acting style cannot save this performance from being a muddled mess. I give her big props for her opening scenes where even though I may not truly love her acting she at least made Sadie a fascinating character to watch. This feels like a tag-along nomination to me, where voters so no other truly viable option and gave it to a performance in a film they loved. Which is a shame, really. I couldn't in good conscience give her a 2.5, so she'll make due with 3/5 Thelmas.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Best Supporting Actress 1949

And the nominees were...


  • Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em in Pinky
  • Celeste Holm as Sister Scholastica in Come to the Stable
  • Elsa Lanchester as Amelia Potts in Come to the Stable
  • Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the King's Men
  • Ethel Waters as Dicey Johnson in Pinky

The Field: I have to admit that, even though I pick all my years randomly I was very pleased to see this one come up for two reasons: 1) It's in one of the decades I haven't done yet (only the 00s and 10s remain untouched now) and 2) I only have to watch 3 films. Yes, I still have to write five reviews but it makes it a lot easy when there is only 3 films to squeeze into my busy schedule. That being said, even though I haven't heard great things about this line-up I'm still excited to do it. Mercedes McCambridge will get a second chance with me, and her performance is the only one I've seen. Barrymore, Waters, and Lanchester might as well be new actresses to me, but I'm familiar with Celeste Holm on a basic level. It'll be fun even if they are all awful, heck, maybe even more fun.