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.