Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 1942

#5. Susan Peters in Random Harvest: Susan Peters delivers a star making performance, receiving this nomination as a vote of confidence from the Academy for her future career. Unfortunately, we never did get to see if she had the staying power to become one of the greats so instead this feels like a sad nomination. Still, this is a perfectly lovely performance in a very underwritten, one dimensional role and Peters acts it with a youthful energy and innocence that is perfect for the character. She gets points for elevating herself beyond the role, and that final scene is a fantastic one but it's not enough to fully justify this nomination. Still good, just not quite on an Oscar nomination level.

#4. Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager: As Bette Davis's stern mother Mrs. Vale, Gladys Cooper has a wonderful presence in her film. After only a brief scenes her cold-hearted mother figure leaves a nasty cloud hanging over the rest of the film and Davis' Charlotte in particularly. However, those hints of a truly heartless mother figure are never really explored in the film, and though Cooper fights valiantly to humanize Mrs. Vale, the film just doesn't seem quite as interested in her. It's a stock part done very, very well but remains unfortunately lifeless and one-note.

#3. Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver: It's very difficult to achieve the level of serenity and lovability Teresa Wright achieves in the role of Carol Beldon, a normal and good-hearted young woman. It's a performance grounded in reality and carefully modulated to avoid melodrama or theatricality. Wright plays Carol with such subtle grace and steadfast emotions that you fall in love with her right alongside the Miniver family. Carol is a very simple character, but it's through Wright's wonderfully simple performance that she becomes the emotional core of her film and a lovely presence on screen.

#2. Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons: Undoubtedly the most complex and confounding performance of this bunch, Moorehead is in a different league than her competitors in a lot of ways. She's got the most interesting director and film backing her, and delivers a performance of near-operatic levels but somehow makes it (mostly) work. Fanny's deep, deep dissatisfaction with her life is so potent in Moorehead's hands, and every minute of her screen time is spent pouring that dissatisfaction onto the screen. She leaves a strong impact and is so fascinating to watch as the shrill Aunt Fanny.

#1. May Whitty in Mrs. Miniver: Though Agnes Moorehead's performance is clearly much more ambitious, I have to go with Dame May Whitty on sheer emotional impact. At first this part seems like a completely cliched one, with Whitty doling out wisecracks wonderfully and being adorably cantankerous. But the genius comes when she flips the performance on it's head with a series of emotional moments that are tragically nostalgic and impactful. Whitty toys with the expectations placed on these types of Maggie Smith-type characters and rises high above them. Deserves an Oscar nomination just for making me cry at a damn flower contest.

The Year in Review: Though the scores don't add up to as high as some of my other banner years, I truly liked all five of these performances on different levels and really enjoyed doing this vintage year. Peters and Cooper both deliver admirable performances trapped by the limitations of their parts, and even Teresa Wright suffers a bit from the same affliction, in her case the slightly one-note role of Carol Beldon. It's clear to see why Wright won the Oscar, she's absolutely luminous, tragic, and winning in Mrs. Miniver, clearly an Oscar favorite. Whitty and Moorehead could not give more opposite performances, but both are great in different ways and worthy choices in this solid year for Best Supporting Actress. I always love seeing a field with no truly bad performances. Up next is a year from one of the three full decades in which I have only reviewed one year (60s, 70s, 00s), but don't expect it too soon since I'm sticking with the method of reviewing all nominees before posting even the intro post.

Worthy Non-Contenders:
Anne Baxter in The Magnificent Ambersons

Every Supporting Actress Nominee Ranked:
  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. Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" (2002)
  5. Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983)
  6. Anna Paquin in "The Piano" (1993)
  7. Meryl Streep in "Adaptation." (2002)
  8. Cher in "Silkwood" (1983)
  9. Eileen Heckart in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  10. Emma Thompson in "In the Name of the Father" (1993)
  11. Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights" (1997) 
  12. Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  13. Oprah Winfrey in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  14. May Whitty in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
  15. Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  16. Claire Trevor in "Dead End" (1937)
  17. Agnes Moorehead in "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942)
  18. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  19. Margaret Avery in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  20. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll" (1956)
  21. Julianne Moore in "The Hours" (2002)
  22. Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" (2002)
  23. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
  24. Ethel Waters in "Pinky" (1949)
  25. Amy Madigan in "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985)
  26. Meg Tilly in "Agnes of God" (1985)
  27. Teresa Wright in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
  28. Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" (1997)
  29. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  30. Barbara Harris in "Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971)
  31. Geraldine Page in "Hondo" (1953)
  32. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  33. Amy Irving in "Yentl" (1983)
  34. Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)
  35. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  36. Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  37. Margaret Leighton in "The Go-Between" (1971)
  38. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  39. Mercedes McCambridge in "All the King's Men" (1949)
  40. Joan Cusack in "In & Out" (1997)
  41. Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
  42. Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  43. Gladys Cooper in "Now, Voyager" (1942)
  44. Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
  45. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill" (1983)
  46. Susan Peters in "Random Harvest" (1942)
  47. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  48. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) 
  49. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  50. Queen Latifah in "Chicago" (2002)
  51. Celeste Holm in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  52. Ethel Barrymore in "Pinky" (1949)
  53. Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" (1997)
  54. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) 
  55. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  56. Grace Kelly in "Mogambo" (1953)
  57. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant" (1956)
  58. Marjorie Rambeau in "Torch Song" (1953) 
  59. Elsa Lanchester in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  60. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door" (1937)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Susan Peters in Random Harvest

Susan Peters received her only Oscar nomination for her performance as Kitty Chiclet in Mervyn LeRoy's Random Harvest. Unfortunately, Susan Peters is mostly known nowadays (if mentioned at all) as a tragic Hollywood story after a 1945 hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Before the accident she was being groomed as a major star at MGM following her nomination for this film and a few other parts, but of course Hollywood didn't known what to do with a wheelchair-bound actress and Peters career fizzled out until she died at age 31 from what was essentially anorexia. It's a sad story for sure, especially considering how luminous she is in the role of Kitty in Random Harvest.

The film is a romantic drama about a man, "John Smith" (Oscar-nominated Ronald Colman) who loses his memory during World War I and falls in love with a singer who helps him make peace with his lost memories. After him and the woman, Paula (Greer Garson) get married and have a child he is hit by a car and suddenly regains the memory of his real life as Charles Rainier but simultaneously loses all of his memories of Paula and their time spent together. Peters enters as Kitty, Charles' step-niece who has a huge crush on him and eventually becomes engaged to him. However, Paula has found work as Charles' secretary and is determined to get him to remember their time together. It's a terribly overwrought film that is a little dull but still has a nice romantic glow whenever Garson and Colman are onscreen together.

Susan Peters has a tough job with the role of Kitty, having to traverse the film's drastic jumping around in time that forces her to age from a teen to a grown woman in what amounts to a few minutes onscreen. She's also got a really creepy romance, with vaguely incestuous undertones and a whopping 30 year age difference between her and Colman. It's a testament to Peters that she manages to make all of these aspects substantially less creepy (though not completely), through her charisma and charm. She's very convincing as a teenager, nicely expressing Kitty's childish crush on her uncle and her youthful confidence. She does absolutely all of the heavy lifting in the Charles/Kitty relationship, convincing us that the Kitty would be attracted to her uncle's romanticized mystique. She's not given a whole lot of time to develop a romance, since essentially two scenes in Kitty and Charles are engaged but Peters pulls it off with teenage aplomb and ardent forcefulness.

Because the performance is essentially three brief sequences, Peters has to work hard at showing the amount of maturity that Kitty has achieved in her second and third sequences. She definitely pulls it off, showing a more sophisticated and mature Kitty who has kept the torch going for her uncle over many years and maintains the determination to marry him. After the first two sequences featured, respectively, a teenage Kitty telling her uncle they will get married and a grown up Kitty getting him to propose to her, Peters is finally given a more emotional moment in her third and final scene. While her and Charles are picking hymns for their upcoming wedding they happen up the one that he and Paula got married to and Kitty recognizes that Charles still loves someone else. It's a beautifully acted moment, as we get a close-up on Kitty's face as her expression of giddy excitement changes to confusion and bewilderment to finally disappointment. Peters acts the scene with maturity and skill, having maneuvered Kitty to this place in only a few scenes. Her goodbye to Charles is touching and very noble, something the audience wouldn't have expected from the slightly annoying and petulant teen at the very beginning.

This is a perfectly lovely performance by Susan Peters, even if for the most part Kitty Chiclet is nothing more than a prop of a part that is meant to illustrate how attractive and charming Ronald Colman's character is. Peters tackles the role with charm and transitions the performance very well, but is essentially stuck by the part nonetheless. This nomination feels more like a "star is born" nomination than anything else, because I would very much have liked to see how Peters' career turned out after this lovely breakthrough. 3/5 Thelmas.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons

Agnes Moorehead received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Aunt Fanny Minafer in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane holds an interesting place in film history, regarded as simultaneously a masterpiece and the prime example of studio interference ruining the director's vision. It certainly is a film with astonishing visuals and a compelling narrative, focusing on the decay of the Amberson family at the hands of the spoiled rotten George Amberson. The entire family is filled with engaging characters, perhaps no more so than Agnes Moorehead's Fanny Minafer. Fanny is the spinster aunt of George (Tim Holt), who the rest of the family seems to pick on somewhat, most often to her despair or discomfort. She has very little in her life besides her family and her cooking, and she pines for the handsome Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who only has eyes for her sister-in-law Isabel (Dolores Costello). Many posit that Moorehead is the lead of the film, but I can't agree considering she spends most of the film lingering in the background and gets only a few choice scenes to focus solely on her. But man are those scenes something.

The Magnificent Ambersons maintains a very heightened and melodramatic tone throughout the film and in its performances, but man does Agnes Moorehead take it to another level completely. She dives so fully into the despair of her character in each and every scene, making Fanny a larger than life character with a theatricality that borders on chewing scenery. Everything about this performance, to me, starts with the voice Moorehead uses. It alone explains so much of the character, her high pitched squeaky voice that gets even more shrill and unbearable whenever Fanny gets angry, most often with George. Her relationship with her nephew is a highly contentious one, as the two spend a good deal of the film quarreling and interrogating one another. George knows just what to say in order to get rise out of Fanny, recognizing immediately her attraction towards Morgan and calling her out for it. The scenes between Holt and Moorehead are always very entertaining, as Holt badgers her with questions and insults and Moorehead hams it up with her shrill and expressive reactions. Moorehead shows the very fragile shell that surrounds Fanny, and in her performance allows the audience to wait on pins and needles for her complete and total breakdown to occur. And boy does it.

But before that breakdown occurs, Moorehead creeps around the background showing the complete and utter devastation she feels with her life, and just how sad and broken down this woman truly is. Orson Welles clearly loved to fix the camera on Moorehead, and even in scenes in which she is not featured or talking the camera constantly swoops by her and we get a brief but stark glance at Fanny's fragile emotional state. When Isbel's husband dies we see that the melancholy on Fanny's face is beyond just sadness for her brothers death--it's sadness that Isabel now is an option for Morgan to choose. As Morgan talks to Fanny and Isabel about how grateful he is for their long and loyal friendship without once even looking at Fanny, we see just how resentful and bitter Fanny is towards Isabel from the despondent look on Moorehead's face. It all builds to the eventual final breakdown in the boiler room after the family is officially without financial support anymore. It's a scene that is often regarded as one of the greatest bits of actressing of all time, but I wouldn't go quite that far. What Moorehead does give us is the final straw in the loneliness and plain depression of Fanny Minafer, and she lets it all out in a raw and emotional outburst. It's a scene that borderlines on chewing scenery (as does the rest of Moorehead's performance, really) but manages to do so without completely isolating the audience. All of the emotional turmoil building within Fanny bursts and you as the audience understand.

In all of her theatrical glory, Agnes Moorehead is nothing but completely memorable and starkly emotional in the role of Fanny Minafer. Moorehead toes the line of overacting, but for most of the performance plays with a larger than life acting style that completely complements her character. Fanny Minafer has the same over the top dramatic qualities of a great theatrical role, and Moorehead recognizes it and adapts it well enough to a theatrical style. However, there are a few things that limit and hold her back in the film--most notably the injudicious cutting of Welles' film. There really is something missing from Fanny's story that by the end of the film you feel dissatisfied. For one, her relationship with both her brother and sister-in-law is never fully detailed, nor really is her relationship with anyone outside of George. The resentments growing underneath between Isabel and Fanny feel ripe for a few good scenes. But most of all, the ending tacked on by the studio after they disliked the original, sadder ending just completely undermines her character. The entire point of Fanny as a character was to serve as a tragic example of spinsterhood, and by giving her something of a happy ending where she is at peace with both George and Morgan dulls the impact and weakens the film (and Moorehead's performance) overall. Many seem to just completely disregard this ending, however, but it's still annoying.

Overall, Agnes Moorehead gives an eminently memorable and enjoyable performance as Fanny Minafer. She dominates the screen whenever she is on it and blasts so much emotion onto the screen in such a forceful way you can't help but be captivated by her. It's not a perfect performance, and it always walks the line between overacting and annoyance but does so almost beautifully so. A wonderful performance that could have been even greater without the interference of the studio. 4.5/5 Thelmas.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

May Whitty in Mrs. Miniver

May Whitty received her second and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Lady Beldon in William Wyler's Best Picture winning Mrs. Miniver. Five years after receiving her first nomination for her delightful performance in Night Must Fall (my review), Dame May Whitty was back with her second nomination, again for playing a crusty, sassy older woman. However, Mrs. Bramson and Lady Beldon are very different characters both filtered through Whitty's very entertaining persona, and I think in many ways Lady Beldon is a greater character. Lady Beldon is a high minded, slightly cantankerous woman who lives for two things--her niece Carol (Oscar-winning co-star Teresa Wright) and her beloved flower competition. Admittedly, having a flower competition as a major plot point in the midst of a war movie is slightly ridiculous, but it's exactly that ridiculousness that allows May Whitty's performance to sneak in and hit you with pure emotion.

At the start of the film, we get to see May Whitty doing what she was best known for--bitching beautifully. Her first few scenes simply consist of her meeting with various other characters and expressing her opinion freely. Whitty is a master at these type of scenes, whether she's slyly making rude comments about the Miniver family or fretting over the growing relationship between Carol and Vin Miniver (Richard Ney). She has a way of unloading one of her carefully timed barbs in such a direct manner while but at the same time remaining her endearing and lovably grouchy self. She's just simply a master at the old Hollywood standby--the person who is outwardly rude and judgmental, but actually a big softie on the inside. It's her unveiling of her character's gooey inner core that makes this performance such a delight, and an unexpectedly moving one at that.

Whitty has done such a good job at portraying the apprehensive side of her character that when you first see the layers peeling back it's almost shocking. The first example of this is in a scene with Greer Garson (who, may I just say again is AMAZING) where Lady Beldon meets with Mrs. Miniver to express her displeasure at the engagement of Vin and Carol. As the conversation goes on, we see the real reason for Lady Beldon's curmudgeonly persona and just why her objections to Vin and Carol's relationship are so strong--they too directly mirror her own life. Through her dialogue with Mrs. Miniver we learn that she too married a young soldier out of love, and was devastated for the rest of her life after he was killed in action. Watching Lady Beldon reminiscing about her past life we see on Whitty's face as she fights against the romantic inside of her, and can feel the sting of loss that still exists in her life due to her lost long ago. Whitty is subtle but still packs an emotional wallop with a simple look on her face.  By the end of the meeting, her complete reversal of opinion towards the marriage is utterly believable and almost necessary.

That scene alone is enough to justify a Oscar nomination, but it's not even her most emotional or impactful scene in the film. That comes during, of all things, that silly flower competition. It's been made clear throughout the film that Lady Beldon values the competition for the best rose above most everything in her life, and as the caretaker of the competition she feels she deserves to have won it for all these years unchallenged. But the rest of the town knows that the actual best rose is the Miniver rose bred by kindly stationmaster Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers, doing  absolutely nothing to deserve his Oscar nomination). As the fateful decision comes closer and closer, we watch as Lady Beldon realizes that everyone thinks she deserves to lose--and think's it's not a big deal. As she goes to the stand to present the awards herself, we get a blockbuster scene in which she is named the winner but knows that she won simply because the judges were biased in her favor. Standing at the podium ready to present the award for best rose to herself, we get a brief moment in which Whitty looks at the two roses and goes through a staggering set of emotional turmoil over the decision. You can see the guilt, pride, regret, sadness, and just plain hurt on her face, plus another good 20 emotions or so. It's a touching moment that packs a lot of emotion and growth into only a few minutes or so. She, of course, decides that the rose deserves to go to Mr. Ballard but in those few brief moments before announcing the decision we see the final layer of crustiness peel away and a more pleasant yet still sardonic Lady Beldon appear.

It's a testament to May Whitty as an actress that she can so capably take her familiar acting style and make a few modifications to her performance and pull together a fantastic and moving performance in Mrs. Miniver. This performance is what this category is about--taking a stock supporting character and imbuing them with a memorable energy and emotion that adds to the film in a beautiful and unexpected way. That Dame May Whitty manages to take a damn flower contest and turn it into an emotional juggernaut is grounds enough to give her an Academy Award. Her elegant and witty handling of the character (not to mention tragic, especially in her final scene in the church which, me being me, elicited tears) makes this a performance well worth awarding 4.5/5 Thelmas. I just love it when a performance I didn't particularly like or remember on my first go-round reveals unseen elements on a second watch and blossoms into something great.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver

Teresa Wright won the Oscar on her second/third Oscar nomination (she was also nominated for her lead performance this year in The Pride of the Yankees) for her performance as Carol Beldon in William Wyler's  Best Picture winning Mrs. Miniver. It's easy to see why Miniver waltzed to 6 Oscar wins, it's an film that so effectively plays on the emotions of a world at war with it's message of unity between all classes, countries, and genders against the Axis powers. I happen to actually enjoy the film on it's own merits as well, mostly because of my growing fascination with Greer Garson. Her lead performance in this film is just so gorgeously realized, and her Oscar so richly deserved. Also along for her trip to the Oscars were four of her costars, but Teresa Wright was the only one to also cop a statuette (or plaque in the case of the supporting categories until 1943) for her performance as the good-natured and beautiful but tragically fated Carol Beldon.

Just like Gladys Cooper's, Wright's nomination serves as a perfect example of one of Oscar's favorite types of roles in this category, in her case the supportive girlfriend/wife (see also: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Winona Ryder). And really, is there any actress better suited to play a part like Carol Beldon than Teresa Wright? Carol is a sweet and intelligent young woman who, despite her high standing in society is still generous and openhearted. Wright's delicate beauty and innocent looks make her well suited for such a charming character. From the first moment Carol walks into the Miniver family's life, we are as instantly charmed as they are. Through that entire first meeting, in which Carol is attempting to convince the Minivers to drop out of the rose competition for the sake of her aunt, Wright manages to be so wholesome and winning, wonderfully expressing the genuine place that Carol is coming from, and managing to make her less than honorable request seem almost noble. Carol knows she should not be asking this of the Minivers, but cares for her aunt so greatly. Carol has a way of doing this for the rest of the film, winning over everyone she comes in contact with by simply being so genuinely enchanting and wholesome.

The most meat of the performance comes from her handling of the romance between Carol and Vin Miniver (Richard Ney). Vin Miniver is a high minded intellectual straight from university, who looks down upon the upper classes as elitist and uncaring for the lower classes, an he immediately calls out Carol's attempt as a way of exerting upper class power to stifle the lower classes. I just love the way Wright keeps calm and benevolent in the face of Vin's so rude and immature outburst against her. She instantly recognizes that his rudeness is merely enthusiasm and a bit of showing off for her sake, and calmly and sweetly shoots down his criticisms. She plays so well of Vin's slightly dopey persona and as their relationship develops into a romantic one, we can see why Carol would be so charmed by Vin's youthful enthusiasm and sweetness. Wright so effectively shows Carol being won over by this goodhearted dork.

For the rest of the film, we remain charmed by Wright's purity and love for Vin over and over again, and that is primarily the biggest criticism of this performance--it's one note nature. I completely agree that this is a part without a little depth on the page, but I still admire so much what Wright manages to do with such a pure yet  toothless part. She's great in all of her quiet moments (admittedly, most of her performance), never pulling attention to herself but constantly working hard to keep Carol's reactions coming from a place of love. She has one final great scene in which she expresses how much love and devotion she has to Vin, and Wright absolutely knocks it out of the park. You can feel how much honest love she has for Vin, and her desperate need to spend as much time as possible with him before the war possibly tears them apart. Her death scene is nothing too special, but you definitely feel the sadness and loss felt when Carol is gone. The subtle impact she has had on the film is tangible and so important.

Teresa Wright's performance is Mrs. Miniver is beautiful supporting work, nothing too flashy or groundbreaking but effortlessly important to her film. She's playing a very one-note character and somehow manages to add heart and humanity to the character while still playing her part very well. It's a lovely and subtle performance that leaves an emotional mark at the end of the film felt through all of the characters reactions to her death, and yours too. Teresa Wright does well to keep her character grounded in reality, never falling for histrionics or huge displays of emotion but instead remaining steadfast in her serenity and optimism. Carol Beldon is not a great character, but through Teresa Wright's performance she still is an important and impactful one nonetheless. 4/5 Thelmas.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager

Gladys Cooper received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Windle Vale in Irving Rapper's Now, Voyager. If you were teaching a class on Classic Hollywood melodramas, Now, Voyager would be a great film to show on the first day because it's an excellent example of rich highs that a melodrama can achieve when done correctly. It's the story of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), a repressed spinster who lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother (Cooper) and is the verge of a mental breakdown. Charlotte's sister-in-law recognizes the intense unhappiness in Charlotte and gets her psychiatric help. After she finally gets the help she needs and gets better, Charlotte falls into a series of romantic entanglements with a man she met on a pleasure cruise (Paul Henreid), and struggles to assert her individuality under the thumb of her domineering mother. Anchored by Bette Davis' subtle and beautifully shaded performance, this is a melodrama with a lot to admire and is purely watchable. It's also taken a place in film history with one of the most famous last lines in movie history, even if the line feels a little out of place in context.

Gladys Cooper plays one of Oscar's favorite roles in this category---the overbearing, "monster" mother (other famous examples include Angela Lansbury and Mo'Nique). Unfortunately for Cooper, Mrs. Vale is on paper about as bland and one dimensional as "monster" mothers come: she's an upper class, haughty, and high-minded woman who is concerned with maintaining dominance over those around her by barking orders and insisting on deference from each and every one of them. In some aspects Cooper succeeds beyond what the part demands, but in other ways the script traps her in a shrewish part with very little depth or really any explanation. The bottom line is Gladys Cooper can never escape from that one sentence description of her part despite her best attempts.

This performance is all about control in a lot of ways, and among the biggest additions that Cooper contributes to the film is her overall presence, one that demands control on an almost fanatical level. This is evident from the very first scene, in which a doctor visits her house in an attempt to evaluate Charlotte's mental state. Almost immediately we can see how threatened and contemptuous she is towards the doctor, childishly undermining his plans, fearful of what his help might mean to her relationship with her daughter. Cooper is so efficient and effective at conveying Mrs. Vale's simultaneous concern for her daughter's health and her concern over losing control over her life. In this one introductory scene Cooper sets up the ways in which her utterly forceful domineering has left such a huge impact on her daughter. This sense of control over Charlotte's life--especially in a psychologically damaging way--are key to the rest of the film.

That sense of presence in Charlotte's life is arguably Cooper's biggest contribution to the film, and that is because that presence is felt all throughout the film, even when she is not on screen. The pure terror and psychological damage that this woman has inflicted on her daughter is present in every single moment of Bette Davis' performance. There is a long period of time in which we do not see her onscreen, but in the way that Davis acts her part we see the conflict brewing in her head, almost as if her mother's voice serves as a judgmental conscience for the poor girl. There is also another important scene that demonstrates the presence the Cooper's character exudes, in which Charlotte greets her family at a dinner party as her mother is upstairs and we watch every family member in the room react in confusion at the huge changes made in Charlotte's life. Every single character stops for a brief second and knows that Mrs. Vale would not approve of these changes and feels conflicted, almost as if they can feel her judgment lording over them. It's a subtle moment, and one in which I cannot credit Cooper fully (she's not on screen) but it's also a testament to how deep her character has planted herself as an authority, and the impact of those first briefs scenes of her performance.

There's certainly a lot to like in this performance, but at the same time there reaches a point in the film in which you realize that Cooper's part is ultimately not all that great of one and is essentially one dimensional. As the film progresses, Mrs. Vale becomes an even more thankless part as she spends her time delivering rude tirades and ultimatums to her daughter only for Charlotte to simply ignore her. She watches her daughter blossom into an independent woman and struggles to make sense of it. Cooper unfortunately has to play it like a petulant child, resorting to tricks and pouting to get her way and it reaches a point where you become tired with how much of a simple plot device Mrs. Vale is rather than fully fleshed out character. This is a stock part that all of a hundred actresses could play adequately with little effort. Through it all, however, Gladys Cooper tries valiantly to find a real character underneath all the "monster" mother cliches. She manages to have little moments, both comedic (with her nurse) and dramatic (that final scene) towards the end that show hints of what could have been, but this is an actress fighting valiantly to elevate a stock part and failing, albeit often beautifully. 3/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Best Supporting Actress 1942

And the nominees were....

  • Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Vale in Now, Voyager
  • Agnes Moorehead as Fany Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Susan Peters as Kitty Chilcet in Random Harvest
  • May Whitty as Lady Beldon in Mrs. Miniver
  • Teresa Wright as Carol Beldon in Mrs. Miniver (winner)

The Field: This is not the first year I planned to do next, nor is it the second even. It's actually the third year. I have a thing for starting years, losing time and interest in them and starting over with a new one. It's not so much the years themselves but rather my penchant for starting work on years and letting too much time pass in between watching films and reviewing the performances. So, sorry 1947 & 2003, but this is my next year. I'm pretty excited to be doing this year because it's got an interesting collection of Oscar favorites in a group of interesting films that received a total of 26 Oscar nominations in 1942. I've vowed to review all of the nominees before posting this, so if you are reading this I've reviewed all of the nominees and they will be released two days apart. Though this looks to be a sad group from that group photo, I'm pretty excited to write about them! Gladys Cooper is up first. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The First 11 Years

I got bored in class yesterday, so....voila! My ranking of the first 55 supporting actress nominees I've reviewed on this blog. Year #12 is coming in the next few days  weeks months.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 2002

#5. Queen Latifah in Chicago: It's hard to dislike Queen Latifah's saucy performance as Matron Mama Morton because of the amount of pure charisma Queen wields in this (and all of) her roles. At the same time, it's hard to acknowledge this as an Oscar-caliber performance because of the lack of depth (of any kind) in this performance. She's a great singer and tons of fun, but Latifah clearly road the Academy's love of Chicago to a nomination that she didn't really need. In fact, an Oscar nomination only highlights the limitations of this performance more.

#4. Kathy Bates in About Schmidt: On a first viewing, I found Kathy Bates' performance as Robert Hertzel to be simply a case of the actress doing what she does best-- creating high quirk characters with a rough edge that are absolutely hilarious but somewhat light and unnecessary to the overall storyline. Many of those facts are true, but after a second viewing of her scenes I found the contribution she makes to the film invaluable. For starters, she's absolutely the most (and sort of only) hilarious person in the film nailing her line readings and comedic timing. But she also plays her scenes with just a hint of forceful desperation that is potent and invaluable to getting to know her family. A truly great comedic supporting performance.

#3. Julianne Moore in The Hours: In her film, Julianne Moore is nothing short of ethereal in her expression of her character's deep dissatisfaction with her seemingly-idyllic life. She does well in keeping with the melancholy tone of her film, and approaches her character in a unique fashion. By expressing the numbness in Laura Brown's life with an unsettling stillness, Moore makes her character the most memorable and striking in the film. The performance is fairly one-note due to the limitations the script places around Moore's character, but damn if Julianne Moore doesn't nail that note and work it for all it's worth.

#2. Meryl Streep in Adaptation.: It's the sign of a strong year in this category when a performance this strong comes in merely at #2. Meryl Streep pulls you into the sad descent of Susan Orlean, slowly unveiling the inner sadness that exists under Orlean's carefully controlled exterior. Her deliberate and carefully modulated performance reveals the hidden displeasure and lack of passion existing in this woman's life inch by inch, until she makes the terrible mistake to drown out this melancholy with drugs and the wrong guy. It's a devastating transformation, and a true testament to Streep's talent.

#1. Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago: This Oscar win has become a very divisive one, but I'm completely on the love side when it comes to Catherine Zeta-Jones' performance as Velma Kelly. Zeta-Jones delivers a performance that mixes a healthy amount of theatricality  and pure musical talent with a subtext of rage and hidden vulnerability. Her three big numbers are among the best movie musical songs not only because of her wonderful voice but also because of the amount of pure emotion she pours into each and every note. Rarely do we see performances as fun yet moving as this one.

The Year in Review: 2002 was a banner year for this category, with four of the five performers giving truly fantastic yet vastly different performances. Ultimately the pure enjoyability of Zeta-Jones' performance beat out the sad and emotional performances from Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore to become my pick for the year. Kathy Bates (and to a much much lesser extent Queen Latifah) is whole lotta fun as well, single-handedly injecting her film with a whole lot of comedy. My next year will be an oldie, but I probably won't get started on it until at least after this year's Oscars are finished because I have a little bit of catching up to do in the Doc and Foreign categories. Here's a fun clue for my next year: it features 4 winners of this category and 1 single-time nominee.

Every Supporting Actress Nominee Ranked:
  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. Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" (2002)
  5. Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983)
  6. Anna Paquin in "The Piano" (1993)
  7. Meryl Streep in "Adaptation." (2002)
  8. Cher in "Silkwood" (1983)
  9. Eileen Heckart in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  10. Emma Thompson in "In the Name of the Father" (1993)
  11. Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights" (1997) 
  12. Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  13. Oprah Winfrey in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  14. Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  15. Claire Trevor in "Dead End" (1937)
  16. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  17. Margaret Avery in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  18. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll" (1956)
  19. Julianne Moore in "The Hours" (2002)
  20. Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" (2002)
  21. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
  22. Ethel Waters in "Pinky" (1949)
  23. Amy Madigan in "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985)
  24. Meg Tilly in "Agnes of God" (1985)
  25. Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" (1997)
  26. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  27. Barbara Harris in "Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971)
  28. Geraldine Page in "Hondo" (1953)
  29. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  30. Amy Irving in "Yentl" (1983)
  31. Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)
  32. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  33. Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  34. Margaret Leighton in "The Go-Between" (1971)
  35. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  36. Mercedes McCambridge in "All the King's Men" (1949)
  37. Joan Cusack in "In & Out" (1997)
  38. Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
  39. Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  40. Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
  41. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill" (1983)
  42. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  43. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) 
  44. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  45. Queen Latifah in "Chicago" (2002)
  46. Celeste Holm in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  47. Ethel Barrymore in "Pinky" (1949)
  48. Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" (1997)
  49. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) 
  50. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  51. Grace Kelly in "Mogambo" (1953)
  52. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant" (1956)
  53. Marjorie Rambeau in "Torch Song" (1953) 
  54. Elsa Lanchester in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  55. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door" (1937)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Julianne Moore in The Hours

Julianne Moore received her third/fourth Oscar nomination for her performance as Laura Brown in Stephen Daldry's The Hours. She was also nominated in 2002 for her lead performance in Far From Heaven. As far as Oscar favorites go, The Hours is definitely an atypical film to receive nine nominations be that it is a female-centric drama with gay undertones and is undoubtedly a downer of a film. It focuses on the lives of three women living in different time periods and how Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway connects them. Nicole Kidman plays Woolf herself in the midst of writing the novel, Julianne Moore plays a depressed, pregnant housewife finding an escape in the novel, and Meryl Streep is (sort of) a version of the novel's titular character preparing for a party for her AIDs-afflicted ex-lover. It's an fascinating and surprisingly engaging movie that is harder to love than its Best Picture competition, but contains many great performances. Of the three main leading ladies, I'd rate Julianne Moore's performance as my second favorite, eclipsed slightly by the more understated work of Meryl Streep but much better than Nicole Kidman's haunting yet one-note Oscar-winning performance.

Laura Brown is a 1950s housewife unhappy in her marriage to Dan (John C. Reilly), a veteran of World War II. She spends her days taking care of her young son Richie (Jack Rovello) and struggling to find meaning in her menial wifely duties. Julianne Moore takes a unique, hypnotic approach in expressing Laura's deep lack of satisfaction in her life. She really doesn't have a lot of huge emotional (aka "Oscar") moments, but instead relies on expressing her depression through an absolutely haunting stillness. She's nearly catatonic in the majority of her scenes, simply stripped of any happiness or liveliness. She has an ethereal, otherworldly quality that is so interesting and entrancing and effective at showing how little in the world this woman seems to care about.

Moore also pulls off making Laura sympathetic despite the deeply unsympathetic nature of her character. John C. Reilly is quite adorable and charming as her husband, and Jack Rovello is an adorable if limited child actor. It is clear that Laura's dissatisfaction life comes from within herself, not her family, and as hard as she tries to perform her duties like she is expected even the simplest task become arduous and tiresome for her. We get a glimpse into the roots of Laura's dissatisfaction when her neighbor and friend Kitty (Toni Collette) visits to ask Laura to feed her dog for a few days as she undergoes surgery. In this scene we see Laura open up and express her first real emotion besides sadness as she comforts Kitty and shows genuine affection towards her that clearly doesn't exist between her and her husband. It becomes clear that due to the time period she is living in, Laura isn't allowed the freedom to live life as she would like and she feels trapped in the stereotypes of the era. This encounter with Kitty leads to a kiss between the two women, and it is that kiss that pushes Laura to want to escape her life by any means and adds a further gay subtext to the performance.

The most affecting scene in the film is when Laura drops her son off at a neighbor's house so she can go to a hotel and kill herself. The emotional attachment that Richie has to his mother is made clear from the beginning, even if her love for him cannot overpower her distaste of her life. As he screams out for his mother as she abandons him, Moore is devastating in her portrayal of the emotional struggle her character is facing in making this decision. She knows that on some level her son knows she intends to leave him permanently, and that makes the decision even harder for her to make.

For the rest of her performance she returns to the same notes she traverses at the beginning of the film, that unsettling stillness and emotional barrenness. The scene of her pondering killing herself is surprisingly unemotional, partially because it is intercut with a voice over by Kidman's Woolf deciding whether or not to kill her heroine. Her performance for the rest of the film expresses my main complaint with this performance, that being that it is a fairly one note performance with a few great scenes of emotional variation and the rest of the film spent being simply morose. She nails that one note, and so affecting at it but ultimately I found the role a little too limiting for Moore to overcome completely. We see how sad this woman is and feel sympathy for her, but Moore isn't allowed a chance to put too much reasoning behind the sadness with the exception of the brief kitchen scene and that makes her character slightly flat.

The final scene of the film allows her to put a nice little bow on the top of her performance, as we see what became of Laura Brown in the future sequence and the film pounds home the underlying themes of her character. She's honest and open about her decisions and life and shows no remorse for what she did because it was the best thing for her to do. I'm glad they allowed Moore to play the older version of the character, because she retains the same haunting qualities and gives a fuller performance. This is a very good performance from Julianne Moore, and one that is unique and melancholic. It fits in well with the tone of her film, and shows off Moore's consummate ability to turn in compelling performances. Even when she's not allowed too much variation, she is nothing but watchable and memorable. 4/5 Thelmas.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Meryl Streep in Adaptation.

Meryl Streep received her thirteenth Oscar nomination (third in the Supporting Actress category) for her performance as Susan Orlean in Spike Jonze's Adaptation.. Is it safe to say that Adaptation. is the "weirdest" film ever nominated for three acting Academy Awards? At least when judging on the strict curve of typical "Oscar bait", I'd say so (though The Master is probably a close runner-up). Case in point, it is difficult to even begin to describe the film in a few brief sentences, but here goes: Adaptation. is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) novel The Orchid Thief into a film.'s also a kind of, sort of, an adaptation of the book itself, which is about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an orchid thief who was arrested for illegally poaching the flower off a state park. But it's not really a true adaptation, since a majority of the events were made up by Kaufman when he struggled to adapt the book, including inventing a fictional twin brother for himself also played by Nicolas Cage as well as inventing a romance between Orlean and Laroche. If you haven't seen the film, just go watch it and don't even bother trying to understand what that all means. The film is self-referential, confusing, and challenging in a way that most Oscar nominated films are not which is so refreshing.

Of all the characters in the film, Streep's Susan Orlean changes the most radically from start to finish, whereas the kooks played by Cooper and Cage have less radical changes occur. At the start of the film we see Susan Orlean as she probably is in real life, a serious journalist simply looking for a story by hunting down Laroche in Florida for an article. She's a very controlled, tightly coiled woman who approaches Laroche as a subject and nothing more. But Streep is a genius is subtle modulations, and a few scenes into the performance we begin to see the inner workings of Susan Orlean reveal themselves in subtle yet powerful ways. An early scene that stands out is when she is questioning one of Laroche's workers, who compliments her hair and softly touches it and cracks of longing, loneliness, and sexual frustration begin to show. Streep reveals these cracks with simple looks and a slight giggle, never overplaying her hand and always remaining a tight control over Orlean's emotions.

In the course of a few meetings with Laroche and in the process or writing her article (and eventually, book) she begins to acknowledge her loneliness more overtly in voice over. Streep maintains the control over her character's external demeanor, but the inner longing for purpose and the feeling that she is missing various types of passion in her life become very clear during her solitary scenes. She's the emotional core of the film, sometimes unveiling many of the themes very blatantly through voice over, but constantly adjusting scene by scene in a way that is sincere and very effective. We begins to see Susan Orlean as a tragic figure who is deeply unhappy in her life, and her admiration for Laroche grows as she notices his life is filled with multiple passions and her with not a single one.

Then, of course, comes the point in which Streep's performance finally joins in on the wonderful weirdness of her two costars. She is given some (fictional) drugs by Laroche that derive from the orchids he collects, and falls into an addiction to the drug as well as a romance with Laroche. The scene where she first tries the drugs is an absolute triumph, and Streep is funny, touching, and just zany enough to convincingly be drugged out. It's also a rather sad scene because instead of finding her passion and purpose in life, she finds herself seeking solace in this drug and in the arms of a somewhat crazy man. Though Streep is good at showing the very rapid descent of Susan Orlean, she can't quite make the romance aspects work. The script just sort of suddenly decides they are romantically involved, but Cooper and Streep have only mild romantic chemistry and work better as author and subject earlier in the film. In the final few scenes we see just how sad this woman has become, as Orlean becomes violent and pretty damn scary. She is nothing like the woman at the start of the film, but her problems remain mostly the same internally as she still struggles with those same persistent problems in her core.

Throughout this film we get to see the gradual decline of Susan Orlean, and Meryl Streep is an expert at convincingly tugging us along with this woman's sad descent. She is never over the top or pushing these changes, but masterfully unwinds them in a deliberate fashion. As she slowly unravels the inner workings of this woman, she shows how she attempts to fill to holes in her life only to make them deeper and more heartbreaking. In a film so "meta" and quirky, Meryl proves that she can once again acquit herself wonderfully and excel in any genre. This is easily the strangest of her thousands of Oscar nominated performances, but also one of her most interesting. 4.5/5 Thelmas.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Kathy Bates received her third Oscar nomination (second in the Supporting Actress category) for her performance as Roberta Hertzel in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson plays the eponymous Warren Schmidt, a newly retired actuary who finds himself struggling to find purpose in his old age, and feels disconnected from his wife of 42 years. After her unexpected death, he also has to come to terms with the wedding of his beloved daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to an utter buffoon named Randall (Dermot Mulroney) alone. Even though the film is often qualified as a "dramedy", as far as I'm concerned Kathy Bates almost single-handedly injects the film with all of it's funniest moments with her frank performance as Randall's eccentric mother. She's the typical Kathy Bates character type-- brass, larger than life, and "eccentric" in that Hollywood definition of the term where she wears strange outfits and has unique parenting techniques.

It takes a good while before Bates' Roberta enters the film, and before we even meet her we have a preconception as to what exactly her and her family are going to be like through Warren's constant displays of disgust at the thought of his daughter marrying Randall. The film is intent on proving Warren's point of view correct and wants us to view the Hertzel family with a similar disdain and disbelief. Roberta is the head of the family, a woman large in voice and stature who clearly dotes on her son and overpowers her ex-husband and other family members throughout the film. She's a handful of a woman, and Kathy Bates does a great job at using her typical lightly comedic brusqueness to show Roberta's dominance over her family. Easily her funniest moment comes during a dinner scene with the whole family, as she devours a piece of meat and derides her ex-husband as he attempts to make a speech welcoming Warren into the family. Her comedic timing in executing lines such as "drink your fucking milk and shut the fuck up" is positively perfect, as are her facial expressions (those eye rolls) during his continued attempts to give speeches throughout the film.

Besides her dominance, the other main facet of Kathy Bates performance in this film is her relationship with Jack Nicholson's Warren. After he hurts his back sleeping on a water bed, she feeds and takes care of him as he is on bed rest. There is a slightly Misery-ish quality to this scene as Warren sits horrified listening to her prattle on about their children's sex life, unable to leave the bed with only Roberta to nurse him. The two actors have a warm yet purposefully stilted chemistry, and Bates does a good job of showing Roberta's ever so slight attempts to maintain dominance even over her guest. Then comes the infamous hot tub scene, in which Roberta attempts to seduce Warren by joining him completely nude. Bates keeps the scene very casual and is careful not to make Roberta overly forceful or desperate in her seduction attempts. Nicholson slightly overdoes it in his reactions, but what I love about Bates' performance is that she doesn't strain to be funny or creepy or annoying but instead just makes it all happen organically, and that is best illustrated in the hot tub scene where she doesn't even seem all that annoyed with Warren when he rejects her.

Ultimately, because Roberta isn't really all that much of an important character to the film Kathy doesn't really get a chance to do anything past the hot tub scene and we don't get a real conclusion on her character. Still, what she does bring to the film is basically all of the funniest moments through the sheer power of her comedic timing and facial expressions. Roberta isn't an overly complex role or one with a huge amount of emotional depth like some of the other nominees in this category (say, Julianne Moore) but this is such sterling supporting work. It's an effortless performance that is so effective due to Bates' perfect understanding of this woman and the role Roberta plays in the film. She lights up the film and is a joy to watch, and I'd say she gets better the more times you visit her performance. 4/5 Thelmas.