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.