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.

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