Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 1975

#5. Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely: Nothing about Miles' performance as Jessie Florian ever managed to really stand out to me in any truly positive or negative ways. You can visibly see Miles attempting to add some flair to this plot device of a character, but she doesn't succeed in any way that leads to anything close to Academy Award level acting. I simply just don't get this nomination, at all.

#4. Brenda Vaccaro in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough: The reason Vaccaro got an Oscar nomination amounts to nearly the exact opposite of that for Miles--she elevates an otherwise agonizingly dreary film whenever she appears onscreen. She's very funny in a somewhat cliched "desperate, sassy best friend" sidekick type of role, and gets us through some ridiculous scenes based on pure charisma. But as much as she works as something of a  soothing salve in this movie, she doesn't really dig deep enough or bring enough back story to this part. She's fun but inconsequential, which in this movie is more than enough. 

#3. Lee Grant in Shampoo: Grant is such a studied, busy actress that she can't help but bring so many diverse qualities to the character of Felicia Karpf, at the expense of fully finding the character. She's sexy, funny, bitter, pathetic, sympathetic, bitchy, and needy at various points over the course of Shampoo but these qualities never completely gel and are often at odds with one another. Still, she has so much fun with this character and does manage enough fleeting moments of passion and moving emotion to make her performance a fun ride nonetheless. I enjoyed her wildness.

#2. Lily Tomlin in Nashville: Any other year and Lily Tomlin would be an exemplary winner pick for her unique, guarded performance as Linnea. It's such an atypical choice for both the actress and the Academy, as everything great about Tomlin's performance is so subtle and unshowy. With beautiful simplicity and excellent instinctive acting she finds the emotional center of her character, a housewife yearning for something a little more in her life. Her greatest strength is her reserve, and what results is a supple and powerful performance that doesn't need histrionics or mannerisms to convey everything that this woman feels. It all feels all the more real and moving because of it.

#1. Ronee Blakley in Nashville: Over the course of what amounts of only a few brief scenes and five gorgeous musical numbers, Ronee Blakley gives an epic performance of a woman broken down by the music industry, so much so that just about all that is left is a blank, earnest sincerity. The raw amateurishness of her acting style imbues this ethereal, fleeting shell of a woman with directness and an open vulnerability. Her contributions as a songwriter cannot be overlooked--as without those gorgeous songs her character would merely be a tragic cipher, as they add so much rich context and history to her performance that comes with personal experience and passion. This is an utterly unique performance, mixing over the top breakdowns, glassy blankness, and deeply felt pathos with a musicality that somehow ends up working to beautiful effect.

The Year in Review: Despite a few lackluster nominees, the strength of the top two performances makes this an above average year for me, and the richness of Nashville as a whole places this year among my favorites I've covered. To me, the only explanation for the nominations for Miles and Vaccaro is a serious case of Nashville vote splitting, because in a just world the likes of Gwen Welles (maybe my pick), Geraldine Chaplin, and Barbara Harris at least would be among this field. Lee Grant's nomination is a little more understandable, as she is an Oscar favorite in a flashy, fun role. Her win has been decried as a makeup for her mistreatment during the anti-Communist era of Hollywood, but this performance has enough meat to it that I don't think it was that huge of a factor, especially considering a number of other things working in her favor. Now that I've officially graduated college and work are both slowing down a little, I'm hoping to get at least one or two years done in June but those are famous last words for me...

 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. Ronee Blakley in "Nashville" (1975)
  5. Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" (2002)
  6. Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983)
  7. Anna Paquin in "The Piano" (1993)
  8. Meryl Streep in "Adaptation." (2002)
  9. Lily Tomlin in "Nashville" (1975)
  10. Cher in "Silkwood" (1983)
  11. Eileen Heckart in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  12. Emma Thompson in "In the Name of the Father" (1993)
  13. Julianne Moore in "Boogie Nights" (1997) 
  14. Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  15. Oprah Winfrey in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  16. May Whitty in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
  17. Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed" (1956)
  18. Claire Trevor in "Dead End" (1937)
  19. Sandy Dennis in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)
  20. Agnes Moorehead in "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942)
  21. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  22. Margaret Avery in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  23. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll" (1956)
  24. Julianne Moore in "The Hours" (2002)
  25. Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" (2002)
  26. Wendy Hiller in "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)
  27. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
  28. Ethel Waters in "Pinky" (1949)
  29. Amy Madigan in "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985)
  30. Meg Tilly in "Agnes of God" (1985)
  31. Teresa Wright in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
  32. Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" (1997)
  33. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  34. Barbara Harris in "Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971)
  35. Geraldine Page in "Hondo" (1953)
  36. Lee Grant in "Shampoo" (1975)
  37. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  38. Amy Irving in "Yentl" (1983)
  39. Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)
  40. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  41. Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  42. Margaret Leighton in "The Go-Between" (1971)
  43. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  44. Mercedes McCambridge in "All the King's Men" (1949)
  45. Joan Cusack in "In & Out" (1997)
  46. Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
  47. Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  48. Gladys Cooper in "Now, Voyager" (1942)
  49. Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
  50. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill" (1983)
  51. Susan Peters in "Random Harvest" (1942)
  52. Brenda Vaccaro in "Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough" (1975)
  53. Vivien Merchant in "Alfie" (1966)
  54. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  55. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) 
  56. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  57. Queen Latifah in "Chicago" (2002)
  58. Celeste Holm in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  59. Jocelyne LaGarde in "Hawaii" (1966)
  60. Ethel Barrymore in "Pinky" (1949)
  61. Sylvia Miles in "Farewell, My Lovely" (1975)
  62. Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" (1997)
  63. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) 
  64. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  65. Grace Kelly in "Mogambo" (1953)
  66. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant" (1956)
  67. Marjorie Rambeau in "Torch Song" (1953) 
  68. Elsa Lanchester in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  69. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door" (1937)
  70. Geraldine Page in "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ronee Blakley in Nashville

Ronee Blakley received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's Nashville.

Among the kaleidoscope of players in Altman's crowded (in a good way) narrative, many argue that Blakley's Barbara Jean is the central figure of the film. Barbara Jean is the current sweetheart of country music (at least partially based on Loretta Lynn), who is returning to Nashville after suffering a "burn accident", hinted to be a cover for something a little more psychological in nature. The rest of the characters sort of orbits around her, with essentially everyone coming into contact with her at some point, even if just in passing. However, as central as Barbara Jean's presence is to the narrative, I wouldn't categorize this as a lead performance simply because Blakley has such a fleeting, ethereal presence even in her big moments, and the entire character feels like such an tragic chess piece in a larger game that is both Nashville (the film) and Nashville (the city/country music scene).

If there is a driving quality in Blakley's performance it's a transparent and vulnerable sincerity--everything about Barbara Jean is so thoroughly earnest no matter how much she tries otherwise. From the first moment she appears onscreen, wearing a flowy white dress and a pink ribbon in her hair, she wins over the crowds waiting to greet her with a simple sweetness and true star power. Barbara Jean is purposefully dressed as angelically as possible, and the innocence constantly on display is what makes the eventual trajectory of this performance so impossibly moving. We watch in horror as Blakley peels back the layers of Barbara Jean's innocence and unveils the unbelievable toll stardom takes on those graced with possessing it. There's a loss of self apparent in all of her non-singing scenes, where we watch as she struggles with consolidating the commercial enterprise her husband has morphed her into and the very real root of where she comes from. Everything about her life has been so thought out and orchestrated without her input, that it's reached the point of Barbara Jean barely even existing anymore as an individual entity.

Blakely conveys this all with a very raw, amateurish acting style that highlights just how far gone Barbara Jean is and how deeply she seems to be fighting to get that back, only to meet resistance and push back from her husband and those around her. Each and every time Barbara Jean is in public she puts on the mask of the country sweetheart, sincerely shaking hands and showing interest in all those around her expertly like a trained show horse. But the cracks inevitably begin to show and Blakley's demeanor becomes more cloudy and even childish, and we watch Barbara Jean experience a mental breakdown wherein she becomes scatterbrained and fragile. This happens only twice in the film, once in a hospital scene with her husband and once on stage. Still, these two moments cut deeply and put you on pins and needles for the rest of her performance waiting for the other shoe to drop. Blakely often goes big in these moments, but thankfully not so big as to lose the emotion of the moments. Once again the rawness of Blakely as an actress comes in handy in these moments, as her freshness as an actress and lack of trained artifice enhances the power of these scenes, where a more experienced actress might approach it with a well-honed style and mannerisms all their own.

All of Blakley's acting moments rang mostly true for me, but where the performance really elevates to greatness is in the moments in which Barbara Jean performs on stage. Her musical numbers are among the most moving and heartbreaking I've ever seen, and that's all due to the powerful voice and Blakely's acting ability during these performances. She has four separate songs, each sung beautifully with her deep husky tone and all but one written by Blakley herself. Two in particular stand out as important, powerhouse moments in this performance. The first is "Dues", a song in which Blakley sings about a broken marriage, which we can clearly link back to her shattered marriage to her controlling husband It's an absolutely heartbreaking song, performed with such authentic emotional both in her vocals and acting. The conflicted emotions on display are utterly bare for the world to see. The other important song is at the climax of the film, where she sings "My Idaho Home" all about her roots and family back home. We see the origins of Barbara Jean's musical talent before she became corrupted by stardom and the industry. This the primary effect all of her songs have--we see the real Barbara Jean come out most prominently in her songs, filled with emotion and history, only for her to disappear when they are over. The depth of emotion poured into each song is staggering, and undoubtedly it helps that Blakely wrote these songs herself--there's a tangible personal attachment to each.

Over the course of what amounts of only a few brief scenes and five gorgeous musical numbers, Ronee Blakley gives an epic performance of a woman broken down by the music industry, so much so that just about all that is left is a blank, earnest sincerity. The raw amateurishness of her acting style imbues this ethereal, fleeting shell of a woman with directness and an open vulnerability. Her contributions as a songwriter cannot be overlooked--as without those gorgeous songs her character would merely be a tragic cipher, as they add so much rich context and history to her performance that comes with personal experience and passion. This is an utterly unique performance, mixing over the top breakdowns, glassy blankness, and deeply felt pathos with a musicality that somehow ends up working to beautiful effect. 5/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lily Tomlin in Nashville

Lily Tomlin received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman's Nashville. When I picked this year at random, for whatever reason the film I was least excited to see was Robert Altman's Nashville. I think it was some combination of not liking either of the previous two Altman ensemble films I saw very much (those being The Player and Gosford Park), which led me towards not seeking out any others and the film's centering on the country music scene, which simply doesn't interest me on paper. But I don't know if I've ever been more wrong and misguided before in my life because Nashville is a simply astonishing film. It's a film of gargantuan ambition and scope, focusing on an uncountable number of characters over the course of a few days in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. It's rare that film with the level of ambition and audaciousness that Nashville has comes together so seamlessly. It's a near-perfect film, casting a wide net in terms of style and tone and somehow gelling together seamlessly. It dances from heartbreaking drama to goofy comedy and works because of the way it aims to encompass anything and everything about life. It aims to represent us all, and does so thrillingly and humanely.

One of the largest virtues of Nashville is the way in which is balances characters of widely different tones. There are goofy characters, like the kooky Barbara Harris. There are tragic characters, like the endearing Gwen Welles. And then there is Lily Tomlin, acting as the calm center of the film in many ways. She plays Linnea, a gospel singer in a stagnant marriage to a big time music executive with whom she has two children, both of whom were born deaf. It's weird to see an actress as energetic and charismatic as Tomlin giving such a calm, quiet performance as this one but that is also the main reason why this performance really works. Gone is all the mugging that perpetuates her other performances, and in it's place is a beautiful and subtle simplicity. It's fortuitous that Tomlin recognized that this role needed a less heavy hand than usual, because there were many opportunities where she could have gone for bigger but decided not to. In a lot of ways Linnea is the most mysterious and guarded characters in the film, an average housewife who clearly loves her children and even her husband in an oblique way but has a hidden longing for something else in her life. Tomlin captures the plainness of the character by simply giving off a motherly normalcy in all her scenes. Free from any affectations or mannerisms, Lily Tomlin exudes naturalism and averageness.

The driving force in peeling back some of Linnea's layers comes in the form of Tom Frank (a ridiculously attractive Keith Carradine), a popular young folk singer who has come to Nashville in order to record a solo album after separating from his band. He remembers a time months back in which he met Linnea and decides to call her up and blatantly ask her on a date, with the full knowledge of her marital status. From that first phone call we begin to see the subtle ways in which Tomlin's Linnea becomes in touch with the desire and uncertainty stirring within her. At first she's a little oblivious, as any married mother would be, to this young man's hitting on her and it's amusing to watch her ask him over for lunch with the children multiple times, simply not getting it. But most of Tomlin's best work comes simply from the look in her eyes and the subtle expressions on her face. The amount of emotion she pours into each expression, often the same expression held for an extended period of time is astounding. It's subtle, but the longing and the conflict that comes with it is all displayed in her eyes. Her ability to express so much with so little outwards "acting" is a testament to the level of emotional complexity she pours into her role.

As the most guarded and mysterious character in the film, Tomlin often disappears for long periods of time only to pop back up after being invited to a club where Tom is performing some of his new songs. Her big scene comes when she's sitting in the back of the club while Tom performs "I'm Easy", a song he explicitly dedicates to her without even being sure she's in the audience. A little ways into the song he catches sight of her and proceeds to sing the rest of the song directly to her, which all the other patrons take notice of. The way in which Altman simply plants the camera pointing at Tomlin sitting in the back in plain view and allows her expression to say everything allows for some truly sublime acting. Tomlin keeps an even keel on her subtlety and allows her eyes to once again do all the heavy lifting, with that iconic expression that is both emotional and opaque in expressing this woman's realization that this man is singing to her. He could have any woman in the room but he wants her, and she doesn't understand it and doesn't know how to really process it all. It's the crowning moment of the performance, helped out greatly by the beautiful Oscar-winning song.

Linnea's final major scene is simply her and Tom in bed after their rendezvous, and we see the return of the reticent motherly type we got at the beginning of the film. Tomlin manages to keep Linnea's motivations and emotions a well-guarded secret throughout the film, and even as Tom tries to get her to stay a little longer with him she shoots down his advances with a the clarity of purpose that this average woman has had since the beginning. This isn't your typical Oscar-nominated performance in that Tomlin doesn't give a performance where you can see the acting happening onscreen. Her greatest strength is her reserve, and what results is a supple and powerful performance that doesn't need histrionics or mannerisms to convey everything that this woman feels. It all feels all the more real and moving because of it. 4.5/5 Thelmas.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lee Grant in Shampoo

Lee Grant won the Oscar on her third nomination for her performance as Felicia Karpf in Hal Ashby's Shampoo. This was my second go-round with Shampoo, a film I absolutely despised on the grounds of it all feeling like a Warren Beatty vanity project in which women embarrassingly throw themselves at him. Though I now feel that might be a little too harsh, the central problem of the film remains the same: Warren Beatty's vacuous leading performance. The plot centers on Beatty's George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser with a healthy flow of female clients who is attempting to open his own salon while also navigating the complex array of women he has fawning over him. See, George can get any woman in bed with him, often without even really trying because he is simply irresistible. The three main women in the film are all hopelessly in love with him: the sweet but needy Jill (Goldie Hawn), the glamorous and sophisticated Jackie (Julie Christie), and the lonely, desperate Felicia (Grant). Also in the mix is Felicia's husband Lester (an Oscar-nominated Jack Warden), a powerful businessman who offers to finance George's salon and is having an extra-marital affair with Jackie. Hijinx ensue, culminating in a final party with all five characters in attendance where a series of revelations and secrets are spilled. The problem is that, as played by Beatty, George is essentially a charmless idiot, despite being proclaimed some kind of irresistible lothario whom all these interesting, sophisticated women fawn over. He's got about as much personality as Frankenstein's Monster.

In the wrong hands, the role of Felicia Karpf could very easily fall into rote stereotypical trappings because Felicia isn't a particularly original creation: she's a bored, aging housewife carrying on an affair with a much younger man in order to recapture some sense of youthful vitality and alleviate the boredom of her life. However, with an actress as dynamic and calculated as Lee Grant we see an unusually complex portrayal of this particular stereotypical "bored housewife" role. Another actress might play up one particular aspect of this relatively small role, and lean heavily on either the sympathetic, unlikable, or pathetic nature of the character but Grant endeavors to do them all wrapped in one, crafting a busy portrayal that both thrives and struggles under that level of ambition.

The pure volume of tics and cadences that Grant heaps into her portrayal works well in the early scenes in which Felicia is constantly fighting to keep George's attention. She's simultaneously fussy and desperate while also jealous and domineering in the way in which Felicia plays mind games with George to grasp his attention. Grant so often contrasts what Felicia is saying with what she is feeling in an electric and interesting manner, often with a spiky look and a stilted line reading. There's a sharp contrast between her dialogue in the earlier scenes, which all feel painfully overdone and calculated with manufactured stutters and over-thought pauses, and the emotions that Grant expresses simply with her face and eyes in silence. There's so much depth and emotion in the simple way that Grant can convey longing and envy in her eyes that comes across much better than her over-rehearsed line-readings.

Her face continues to be her greatest weapon as the film goes on, as Felicia faces some competition for George's affections. Whereas the first half of the film has Felicia interacting merely with George, the second half has all the characters coming together during which she realizes how little George and her husband really care about her. During the film's big party scene she continues to reek of insecurity, embarrassingly dragging George into the bathroom and making out with him in the middle of a large group of people. However, the key moment for Felicia is when she meets Julie Christie's Jackie, the woman who both George and her husband are deeply in love with. There's a look of instant recognition that flashes across her face, followed by something of a predatory scowl and the eventual resignation that she can't compete with this glamorous young woman. It's a fascinating moment, ice cold between the two women, both of whom spend the rest of the party sending glares from across the room. Grant does the bitchy stares really well, but it also marks the end of Felicia's usefulness in the plot.

It's clear to all watching (and perhaps even Felicia herself) that neither man is going to choose her over Jackie in any way, and instead of going for sympathy or sadness Grant freezes Felicia up and removes all the previous electricity and fight she had. There is no big emotional moment or breakdown, only an icy coldness until she leaves the film and the men behind. The film kind of tosses her away after that, giving her only the middle finger moment that is funny but ultimately not a satisfying end to her story.

What we are left with is a role with a bizarre trajectory,  simultaneously a tool for Beatty, a desperate sad sack, a plot device, and ice cold bitch. A more focused (and less engaging) actress wouldn't layer so many facets in her portrayal, but that's simply not Grant's acting. By crafting such a busy, inconsistent characterization, Felicia feels like something of a erratic mess of a character who never quite makes coherent sense. It's a blessing and a curse, because by doing so much with her performance Grant has simultaneously injected energy and verve in her performance while also making it a somewhat incomprehensible and scattered. I appreciate the ambition displayed, even if the results are sketchy and mismatched.

There's a visceral watchability to this performance, which is bitter, pathetic, sympathetic, and bitchy, but is Felicia Karpf a discernible human being? Not really. But is she always fun to watch? Absolutely. 3.5/5 Thelmas.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Brenda Vaccaro in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough

Brenda Vaccaro received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Linda Riggs in Guy Green's Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough. I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that Once is Not Enough is the trashiest film ever nominated for a major Academy Award. By a fairly wide margin. It's the story of January Wayne (a perpetually blank faced Deborah Raffin), the daughter of a famous movie star (Kirk Douglas) who struggles with disturbing daddy issues. Her and her father have an intensely close relationship, so much so that basically every other character in the film brings up the weird incestuous overtones in their relationship to their faces, to which they promptly agree. They both seem to openly pine for a partner just like the other, and know that they will never find anyone as good as each other. The film has no real plot besides dealing with January's aimless life and the people who drift in and out of it, specifically her relationship with an much older man who reminds her guessed, her father. Brenda Vaccaro plays Linda Riggs, an old "friend" of January's, and the editor in chief of a fashion magazine who reconnects with her and becomes her confidante and boss, offering her a job as a "researcher" on her magazine.

The only explanation for this performance getting nominated is that Brenda Vaccaro stands out as a source of entertainment and more importantly fun in a film that is decidedly creepy and purposeless. We've seen many performers get nominations for similarly standing out as the "one good thing" in an otherwise egregious film (Amy Madigan, Barbara Harris, and Jocelyne LaGarde are examples I've already reviewed). I suppose the contrast between giving a competent performance next to a group of incompetent ones makes competence seem nearly excellent. The character of Linda certainly has a lot of potential on paper to be great--we are told before she appears on screen that she was an ugly teen with a "great personality" only to be 'shocked' when it turns out that she has completely remade her looks via various surgeries and, as she says "screwed every guy in this organization" to get to her high position. It's this type of crude humor that the character thrives on, and Vaccaro throws out all of her one-liners with energy and spot-on timing. Vaccaro is very beautiful, but her husky, throaty voice allows her to be believable as a former ugly duckling.

In her playing of the raunchy and worldly sidekick, Vaccaro excels at being both likable and also a little desperate. Linda's constant (and I mean constant) sexual jokes never really become annoying or forced because Vaccaro knows how to throw them out casually and with a naughty glee. They key to this performance is truly Vaccaro's likability and great screen presence. Whenever she appears on screen you know that you are going to get a nice jolt from whatever slumber January has put you in, via pure charisma and comedic chops. She plays a woman with no filter, someone's who's always "on" and always on the prowl and not in an obnoxious, forced way.

As I watched this performance unfold I began to wonder what the root cause for Linda's crassness was, and began to place all these assumptions around this performance. Maybe Linda is a total horndog to make up for all the insecurities of her presumably unpleasant teenage years? Or maybe she's all talk and no action, simply telling these stories to January to make her seem more experienced than she is? More anything, this performance got me thinking about how we as viewers inject these types of film conventions into characters almost more so than actors do. Because Vaccaro's performance doesn't particularly unveil any deep insecurities or personal problems. Sure, she offhandedly mentions them once or twice in passing, but we never see any of that in any substantial way. The script throws out little hints of insecurity through dialogue, but it never comes through in any emotional or physical way through Vaccaro. So I began to project it onto this performance myself a little. Then I finished the film, which ends with a big outburst scene in which Linda loses her job and January consoles her. Vaccaro capably plays the rage and frustration of losing the job, but once again the emotional side left me wanting more.

So the conclusion that I came to was this: I need to be careful to modulate what I'm projecting onto a role and what an actor is actually bringing to a role. We all as frequent movie watchers can sense when a part has more to it than the actor is actually bringing, and need to recognize what actually makes it onto the screen as opposed to what the part was aiming for. Now that I've made it all about me, I'll say that Brenda Vaccaro brings a lot to the table with this performance. She's great comedic relief, and chock-full of charisma and charm. But it's hardly performance that digs deep enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, even if she tries her best to save us from the disaster that is OINE. 3/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely

Sylvia Miles received her second and final Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Jessie Halstead Florian in Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely. This film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's detective novel of the same name, seems so desperately intent on evoking the mood of the great '40s noir films that it forgets to bring the heat in nearly every other aspect of its filmmaking. The design is all there (though black and white would have served this film vastly better), but Richards ruins it by casting all these fantastic actors and not pulling a single great performance from any of them. When normally excellent actors like Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling give such dull and uninspired cliches of performances, you know your film is underachieving. Sylvia Miles falls under the trap as well, playing the dirt poor widow of a former club owner who is sought out for questioning by Mitchum's Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe is searching for a girl named Velma who used to work at the club, and Mrs. Florian is merely one of Marlowe's many, many leads that all get significantly less screentime then is needed to make even the slightest impact.

But all of that is not to say that Miles doesn't at least attempt to pull together a good performance. For such a loud woman both in life and onscreen, she is surprising subdued and comfortable in her role here. Jessie Florian is something of a stereotype, the washed up wannabe actress who never quite realized her dreams and has become bitter in her old age. But Miles does well to imbue her character with a softness that is clear from the second she comes onto the screen. She is intrigued as this detective comes to her door, and it becomes clear that she is both an alcoholic and someone in desperate need for company. Miles plays it cool, expressing Jessie's want for connection mostly through looks and suggestive movements like opening her robe just a little too much. Her control on the character is truly admirable, and the way in which she subtly hints that there is more to Mrs. Florian then meets the eye is understated and effective. However, while her acting is certainly solid, it never really elevates into the next level that one expects of an Oscar nominated performance. It's capable supporting work in total service of the film, but at the expense of much impact.

The performance contains essentially two scenes, the first of which contains the most meat. It's in this scene that Miles establishes the emotional center of the performance, and the despair and poverty that Jessie's life has spiraled into. There are tons of little character moments, like when Miles performs a bit from her old show for a brief second, or when she swigs a sip of whiskey straight from the bottle before serving it to Marlowe. It's these little touches that make the performance always enjoyable and you can nearly feel Miles aching for more to do. Her second scene is almost entirely negligible, essentially rehashing many of the same beats as the first (dependency on alcoholism, casual flirting with Marlowe, etc). This scene more clearly shows the plot device that Mrs. Florian was designed to be, despite Miles's valiant attempts to do something, anything with this plot device character.

I'm quite baffled as to how Miles managed to secure a nomination for this specific performance. Unlike her performance in Midnight Cowboy, which was brief but incredibly loud and memorable this performance is smaller and subtler. Jessie Florian doesn't feel like too well defined of a character, and certainly not flashy enough to stand out above any of the other characters encountered throughout this story. None of this is Miles fault, and I can see her attempting to do something with this performance but in a film so unconcerned with her beyond the information she has to advance the plot, she can't really go anywhere with it. Never a bad performance, but nothing of note that makes it truly memorable or noteworthy. 2.5/5 Thelmas.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Best Supporting Actress 1975

And the nominees were....

  • Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville
  • Lee Grant as Alicia Karpf in Shampoo (winner)
  • Sylvia Miles as Jessie Halstead Florian in Farewelly, My Lovely
  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese in Nashville
  • Brenda Vaccaro as Linda Riggs in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough
The Field: Alright, I'll admit something: this is not a year I'm particularly excited for. I'm not particularly sure why I'm not excited for it, but it's just not one that I was itching to cover. I've seen Shampoo and have not so fond memories of that film (though those are mostly thanks to Beatty, who has never impressed me). I'm a little wary of Nashville, having never warmed up to an Altman film the way the rest of the world has (from my limited sampling of his films), though I'm always interested in seeing such a widely acclaimed film. As for the other two, I've heard nothing that makes me particularly excited. My lack of excitement for this year, I should say, comes more from the films than the actresses, because this is a somewhat interesting and atypical group of ladies for the Academy. Not a wallflower among them, and I'm glad to see a lack of fawning mothers and delicate young girlfriends (maybe the last year scarred me a bit?). Well, here's hoping my expectations are subverted! Sylvia Miles will be up first in a few days time.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Verdict -- Best Supporting Actress 1966

#5. Geraldine Page in You're a Big Boy Now: Oh, Geraldine. It's pains me to say this, but this performance from the 8-time Oscar nominee is easily the worst Oscar nominated performance I've ever seen. Margery Chanticleer is the epitome of the over-protective mother cliché, and instead of fighting against this cliché to craft a real character Page indulges all the worst impulses possible. She's shrill, obnoxious, and utterly without dimension. Her ghastly presence never fails to annoy, and this nomination is simply unfathomable to me.

#4. Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii: This nomination stands among the most bizarre in the history of the Academy, and I'm sure LaGarde herself was stunned at the prospect of anyone deeming her work among the five best of anything. That's not to say this performance doesn't have any value at all, because LaGarde makes for an interesting screen presence. She's saddled with a jovial, innocent character that is all about love and warmth, and expresses those emotions in a natural way that feels like her own personality. But this feels like good casting as opposed to good acting, and LaGarde struggles when delivering dialogue or handling any moments with any real weight. It's a puzzling, interesting nomination, but is certainly no feat of conscience acting.

#3. Vivien Merchant in Alfie: In the self-centered mess that is Alfie, Vivien Merchant delivers a true supporting performance that floats in the background of all of Michael Caine's smug caddishness. Her performance is a very quiet one that reeks of normalcy, perfect for the normal girl she is meant to play. Even when her storyline takes a tragic turn Merchant remains steadfast in her subtlety, which I admired greatly. She clearly and effectively expresses emotion without delving into overacting. Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to care even a little about her and thus we aren't allowed to fully understand this woman on any more than a basic level. No fault of Merchant's, certainly. Also: That scream!

#2. Wendy Hiller in A Man for All Seasons: The most pleasant surprise of this year was my increased appreciation for Wendy Hiller's crusty yet emotional performance as Lady Alice More. For a great part of this film Hiller simply does her usual frosty thing, which she is indeed an expert at. But it's in her final two or three scenes in which she heart-breakingly unveils the inner core of this woman and all her insecurities. Within the matter of minutes her performance glides effortlessly through rage, resentment, understanding, and pure love. She makes a wonderful final impact, and certainly adds emotional weight to her film's final moments. I have so much affection for this solid, reliable performance.

#1. Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: While she is far from an exciting or unique pick, ultimately Sandy Dennis could not be denied the win in this all over the place field. Her Method understanding of Honey may be thorough to the point of distraction, but that firm grasp of the character ultimately pays dividends. She unravels the secrets of this character, perhaps the least integral of the main quartet, in a way that reveals Honey to be a savvy and underhanded player of games. She combines her character's insecurities with undeniable cunning and a deceptive simplicity that is fascinating and always absorbing to watch. Oh, and she truly does dance like the wind.

The Year in Review: This truly was a mixed bag of the year. Much like this year's Best Picture race the decision saw A Man for All Seasons and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? duking it out for my pick. But as much as I admire Wendy Hiller's underrated, emotional performance I had to agree that the Academy made the right choice here. Sandy Dennis does so much more with her performance than any of the other nominees, and has far and away the most material to work with. I'm sad to give Geraldine Page my last place because I've loved her before (I'll always have Sweet Bird of Youth & The Trip to Bountiful) but that performance is simply repugnant. Still, Alfie is easily my least favorite film of the bunch. I'm sure there were better alternatives to my bottom three choices all of whom simply couldn't cut it in my eyes, though I'm not familiar enough with the year to offer up any alternatives.

 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. Sandy Dennis in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)
  18. Agnes Moorehead in "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942)
  19. May Whitty in "Night Must Fall" (1937)
  20. Margaret Avery in "The Color Purple" (1985)
  21. Mildred Dunnock in "Baby Doll" (1956)
  22. Julianne Moore in "The Hours" (2002)
  23. Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" (2002)
  24. Wendy Hiller in "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)
  25. Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
  26. Ethel Waters in "Pinky" (1949)
  27. Amy Madigan in "Twice in a Lifetime" (1985)
  28. Meg Tilly in "Agnes of God" (1985)
  29. Teresa Wright in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
  30. Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" (1997)
  31. Alfre Woodard in "Cross Creek" (1983)
  32. Barbara Harris in "Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971)
  33. Geraldine Page in "Hondo" (1953)
  34. Anne Shirley in "Stella Dallas" (1937)
  35. Amy Irving in "Yentl" (1983)
  36. Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)
  37. Shirley Knight in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
  38. Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)
  39. Margaret Leighton in "The Go-Between" (1971)
  40. Rosie Perez in "Fearless" (1993)
  41. Mercedes McCambridge in "All the King's Men" (1949)
  42. Joan Cusack in "In & Out" (1997)
  43. Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
  44. Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  45. Gladys Cooper in "Now, Voyager" (1942)
  46. Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)
  47. Glenn Close in "The Big Chill" (1983)
  48. Susan Peters in "Random Harvest" (1942)
  49. Vivien Merchant in "Alfie" (1966)
  50. Alice Brady in "In Old Chicago" (1937)
  51. Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) 
  52. Holly Hunter in "The Firm" (1993)
  53. Queen Latifah in "Chicago" (2002)
  54. Celeste Holm in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  55. Jocelyne LaGarde in "Hawaii" (1966)
  56. Ethel Barrymore in "Pinky" (1949)
  57. Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" (1997)
  58. Thelma Ritter in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) 
  59. Winona Ryder in "The Age of Innocence" (1993)
  60. Grace Kelly in "Mogambo" (1953)
  61. Mercedes McCambridge in "Giant" (1956)
  62. Marjorie Rambeau in "Torch Song" (1953) 
  63. Elsa Lanchester in "Come to the Stable" (1949)
  64. Andrea Leeds in  "Stage Door" (1937)
  65. Geraldine Page in "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vivien Merchant in Alfie

Vivien Merchant recieved her first and only Oscar nomination for her performance as Lily Clamacraft in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie. For a film about a self-centered, misogynistic lothario, Alfie has many of the same qualities of it's reprehensible main character. Michael Caine stars as the titular character, and the film aims to be something of a character study as it is only interested in understanding Alfie's skewed perspective on the world. Caine does well with this obnoxious character, but can't completely save the film from self-indulgence and lack of context. When it comes down to it, the film doesn't really care about anyone but Alfie, and has no sympathy for essentially anyone else in the film nor even deigns to give any of the women in particular any personality or humanity. The five or so women he dates are (almost) all mute wallflowers who stare at the wall and long after him for no real reason, lacking even a modicum inner life. Vivien Merchant plays Lily, one of Alfie's "conquests", who happens to be the wife of a friend of Alfie's he met while staying in a nursing home following something of a mental breakdown. Lily's husband Larry (a sweet Alfie Bass) is absolutely devoted to her and their three children, which Alfie finds absolutely pathetic.

Merchant plays Lily as an absolutely normal British housewife, who is serious and average and has some affection for her husband. Her first few scenes see her visiting her husband at the nursing home, where they chat and watch as Alfie seduces the nurses and blatantly has sex with them in their company behind partitions. Lily is disgusted yet somewhat intrigued by Alfie's adventurous sexuality. Her marriage seems to have become stagnant and perhaps a little bland. Merchant shows this all in simple, subtle ways through her eyes and facial expressions without even really having dialogue. It's nicely done, but nothing flashy or even truly noticeable unless you are looking for it. That all changes when on another visiting day, she and Alfie (released from the home) both visit her husband and Larry insists on Alfie giving her a ride home. Neither seems too keen on the idea, but both agree for Larry's sake. On the way home, they stop and get some lunch and Alfie "seduces" her simply because he's Alfie and he can. Throughout this all Merchant maintains her quiet subtlety. She clearly likes the attention that Alfie gives her, but seems almost to fall into having sex with him. Their entire scene they have barely any dialogue outside of Alfie's inner monologue, and Merchant remains pleasantly average with a winning smile.

At this point Lily disappears from the film for some time, seemingly just another lay of Alfie's until she pops back up at Alfie's apartment, where it quickly becomes clear she is meeting an abortionist there because she is pregnant with Alfie's child and can't keep it. Here is where the meat of Merchant's performance exists, as we see Lily struggling with the abortion and her contempt for Alfie. This all comes back after the abortion occurs and Alfie returns (she didn't want him there) to find her lying on his couch, the deed done. The way that Merchant shuts down Alfie's incessant chattering with pointed looks of annoyance and contempt for this man who clearly doesn't care a thing about her or the child is soft yet powerful. She recognizes Alfie for the asshole he is, as he lacks any understanding or sympathy for what she has just gone through. We also get her only loud moment, as Lily lets out a cry of anguish and sadness over what has just occured. It's a truly haunting sound that highlights the devastation Lily feels perfectly. Throughout her entire performance, Merchant never strays from her subdued, controlled acting style. She doesn't allow her performance to overshadow Caine's work, but works under him to force a character into being. Her emotion is certainly palpable, yet always understated.

Vivien Merchant has a wonderful handle on this character, and the role she plays in this film. She knows that Lily is just another chess piece on Alfie's journey to great "understanding" and she never overdoes her part with overacting or flashiness. Unfortunately for her, the film is just not concerned with the character of Lily Cramaclaft on any human level, and thus dulls the impact of this performance greatly. This is a quiet performance where the silence speaks volumes, and I admire Vivien Merchant for not "going there" and attempting to upstage the lead. This is a subliminal supporting performance, just as the director, and Alfie himself would have wanted. 3/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Sandy Dennis won the Oscar on her first and only nomination for her performance as Honey in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In the two horse race for Best Picture of 1966  between Fred Zinnemann's staid, noble stage adaptation A Man for All Seasons and Mike Nichols' rage-filled, bawdy stage adaptation Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (they were the only two films to receive Picture and Director noms), history posits that the Academy made the wrong decision by choosing Zinnemann's "safer" film over the film that has stood the test of time and entered cinematic history. Well, I'm not so sure myself. I like-not-love both films, and admire the steely seriousness that each has, albeit in slightly different ways. While Seasons at times seems anti-cinematic, my problem with Woolf is that Nichols seems to be juggling too many balls at once, juggling the play's complex (borderline convoluted) storyline while also adding interesting directorial choices that both distract and enhance the film. It makes for an interesting directorial debut, that's for sure. Amidst all the chaos, it's the cast that truly kept me interested with a collection of interesting performances from an unusual, eclectic group of actors.

The plot is simple enough on paper, featuring married couple George (Richard Burton) and Martha (an Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor) receiving as guests married couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Dennis). Martha is the daughter of the president of the university where George and Nick teach (in the history and biology departments respectively. I very nearly typed the math department), and Nick and Honey are new to the university. As simple as this little meeting sounds, there is a series of mind games and arguments between the hosts from the moment the young couple arrive (and even prior) that serve as the crux of the drama of the film. George and Martha clearly have experience with these games, and openly express amusement at trapping this unassuming young couple into their web of personal issues. At first, Honey and Nick react very similarly to George and Martha's incessant carping much the way we do, with awkwardness and confusion. Oh, and by happily accepting alcohol to cope with the stress of being around these two unpleasant shrews. The first impression Dennis makes is spot on, giving Honey something of a prim, folksy politeness to her. Her gangling, spider-like body is all bones and skin attributing much to her unexpected marriage to the very frat-like Nick. She's a simple married woman unexpectedly entering the lion's den.

For the first thirty minutes or so of her performance, Dennis is carefully setting the seeds of what is to come with her character later in the film. It's a very affected, technical performance but not in an overtly flashy way that distracts. Instead, it's carefully calibrated through a series of vocal inflections, pointed looks, and background work. Things like the way she eagerly sips her cup of brandy and the jolly way she calls for more ("never mix, never worry!") or the insecurity she feels as Martha openly and boisterously flirts with her husband--and he flirts back. The simple ways in which Dennis crafts a background performance that isn't too flashy or try-hard pays off in dividends when her character finally joins the scenery-chewing. The unease that Honey feels with each and every character onscreen (even her husband) is clearly felt, and her unease comes from a subtle place of understanding for each of them. They all regard her with various forms of annoyance, contempt, or condescension yet Dennis underlines her simplicity with understanding and intelligence that the rest of the characters cannot see.

To cope with the awkwardness, Honey downs numerous glasses of brandy until she finally cracks under the pressure and begins to puke and actively play more heavily into the dramatics of the situation. Segal and Dennis do a good job at showing how the couple goes from being embarrassed for their hosts to reveling in the confrontational tête-à-tête between those two. After puking her brains out (a common occurrence, according to her husband), we see a definite shift in the direction of  Dennis' performance. All of Honey's inhibitions fade away, and she beings to revel in the interesting evening she is having. It's at this point that the character of Honey becomes somewhat detached from the rest of the group, attempting to separate herself as much as possible from the sick games that might reveal more about some hidden truths. Dennis takes the designated path of her character in an incredibly interesting way. For the remainder of the film, she has the tough task of keeping Honey detached from the goings-on between the other three main characters, prancing around at the dance hall they decide to visit "dancing like the wind" and falling asleep in a car. But at the same time, this seemingly detached exterior hides a truly thorough understanding of what is going on around her. The beginning of the dance hall scene is funny and truly bizarre for this category, but not really the meat of the performance.

An important part of Honey's journey is the dubious relationship she has with her husband, which all four at one point or another express confusion over their being together. Nick is handsome and athletic, while Honey is gawky and dweebish. For the entirety of the film, there are numerous hints about the true nature of their marriage, with Nick and Honey both dropping hints that she got pregnant and forced them to marry and that that pregnancy may have even been staged by Honey. George seems especially interested in the dynamics of their relationship, and after Nick confesses his suspicions George uses them against him in a big way.

Everything comes out emotionally as she listens to George tell a story about the "mouse", which serves as a very thinly veiled allegory for the way that Honey "trapped" her husband into marrying her by feigning pregnancy. On her face we see the flurry of emotion going through her, the worry that her husband might find out that the false pregnancy story has more to it than she thinks, as well as the guilt she feels for doing it. It's a very "loud" scene that Dennis handles with her studied technicality and lots of acting with a capital A. Even more so, her final big scene in which George confronts her as Martha and her husband are upstairs "having sex", is filled with lots of screaming, tears, and emotion. He has clearly caught on, much like we have, to the fact that Honey knows more than she is putting on about the evening's events, and is clearly more skilled at playing the type of emotional games that George and Martha often play. When she pushes George to the climactic moment of the film, we see her for what she truly is--an savvy game player and an instigator in getting some kind of revenge on Martha. But Dennis continues to hide this, instead continuing to play Honey as a fragile, drunken mess. This performance is filled with contradictions, as Dennis carefully weaves in the hidden duality of the character into every scene and affectation. She captures a wonderful balance between portraying the naive side of Honey and the devious side.

When I first watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearly two years ago for a class, I'll admit I wasn't a fan of Sandy Dennis' performance. I didn't quite connect the dots of all the subtle emotional seeds she plants, and I'm sure even now I haven't connected them all. But this second time, I felt much more complexity brewing in this seemingly small character hidden underneath all that dancing. I'm still not sure I out-and-out LOVE this performance, but I absolutely admire what Sandy Dennis brings to this role. It's a very calculated "Method" performance that comes with a bit of the overdoing it that those types of performance very often come with, but underneath all that artifice is a complex center waiting to come out. Dennis shows Honey to be a seemingly average, perky young woman who is hiding her secrets carefully, only for them to come bursting out in an emotional, twisted evening. I admire this performance in this difficult film very much, so it's 4.5/5 for me. But the dancing gets a 5/5 :)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii

Jocelyne LaGarde received her first and only Oscar nomination for her performance as Queen Malama in George Roy Hill's Hawaii. For a three hour epic blockbuster Hawaii is a surprisingly tame film, focusing on the ramifications of colonization and the attempted Christianization of the Hawaii people as opposed to giant set pieces. Unfortunately, it makes for a very, very dry film with the occasional snippet of intrigue, and the film suffers from a lack of nuanced characters and the proliferation of one-note performances that make up the central cast. The real lead of the film is not Julie Andrews' saint-like Jerusha but rather her husband Reverand Hale (Max von Sydow), an overly zealous preacher. Von Sydow plows through the film with condescension and forceful fanaticism, which may make for a decent supporting villain but hardly the type of person who you want to spend three hours with. Always more interesting than the colonizers are the native Hawaiians, who are generally kind, fun-loving, and intrigued by these new people. Jocelyne LaGarde plays Queen Malama, who is the Alii Nui (aka leader) of the tribe and effectively in charge of making the laws. This is LaGarde's only film credit, as she was a native Tahitian that spoke no English who was taught her lines phonetically. Considering she is a standout in this dreary film, it is no wonder the Academy recognized her, and as we all know (hi Barkhad Abdi!), they love a good back story behind their nominees.

Jocelyne LaGarde has quite possibly the most bizarre entrance into a film in the history of Oscar nominated performances, as her character is lifted up onto a boat using a pulley-type system as if she was a sack of potatoes while LaGarde sheepishly waves and smiles all the while. However, that entrance sets the light tone with which Malama will be portrayed for the remainder of the film, as it quickly becomes clear that Malama has almost a child-like innocence and warmth to her. LaGarde gives her an aura of positivity and love throughout the film that is nice and refreshing considering so many of the less warm characters that surround her. She's a woman who has lived her entire life getting everything she wants, as her birthright essentially makes her god-like, but who still tries to do right by her people. What is certain is that LaGarde has a wonderful presence and the right amount of charisma to pull off this character, who is dignified and larger than life but also sweet.

What is less certain is whether or not LaGarde's performance is really a conscious form of acting or simply a woman going through the emotions as coached by her director, translator, or whomever. Whenever asked to deliver dialogue or express an emotion or inner conflict it's clear that LaGarde is consciously thinking of each and every moment of this performance. She visibly is going through the emotions in her head, and it all scream of ACTING rather than inhabiting a character. She pulls it off somewhat because the character is supposed to be a little brash and impulsive, but most times it's clear that this is a very inexperienced actress going through the part in a very simplistic broad manner. Dialogue is the biggest hang up for her, and a pivotal scene where she reads off new laws for the town is simply incoherent, as she smiles at the wrong places and doesn't seem to be expressing the right emotions that go with that particular scene. Basically, she doesn't know what she's saying, she's just saying it.

However, there is one area in which LaGarde truly excels acting wise and that is in her relationship with her husband Kelolo (Ted Nobriga). There is a whole storyline about how she must stop living with her husband because they are brother and sister in order for Malama to fully convert to Christianity and be "saved". It's bizarre to say, but the relationship of genuine affection and love between Malama and Kelolo is the only truly convincing one in the film and that's because of the chemistry between LaGarde and Nobriga. LaGarde's final scene in which she turns him away on her deathbed in order to get into heaven is truly emotional and tangible, and it's all etched on her face and in her eyes. It's, in my opinion, the only real moment of acting that comes off as genuine and not a performance. It feels real. You have to give big props to her for making an incestuous relationship so easy to root for.

All in all, LaGarde's performance and nomination brings up a lot of questions on what is good acting, and how does one determine that. LaGarde's casting is perfect and she's a warm and welcome presence onscreen, but none of her acting choices feel effective or organic into the character. They feel like acting, bad acting. She's at her best when simply being, flashing a smile or letting out a laugh or hugging someone. I never disliked watching her onscreen, but I simply can't justify her getting an Oscar nomination for this performance. 2.5/5 Thelmas.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Wendy Hiller in A Man for All Seasons

Wendy Hiller received her third and final Oscar nomination (second in the supporting category) for her performance as Lady Alice More in Fred Zinnemann's Best Picture winning A Man for All Seasons. Zinneman's film is now often seen as something of a typically stuffy choice by the Academy, with it's detailed period costumes, stagey direction, and loquacious monologues but it's far from a bad film and at times actually rather gripping. The film centers on Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a deeply religious man who struggles between his duty to the God and his duty to King Henry VIII (Richard Shaw). More is the Grand Chancellor of England, and refuses to back down from his principles when Henry VIII creates the Church of England in order to obtain a divorce from his infertile wife. Scofield is excellent in the film, portraying Thomas as a man of principle but not a saint, and in fact making More rather prickly and haughty. Wendy Hiller plays More's wife Lady Alice More, who believes steadfast in her husband's greatness and supports him while not being afraid to push back and challenge him on occasion when she thinks him too small-minded or selfish.

Wendy Hiller has perhaps the best sour face in the history of cinema, and thus excels at the first section of this film, where Lady Alice plays the role of the nagging, sassy wife. Hiller's Alice is a woman of strong opinions who is not afraid to throw them around, be they her opinions on her step-daughter's romantic interests or her husband's conflicted attitudes towards becoming Chancellor. Hiller portrays Alice as a simple woman of her times--one who wants the best for her family and has a clear affection for her huband that she expresses in a more outwardly brusque fashion. Her ambition for her husband is only because she has such a deep faith in his potential as a force for good for the king. She's ambitious out of love, not out of power. For the first two-thirds of the film, Wendy Hiller does not get much time to shine, instead always lurking in the background allowing either her face or voice to do all the work. It's a solid enough performance, nothing flashy and only occasionally overplaying the curmudgeonly aspects of Lady Alice.

What I wasn't expecting was what came next, because in her final two scenes of the film Hiller unexpectedly unveils moments of emotional frankness and raw impact. The first of these scenes comes when Alice and Thomas are discussing his resignation from the post of Chancellor. Thomas refuses to take an oath swearing that the Church of England has greater power than the Pope under principle, and Alice clearly worries about what this means for her family's future. In this moment Hiller reverses many of her previous acting choices, such as softening her voice where it once was harsh and severe or having Alice's hands shake as she speaks. Whereas in this scene her husband is somewhat nonchalant about his future she clearly augurs terrible things for him and is greatly troubled by it. This unveiling of Alice's fear and sadness for her husband's ruined potential is deeply moving. In this scene she also expresses the insecurities of Alice, who is afraid for her own future as well and perhaps even a little envious of her husband's great education. It's a fascinating scene in which Hiller pulls something of a turnabout on the audience. Her acting choices all land true, as does her softening of the character.

Lastly comes, of course, what might be described as her "Oscar scene" in which she visits her husband in jail following his imprisonment to plead with him to take the oath and return to his family. Lady Alice goes through the full range of emotion, starting out stubborn and indignant about her husband's refusal, then dipping into confusion towards the reasoning behind his motives, moving then to pain and hurt over what she sees as a lack of love for his family until finally settling on admiration for her husband's nobility and steadfast belief. It's a whirlwind of a scene that Hiller handles capably and with great skill, weaving us in and out of each and every motion organically. Her Lady Alice is far from a sophisticated woman, and each emotion change is rooted in insecurity and pure love for her husband. When Scofield's character comments "Why it's a lion I married" we completely understand what he means--Hiller's forceful emotional impact is lion-esque in it's ferocity and dominance.

On first go-round I found Wendy Hiller's performance to be nothing more than a tag along nomination for a stock supporting part, but as has happened more than a few times in this project (see also: Dorothy Malone, May Whitty) I discovered just how wrong I was on first assessment. This is more than just a stock performance, it's a stock performance imbued with such an impactful emotional charge and simple yet effective acting techniques. Whether she is expressing Lady Alice's ardor or softness Hiller is completely on-point. It's far from a flashy performance or one that elevates into the upper echelon of great ones, but it's an astonishing performance in it's simplicity and respect for this woman. A lion of a performance, indeed. 4/5 Thelmas.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Geraldine Page in You're a Big Boy Now

Geraldine Page received her fourth Oscar nomination (second in the supporting category) for her performance as Margery Chanticleer in Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now. Geraldine Page (along with someone like Greer Garson) is quite possibly the most forgotten of all Oscar's favorites, considering she sits in the same category as people like Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Peter O'Toole, and Jack Lemmon with an astounding 8 nominations. Unfortunately, it's nominations like this one that probably make her one of the more forgettable (at least to the general public) Oscar pets. Coppola's film is an undeniably sixties coming of age story about Bernard Chanticleer, a young man trying to find his own way in life, as he is jostled around and controlled by the various adults that surround him. The film is zany and joyously drug-filled, featuring lots of great music and plenty of scenes of Bernard ogling women and rolling his eyes at all the silly adults. It's one of those types of movies.

Geraldine Page plays the most culpable silly adult, Bernard's overprotective mother, Margery. When you think of the stereotypical portrayal of the overprotective mother, Geraldine Page's performance basically epitomizes each and every aspect of that stereotype. She shrieks shrilly. She pouts pitiably. She frets constantly. She nags incessantly. She wipes her son's nose, pesters him for not wearing his contacts, and even sends him locks of her hair in the mail as a keepsake (no, really). She hates each and every girl that shows the slightest bit of interest in her son ("whores" and "sluts" all of them). It's an absolutely paper thin character filled with every cliche you could possibly think of. One would hope that an actress of Geraldine Page's caliber would be able to find something interesting to do with this character to add a bit of humanity or roundness or hilarity to her shrill exterior.

Unfortunately, Page seems determined to do almost the exact opposite and plays into all of the worst impulses a character like this breeds. From her first moment on screen she makes Margery an unbearably ghastly presence, shrieking and carping her way through scene after scene. It's clear that Coppola is not even remotely interested in giving this woman any kind of humanity, and he obviously strands Page with an awful character. But, Page is also to blame at making her character neither entertaining or funny and instead shooting for the rafters. She's an actress with some knowledge of comedic timing, but none of her jokes or antics hit the mark. She's so deeply invested in the awfulness of this woman that she doesn't allow any room for the jokes to breathe or feel funny, and instead all of her fawning isn't amusing or pathetic it's just revolting. Page just remains on the same hysterical note throughout, and unfortunately it's not the funny kind of hysterical. I kept hoping that Page would offer us a glimpse into the deeper reasoning behind Margery's fawning, but instead she kept her doting on the surface level with no hint of a real women buried underneath.

There is exactly one decent moment where I felt a small, faint wisp of a laugh brewing in my throat, and that was when Geraldine Page confronts Karen Black's innocent Amy Partlett and questions her on the whereabouts of her son. Margery circles the girl like a lion sizing up it's prey, shooting daggers at her and using her frame to intimidate her. But one over the top scream later, she's back into god-awful territory. It's simply sad when one's only half-alright moment lasts all of four seconds. But hey, this was my attempt at positivity towards this performance.

Geraldine Page is an actress I truly admire. I love all three of her Oscar-nominated performances I've seen (Hondo, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Trip to Bountiful), so I came into this film optimistic despite the bad buzz that surrounds this performance. Unfortunately, Geraldine Page delivers one of the worst Oscar-nominated performances I've ever seen. There is simply nothing of value to this performance, which is so deeply marred in unpleasantness without dimension that it can't pull off anything else. This film ends with all of the adult characters chasing after Bernard, with Page's Margery dragging miles behind everyone else. It's truly a perfect metaphor for her how stranded and lost she is in this film, both at the hands of Coppola and sadly, her own instincts. 1/5 Thelmas.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Best Supporting Actress 1966

And the nominees were....

  • Sandy Dennis as Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (winner)
  • Wendy Hiller as Lady Alice More in A Man for All Seasons
  • Jocelyne LaGarde as Queen Malama in Hawaii
  • Vivien Merchant as Lily Clamacraft in Alfie
  • Geraldine Page as Margery Chanticleer in You're a Big Boy Now

The Field: The snail's pace continues! I'll probably never quite make it to ever finishing this project, but I've resigned myself to that and have decided to just have fun with it. I'll do a year whenever I'm feeling in the mood, and I right now I am most definitely in the mood for a little 1966. These five ladies are all eminently interesting actresses, from the mysterious Merchant to the glorious Page to the quirky Dennis, one-timer LaGarde, and sour Hiller. I've only seen Virginia Woolf and Seasons before, so three of them will be first time watches for me. I'm probably most interested by LaGarde, who gave her only performance on film EVER here, and Page, who I just generally love. Incidentally, dear Geraldine is up first. As is now the norm, there will be a review every two days as I've finished them all beforehand so as to not get caught up mid-year.