My current Top 5

My current Top 5

2/06/2010

Best Actress 1947: Dorothy McGuire in "Gentleman's Agreement"

Gentleman’s Agreement, the Best Picture winner of 1947, is a movie about anti-Semitism and prejudice in America after the Second World War. Philip Green, played by Gregory Peck, writes a story about anti-Semitism for a magazine and to get a full insight into the aspect, he pretends to be Jewish for 6 weeks. The movie follows the various reactions his new religion causes and it also shows how his believes and his job harm his relationship with his fiancée. This fiancée was played by Dorothy McGuire who received her only Oscar nomination for this performance.

Dorothy McGuire plays Cathy Lacy, the niece of Phil’s supervisor at the magazine. They meet at a party and it’s clear from the first moment that these two are meant for each other.

Gentleman’s Agreement is a movie that hits one over the head with its message of tolerance and respect and this also includes the fact that it is mentioned in the first two seconds of Cathy’s first appearance that she is divorced and nobody cares. It is also never really mentioned again in the movie and from Dorothy McGuire’s acting it also seems that Cathy does not think about her old life anymore.

Dorothy McGuire immediately establishes Cathy as a woman of sophistication, charm and intelligence. She quickly takes the lead in her first conversation with Phil and we learn that she was the one who had the idea to run a series on anti-Semitism and she seems to be just as free of prejudice as Phil. From there on, things go very quickly and Phil and Cathy get engaged and immediately start to plan the wedding.

The role of Cathy is mostly a very passive one. She is basically Phil’s love interest but very soon she also becomes an important part in his research about anti-Semitism in the American society.

The main problem about the love story between Cathy and Phil is the fact that there is a visible lack of chemistry between Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire. Both unfortunately give rather wooden and lifeless performances and this results in an equally wooden and lifeless love story. Dorothy McGuire obviously tries to make Cathy and open and relaxed character but her performance always remains a bit too stiff to ever become really memorable.

In fact, out of all the characters and actors in the movie, Dorothy McGuire’s Cathy is the one who feels the most incomplete and who never really steps into the foreground. When one thinks of Gentleman’s Agreement, then Gregory Peck, Dean Stockwell, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere and the story itself come to one’s mind but the leading lady vanishes pretty quickly because she is mainly involved in the obligatory love story which doesn’t work in the movie because of the aforementioned lack of chemistry between Peck and McGuire and because of the fact that the love story is the most uninteresting aspect of this film.

So, Dorothy McGuire gives the most uninteresting performance of the most uninteresting character in the most uninteresting part of the movie. For long parts of the movie she disappears from the storyline and is never really missed. It saddens me to say that but whenever McGuire enters the picture, the tempo of the movie slows down and the story loses interest.

Even though Dorothy McGuire never steps out of the love story aspect, her character becomes more interesting during the run of the movie because it is the most easily recognizable one in this movie. Philip’s new life as a Jew evokes all kind of reactions in the people around him, from open hate to total acceptance. Cathy is a woman who would never think of herself as anti-Semitic and she is probably right about that – it’s hard to imagine that she ever had a negative thought about Jews in her whole life. But this was only because for her the topic of anti-Semitism has always been reduced to maybe a conversation at a dinner party – now, with Phil’s masquerade, it has entered her own life. Suddenly, her own believes are put to test. When Phil tells her about his plans to say he is Jewish, her reaction is “But you’re not Jewish, are you?…Not that it would make any difference.” It’s the typical reaction of a person who is desperate to be tolerant and open-minded but has more problems with it than she is aware of. But as I said, Cathy is not intolerant in the sense that she wouldn’t want anything to do with a Jewish person – it’s the reaction of her friends and family that she fears. In her little world, everyone is alike and people who are different never enter it because that would only make trouble and would make everyone uncomfortable. Cathy does not want to be confronted with the possibilities of trouble and change in her own world and so she is eager to tell her sister that Phil is not really Jewish. She is not a hateful person but she also doesn’t want to have anything to do with the topic of anti-Semitism either.

All this would make Cathy a very interesting character but the script mostly reduces her to a few angry, worried or teary-eyed reaction shots and Dorothy McGuire’s stiff interpretation doesn’t help much either. When Cathy tells Phil a little bit about her former marriage, it might have opened her character up but somehow the backstory never really connects with Cathy today. It doesn’t deepen her in any way, it seems that these scenes are only there to give McGuire at least something to do.

Still, what she does succeed in is adding a lot of grace and inner trouble to Cathy. She mostly makes an impression in her dramatic scenes because her acting style works well in these while it doesn’t in all scenes of romance or love. But even though the chemistry between Peck and McGuire is disappointing, their scenes together still work because both use the same, rather lifeless acting style which somehow brings these characters closer together.

The only time that McGuire really steps into the foreground is when she and Phil break up. This scene works so well because both characters have a good point in their argument. It’s easy to sympathize with Phil because Cathy obviously does have problems with Jews but it’s also easy to understand Cathy since Phil’s attitude of moral superiority is really hard to take. So when she finally breaks up with him and tells him that, yes, she is happy not to be Jewish just as everyone would be happy to be rich instead of poor or beautiful instead of ugly. McGuire underplays this scene very effectively and her acting choices also make this scene very interesting.

Unfotunately, this is followed by maybe the worst scene of the movie when Cathy meets Dave, a Jewish friend of Phil. In this scene, Cathy finally recognizes her own faults but it is done in such a heavy-handed way and it’s simply hard to believe that a woman like Cathy is so completely disabled of any self-reflection when she tells a story about an unpleasant incident at a party.

Overall, it’s a wooden and lifeless performance of an uninteresting character and even though Dorothy McGuire is able to add some light to the part, I can’t give more than

5 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

Wow, I'm surprised at all the flack this performance gets here on the internet....I thought she was fine with what she was given.

Fritz said...

She's not really bad but incredibly...blah.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more with your opinion about the chemistry between them. I think they fairly burn up the ecreen. That first dance is really erotic and the first kiss is on fire.
Her performance is good. It stands up really well today and seems effortless.

Anonymous said...

I agree *anonymous*. I think she is just wonderful in this film and, generally speaking, a woefully underrated actress. It's not an easy part (the good writing just makes it seem that way) and she plays it with just the right touch of that late '40s NYC-style *sophistication* and, to use a term from the film *nerves*.

Anonymous said...

I, too, agree with both "Anonymous's." I thought Dorothy was wonderful in this movie and fully deserved the Oscar nod. To be honest, I'm probably completely biased because she's my all-time favorite actress, but she was pitch-perfect in this film.
And I'd have to agree with the comment above, she is sadly underrated. When I tell people who my favorite actress is, nobody has ever heard of her. Sad.