My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/16/2010

Best Actress 1967: Audrey Hepburn in "Wait until Dark"

Looking at the list of all those actors and actresses who received not only one but two Oscars during their career, it becomes immediately noticeable how varied this selective group is. There are legends like Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando, character actors like Dianne Wiest, Peter Ustinov or Jason Robards and largely forgotten performers like Luise Rainer or Glenda Jackson. And sometimes, a look at this list also evokes the question why other performers were never allowed to join this list. Of course, nobody should ever complain that a certain actor or actress ‘only’ has one Oscar when so many talented players went to their grave without a golden statuette. But it still is interesting to think about certain performers who won one Oscar during their career but somehow were never able to get a second trophy – despite various further nominations. Isn’t James Stewart an actor one would easily imagine to have two Oscars? He had the talent, he was extremely popular over a long period of time, gave many memorable performances…but the Academy clearly felt one was enough. And isn’t Audrey Hepburn somehow the female equivalent in this scenario? This is not a debate about if she actually ever deserved a second Oscar or if her talent as an actress called for it. But Audrey Hepburn was always such a beloved and popular figure who was able to charm every viewer with her poise and style, she was able to keep her position as one of Hollywood’s first leading ladies for many years and it’s doubtful that anybody would have felt less than overjoyed if she had ever walked up to the Oscar stage for a second time. Of course, she never had a chance to win for Sabrina against Grace Kelly or Judy Garland or for Breakfast at Tiffany’s against Sophia Loren. Looking back, it seems the most surprising that she lost for her celebrated work in The Nun’s Story against Simone Signoret in Room at the Top – this is not meant as a comparison of those two performances but looking at the Academy’s history, a performance like that of Sister Luke is usually exactly what it loves to honor. And what about her work in 1967? This year saw Audrey Hepburn giving two very different performances – she was natural, relaxed and likeable in Two for the Road and played a blind woman terrorized by a trio of gangsters in the movie adaption of the stage play Wait until Dark. While Two for the Road aged very well and is often remembered as one of Audrey Hepburn’s best performances, the obvious ‘acting’ that she had to do in Wait until Dark clearly impressed Academy voters more at the time. But did she have a chance for a second award? Considering that the ultimate winner was huge surprise, it’s basically impossible to tell how Oscar voters reacted to this line-up but there must have been a certain amount of sentiment on her side, especially after the controversy that had been created by her failure to receive a nomination for My Fair Lady. Sure, Academy members apparently didn’t find her worthy of a nomination that year but her non-caring attitude and her willingness to be a presenter at the award show anyway only added to the amount of admiration that everybody was willing to give her. Audrey Hepburn’s inability to turn this sentiment into another award was probably caused by the fact that her follow-up nomination didn’t come soon enough (three years are probably a lifetime in a voter’s mind) and the simple truth that Wait until Dark is not the kind of vehicle that helps an actress to win an Oscar, let alone a second one. Instead, it’s the kind of movie that offers a showy central role that the Academy certainly likes to honor with a nomination – but just not a win.

With Wait until Dark, Audrey Hepburn followed the footsteps of actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford who also received Oscar nominations for fearing for their lives in Sorry, wrong Number and Sudden Fear. Like those two movies, Wait until Dark is a well-made thriller that mostly seems to exist to let its leading lady drive herself into a state of more and more hysteria with each minute. The combination of fear, desperation, tears, screaming and panic is always impressive and certainly demands a lot of focus and willingness to completely surrender to the mental state of the character and it’s easy to image how difficult it must be to portray these feelings of fear and panic every day – but on the other hand these movies also never allow an actress to go beyond these expected emotions. The results are therefore performances that only happen on the surface and, as impressive as this surface may be, feel ultimately rather empty and shallow despite all the dedication and hard work that went into the creation of the characters. More than anything, this is obviously the fault of the script and the style of the movie – so it is hard to blame the leading actress for being a vessel for the movie’s horror and fear if this is exactly what she has to become. But the problem with the character of Susy Hendrix is the same with almost every character in thrillers like this – she is basically only a plot device to develop the tension and keep the audience at the edge of their seats. And also the script is never really interested in Susy besides the obvious tasks of being a terrified victim and the vessel through which the audience can follow the plot. So, the questions regarding a performance like this are a) did the actress fulfill the task of playing the fearful victim whose misery has the audience on the edge of their seat and who ultimately has to face her enemy in a fight for life? and b) was she able to add anything beyond this concept to humanize her character and craft a more multifaceted and independent person?

In some ways, Audrey Hepburn gave one of her most un-likely performances in Wait until Dark. She always knew how to control the screen with her aura of elegance, beauty and poise but she was also often cast in parts that demanded exactly this of her and not much more. She cannot be accused of ever resting on her charm but her unique appearance made it often very easy for her to add a level of excitement and content to her performance that would not have been possible otherwise and that was necessary for the movie’s overall success. Wait until Dark was different. Audrey Hepburn’s own personality certainly helped to make Susy a very easy to like and to follow person but beyond this the character never ‘needs’ Audrey Hepburn to come to life. Unlike Princess Ann or Sabrina, Susy Hendix does not depend on the charm and grace of Audrey Hepburn. Therefore, she had to work harder in this case and was only allowed to carry the story with her own acting. The final results show that Audrey Hepburn was indeed much more than just an elfin-like creature and had the determination and seriousness of a dedicated artist, focusing on all the aspects of the script to both serve her character and her movie – even if she was sometimes lost with the demands of a thriller like this.

Theoretically, Wait until Dark offers an easy chance for an actress to go beyond the pure elements of a frightening thriller to add a deeper layer to her character – the fact that Susy Hendrix is not only a woman fighting against three gangsters but also a recently blinded woman adjusting herself to the new demands of her every-day life promises to be an intriguing change of pattern and to present a closer look at the thoughts and worries of this woman without throwing her into the main plot of drugs and killers immediately. And Audrey Hepburn in fact does get various chances to craft Susy as a real three-dimensional human being – but is ultimately also held back by the script too often. As it is, even the blindness of the character is more a plot device than anything else – it didn’t influence the script but rather the other way around. And so the character of Susy was mainly created as a vessel for the tension of the movie and therefore had to be shaped into a specific form to fit to the demands of the overall storyline. This causes several problems for the character and the actress playing her: on the one hand, Susy must be insecure and unsure because of her blindness to add to the suspense of the movie and make her helplessness and panic more believable. On the other hand, she must be experienced enough to fight against the attackers and be competent and relaxed around her home so that her blindness won’t steal attention from the plot. This was solved by crafting Susy as a woman who had only been blinded recently (helplessness and panic) but has adjusted herself to the most important tasks already, is the best in blind school and has a partner who constantly demands of her to live her life without any help (experienced and relaxed). All of this makes the written Susy a strangely unfocused and indecisive character – and even Audrey Hepburn is not always able to overcome these contradictions but it is to her credit that she used the little opportunities she was given in Wait until Dark to her advantage while successfully making all the flaws in both the plot and the character less noticeable.

From a technical point-of-view, Audrey Hepburn fulfilled her tasks in Wait until Dark very well. During the first, more quiet parts of the movie, she portrays the blindness of Susy convincingly without ever trying to direct any attention to it – and works therefore in perfect harmony with the character of Susy as well as her movie. Just like Audrey Hepburn, Susy does not want her blindness to be a big deal even if she is suffering from the fact that she cannot see. But she wants to prove that she can do everything on her own and doesn’t want to be too dependent on help. Wait until Dark might be a slap in the face of Susy as it constantly only uses her blindness in the larger context of the story without allowing her to develop a voice of her own but Audrey Hepburn knows how to inject a certain sadness, a longing into her character to display her inner conflict between demanding a right to be an ‘ordinary’ blind person with all the problems that come with it and wanting to be ‘the world’s champion blind lady’ to prove to herself and her partner that she is strong enough to handle her life by herself. A scene in which Susy tells Sam that she will be whatever he wants her to be might a bit too theatrical, both due the writing and Audrey Hepburn’s slightly melodramatic acting in this moment, but a later scene in which she opens her character up to the little girl next door works very beautiful because Audrey Hepburn lets Susy be strong and weak, scared and brave, a little mean and very human all at once. Her little minute of self-realization comes as fast as it goes and Audrey Hepburn shows very touchingly how Susy needs these short moments to mourn her own situation to gain new strength and face her life another day. Even if the scene itself feels strangely disconnected from the rest of the movie, Audrey Hepburn still manages to build a stronger foundation for her character in this moment and intertwine it with Susy’s later actions and doings. But unfortunately Audrey Hepburn is not always so successful in her performance. While she may do a good job capturing Susy’s own insecurity and frustration with her situation while wanting to please her husband, too, she only truly shows these feelings whenever the script asks her to do but rarely finds any room to invest Susy with emotions by her own. That way her performance sometimes threatens to fall into the trap of the contradictions and shallowness of the overall story. And while Audrey Hepburn portrays the blindness of Susy with a welcome subtlety, she also feels more lost as Susy becomes more and more panic-stricken in the second part of the story. During the early scenes, Susy has very little interaction with any objects around her but later moments like Susy hysterically smashing all the light bulbs in her apartment or falling over a chair in a moment of fear make Audrey Hepburn’s acting much more noticeable. Somehow, she manages to be both too effortless in her handling of props and too obvious whenever the movie focuses less on Susy’s blindness and more on the dangers around her. Still, Audrey Hepburn is able to fill the part with her usual charm and thoughtful reflections. Her biggest success is that, despite the thin material she is given, she is able to give a mostly complete and thought-through performance – she doesn’t only focus on the character of Susy as she is today but shows how she might have been before she was blinded. She demonstrates that the bitterness and frustration in Susy only comes from feeling helpless and incapable but there is also a different side – that of a determined woman who can quickly react to new situations, who can be lively and charming and it’s not hard to imagine that this is how Susy used to be. She shows that being the ‘world champion blind lady’ is something she is may be doing for her husband but at the same time it’s clear that Susy would be so without him, too.

It’s commendable that Audrey Hepburn was able to invest so much more into Susy than the screenplay would have needed but it also be said that, like in the case of her co-nominee Katharine Hepburn, the success comes in small steps since Wait until Dark only allows her so much until it pushes her back for the sake of the story’s tension. But here Audrey Hepburn made the smart decision to not exaggerate the feelings of Susy from the beginning. Instead of immediately playing a fearful victim, she focuses on what Susy truly is at these moments– a woman not fearing for her own life but for her husband. The trick of the gangsters to make Susy believe that her husband is a murderer dominates the story for a while and Audrey Hepburn plays these scenes with convincing confusion and desperation even if she allows herself to be pushed aside very often too easily and often has to be surprisingly passive in a movie that is actually about her character’s fight for truth and life. As the story goes on and the tension increases, Audrey Hepburn unfortunately loses some of the control over her character – Susy is clever enough to figure out the truth eventually but this seems always to be directed by the script as Audrey Hepburn never really seems to let her make up her own mind. As the story finally reaches it dramatic climax, Audrey Hepburn also starts to intensify her acting – with mixed results. Her looks of complete fear as she is hiding behind the open door of the refrigerator or the moment when she is constantly lighting a fire create the movie’s most memorable and frightening moments and Audrey Hepburn knows how to both be a victim and command the screen in these scenes at once. But she also tends to become over-dramatic in these scenes, too, as she twitches her body in agony, grabs the banisters of her stair, dramatically pronounces words like ‘gasoline’ or desperately sits on the floor with a little doll clutched to her chest. In Audrey Hepburn’s defense, these moments never distract the viewer from the suspension of the scene – on the contrary, they even underline it but they also lack the overall quality that could be found in earlier scenes of Audrey Hepburn’s performance.

So, what’s the final verdict? Audrey Hepburn surely does a lot right and tried to give a performance that goes beyond the limits of the script but the structure of the movie only allows her to take little steps in this direction. So, regarding the questions from the beginning it can be stated that, yes, Audrey Hepburn did succeed to play the fearful victim that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats even if her acting is not always completely convincingly. Regarding the second question it can be stated that Audrey Hepburn did find moments in her performance that allowed her to show a different side in her character but only if she was given the opportunity. Overall, Audrey Hepburn can be applauded for completely neglecting her charming personality in this role and bringing a lot of determination to the screen to give a memorable, touching, frightening, entertaining and, most importantly, believable performance. It might be mostly on the surface but this was still enough to turn Wait until Dark into a gripping thriller. Maybe not a great performance but still a very memorable realization of fear and hope.


6 comments:

Robert said...

Great review. I do really love this performance, I'm a big Audrey fan, but you're right, a lot of actresses probably could have done the same thing. I'll have to rewatch!

Sage Slowdive said...

Eh, she just doesn't do it for me anymore.

joe burns said...

I think she'll be fourth. I'm interested in seeing her performance.

Louis Morgan said...

It is interesting that many look at her as someone who could do no wrong, but that clearly is not the case with Oscar blogs.

Fritz said...

@Robert: Thanks!

@Sage: This performance or Audrey in general?

@Joe: It's a good movie and surely worth a watch!

@Louis: Well, I think we bloggers tend to be more critical than! :-)
But Audrey got a lot of praise for me for her work in 59!

Sage Slowdive said...

I would say in general, but she did prove herself sometimes...