My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/14/2010

Best Actress 1967: Edith Evans in "The Whisperers"

The Best Actress race of 1967 is especially noteworthy for the fact that it contains both iconic actresses and iconic performances. There is Anne Bancroft’s performance as the sultry, elderly adulteress Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate who is undoubtedly an instantly recognizable part of movie history and stands firmly among other equally unforgotten movie characters like Phyllis Dietrichson, Margo Channing or Vicki Lester. And co-nominee Faye Dunaway also created one of the most familiar screen characters with her dangerous but riveting Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde even if the reason for this familiarity might be the legendary status of the real-life Bonnie and Clyde themselves – but the image of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in their roles of the famous outlaws has achieved an overpowering longevity and Faye Dunaway not only benefitted from the well-known character she played but added to this iconic status herself, too. Both Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway were still building their own reputation and status as actresses but they both reached the peak of their careers with performances that guaranteed their places in movie history and served as a further emphasis of their versatility or as their eminent entrance into a higher league of screen actresses. On the other site of the category’s spectrum were ‘the Hepburns’ – two actresses who had already distinguished themselves as two of the brightest legends in Hollywood history and whose distinct styles and personalities have won them countless admirers and critical praise over the years of their careers. But even if Katharine and Audrey Hepburn are the two iconic actresses in this line-up, their performances are usually not listed among their most outstanding or unforgotten achievements. Audrey Hepburn’s work as a blind woman terrorized by a group of drug dealers in Wait until Dark might have been an unusual change of image but her status and reputation is generally based on her charm and poise that she displayed so effortlessly in movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Sabrina, My Fair Lady or the same year’s Two for the Road. And while Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning performance in Guess who’s coming to dinner is still remembered for the fact that it was her last collaboration with long-time partner and co-star Spencer Tracy, it still would not be included on a list of her most cherished and noteworthy performances which she gave in pictures like The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, The African Queen or The Lion in Winter. So, these four nominees, Anne Bancroft, Faye Dunaway, Audrey Hepburn and Katharine Hepburn gave the Best Actress category of 1967 both iconic performances and iconic names. And then there was the fifth nominee – who somehow doesn’t seem to belong to any of these two categories even if she could be placed in both of them at the same time. British character actress and Dame Edith Evans may not be as familiar anymore as her four co-nominees but she still enjoyed a very high and respected reputation as one of the first ladies of the British stage and screen, achieving success in film in the later years of her career in movies like The Nun’s Story opposite co-nominee Audrey Hepburn or the Best Picture winner Tom Jones. And just like Edith Evans herself gained an undeniable status as a premier master of her craft without turning into a classic movie actress, her work as an old, senile and lonely woman in the British drama The Whisperers also stands as one of the most respected screen performances this category has ever seen even if it never achieved the same wide-spread and lasting appeal that many other nominated performances enjoy and which gained their status either by the sheer popularity of the performance itself, the movie in which it was given or the actress who gave it – and neither Edith Evans, nor her performance nor The Whisperers fall into one of those categories. But even without the same kind of popularity that characterizes her co-nominees and their performances, Edith Evans still positioned her work in The Whisperers as an indisputable part of this category and movie acting in general, crafting her own legend more quietly and less spectacular but with a permanent endurance nonetheless. But Edith Evan’s performance actually did not earn this respect over time but was already considered an acting sensation in the year it was released. She might have lost the Oscar but otherwise sailed through the award season as an unstoppable juggernaut, being honored with a Silver Bear in Berlin, a trophy from the BAFTA voters and awards from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. She placed third at the National Society of Film Critics but was beaten by two actresses who did not make it to the Oscars, therefore still being their favorite among the five Oscar nominees. A sweep like this is already an undeniable achievement that shows widespread and international support and if even the Hollywood Foreign Press gives its award for Best Actress in a Drama to a British character actress in a small kitchen-sink drama over movie stars like Audrey Hepburn or an upcoming sensation like Faye Dunaway, then the performance in question must have struck a very special nerve with critics and award voters at the time. But it is still doubtful if Edith Evans was ever the actual favorite to win the Oscar, too – in the end, the nature and size of The Whisperers which gained her the approval of critics around the world might have harmed her with the members of the Academy, especially since the eventual Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn starred in one of the most successful, talked-about and nominated movies of the year which also handled a controversial topic but with a sentimental and positive approach and realization. Still, when all is said and done the reputation of a performance rarely needs an Oscar to stand the test of time – it is an additional and mostly welcome aspect to a piece of work that should be able to stand on its own anyway and the list of performances that either lost the Oscar or did not even gain a nomination is often more impressive than the list of actual winners and prove that an Oscar is a confirmation of a certain performance without making it appear better than it really is. And vice versa an Oscar loss does not reduce the quality of a performance in any way. But what does all this mean for Edith Evan’s work in The Whisperers? The praise for her performance might be partly forgotten but its echo can still be heard loud and clearly – it is the kind of performance that is maybe not truly iconic but did create its own legend very successfully. But does this legend exaggerate the truth or is Edith Evan’s performance in The Whisperers really a piece of work that rightfully earned its distinct reputation?

Four years prior to The Whisperers, director Bryan Forbes had already shown a woman trapped in a lonely life, alone and on her own in his drama about a young, unmarried and pregnant woman, The L-Shaped Room. But this loneliness was always a more introvert situation since Jane actually had a lot of emotional and physical contact in the little house in which she rented a room but she still experienced a kind of intellectual loneliness as she faced her new life and tried to organize her inner thoughts and feelings without any help from outside. But the concept of The Whisperers takes this idea of seclusion much further – Edith Evans’s Mrs. Ross is truly alone, not only emotionally but also in reality, forgotten and abandoned in a little flat with her few, as Margo Channing would say, pitiful possessions to which she constantly adds empty milk bottles and old newspaper. As often the case with elderly people, some of her actions and behaviors seem to escape rational logic from those around her and most collocutors react with either slight annoyance, kind understanding or outright anger to her way of acting, talking and thinking, unable to find a way to communicate with her on a more grounded level – because Mrs. Ross shows even more strangeness beneath the demented fantasies and illusions of a desolated woman. It’s an agonizing twist in the life of Mrs. Ross that she does not feel alone even if she would prefer to be – voices are hunting her, whisperers who are talking to her and constantly fill her little apartment and her mind with unknown words. Sometimes Mrs. Ross also hears noises from the people living above her but her reaction is always the same, no matter if the noise is real or only part of her imagination – a combination of anger and frustration, anger over the noise itself and frustration over the fact that it won’t stop despite her constant complaints and protests. And usually, Mrs. Ross fights those noises with its own weapons – more noise, either turning on the radio on full volume or banging her broomstick against the ceiling. But Mrs. Ross does not only act out of anger over the noise itself – her own world of thoughts lets her act out of other, personal, unintelligible reasons. Once she hears one of the noises in her flat, she reacts with an angry ‘You leave me alone!’ – it’s the intrusion of her privacy, of the world she created in her mind which does not tolerate interference from outsiders. It’s hard to tell in exactly what kind of world Mrs. Ross is living but Edith Evan’s performance is able to create a character that is as inexplicit as familiar, a kind of symbol for elderly loneliness and confusion, making her a woman who not only lives in her own world but actually builds this world herself, too. In this world she not only accepted her loneliness but does not even recognize it any more – she apparently forgot her husband and her son who completely abandoned her and focuses her hopes and illusions on some fortune that she soon expects to inherit, making it no longer necessary for her to apply for social welfare even when she only needs a new pair of shoes. ‘I married beneath me’, Mrs. Ross once says, trying to find some dignity in her voice but only creating an even more absurd image of mental decline for those who are watching her. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar named Desire, Mrs. Ross lives in a world of illusions and both women are dreaming of better times to come thanks to awaited fortune and support but while Blanche DuBois uses her illusions as a way of escaping the harsh realities of her life and is at first still aware of the difference between lies and truth, Mrs. Ross has lost the battle already and has gone down the same road that Blanche DuBois would enter during the plot of A Streetcar named Desire, too, having turned into a mentally unstable woman who mixes reality with fantasies without being able to recognize or understand either one of them anymore. Still, Mrs. Ross is no true counterpart of Blanche DuBois – Blanche DuBois is a very unique creation, a product of Tennessee Williams’s writing and a specific desire for story-telling while Mrs. Ross is, unfortunately, a very ordinary woman, even in her most peculiar circumstances. Many older people in England live in their lonely homes, alone and forgotten, the radio informs the viewers and Mrs. Ross at the beginning of The Whisperers (‘poor old chaps’ she calls them). The script of The Whisperers, which very often poses as many problems for Edith Evans as it does her favors, does not hide its intentions for a single moment, presenting Mrs. Ross as one of those elderly people who is unable to face this distinct reality because of her own illusionary state of mind – in this aspect, she does maybe not resemble the character of Blanche DuBois who lives in an artificial environment especially created for the purpose of telling her personal story but Mrs. Ross is also the focal point of a single, private tale while standing in a greater context which makes her character tragically ordinary despite its extraordinary experiences, too. In this regard Mrs. Ross is just one character of many and even if the movie follows her actions and deeds closely while also constantly displaying the puzzled and uncomprehending reactions that she causes, she always remains a rather typical presentation of a certain personal decline. So even if Mrs. Ross hears voices and dreams of fortunes to come, she still stands as a rather ordinary member of those abandoned and forgotten people – she is surely not the first elderly woman to go to a police station and complain about her neighbors or some circumstances that only exist in her own mind and that would make the police react with either friendly patience or rolling eyes, depending on how many times she actually drops by. Basically she’s the kind of woman that makes others either say ‘poor old lady’ or ‘crazy old nutter’. Mrs. Ross has created her own world and mixed it with reality and spends her life living according to the new rules she created by and for herself. So Edith Evans had the task to tell a personal and disturbing story, shaped by the specific nature of her character, while also emphasizing the commonness of her role – a task made even more difficult by a script that leaves too many questions unanswered and pushes Mrs. Ross too many times aside despite her role as its most essential element. In this aspect, the role of Mrs. Ross poses various difficulties and challenges for an actress, demanding almost unsolvable tasks in one scene and leaving her without any guidance in the next – but even if Mrs. Ross is a strangely ordinary character beneath her distinct eccentricities, Edith Evans realized her with extraordinary results in a performance that not only goes beyond these difficulties of the script but uses any ambiguities to its own advantage. On the page, the character of Mrs. Ross actually offers only little nuances since all her personal troubles and conditions are displayed very straight-forward and with a constant focus on highlighting the peculiarities of a lonely and confused woman – but the limitations of the script did not cause a limitation of the character because it gave Edith Evans a role that was maybe defined by its edges but otherwise remained an almost unwritten book, leaving many blank spaces to fill and explore with her own acting choices and intentions. And so Edith Evans not only went beyond the possibilities of the script but gave a performance that actually exists completely independent from it, offering a complex and disturbing portrayal that stands firmly on its own, filled with moments of heartbreaking and disturbing brilliance as she unfolds the inner life of Mrs. Ross and brings her from the two-dimensionality of the script to the three-dimensionality of her own acting.

Edith Evans belongs to the long tradition of British actresses who easily succeeded in different genres and areas and used her distinct style and personality to create entirely diverse effects with small and almost unnoticeable nuances and shifts of manner. Like her countrywomen Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith she had a talent for both sarcastic and dry humor as well as dark human drama, she had the ability to constantly demand respect and obedience without hardly moving her body but completely relying on the effect of her appearance in movies like The Nun’s Story, she created a part of comedy history with her delivery of the single line ‘A handbag?’ and could be both a reliable supporting player that would dominate her scenes without throwing them off-balance as well as a movie’s central character that would carry the story and its different intentions. All this allowed her to never be reduced to a certain style or theme, letting her find success in parts that all benefitted from her on-screen charisma and acting style without appearing like a collection of familiar tics and mannerisms – Edith Evans may have possessed an explicit personality that was visible in all her performances but she avoided to let this personality dominate her work, using it instead to craft her roles with a maybe undeniable strength and presence but she would also allow her characters to dominate herself, too, and, if necessary, used this strength and actively turned it into its exact opposite, playing an almost ghost-like woman but filling her with the needed personality to succeed in creating her as the story’s central point of reference. In fact, few actresses could be so decisive and commanding in one performance and then so fragile and weak in a different one. But this fragility was not only based in her acting – Edith Evans’s whole stature seems to have almost imploded in The Whisperers, her face is even more sunken, her eyes even more perplexed and helpless, often appearing as if her Mrs. Ross is almost falling asleep while talking. Compared to her domineering appearance in Tom Jones in which she also displayed a stunning décolleté neckline for a woman of 75, her whole personality in The Whisperers has been completely reduced to the psychological state of this lost character with her body as a vessel that is as broken and decayed as the mind it contains. In this way, her unique appearance remarkably added to her portrayal, adding the necessary shift from fiction to reality, giving Mrs. Ross a body and a face that believably expresses her inner confusion and determination. And so both Edith Evan’s acting and her appearance gave Mrs. Ross a personality that seems impossible to grasp or understand entirely – it’s easy to think of other actresses in this part but it’s just as easy to imagine that they might have gone for more obvious effects to display the inner pain of Mrs. Ross, emphasizing her standing as a symbol for human intolerance or finding an easy solution to the role by highlighting her constant confusion and eccentricities and therefore only exploring one aspect in a part that constantly added new dimensions and characteristics as quickly as it dropped others, letting Mrs. Ross be a never-ending change of rhythm and tempo, defining her as much as she is left in the dark. It’s a part that asks of an actress to develop her intentions in every direction, often at one time, playing different games with different speed at once – yes, a more simple approach would have been possible, too, but it wouldn’t and couldn’t have lived up to the different demands of the role, failing to set the tone of The Whisperers as a whole and of Mrs. Ross in particular. But Edith Evans not only avoided such an easy characterization but looked deep into the mind and soul of this woman, bringing technical control over an uncontrolled character, to craft a complete, authentic, pitiful and often harrowing, disturbing and shocking portrayal. As mentioned before, Edith Evans created this performance with little support from her script but this does not only refer to the fact that Mrs. Ross is strangely underwritten but also the simple truth that Mrs. Ross is a tour-de-force in a movie that doesn’t know what do with it. The movie spends its first half with a clear focus on its central character, slowly guiding the audience into her daily life and routines, giving it a sense of her strange ordinariness and distinct extraordinariness and basically establishing her its own raison d’être. During this time, The Whisperers makes a strong case for its display of elderly loneliness and perception and it uses Mrs. Ross to let the viewers take a closer look at the kind of woman that would usually be ignored and avoided, forcing them to face the consequences of a forgotten life but after a while The Whisperers constantly begins to change its focus and direction, losing its tone as a comment on social conditions and mixing different genres without any success. Somewhere along the way, an immoral family that robs Mrs. Ross of her money enters and leaves the storyline, maybe causing an intriguing change of direction as a result but still appearing too sudden and too out-of-place in the context of The Whisperers, and then Mrs. Ross’s long-lost husband returns to live with his wife again, only to disappear a couple of scenes later after having been part of an inexpedient gangster-subplot. After the first 40 minutes of The Whisperers, neither its script nor the direction seem to be truly interested in Mrs. Ross anymore, treating her as a foundation for the remaining plotlines without ever again offering her the same space and focus that was directed at her in the beginning. But as previously stated, Edith Evans’s performance exist in its own universe, independent from the mere quality of the movie and untouched by any mediocrity in the script because it stands as a completely realized and carefully constructed portrayal that even in moments of secondary importance continues to exist as a stunning display of elderly defenselessness, needing only the abilities of Edith Evans to fully exist. Her performance cannot be allocated into different genres as it transcends the concept of drama, satire, social comments or character study, fitting into every one of these styles without interrupting its flow, remaining the story’s reference point even when the script seems to forget about her and always bringing The Whisperers back to its roots. The Whisperers gave Edith Evans everything she needed, it offered her a character that was clearly defined but left many aspects open for her to explore and construct even if it also showed a tendency to push her back ungracefully – but Edith Evans managed to overcome all these challenges successfully because she always refused to acknowledge any changes her movie made and constantly kept a tight psychological understanding of who Mrs. Ross is and how she reacts to her surroundings, as strange and illogical her actions may appear to be. This way she was able to give a performance that feels truly complete and even if there is little change in the character of Mrs. Ross, Edith Evans constantly unpeeled new layers and understandings of a woman who doesn’t appear to understand a lot anymore at all.

So, what is it that makes this such a stunning portrayal? Most of all it is Edith Evans’s ability to play so many games at once, an ability that the character needed but only few could have realized – her Mrs. Ross can be mentally absent in one second and clearly understanding in the next, she can protest with the anger of an old woman who is often treated like a little girl and therefore tends to start to act like one, only fulfilling the prejudices of those around her, she can talk to inaudible voices without interrupting her ongoing stream of consciousness and she can display a personal tragedy without overemphasizing any sorrow. She constantly shows that Mrs. Ross is hiding the experiences of a whole lifetime inside her body and mind and lets this knowledge slip in and out of her personality without apparently realizing it herself, changing from suspicious outsider to a caring mother, suffering from the memories of her marriage as well as the sudden presence of her husband, talking with her head bowed to one side and with a voice that demonstrates a slow, implausible superiority while either understanding too little or imagining too much. The years of loneliness have forever influenced Mrs. Ross, leaving her both helpless but too confused to recognize her own misery – whenever she begins to hear those whispers in her flat, she pauses for a moment as if she is waiting for somebody to explain the situation to her, maybe hoping that somebody will tell her what to do before she is ultimately forced to make her own decisions. It’s a communication with herself that was created out of her constant reclusiveness and Edith Evans portrays this very familiar behavior in a single second with a facial work that always underlines the loneliness, the sadness but also the feelings of superiority and capability to make it on her own. When her non-caring son suddenly returns into her home, Edith Evans plays Mrs. Ross’s reaction just the same – she hesitates before she opens the door, asking him about his reason for coming back in a slow, uncomprehending voice that also displays Mrs. Ross’s determination to act just as she should even if she clearly has problems to mentally fit the visit of her son into her own daily routine. It’s almost impossible to find ‘one’ or the ‘true’ Mrs. Ross because there is a constant shift in her character, different aspects of her personalities and different levels of awareness are slowly replaced with each other but this never feels like an abrupt succession of scenes because Edith Evans always creates a logic flow in this illogical woman. And moreover, her performance also never makes it clear just how aware Mrs. Ross really is and she frequently finds moments of clarity in her daily life – her own fantasies might strongly shape her life but they do not dominate her completely and instead mix with the true circumstances of her existence, creating the strange attitude and behavior that those around her cannot understand because Mrs. Ross is neither completely ‘lost’ nor completely ‘here’, making it almost impossible to understand or follow her changes of mind. Mrs. Ross is very well aware that the guard in the public library doesn’t want her to take off her shoes and warm her feet on the heating, she understands why she has to go and ask for money when she needs a new pair of shoes or why she has to attend a church meeting in exchange for a warm meal, even if her face in these moments communicates complete helplessness caused by her own inability to fit into any group, failing to understand the rules and behaviors of the world outside her own apartment – but again, there are moments when she has a strong sense of how to react to specific circumstances, complaining to the police about the whispers in her apartment and taking a realistic approach to solve an imagined problem and she is also very able to distinguish between the noises from ‘the whisperers’ and the noises from upstairs, underlining just how her mind is constantly loosing and finding its grip on reality in a permanent process of stable and unstable existence. So it is not surprising that Edith Evans’s performance is always at its most impressive when she displays this shift in Mrs. Ross without ever altering her own work – her Mrs. Ross behaves like a lot of people in her situation would, a bit confused but convinced of the logic of her own views which should be easy to for everybody else to understand and see and so she consequently gets annoyed very quickly whenever somebody seems to disagree with her. The insistence of Edith Evans’s Mrs. Ross to keep all her old newspaper in her apartment combines the impatience of an old school teacher with the stubbornness of a little child. For Mrs. Ross, her reasons are clear – and so they should be for everybody else, too. Her impatient ‘I know who it is’ when her son is standing in front her door is delivered in the same tone, apparently created by her to silence all those people that don’t understand her logic or appreciate her intelligence. But Edith Evans constantly keeps it a mystery just how much Mrs. Ross really understands and how aware she truly is of this visit. She offers tea and speaks to her son politely but his presence clearly overstrains her mental capabilities – but besides this psychological and technical display in her acting, Edith Evans adds a heartbreaking dimension to her work when she calls her son back after he left, suddenly finding clarity of her own loneliness and willingness to connect before slowly falling back into her own routine. Edith Evans also finds such moments of clarity in her scenes opposite Mrs. Ross’s husband – her sudden ‘You left me’ with which she informs him of the reason for her distance comes as suddenly as it goes, a surprising moment of precision after apparently having endured his behavior and return without any noticeable recognition apart from her pretense to be asleep when he goes into her bed. In the end, Edith Evans is able to fill all of her on-screen moments with brilliant precision of nebulous intentions. She can shock the viewer when she suddenly wakes up at night, talking at people who she believes are there or who she just thinks might be there, find a moment of overwhelming intensity by changing from hysterical laughter to panic-stricken crying when she suddenly finds an unexpected amount of money, hugging and cradling herself helplessly as her fantasies and reality have suddenly interfused, talk with a slightly arrogant memory while helplessly being pushed around by a woman who is aiming to get her money, eat a piece of bread, almost tearing it apart with honey dropping from her mouth, uncompromisingly showing a woman has been alone and abandoned for years, informing two gangsters that her husband didn’t come home with a delivery that expresses both annoyance and fear or fearfully retreat into her apartment after a quarrel with her neighbor from upstairs, an apartment that seems to be both a fort and a prison for her, a place which can protect her from the world outside while also haunting her with constant noises and whispers. But when Mrs. Ross later returns to this apartment and asks with a childish smile ‘Are you there?’, waiting for the whisperers to give her the familiarity she has missed for so long, Edith Evans unforgettably displays how much her character is torn apart between misery and comfort, having arranged herself with the circumstances of her life and actually desiring to return, unable to escape the mere existence she is leading – it’s a final display of this elderly loneliness which, at least for Mrs. Ross, is much more preferable than anything the reality outside has to offer.

Overall, it’s a stunning portrayal of a grotesque but completely plausible character, of confusion and understanding, child-like incomprehension and aged experience. Throughout her performance, Edith Evans never overstates the tragedy of Mrs. Ross but always lets the character speak for herself, never adding any unneeded signs of hidden sadness of a woman very well aware of her own misery but only focuses on the realization of Mrs. Ross as she is and not of what she could be. It’s a performance that is almost impossible to fully grasp and understand as Edith Evans herself leaves so many questions open, constantly adding new aspects and dimensions to her part, flawlessly combining, separating, changing and intervening different aspects and understandings of Mrs. Ross. Is it a performance that is worthy of the distinct legend it created? The answer is an easy ‘yes’ – she not only implements all expectations but does even more, crafting images of unforgettable loneliness and mental instability only to go even beyond and mix them all with different perceptions and understanding. It’s a performance that can be seen as a promise fulfilled while the work of her co-nominees Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft feels more like surprising gifts that defy all perceptions and offer much more than initially thought, doing justice to two roles that are much more known for certain parts than its actual whole – but all of them created their own iconic status and are able to justify this position with the sheer quality of their own performances. So may Edith Evans played a character who, despite all the eccentricities and fantasies, is tragically ordinary. But her performance is anything but.

2 comments:

joe burns said...

I watched quite a lot of the film on Youtube and I thought she had some good moments, but I wasn't too impressed by her. Most of her good moments came later on, so I think I should pay more attention to her in the beginning when I do 67.

Sage Slowdive said...

Well, I thought she was near perfect and could have easily been my pick in any other year.