My current Top 5

My current Top 5

10/27/2010

Best Actress 1937


The next year will be 1937 and the nominees were

Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth

Greta Garbo in Camille

Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born

Luise Rainer in The Good Earth

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas

10/26/2010

YOUR Best Actress of 1985

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Whoopi Goldberg - The Color Purple (43 votes)

2. Geraldine Page - The Trip to Bountiful (41 votes)

3. Meryl Streep - Out of Africa (7 votes)

4. Anne Bancroft - Agnes of God & Jessica Lange - Sweet Dreams (1 vote)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

Best Actress 1953 - The resolution

After having watched and reviewed all five nominated performances, it's time to pick the winner!



Ava Gardener makes her Eloise very earthy and immediately likeable and she basically meets all the challenges of the script but it can’t be denied that these challenges are set very low. Ava Gardener’s personality fits the part just right but this soap opera never demands of her to stretch her talents but always seems like a warm-up for more to come.



                     
Leslie Caron effectively portrays the sweetness and naivety of the character and is that way much more believable than expected but if the highlight of a performance are the scenes when the character is talking to four puppets, then it becomes clear that this is a role that, even with a serious and dedicated performance, doesn’t offer a real challenge and makes it hard to be taken fully seriously.



It’s an overall very unsatisfying movie and leading character – Maggie McNamara tries her best but unfortunately both her performance and her part don’t develop and that way loses the interest of the viewer very soon. Still, it’s a charming and interesting piece of work that unfortunately couldn’t really rise above the material but the lively presence of Maggie McNamara is still the only reason that The Moon is Blue doesn’t fail completely.



2. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity

Deborah Kerr had wonderful material and an intriguing character to work with but it seems that in her performance, she relied too much on the strength of this material and let the writing dominate her performance. Still, her Karen is a strong creation, a woman who is as common as mysterious and as repellent as appealing.



1. Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday

More than anything, this is a case of excellent casting rather than brilliant acting. Audrey Hepburn may succeed in this part, but there was actually nothing she could do wrong – both because the writing is too undemanding and the part of Princess Ann fitted her so completely that even with a bad performance, her charming personality would still have been satisfying enough. Still, in this weak line-up, her winning combination of talent and charm seems like the most logical choice for the gold.


 
 

Best Actress 1953: Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity"

From Here to Eternity impressed the Academy enough to receive 13 Oscar nominations and with its 8 Oscar wins it became the first movie to tie Gone with the Wind’s long-standing record. On top of that, it also belongs in the elite group of movies that got 5 acting nominations over all 4 acting categories. While Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed took home supporting honours, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster lost Best Actor to William Holden while Deborah Kerr had to watch Audrey Hepburn claim the Best Actress statuette.

From Here to Eternity is a gripping story about the military and it’s command structure, about friendship and loyalty, set shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The first moments of the movie already show the military drill and make one thing clear very quickly – From Here to Eternity is a movie about men. It’s about their struggles, their decisions, their duties and their honour – and their women. The female characters in From Here to Eternity are of secondary importance in Montgomery Clift’s and Burt Lancaster’s storylines and they aren’t really characterised by their own doings and thoughts but mostly by how they stand in relation to the male characters. But the brilliant writing still gave both Donna Reed and Deborah Kerr enough material to craft very absorbing and interesting women, both strangely similar despite appearing so different.

Donna Reed’s Alma is kind, loving and gentle. She may work as a hostess and the script tries to give her some cynical edges but she possesses the classical heart of gold and it only takes a minute before she gives Prew the key to her house and makes him dinner. The role is a cliché but Donna Reed brings it to life with a wonderfully earthy, warm and captivating performance. Deborah Kerr’s Karen is a complete different – she is the icy, apparently man-eating wife of an Army Captain who atomises cold eroticism behind a stern façade. But what these two women have in common is their dissatisfaction with their life and their desire to start anew, somewhere else. Considering the secondary importance of both female roles, the classification of Deborah Kerr as a leading actress is maybe debateable. Both women seem to have a similar amount of screen time until they share the screen for the movie’s final moments and it seems that Deborah Kerr’s status in Hollywood got her the star treatment over Donna Reed. But somehow the category placement also makes sense. Even though Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster are equally important to the movie, it seems to be a little more interested in the relationship between Karen and Warden than in Prew’s relationship to Alma. At the same time, Karen takes a more active part in her storyline. While Alma is mostly a reacting character who adjusts herself to Prew, Karen tries to do the opposite and adjust Warden to herself. So, Deborah Kerr is a borderline case between supporting and leading while Donna Reed is the true supporting lady in From Here to Eternity. This way, the leading category seems to make (some) sense for Deborah Kerr but even that doesn’t change the fact that she in no way either carries the movie or leads in a certain direction like most other leading nominees do.

As mentioned before, From Here to Eternity is built on a wonderful, intelligent screenplay that gives every actor the chance to shine and presents them with carefully constructed characters. This sets Deborah Kerr clearly apart from the other Best Actress nominees of 1953 – she has the advantage of a great script while Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Ava Gardener and Maggie McNamara suffered from thin writing that mostly offered them equally thin and one-dimensional characters. But what seems to be a clear advantage for Deborah Kerr also resulted in a disadvantage – the other nominees seemed to know the weakness of their materials and fought hard to improve their performances and add the necessary charm, personality and screen presence to make their movies work. That way, they very often surprised the viewer with their acting choices and, despite the limited material, created a certain interest about them that was necessary to carry the story and the movie. Deborah Kerr, on the other hand, had wonderful material and an intriguing character to work with but it seems that in her performance, she relied too much on the strength of this material and let the writing dominate her performance. That is to say, Deborah Kerr didn’t do anything surprising with her character but played her just as expected. Of course, I won’t blame an actress for playing a part as written, but Deborah Kerr played Karen a little too safely considering it’s such a juicy part and a little too much by-the-numbers. This resulted in the strange fact that the character of Karen is more interesting than Deborah Kerr’s actual performance. It seems that she didn’t really create Karen but instead let Karen control her performance. One mostly remembers Karen because of what she does and how she acts – so basically because of the writing. Besides that, Deborah Kerr suffers from the fact that her character is, when all is said and done and even though she can be considered ‘leading’, rather negligible. She may have the best writing of the five nominees but she suffers more than any other nominee from her small influence when it comes to the context of the film. Karen Holmes is a very intriguing presence whenever she is onscreen – but From Here to Eternity drops her too often and the other players offer such rich and brilliant performances that she is almost immediately forgotten whenever she leaves the screen. Even though her performance is just as memorable in its own way like those of her co-stars, Deborah Kerr’s character makes it hard for her to fight against oblivion because Karen seems more like an intruder in From Here to Eternity than a part of the story’s flow. The character of Karen lives in her own world that barely connects with the universe that From Here to Eternity created and that way Karen too easily becomes a character that threatens to interrupt the story than serve it.

But it is a true testament to Deborah Kerr’s talent as an actress that she was still able to prevent these negative effects as much as possible and instead create Karen as a woman who is as common as mysterious and as repellent as appealing. That way she gave a performance that is easily forgotten in the context of the story but once From Here to Eternity is over, her Karen quickly finds her way back into the viewer’s mind. There is something about her subliminal charisma, her coldness and anger that grabs the viewers’ memory and never lets it go.

What works best about this performance is Deborah Kerr’s honesty in portraying the unlikable sides of Karen Holmes. She didn’t try to find any excuses for the behaviour, the bitterness and the constant demanding of this icy woman. Even when she is telling her tragic story at the beach, she does it with a certain spite and anger that never tries to gain the audience’s sympathy. The same way she orders Lancaster to come to her and listen to this story, she seems to dare the viewers to deny her their full attention. Deborah Kerr obviously knows that this is her big moment and that the script will never again give her that much focus or her the possibility to deepen the character like this. So she tries her best to create this moment as a true showcase for herself and the character. She combines the anger of the past with a certain sadness and regret, but not in a way that makes her appear softer but rather with an underlying hate and appalling indifference that makes it impossible to judge her correctly in this moment. Her immediate willingness to open her soul to this man who should have only been a one-night-stand shows that she maybe even exploits her own tragedy to get him on her side, her bitterness seems to be both real and an act to get Warden’s attention. There is a constant awareness in Karen, a calculating expedience that makes it hard to become really close to her.

Deborah Kerr’s biggest plus is that it’s never noticeable that she plays against type. She does the icy, dislikeable sides of Karen with apparent ease and, like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, she seems to enjoy playing the ‘bad girl’. She doesn’t play a bored diva but rather a woman who waited for a long time for the right man to get away from her husband. Behind all the coldness lies an impatient character who can’t wait to get away and live life according to her own will. Only sometimes she plays her role a little too ‘obvious’. The smile with which she presents her husband the news of her decision for a divorce feels too forced and villain-like and it becomes never really clear if Deborah Kerr is trying to show that Karen is a woman who isn’t as cold as cynical as she appears to be or if Deborah Kerr’s own charming personality came into the way and forced her to leave the territory of subtlety for some more ‘obvious’ moments. That way her work sometimes feels too mechanical – that’s why her tragic back story and her unknown future aren’t as interesting as they could have been. Deborah Kerr plays Karen with so much disinterest for everything around her that it’s sometimes hard to keep up the interest in her. That’s why it occasionally appears as if Deborah Kerr was always undecided if she should keep up the façade of bitterness and anger or soften Karen to make her more accessible to the audience. While these moments, when a quiet desperation becomes visible behind her hardened face, are wonderful in itself (her highlight comes in her wordless facial work when she is visiting a nightclub with Warden and simply leans on his shoulders, enjoying the closeness and the sudden feeling of happiness), they often feel disconnected to her overall characterization which is just as much the fault of the script that, while giving her a lot, often doesn’t give her enough.

Deborah Kerr’s co-nominees in 1953 had the disadvantage of having underdeveloped, often uninteresting but at least central characters – Deborah Kerr’s Karen is also underdeveloped and not even central to the plot but she is still the most fascinating character among the group. But as mentioned, this is owed more to the writing than to the acting. The script is both advantage and disadvantage for Deborah Kerr. Even though it’s strong writing, the character appears rather thin because it is mostly defined by things and events that are not shown and that way made it hard for Deborah Kerr to fully embrace the part.

It’s a strong and detailed performance of an even stronger character that is able to fascinate whenever she appears but loses too much in the context of the story which gets

10/25/2010

Best Actress 1953: Maggie McNamara in "The Moon is Blue"

An Oscar nomination never will be and never has been a guarantee for a long and successful career as an actor. A lot of actors and actresses disappeared from the public eye after their nomination but there are surely not a lot of Oscar-nominated performers that seem as obscure as Maggie McNamara. Few names in this category provoke such an universal reaction of ‘Who is that?` like hers, except maybe the nominees in the 20s and early 30s. A lot of times, these unknown performers can surprise with a wonderful performance and make me want to know more about them. But to be honest, Maggie McNamara isn’t among them. Her performance in The Moon is Blue came and go and she disappeared from my memory rather quickly and I only checked out her name again on the internet to find some information about her for this review. There I learned that Maggie McNamara followed her Oscar-nominated debut with a performance in the Best-Picture-nominee Three Coins in the Fountain but after that, things seemed to fall out of place for her. She only acted in a few more films until she became a typist in New York and then committed suicide in 1978, following a history of mental illness. It’s a tragic end to a performer who might have had a great career but we will never know what went wrong. One thing that must might worked against her was maybe the fact that Maggie McNamara began her career in the same year another actress appeared who was even better suited for the kind of roles Maggie McNamara could have played. Just looking at a picture of her, one can’t help but compare her to Audrey Hepburn – the same delicacy, the same sweet appearance but Maggie McNamara didn’t have the same charming aura and charisma and so she probably must have considered herself lucky to even have been cast in The Moon is Blue. One year later, this part would probably have naturally been offered to Audrey Hepburn.

Well, there is no sense in speculating about the possibilities of a career that never was – so what about this Oscar-nominated debut? I didn’t know what to expect of The Moon is Blue before I watched it, I only heard that it was ‘daring’ and had problems with censors in 1953. So, I didn’t know what would be offered to me but somehow I certainly didn’t expect a plot about a young actress who meets an architect, played by William Holden who must have been a sort of lucky charm for actresses in the 50s when it came to Oscar nominations, on the top of the Empire State Building and then follows him to his apartment where she is courted by both him and the father of his ex-fiancé, played by David Niven. It all sounds rather risky and could have been an amusing comedy of manners, but The Moon is Blue is a movie that seems to think of itself as the height of sophistication and wordplay but unfortunately, it all comes together as an incredibly lifeless, dull and sometimes even unpleasant experience. Like a lot of Neil-Simon-plays, The Moon is Blue has everyone talk in such an invariable mix of jibes, jokes, supposedly clever observations or statements but it unfortunately never develops and constantly circles around the same topic – two men who want nothing more than to bed a girl they just met while she keeps up her proper façade and protects her virginity with the most serious dedication.

In the role of the younger suitor, William Holden gives a performance her could do in his sleep while David Niven, who received a Golden Globe, adds some charm and style to the proceedings but the film solely depends on the central performance by Maggie McNamara. And she does succeed in bringing an unique approach to this part but what seems like a breath of fresh air begins to resemble never-ending repetition much too soon. In her first scenes, Maggie McNamara is able to create a certain fascination around her character. She possesses some of the sweetness and naivety that Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron showed that year but at the same time her Patti is obviously more aware of the world – and sex. Maggie McNamara has the thankless job of playing a character who seems perfectly innocent and inexperienced while endlessly talking about sex and ‘virginity’. The trick is that Patti knows everything about sex but decided to wait for the right man. This certainly separates her from the other nominees of 1953 who were either very active in the sexual business or seemed like they never even heard of sex. So, Maggie McNamara’s Patti is a woman who knows what she wants and what she wants to keep but the script so many times bends her character and uses her to proclaim its own sense of failed wit and cleverness that her character basically remains more a scratch than a real woman. Patti says that she doesn’t want to be seduced but at the same time she sees no problem in flirting with two men at the same time, sitting on one’s lap and kissing him.

The movie’s and Maggie McNamara’s problem is that what sounds so modern and open is actually very old-fashioned and done in a way to reach the audience of 1953. Like most other nominees that year, Maggie McNamara has to play an underwritten character but is able to bring a lot more to the movie thanks to her own charm and personality. She plays Patti with an disarming openness and honesty. There seems to be no topic she doesn’t want to talk about but she plays all this with a combination of unique naivety and honest seriousness that very often leaves the other characters speechless, but always in a rather humorous and entertaining kind of way. She’s a woman who is constantly talking about what’s in her mind and who obviously takes everything very seriously but Maggie McNamara plays it all in a manner that is neither playful nor overly earnest – instead, she finds a wonderful combination of both extremes. When William Holden tells her that he can build a cathedral, she earnestly wonders what a cathedral costs these days – a small one. In the hands of Maggie McNamara, Patty sees herself as a very practical and logical woman who may seem rather old-fashioned in her ideas and believes but who is a very lively and lovely spirit. All the time, Maggie McNamara shows that Patti is well aware of what’s in the mind of this man, but she has her own way of handling things. She willingly walks in the cave of the lion but she will surely not allow the lion to eat her (if you forgive this comparison). Maggie McNamara also finds the right tone for her voice which contains an interesting freshness and a bubbly charm that helps her to prevent The Moon is Blue from becoming a complete disaster.

The main problem is that everything that is interesting and fascinating about Maggie McNamara and Patti O’Neill becomes old and uninteresting very soon. Maggie McNamara suffers from a screenplay that is constantly asking her to find new ways to shock or delight the audience but the combination of naivety and seriousness begins to feel very one-dimensional after one gets used to the character and one can’t help but wonder why William Holden and David Niven would continue to be so completely smitten by this strange woman whom they just met a few hours ago. Maggie McNamara plays Patti’s uniqueness in a way that becomes too monotonous too soon and one feels a certain relief when this chatterbox leaves the scenery for a while after having talked almost non-stop for 45 minutes.

Just like the character of Patti O’Neill is neither Princess Ann nor Eloise Kelly, Maggie McNamara possesses neither the sweet charm of Audrey Hepburn nor the sassy personality of Ava Gardener but she finds a balance between them that, as long as it lasts, feels surprisingly intriguing. She doesn’t have the staying power of the other nominees that year which isn’t the fault of Maggie McNamara but of the screenplay that doesn’t offer her one memorable moment or one truly note-worthy line but her performance is still something that is worthwhile in itself.

Maggie McNamara’s biggest success in The Moon is Blue is that she can make Patti a realistic character. Just like Leslie Caron in Lili she has to play a woman who seems so unbelievable in everything she does and who, like Ava Gardener in Mogambo, has to say so many lines that could ruin the whole performance – but Maggie McNamara also found an approach to this part that helped to improve the character thanks to the personality and charm of the actress. The thing is that Maggie McNamara had a big disadvantage in her part compared to her other nominees – that The Moon is Blue has absolutely no idea what to do with its leading lady. As mentioned, she gets to speak the saucy lines but her character is shockingly underdeveloped – she is actually supposed to be an aspiring actress but there is absolutely no sense in this aspect since it is only mentioned once and neither the script nor Maggie McNamara ever remind the viewer of it again. And during The Moon is Blue, one also rather gets the feelings that she tries to become housewife of the year as she basically spends the whole movie either talking or doing housework in another man's apartment.

It’s an overall very unsatisfying movie and leading character – Maggie McNamara tries her best but unfortunately both her performance and her part don’t develop and that way loses the interest of the viewer very soon. Still, Maggie McNamara leaves her own distinct mark on this part and even though Audrey Hepburn would seem like an obvious choice for a different actress in this part, it’s doubtful that she could have portrayed the combination of innocence and a much too-mature spirit in the same effective way. It’s a charming and interesting piece of work that unfortunately couldn’t really rise above the material but the lively presence of Maggie McNamara is still the only reason that The Moon is Blue doesn’t fail completely. A promising debut to a career that sadly never happened which gets

10/24/2010

Best Actress 1953: Ava Gardener in "Mogambo"

In 1953, John Ford directed Ava Gardener to her first and last Oscar nomination in Mogambo, a remake of Victor Flemming’s Red Dust, a story about a love triangle in exotic landscapes. Grace Kelly, age 24, took over the part of Mary Astor, age 26 at the time, and Ava Gardener, age 31, got the part of Jean Harlow, age 21 when Red Dust was made. While Ava Gardener’s character grew older, the women were overall kept young and hot. The male character was allowed to grow considerably, as he was played by the 31-year old Clark Gable in the original and then by the 52-year old Clark Gable in the remake. But since Clark Gable was a true legend, a definite movie star and for most people surely still an attractive man, there seemed to be no real reason to doubt that both Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly would start a cat-fight over him.

Ava Gardener’s Oscar nomination came in the same year that her husband Frank Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity. As legend has it, it was her influence in Hollywood that got him the part – but her influence apparently wasn’t grand enough to get herself an Oscar. Or even another Oscar nomination.

On the first look, it is certainly surprising that a movie like Mogambo, which is not more than a soap-opera set in the African jungle, was able to receive two acting nominations but on the second look it becomes clear that Grace Kelly’s and Ava Gardener’s performances are the only redeeming factor in a movie that is often entertaining, but also surprisingly inadequate and sometimes downright laughable. While Grace Kelly and Ava Gardener knew how to craft characters that both inhabit the style of the movie but also kept their own dignity in the process, Clark Gable decided to go for full macho and more than once makes a rather pathetic impression by keeping a stern and lifeless façade in every possible situation. Yes, from this point of view, the female leads certainly deserve some praise for portraying their characters in a manner that made the story entertaining and watchable but not silly. In a way, Ava Gardener has the same problems like her co-nominees Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn – weak material that demands a dedicated performance and a lot of star personality to make it work. But Ava Gardener certainly didn’t bring the same sweet and heartwarming charm to her part – instead, her Eloise Y. ‘Honey Bear’ Kelly is the kind of woman a man could romance first and then take to the nearest bar for a beer. Ava Gardener uses her sassy charm and her outspoken personality to create a woman who, as the viewer immediately realizes, is as much a buddy as as romantic interest, a good sport and, like Gable realizes five minutes later, truly alright.

In her first scenes, she doesn’t play a diva who is stranded in the middle of nowhere, but rather a woman who has a very practical sense about everything, who uses her sexual charisma mostly to provoke a little fun instead of true attraction and who can just as easily adjust herself to a live in the jungle as she could to a live in a palace. Most of all, Ava Gardener’s Eloise is a character who, like the most natural thing in the world, becomes the immediate center of attention without even trying. But she achieves this not simply by her looks – Eloise may look like a lady but she possesse the mouth of fishwife and has no problem to joke with the guys around her. Her sarcasm and unique wit, her sense of humor but also straightfowardness create a very captivating and entertaining character who not only becomes the center of attention, but also the center of the whole movie. Eloise is a woman who can throw little jokes and quibs around but she can also take it – she has no problem to cope with either Linda’s snobbish disdain or Victor’s apparent disinterest. She does all this by keeping her true nature in front and that way combines many things – loyalty, friendship, humor and honesty. The character of a mature performer might easily have become a scheming manipulator against an innocent, inexperienced young bride like Grace Kelly’s Linda but in Mogambo, they actually switched sterotypes and Eloise became the good-hearted and likeable companion, even though certainyl not innocent or helpless.

That way Ava Gardener’s Eloise became a lot of things – she’s the movie’s comic relief, its emotional core and its conscience. She doesn’t lust after Clark Gable’s Victor but instead lets things happen, she watches over Linda not only as a competitor but also as a protector of her marriage. Ava Gardener shows Eloise as a woman who is always aware of what she is doing and what’s going on, even if she may appear rather devil-may-care and easygoing most of the time. But Ava Gardener succeeded in avoiding to sell her character short – she is given so much silly and almost demeaning dialogue but she somehow was not only able to survive this by giving Eloise a free-spirted and captivating edge but she actually widened her character to show that, contrary to what the screenplay may suggest, there is actually a much more mature, serious and intelligent woman underneath the surface. That way, Ava Gardener was able to connect the different aspects of an unevenly written character and found the right balance between the sarcastic humor and lack of self-awarness with more quiet moments. When Eloise suddenly talks about her late husband, who was killed over Berlin, the whole scene could have easily felt immensely out of tone with the campy nature of the movie, but Ava Gardener made it work surprisingly well. It’s an unexpected and new side of a character the audience easily embraced from the first moment but unfortunately, these moments don’t last and very soon, everything is back to the level of cheap melodrama.

While Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly not only found the right way to play their characters but also had a wonderful chemistry of dislike and aversion that fitted the style of Mogambo perfectly, their relationships to Clark Gable are unfortunately not so well developed which is mostly his fault since he seems to have absolutely no interest to share the screen with either of the two women. And so, maybe in some scenes, Ava Garderner’s work as Eloise is a little too loveable. For the viewer, it becomes clear after one minute that her down-to-earth and humorous character is a much better catch than Grace Kelly’s snobbish and hysterical Linda and it could have been engaging to see Gable struggle with his feelings until he finally sees what everyone else sees but Gable’s performance is too bored and stone-like for this to work and his chemistry with everyone else, including Gardener, too non-existent. Because of that, Gardener’s interpretation of Eloise could have used a little more strength and independence from Gable’s work. But even though she is not fully convincing in the romantic aspects of the story, Gardener still recognized that the relationship between Eloise and Victor is not traditionally romantic but instead marked by companionship and humor and she was able to create these moments very believable. That way, Eloise is not a typically romantic heroine, but rather even an anti-heroine who makes an engaging and fascinating character nonetheless and believably wins the hero’s heart.

Ava Gardener makes her Eloise very earthy and immediately likeable and she basically meets all the challenges of the script but it can’t be denied that these challenges are set very low. Ava Gardener’s personality fits the part just right but this soap opera never demands of her to stretch her talents but always seems like a warm-up for more to come. Ava Gardener is stuck in the dilemma of being nice to look at, entertaining, charming and doing what she had to do without leaving any impression. She is very often wickedly funny and provides the movie's best moments and basically steals Mogambo but despite that, she doesn’t really make it worthwhile. She may be the best thing about the whole affair, but strangely she’s neither the most interesting nor the most captivating aspect of it. As stereotypical and melodramatic the plot may be, it’s still the only real reason to see Mogambo and that way Ava Gardener is in the curious position of overshadowing the movie and being overshadowed by it at the same time. And while her nomination was surely a nice way to acknowledge that she was more than just an attractive actress, it didn’t turn her into a serious character actress or offered her new possibilities to improve her talents. The reason may probably be that Mogambo, even though it received two acting nominations, isn’t the kind of movie that impresses with its performances and it’s doubtful that Ava Gardener’s sexy but earthy, humorous but serious, but in the end too unremarkable turn would have been recognized by the Academy in a more crowded year. A peculiar and unique turn that gets

10/20/2010

Best Actress 1953: Leslie Caron in "Lili"

Leslie Caron began her acting career quite impressively. After having been discovered by Gene Kelly who was looking for a ballet dancer for the female lead in what would become the Best Picture Winner An American in Paris, she received her first Oscar nomination only two years later at the age of 22 for her performance in the musical comedy Lili.

Just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, Leslie Caron has to handle extremely light material while also filling it with some darker and more emotional moments. And also like Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron bases most parts of her performance on her own personality, her freshness and vibrant youth, combined with her delicateness and seemingly naivety that soon disappears to show a young woman who is only looking for love and happiness.

Lili is a charming, innocent and harmless story that surprisingly never turns into pure kitsch or laughableness. It tells about Lili, a 16-year old, naïve girl from the country whose father died and who wants to find an old friend of his in a provincial town to help her – only to find out that he died, too. She meets an artist from a touring circus and falls in love with him but he shows no interest in her and after she lost her job as a waitress, Lili decides to kill herself but she is rescued in a rather surprising manner – by four puppets, controlled by Paul, the circus’s puppeteer. Through these puppets he talks to Lili, and she, apparently not realising that they are controlled by a man behind a curtain, begins to talk to them, too. The interaction between Lili and the puppets soon becomes a major attraction in the circus but the relationship between Lili and Paul, who is a bitter and frustrated man, wounded in World War II and not able to perform as a dancer anymore, is marked by rejection and disputes whenever he is not hiding behind that curtain.

As mentioned, the plot of Lili certainly sounds like a light and slight story which it definitely is but there are also some more serious and dark moments that never seem out of place or forced into the story but instead create an effective and engaging movie that is certainly not to be taken too seriously but also shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. Especially Mel Ferrer’s performance as Paul provides the movie’s most effective and interesting moments while Leslie Caron finds herself in a role that asks her to combine naivety, sweetness and a growing maturity in a cynical and often dark surrounding.

Her biggest challenge that would also provide Leslie Caron with her biggest success in this part is the naivety of the character. If a young girl earnestly talking to four dolls about her life, her love and her inner thoughts didn’t stretch credibility in 1953, it certainly does today. But there is something so innocent and so sweet about Leslie Caron’s performance that feels to completely realistic and believable that even the viewer seems to forget reality at this moment. These scenes are the heart and soul of the picture, they define the relationship between Paul and Lili, they tell each other the things they couldn’t say face to face and, after all, the puppets prevent Lili from killing herself – if all these scenes would have been appeared fake, laughable and silly, the whole movie would have collapsed under its own premises but Leslie Caron found the exact right tone of seriousness mixed with light comedy to make it captivating but not overly dramatic, amusing but not stupid. The set-up may be too contrived for its own good but Leslie Caron knows how to sell it.

When she begins to sing the catchy “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” with Mel Ferrer and his puppets, one can even forget how underdeveloped and, sadly, forgettable Leslie Caron’s Lili actually is. Even more like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, Leslie Caron suffers from the thin writing and the fact that her character is, too, more like a plot device without real dimension. But Leslie Caron also suffers from the fact that she, unlike Audrey Hepburn, doesn’t possess enough charm and star quality to completely carry the picture. Her sweetness and freshness does provide enough merit to make Lili work, but she is constantly overshadowed by Mel Ferrer in a much more complex (well, as complex as the structure of Lili allows) and demanding part. Mel Ferrer has to act. Leslie Caron has to be sweet. While this sweetness shouldn’t be brushed aside as undemanding too quickly (it is certainly demanding to make the naivety of Lili believable) her character still lacks too many things to become an outstanding piece of acting. Audrey Hepburn was, despite all obstacles, able to make her Princess Ann unforgettable. Leslie Caron wasn’t able to do the same which is probably also the fault of Lili itself which never reaches the quality of Roman Holiday or provides Leslie Caron with the same possibilities.

But thankfully, Leslie Caron is also able to make her more serious scenes believable without denying the core of the character. Especially at the beginning of the story, Lili who seems so impossibly unaware and helpless could have appeared exaggerated but again, Leslie Caron plays the scenes with the right amount of seriousness and lightness to find an appealing balance. Her fear of a local merchant who is too obviously trying to take advantage of her and her flight out of his shop create an absorbing introduction of Lili’s characteristics and Leslie Caron isn’t afraid to show her as a character who is active in her passiveness – she actively tries to find a life where somebody may take care of her and help her. She shows her neediness when she follows a group of men to the circus in hope that they may help her but again, it all works very well in the context of the story’s overall mood – light and charming, a bit serious, but never really dramatic.

Besides succeeding in showing Lili’s naivety, Leslie Caron’s performance also works very well in showing how this naivety slowly begins to change and makes room for more realistic views – Lili, after all only 16 years old, begins to grow and develops a sense of self-awareness, of reflection and an ability to think in larger terms outside of her own views. Leslie Caron interestingly doesn’t overdo this but keeps the character of Lili intact – she shows that this growth in character doesn’t concern Lili as a whole but rather her life at the circus, she begins to realize what she should do and how to act in relation to Paul but this doesn’t mean that Lili stopped being a naïve 16-year old girl. Leslie Caron doesn’t forget that Lili shows only a part of Lili and not her whole life and so she focused on the development in context of the story and not of Lili’s complete character.

Leslie Caron’s chemistry with Mel Ferrer is the most interesting point of the story as they both seem to work best together when they don’t share the screen and instead communicate over the four little puppets but there is also a captivating intensity in their ‘normal’ moments. His frustration and bitterness, which he uses to hide his true feelings of helplessness and fear, work very well with Leslie Caron, whose Lili possesses exact the same feelings of helplessness and fear, only she is more open and honest about them until she finally is able to change and stand up to Paul. Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer can’t express the romantic aspects of their relationship openly and instead only have the puppet scenes to create them, when they are separated by a black curtain. And both are up to the difficulty of these scenes surprisingly well. Later, Leslie Caron uses her emotional scenes effectively to build a stark contrast to the lost girl she portrayed at the beginning.

Of course, since Lili is a musical comedy starring Leslie Caron who impressed with her dancing talents in An American in Paris, the movie also includes some dream sequences that allow her to impress again. Unfortunately, these scenes are the only ones in the movie that feel out-of-place and don’t work in the context of the story. On top of that, Leslie Caron lacks the fascination in these scenes to make them truly work. Her dancing is nice to look at but the execution of the scenes is done too poorly.

In the end, Lili is more than a children’s story but at the same time wants to be too much at the same time and even the more serious moments of the story can’t hide the banality and sentimentality of the characters, especially the title character. Unlike Audrey Hepburn, who could so easily dominate the screen and turn her material into gold, Leslie Caron never manages to hide the simplicity of her part and the banality of the story behind her performance – instead, she even rather emphasises it. She also doesn’t achieve the same level as Audrey Hepburn when it comes to being flawless in a flawed part. She doesn’t provoke the feeling of being irreplaceable or even of being particularly memorable. Leslie Caron effectively portrays the sweetness and naivety of the character and is that way much more believable than expected but if the highlight of a performance are the scenes when the character is talking to four puppets, then it becomes clear that this is a role that, even with a serious and dedicated performance, doesn’t offer a real challenge and makes it hard to be taken fully seriously. In the end, the combination of sweetness, seriousness, dedication in Leslie Caron’s performance and the shallowness of the part receive

10/18/2010

Best Actress 1953: Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday"

It seems to be a well-known trivia fact today that Gregory Peck, who should have received sole above-the-tile billing for Roman Holiday, insisted that newcomer Audrey Hepburn should be billed above the title, too – because, as he put it, she was sure to win an Oscar for her role and become an international superstar. And the rest is history.

It is certainly not a surprise that Roman Holiday turned little, unknown Audrey Hepburn into one of the most beloved actresses of the 20th century. Her angelic face, her delicate appearance and her completely winning charm were never better used than in the part of Princess Ann, a royal girl from an unknown country who suffers from her duties and escapes her guards one night to experience a day of freedom and fun in the Eternal City. It’s probably one of the most perfect combinations of actress and part in cinema history – it’s a light and charming story that hasn’t any other goal than entertain the audience and the character of Princess Ann is more a plot-device for this purpose than anything else and so it needed an actress who was able to carry the story, fill the part with the sparking personality required but could also add some depth and layers to be believable as a true princess and succeed in the more emotional parts of the movie.

Right from the start, Audrey Hepburn demonstrates all the qualities that made her such an iconic and popular figure. She is able to control the screen but never in a domineering or attention-seeking way – instead, she immediately creates an aura of such poise, grace, elegance and charm that it seems impossible to not be completely absorbed by her personality. It is this personality that adds so much more to the written words on the page – in theory, the character of Princess Ann is incredibly thin, underwritten and unlike anything else that the Oscars or critics would usually praise. But Audrey Hepburn so naturally and, yes, flawlessly, adds this overwhelming amount of likeability, of familiarity but also mystery, of being strangely close while also being so distant, that Princess Ann, for some strange reason, turns into a simply unforgettable creation. From an observing point of view, it’s unmistakable that there is much missing in the character – still, Audrey Hepburn not only fulfills the tasks of the script but she takes the quality of the script so much further that it seems impossible that any other actress could have done the same. But she doesn’t do this by an overwhelming display of talent but solely thanks to her winning personality that could basically even turn a performance where she doesn’t do anything but stand around and smile for two hours into pure gold. So the question is: how much credit can one give Audrey Hepburn for giving a charming and loveable performance thanks to her charming and loveable personality?

The truth is that the character of Princess Ann is both tricky and simple. It demands of an actress to be a ray of light, a bubbly and charming presence – but if this charm comes easily to an actress, like Audrey Hepburn, than there isn’t much else left. The character requires 80% charm and 20% talent and Audrey Hepburn, while incredibly talented, gives consequently a performance that is 80% charm and 20% acting. It comes down to the eternal question: what is Oscar-worthy? Can it only be a tour-de-force that includes suffering, crying and screaming? Can it only be a challenging and difficult role or can it also be a light and charming part – when done right? What is better – a half-good performance in a challenging part or a good performance in an easy part? This performance doesn’t give any clues but there are ways to judge her properly.

So, after having talked so much about Audrey Hepburn’s charm and personality – what about her actual acting? Happily, one can say that she doesn’t do what William Wyler did – while Roman Holiday solely rests on Audrey Hepburn’s charm and smiles, she herself does much more and actually crafts a real person out of the thin writing. She doesn’t only show her glorious smile, she also evokes an unforgettable sadness, the familiar longing for a simpler and happier life that is so often presented in movies that concern themselves with people of royal status. Audrey Hepburn shows the underlying youth and inner fire in her character, a woman who is forced by protocol to be much more mature and grown-up than she actually is. Her look from her bedroom to a party outside, her eyes filled with excitement, envy and sadness, her breakdown in her bed, her longing for joy in a surrounding that doesn’t allow it is wonderfully done – not only believable, entertaining and engaging but also very mature and with the apparent experiment of a real pro in front of the camera. Nothing seems to indicate how new Audrey Hepburn actually was to the business.

So, it seems that Audrey Hepburn’s performance is basically not only entertaining and charming, but actually flawless from all the angles one looks at it. Because she doesn’t only act the part but carries it to a higher level thanks to her own charm. That way she succeeds in all the tasks of the script and even more. But again, it comes down to the simply too grand simplicity and shallowness of the role. Audrey Hepburn literally sleep-walks through the first half of the movie – she does have some amusing line-readings (“I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s MOST unusual.”) and her acting is still captivating (“Is this the elevator?”) but it feels like it takes forever until the Princess finally wakes up again and the actual story of the movie begins – not even Audrey Hepburn can prevent a certain feeling of boredom during the first 40 or 50 minutes of the movie. The highlights of Roman Holiday are the scenes when we actually watch a Roman holiday – and can see Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visiting all the famous sights, driving on a motor roller, having fun at the Mouth of Truth or getting out of a police station. All these scenes are very entertaining and Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn not only magnificently carry the story but they also develop an exquisite chemistry in a relationship that is both wonderfully human but also full of lies but all these scenes are only a loose series of amusing moments of enjoyment on behalf of Audrey Hepburn in which she has nothing else to do but have a little fun in Rome. The screenplay offers her some chances to show that Princess Ann doesn’t forget who she is and that these moments of pleasure will not last for her but these are much too rare and Audrey Hepburn doesn’t find any shades in Ann which she could use. When it comes to acting, she sticks by the screenplay and gives an expected performance, it’s again only her charm and personality that turns it into something one-of-a-kind and unusual. How can one judge a performance that is basically perfect but not because of the acting but only because of the actress?

It all comes down to the part and the fact, that on the level of difficulty, this role certainly is among the least challenging ever rewarded with a golden statuette. But not only the Oscars fell in love with Audrey Hepburn that year – her win at the New York Film Critics and her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama (surely a debatable category placement) prove that Audrey Hepburn was simply something so new and different to the cinematic landscape that it seemed impossible to ignore her. Just like Bette Davis almost 20 years earlier, Audrey Hepburn seemed like a revelation – now, almost 60 years later, Roman Holiday seems like a typical Audrey-Hepburn-performance which she has surpassed later in her career with various more challenging and difficult roles.

Luckily for Audrey Hepburn, the later moments of the movie go in a much deeper territory and actually provide her with the scenes needed to turn Ann from nothing into something. Her final scene in Gregory Peck’s apartment is a little heartbreaking moment that Audrey Hepburn used very wisely to show that sadness and misery come just as easily to her as joy and happiness. When she returns to her home and meets the servants and tells them that she only came back because of her duties for her people, Audrey Hepburn shows how much Princess Ann has grown in this one day – even though she was only out to have some fun, she learned more about herself and her responsibilities than in all the years before.

What crowns Audrey Hepburn’s performance is the final press conference. In these few scenes, she again uses her doll-like face in the most expressive way and proves that, if asked to, she could rise to the tasks of more difficult acting. What’s most impressive about her in this scene is the fast amount of emotions she goes through without over- or underdoing it. Audrey Hepburn effectively uses a style of ‘light drama’ that serves this scene the best. Her change from shock to confusion to fear to relief to sadness, mixed with a certain sense of happiness, a feeling of Je-ne-regrette-rien, is simply wonderful to watch in its simplicity. She doesn’t overdo these scenes to show a large amount of suffering in Ann nor does she go for a classic smile-through-tears. Instead, she shows a woman who knows that she cannot change anything about her situation but who knows that, at least for one day, she was able to experience more happiness than in her whole lifetime – and that this one day is memory for her to keep forever. Her delivery of the line “I will cherish this visit here in memory…as long as I live” is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time and she manages to create a moment that is both devastating and a Happy End at the same time, a logical outcome that seems disappointing but also right.

In a performance that is so easy to enjoy thanks to the light nature of the movie, so easy to love because of Audrey Hepburn’s star power and yet so difficult to praise, Audrey Hepburn does nothing wrong and definitely deserves some kind of award for so effectively combining charm with acting – but the feeling remains that what is so overwhelming in its efficiency and its service to the quality of the movie is at the same time so underwhelming in terms of pure acting. Again, how does one judge a performance where the acting is actually flawless but the role so undemanding? Take away Audrey Hepburn’s charming personality and what actually remains? – a thin and underwritten character and a competent and nice performance, but nothing more. To her credit, Audrey Hepburn never makes the simplicity of Princess Ann noticeable. It’s probably her biggest success that she was able to turn Roman Holiday into such a wonderful movie despite the fact that almost nothing really happens and the whole things seems more like a giant advertisement for the Eternal City. Audrey Hepburn turns nothing into gold in a way no other actress could have had – but then, no other actress had her face and her smile. More than anything, this is a case of excellent casting rather than brilliant acting. Audrey Hepburn may succeed in this part, but there was actually nothing she could do wrong – both because the writing is too undemanding and the part of Princess Ann fitted her so completely that even with a bad performance, her charming personality would still have been satisfying enough.

If only there would have been a more even balance of charm and acting, a more demanding combination like Gwyneth Paltrow showed in Shakespeare in Love or, of course, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Audrey Hepburn may be perfect but this doesn’t change the fact that Princess Ann is a character that is too under-developed and underwritten and so, in the end, she gets

10/15/2010

Best Actress 1953


The next year will be 1953 and the nominees were

Leslie Caron in Lili

Ava Gardener in Mogambo

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday

Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity

Maggie McNamara in The Moon is Blue

10/14/2010

Best Actress 1985 - The resolution

After having watched and reviewed all five nominated performances, it's time to pick the winner!



Anne Bancroft gives a competent and sometimes very appealing performance that unfortunately never becomes truly memorable or outstanding because of both the writing and the acting which tends to let too many chances go by.



                     
One could say that Meryl Streep gives a ‘standard’ performance but for a woman of her talents, this still means high quality work. Combined with the interesting part of Karen Blixen in a beautiful and moving epic, she was able to give a multidimensional and thoughtful performance that catches a lot of different angles of her character without feeling too forced or dominating.

Jessica Lange may not really become Patsy Cline but she creates an image of a well-known artist and brings it to a captivating life and that way is able to expand the fascination of the real Patsy Cline – she doesn’t completely satisfy the viewer but she awakes an interest about the true Patsy Cline, her life and her work which results in a performance that seems to be more a tribute than a biography but she achieves this goal on a high level. 



2. Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple

Whoopi Goldberg creates an always growing woman, a flowing character who seems steady and withdrawn but grows scene by scene which Whoopi Goldberg underlines with an intelligent and heartbreaking performances that brings all the tragedies of Celie's existence to life without letting them appear too sentimental.



1. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful

Like few others, this performance is able to move the viewer with things that are never seen – it’s only an elderly woman and her dreams of the past, there are no heartbreaking images except the ones that Geraldine Page displays on her face. She has only herself to carry the story and create these images and she succeeded completely without ever making everything too corny or exaggerated. In her performance, she perfectly balanced her own experiences as an actress and the experiences of Carrie Watts to heartbreaking results.



Best Actress 1985: Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple"

I guess I’m not the only one who was introduced to Whoopi Goldberg by her distinctive comedy work, sometimes slapstick, sometimes silly, sometimes intelligent, but always broad and loud. So it was always kind of surprising for me that she actually started her movie career as a serious dramatic actress in Spielberg’s sentimental movie version of The Color Purple, a story about abuse, incest and spiritual liberation. Hers is certainly one of the more acclaimed movie debuts in history and, considering her acclaim and her Golden-Globe-win, she might easily have become the first black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar if it hadn’t been for Geraldine Page who combined a strong performance with her legendary reputation and over-due status. In the end, it all worked out well for Whoopi since she would finally win an Oscar 5 years later after changing over to the territory we all know and love her for – the hilarious and loud comedy.

In The Color Purple, Whoopi Goldberg played Celie – a young, uneducated, apparently simple-minded woman who lives with an abusive husband after having already been abused by her father of whom she received two children. Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t enter the movie until about 30 minutes and she has a very difficult entrance – because up to that time the young Celie had been played by Desreta Jackson who gave a very moving and effective performance as the abused and suffering Celie so far and also delivered the movie’s most heartbreaking moment, the separation from her beloved sister by her husband. It is very often rather annoying or disappointing for a viewer when a character one has come close to is suddenly played by a different actor and especially in this case, when the young actress has left such a strong impression like Desreta Jackson, it could have been a disastrous interruption of the flow of the story, but thankfully Whoopi Goldberg was more than up to the task to take over the part and give such a strong and powerful performance that the change goes by almost unnoticed.

Like every serious movie that Spielberg makes, there is a distinctive ‘Spielberg-touch’, the danger of coming to close into the territory of cheap sentimentality or mistreatment of the seriousness of the topic. The Color Purple is certainly sentimental but surprisingly it still works very well thanks to the strong cast – the strong female cast, that is. Danny Glover lacks too much credibility and he also suffers from the fact that his character, an abusive and unlikable husband, is treated too often like some sort of comic-relief which destroys too much of the effect and feels too out-of-place. The whole movie sometimes dares to collapse under Spielberg’s touch but it is to the credit of Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey that everything still turns out to be so moving and captivating.

Right from the first moment Whoopi Goldberg appears on the screen she perfectly captures a child-like attitude, a sense of frightened innocence and enjoyment of life – she seems to be in a constant state of fear of her husband but she also has accustomed herself to her life and knows how to handle it in her own ways. Her performance always remains seemingly simple and in total harmony with the character of Celie but, despite her inexperience as a movie actress, Whoopi Goldberg added much more complexity and multi-dimensionality to the part than written on the page. She always keeps that child-like attitude about Celie at the beginning of her performance – her curiosity and fear when Shug arrives, her sadness when she leaves, her wide-eyed excitement, underlined with a wide, child-like grin, at Shug’s opening of a new world until Whoopi Goldberg slowly changes Celie to demonstrate how she finally grows up. Whoopi Goldberg manages to give an intelligent performance of a character that has been repressed and kept in ignorance all her life. There is nothing stereotypical about her but the realization that Celie is a woman who could do anything she wants if she was given the opportunity. This heartbreaking performances manages the trick to be complex only to appear simple and bring a character to live who seems simple only to emerge as complex.

The character of Celie is very tricky because she is both very monotonous and overshadowed. The introvert character of Celie could very easily become annoying but Whoopi Goldberg is able to keep the viewer’s interest and demonstrate the inner change in Celie without letting it become too sudden. Whoopi Goldberg’s face that expresses and represses so many emotions, her worn-out tiredness while remaining a faithful and lively spirit help her to make scenes like the one when she tells her step-son to beat his wife into obedience believable without letting her character be judged. Whoopi Goldberg is able to captivate the viewer by showing the apparent hopelessness in Celie but she also adds a certain sense of strength, of possibilities, a feeling that Celie is a woman who might be able to escape one day.
Besides the danger of appearing too one-dimensional Whoopi Goldberg has another obstacle to overcome – the fact that the character of Celie is often too invisible next to the supporting players. In fact, Whoopi Goldberg threatens to be overshadowed by both the supporting actresses and the writing. The screenplay gives her the most prominent part and puts her fate in the middle of the action but it provides the supporting players with a much stronger parts that both are influenced by their surroundings but also create themselves and that way also create a new Celie. And Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey take these parts and use every opportunity they offer them to leave their mark on the story. That way, the supporting players, written and acted much more active, domineering and captivating, easily put the character of Celie in the background – but Whoopi Goldberg is such a strong presence on the screen and knows how to use Celie as a symbol of suffering and ultimate liberation, how to present her fate in a constant changing light, that she prevents her from being overshadowed and puts her into a line with Shugh and Sofia. That way she makes her transition believable and turns Celie into the driving force of the story even she isn’t.

The Color Purple shows how friendship and support help Celie to find herself and her freedom – and love. Even though the relationship between Celie and Shug was changed from love to friendship in the movie, the long kiss between them and the camera movement still tell enough. Whoopi Goldberg is smart enough to avoid any pathos in her role. She plays Celie with a straight-forward dramatic intension, mixed with a little sense of comedy. The final scenes are again a perfect example of the effective sentimentality of the story – it feels a little too manipulative for its own good but the whole reunion scene is so heartbreaking thanks to Whoopi Goldberg whose facial expressions and shaking body work so perfectly with Spielberg’s concept. She runs along with the sentimentality of the story but at the same time she keeps her dignity and rises above the directorial intentions – just like she did for the entire movie. Who can forget her ‘Nettie!’ when she finally reunites with her sister? It’s a perfect delivery of a single name that expresses excitement, happiness, disbelief and realization of a new life and a new time. It’s the highpoint in Celie’s journey of self discovery, a gift for her own strength. Sentimental? Sure. But does Whoopi Goldberg know how to find every nuance of dignity and heartbreaking emotions while never selling the character short to gain the audience’s sympathy? Definitely.

Just as moving is the scene when Celie finds the letters of her sister. Suddenly, Nettie, who has left Celie’s life years ago, comes back and all the lost hopes and feelings come back to Celie. Again, Whoopi Goldberg wonderfully underplays the scene without any great emotions and instead lets the moving situation influence her and react. This word perfectly describes her performance which is so often a ‘reacting’ performance but Whoopi Goldberg also knows how to demonstrate that Celie is much more active than expected, a curious and smart woman.

At the table scene, Whoopi Goldberg wonderfully stays in character when Celie suddenly snaps – and thanks to Whoopi Goldberg’s magnificent portrayal so far, this has been the moment everyone has been waiting for. When Celie suddenly speaks up and defies her husband and the conventions and finds the way how to use her inner strength – she didn’t just find this inner strength, it has been inside her for a long time but now she arrived at the moment when she dares to let it out. Whoopi Goldberg keeps Celie’s calm safe, she doesn’t go over-the-top with grand emotions but plays this scene with a gripping intensity that becomes almost magical.

Whoopi Goldberg creates an always growing woman, a flowing character who seems steady and withdrawn but grows scene by scene which Whoopi Goldberg underlines with an intelligent and heartbreaking performance that brings all the tragedies of Celie’s existence to life without letting them appear too sentimental. For this, she gets

10/12/2010

Best Actress 1985: Jessica Lange in "Sweet Dreams"

Surprisingly, Jessica Lange didn’t receive any other awards attention for her performance as ill-fated, legendary country singer Patsy Cline than a nomination at the Academy Awards – not even a nod from the Golden Globes which have an extra category for performances like hers. But the Oscars continued their love affair with Jessica Lange and gave her her fourth nomination in four years.

I am completely unfamiliar with American country music and all that I know about it has been taught to me by a movie that will forever be seen as the superior version of the two biographies about the two first ladies of Country Music – Coal Miner’s Daughter which features Sissy Spacek’s acclaimed and award-winning role as country singer Loretta Lynn. And this means that Patsy Cline has already come alive again for me by Beverly D’Angelo’s celebrated but sadly unnominated supporting performance. The fact that Beverly D’Angelo did her own singing while Jessica Lange, like so many actors and actresses in biographies about singers, lip-synched Patsy Cline’s famous voice and that hers is a showy and scene-stealing turn made it hard for Jessica Lange to follow her footsteps. But even though Sweet Dreams does tend to be rather forgotten compared to Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange gives a wonderful and passionate performance in a character that she both copies and creates herself.

Right at the beginning, the fact that Jessica Lange doesn’t sing the songs herself becomes painfully obvious – the difference between Jessica’s speaking voice and Patsy Cline’s incredibly distinctive vocals is too big and sometimes Jessica Lange also lacks credibility in her singing scenes. But these impressions begin to slim down very quickly – it seems that Jessica Lange became more relaxed in the later scenes and improved the lip-synching until Jessica and Patsy really seemed to have become one. Playing a real-life character can be done in various ways – by copying the looks and mannerisms of the person or by creating the character by oneself, focusing more on the inner characteristics than the outside. In Sweet Dreams, Jessica Lange did the latter – she may not really look like Patsy Cline or make the viewer forget for one second that this is Jessica Lange on the screen, but she fills her part with an inner fire, a playfulness of a fun-loving girl combined with the seriousness and determination of a true artist to create her own version of Patsy Cline which still makes a believable and captivating performance. That’s why the lip-synching becomes less obvious after a while – Jessica Lange may not be Patsy Cline but she does create something on the stage that shows a true and living artist, a fascinating performer who can stand on its own without being reduced to a pale comparison to the original.

Apparently, this is one of the few parts (maybe even the only part) that Meryl Streep desperately wanted and didn’t get. And while Meryl Streep certainly would have given a great performance, too, Jessica Lange leaves a distinctive mark on this role and her ability to play characters with much more freedom and spontaneity, her talent to live in the moment instead of preparing the moment like Meryl Streep does, helps her to be incredibly effective in the one characteristic that seems to be important for every country singer – a sassy and lively charm, a free spirit, a woman who enjoys every moment of live even when it offers her nothing but sorrow and pain. This may make Patsy an appealing and somewhat stereotypical character but Jessica Lange also shows a vulnerability beneath Patsy’s strong exterior that shows how much she was able to build a character without simply trying to imitate another artist. Jessica Lange also succeeds in showing both sides of Patsy Cline’s music – the rousing, fast and entertaining melodies and the heart-breaking and poignant ballads. When she sings ‘Sweet Dreams’ at the end on a stage, she shows that Patsy completely lives in her work, her hands moving without a direction, completely overwhelmed by her own dedication to her craft. Again, the lip-synching is very obvious but as mentioned before, Jessica Lange creates something beyond the pure imitation and is able to create a fascinating on-stage performance to a fascinating off-stage voice – both may not blend together but they exist fascinatingly next to each other.

The biggest challenge in playing a famous artist is the fact that the audience only knows the public side of this artist – the private, more personal sides have to be investigated with more care by the actor or actress because they demand to keep the well-known spirit alive but also add more layers and dimensions to the character that work in perfect harmony with the well-known images of the artist. Jessica Lange succeeded in this area by simply investing both the public and the private Patsy with that recognizable sassy charm and lively spirit – this way she maybe reduces some aspects of the character too much but she is able to find a constant in Patsy Cline that connects the public and private sides believable. She shows that Patsy Cline is a born artist but not in an obsessive way – she has the talent and the charisma to dominate a stage but she does this because she loves it and she loves it because it fulfills her. Patsy Cline knows what she can but also that she has to work for fame – her success isn’t a surprise to her but the result of dedication and hard work. But still, Jessica Lange doesn’t let Patsy Cline the artist dominate Patsy Cline the woman and she shows that there is always more to Patsy than the performer on the stage.

In these ‘private’ scenes, it’s Patsy Cline’s relationship with her husband Charlie, played by Ed Harris, that receives the most attention. This relationship is both captivating and confusing. The ups and downs of their marriage that go from romantic tenderness to domestic violence, their constant fights, the love and hate between them never reaches the level of Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter or, ironically, Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, mainly because Ed Harris fails to show why Patsy is so fascinated by this man. Jessica Lange does her best to carry the scenes of their relationship to a higher level but in Ed Harris she has a screen partner who focused too much on being unpleasant and dislikable without any redeeming feature that would give their scenes together the edge needed. This is another point where Coal Miner’s Daughter wins again against Sweet Dreams as Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, who both portray a quite similar couple, know exactly how to make their relationship believable. Here, it’s hard to understand why Patsy would remain with this man after she has already left another husband before – the screenplay doesn’t hint at any reason, a self-destructive behavior or passionate obsession. Jessica Lange’s strong characterization and the screenplay’s actions sometimes seem to drift too far apart and she and Ed Harris simply lack the chemistry needed to really make these parts of the movie work. That way, the lyrics of ‘Sweet Dreams’, telling of a woman who should hate a man but keeps loving him, don’t really connect with Patsy Cline’s life as presented in Sweet Dreams because it’s simply too hard to understand.

In the end, Jessica Lange’s star qualities provide the movie with the spark needed to raise it above mediocrity but one can’t help but feel that she would ultimately have been helped by a better movie – because she obviously would have been able to carry it. Her best scenes are with Ann Wedgeworth who plays her supportive mother since both actresses create a comfortable aura and a believable mother-daughter-relationship that more than once provides the movie’s most interesting moments.

Jessica Lange may not really become Patsy Cline but she creates an image of a well-known artist and brings it to a captivating life and that way is able to expand the fascination of the real Patsy Cline – she doesn’t completely satisfy the viewer but she awakes an interest about the true Patsy Cline, her life and her work which results in a performance that seems to be more a tribute than a biography but she achieves this goal on a high level. This fascination is only caused by Jessica Lange’s performance since she gives the movie a spirit and live that it wouldn’t have without her.

It’s not a perfect performance but still a devoted and respectful tribute to a great artist that gets

10/11/2010

Best Actress 1985: Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa"

Another Best Actress line-up of the 80s, another nominated Meryl-Streep-performance, another accent. In 1985, she was nominated for her performance as Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who follows her new husband to Africa and experiences wild nature and wild romance in Out of Africa. The movie was certainly very popular with the Academy and its win for Best Picture elevated Meryl Streep into an elite circle of performers who have had prominent parts in 3 Best Picture winners.

Out of Africa is an opulent, romantic and, despite its length, very captivating epic that presents beautiful people in beautiful landscapes, supported by a beautiful score. Still, all these ingredients don’t turn Out of Africa into Gone with the Wind, another long epic that puts an unconventional female character in the center. But the comparisons to Gone with the Wind provide an interesting observation. Both movies seem to rest on the shoulders of the leading ladies who are present at basically every moment of the story, both characters are fighting for their land, for their existence and for their traditional way of life while realizing the changing times at the same moment. Of course, there are more differences between Scarlett O’Hara and Karen Blixen than similarities but the fact that these two epics seem so completely to depend on the work of the leading actresses is certainly fascinating because it appears only true at a first look. Gone with the Wind, even though a bombastic story, is still a character study that stands and falls with the character of Scarlett – her character and the movie itself are forever bonded together. Out of Africa is different. Sydney Pollack creates some overwhelming images but it seems that he was always more interested in the surroundings and the story itself than in the protagonists. Out of Africa is told through the eyes of Karen Blixen, it follows Karen Blixen and seems to worship Karen Blixen – but it somehow never depends on Karen Blixen. In Out of Africa, Karen is presented as a storyteller and even though she is a woman who takes her destiny into her own hands and is fighting for her own existence, she very often appears rather passive. The movie never really seems to be about what Karen did but rather what happened to her. Her character and the movie are never really bonded together and it seems that Out of Africa could also exist without the central character – Robert Redford gives a serviceable, but not outstanding performance but it doesn’t hurt the overall quality of the movie either and instead, like Meryl Streep, creates all the right emotions without any surprises that might damage the conventional flow of the story. But besides being trapped in a role that demands of her to carry the movie but never thanks her for it, Meryl Streep has another obstacle to overcome – the fact that she isn’t really a romantic lead. She has done tragic romance before and would do it again but it doesn’t really seem like her territory. But Meryl Streep wouldn’t be Meryl Streep if she wasn’t able to overcome all these barriers and still give a well-crafted and layered performance in which she is able to give another display of her undeniable talents.

She maybe doesn’t reach the passionate fascination of Kristin Scott-Thomas in The English Patient that could explain why men would be drawn to her nor the lyrical willingness of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves that feels so completely uncontrolled and spontaneous but her, as usual, thought through and carefully developed performance still reaches to much higher levels than many other actresses could have. The part of Karen Blixen may appear more demanding and complicated than it actually is and Meryl Streep never makes any surprising or unexpected choices in her performance but she knows how to create her own character while blending herself into the beautiful images of Sydney Pollack. That way she builds a character who began an intellectual search for herself, a woman who likes to become part of the wild nature around her but also never gives up her European upbringings. Thankfully Meryl Streep never tried to turn Karen into a saint – she shows that Karen is not afraid to get in contact with the locals but Karen lives at a time where these locals are her servants and an apparent God-given superiority separates her from them and Meryl Streep isn’t afraid to show these traces of arrogance and superiority in her character without overdoing it. She may be amused about the natives fascination with her Cuckoo’s Clock but she never looks down on them for it. The same way she shows Karen’s determination to help an injured young man – she wants to help him but she doesn’t demand that he obeys any orders.

Meryl Streep begins her performance as a woman who is neither a romantic fool nor cold-hearted but instead as a character who is looking for a conventional life in unconventional manners – a husband and security in another land, even wild and exotic, like Africa. In Karen, Meryl Streep portrays a certain insecurity that she tries to hide between a frank directness and openness but too often her face carries her true emotions. Meryl Streep uses her technical abilities to shows these facets of Karen in a very convincing and interesting way that enables her to awaken the viewer’s interest in her during her first few scenes.

Meryl Streep plays her arrival and first moments on the dark continent thankfully not with girlish excitement or exaggerated fear but instead with a sense of curiosity mixed with uncertainty. She shows that Karen Blixen will never become a part of this world but she comes as close as possible for a woman in her situation. She is caught between two worlds but not helplessly or unwillingly but by choice and her own will. That way she tries to discover the best life for her. When she arrives with all her precious belongings from home, she doesn’t play Karen’s nervousness too dark or too light but instead finds the right tone to show a woman who is beginning a new life in a new country.

With her usual acting style that combines technical perfection with a good deal of honest emotions, Meryl Streep does her best to create a character who symbolizes both limits and potentials. That way Karen becomes appealing enough to keep that viewer’s interest she secured at the beginning over the complete running time of the story. Since the movie follows her character, everything that Karen experiences for the first time is also new for the viewer and Meryl Streep’s interesting approach to the part makes sure that Karen never slips too far in the background behind the exotic scenery. In Out of Africa, Meryl Streep chose a rather subtle approach to her character that still seems to proclaim ‘Look at me!’ but it is still very effective  and works in perfect harmony with Sydney Pollack’s direction.

Meryl Streep’s Karen Blixen also finds new sides in her own character without becoming a different person. Karen develops a strange sense of self-assurance that sometimes doesn’t seem to fit to her character – how she follows her husband to the frontline or other signs of independence but it becomes clear that Karen is a woman who is used to play second fiddle, even in her own life, but who has the courage and the strength to take charge of every situation if she has to. Karen is a woman who wants to be braver and stronger than she really is – only to find out that she is, indeed, that strong and brave, a trait in her character that was set free in the wild and free nature of Africa.

As mentioned before, the main characters and their actions sometimes appear strangely insignificant for the overall impact of the movie but Meryl Streep, despite appearing too cold from time to time, still infects Karen with enough warmth and inner charisma to make the romantic aspect of the movie work without letting it become too dominant. She also develops a very convincing and captivating chemistry with Robert Redford – they both seem like the most unlikely pairing but they succeed in showing their love and devotion to each other. Meryl Streep also becomes the dominant force of the relationship as she is also trying to control its direction – when she slowly changes from passionate lover to a woman who resembles a jealous wife, the transition is exciting and believable. The romantic part of the story, even though probably the central aspect of it, never feels too forced into the story nor does it feel undeveloped – just like Meryl Streep’s performance, it fits rights into the flow of the movie and goes along with it. Meryl Streep can play love, sorrow, passion and desire just as well as shock, strength and fear in other scenes. That way she finds enough moments to shine and show her talent for various emotions. Her scenes of love and anger towards Klaus Maria Brandauer, her shock to the news of her illness, her fight for her land and her own life and especially her speech at the funeral and her pleadings for the land of the locals are great moments that allow Meryl Streep to be very technical but also very honest.

One could say that Meryl Streep gives a ‘standard’ performance but for a woman of her talents, this still means high quality work. Combined with the interesting part of Karen Blixen in a beautiful and moving epic, she was able to give a multidimensional and thoughtful performance that catches a lot of different angles of her character without feeling too forced or dominating. For this, she gets