My current Top 5

My current Top 5

12/24/2011

Best Actress 1951: Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen"

Very few performers had such longevity as Katharine Hepburn. After she began acting in the early thirties, she kept going acting right up until 1994 when she made her last film appearances ever in the TV movie One Christmas and Warren Beatty’s Love Affair. Her lasting popularity as an actress meant that the audience could accompany her through her various stages as an actress and not only remember just one but several defining images of her work and personality. There is the sophisticated and witty heroine of such Black-and-White-classics like Bringing up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, the strong woman opposite Spencer Tracy or the loveable, old, grandmother-like Katharine Hepburn with the slightly shaking head. All these images have become a part of motion-picture history – but even though, the most iconic image of Katharine Hepburn may be the one she cultivated during the 50s: the middle-aged spinster who suddenly finds unexpected and overwhelming love for the first time in her life. The ground for this was laid with her performance in 1951’s The African Queen – in this she played Rose Sayer, a missionary in Africa who accompanies a rough boat captain to destroy a German gunboat during World War I. The part was famously declined by Bette Davis because she had no interest to go Africa and only would have joined the project if they had recreated German East-Africa on the back-lot (of course, she would later have to compromise when she did Death on the Nile in Egypt). Katharine Hepburn did not have such problems and joined the crew and the rest of the cast and travelled to Uganda and the Congo to play a role that would turn out to be among the most famous ones of her career. During the shooting, she had to endure constant sickness because of the bad water and spartan living conditions (director John Huston and co-star Humphrey Bogart apparently avoided any sickness by drinking nothing but Scotch or Whiskey) but it’s not hard to imagine her fighting any obstacles that may have come her way. In this way, Rose Sayer was surely a gift for Katharine Hepburn since the two women appear to have so much in common, especially after Rose has left the uptight missionary behind and turned into an almost rebellious and free-spirited fighter. Rose, too, defied convention and found her own spirits and thoughts – even though only after a man got her off her high horse which is another theme that is more than once visible in Katharine Hepburn’s work, a fact that further underlines how well the part of Rose fitted her and how it is almost a perfect synopsis of her entire filmography. It combines her talent for comedy and drama, the witty heroine, the rebellious spirit, the stern spinster, the romantic love interest and the independent woman in one and therefore somehow became the quintessential ‘Katharine Hepburn experience’. It’s not necessarily the strongest work of her career (even though surely among the top) but she beautifully turned it into a blend of her entire career without losing the originality and spontaneousness of this singular performance.

The African Queen, which also holds the distinction of being Katharine Hepburn’s and Humphrey Bogart’s first motion picture in color, has by now deservedly gained its reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. If nothing else, the co-starring of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, both of whom had been selected as the greatest male and female movie legend of all time by the American Film Institute, alone guaranteed this – and it’s true that, despite the gripping plot, the exotic location and the always fascinating theme of ‘David vs. Goliath’, The African Queen is a character-piece that completely rests on the shoulders of its two stars who spend most of the running time alone together on a little boat. Looking back at the career of Katharine Hepburn, her most famous co-star is easily Spencer Tracy simply because of the sheer number of movies they made together but also because of the well-known love affair behind these pictures. But this does not mean that Katharine Hepburn could not lighten up the screen with any other actor – because she did it almost every time. No matter if her co-star was Cary Grant, James Stewart, Peter O’Toole, Henry Fonda, Fred McMurray or Rossano Brazzi – she was always able to both underline the relationship between the two characters and keep the integrity and independence of her own work intact. And her work with Humphrey Bogart is no exception. The uptight, strict and demanding woman opposite the drinking, loud-mouthed and unconventional man may not be a truly original concept but the work of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn carries it to a wonderfully entertaining, touching, engaging and irresistible level. The chemistry between those two pros is the fuel that keeps The African Queen going at every minute – they are romantic and nauseated, companions by fate and lovers by choice, a little crazy, humorous and both entertaining and three-dimensional enough to emphasize the adventure and action of the story while also making their characters believable and engaging. Like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, Katharine Hepburn gives a performance that serves the overall purpose of the picture while never forgetting that this purpose can only be fulfilled by crafting a character that is more than a mere plot-device but stands firmly and strongly on its own, a woman that goes beyond the script and feels truly complete instead of just like a part of a whole.

Right from the start, Katharine Hepburn, like Humphrey Bogart, understands that The African Queen is a movie that mixes adventure and romance with a good deal of humor – humor that comes from the characters’ differences, from their relationship and from the circumstances, no matter how serious they may be (‘I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.`). The chemistry between the two leads first comes from the way they both obviously dislike each other’s characters only to fall in love with them very soon. And at all these times, both actors do their best to find the right sparkle in their interactions that keeps The African Queen entertaining and touching. So far, this review always mentioned both Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart – and it’s true, the structure and nature of the movie depends on both actors and both performances are strongly interwoven and, in most parts, depend on each other – but as mentioned in the beginning, Katharine Hepburn was always able to both develop strong relationships with her screen-partners and create characters that independently stood on their own two feet. As previously stated, Rose Sayer combines almost everything that Katharine Hepburn usually presented on the screen. In the beginning, she plays her with the slight arrogance and self-righteousness that Tracy Lord displayed in The Philadelphia Story but, also like Tracy, she already shows the romantic heroine beneath the surface – in her early scenes with Humphrey Bogart, it’s easy to see her dislike for this kind of man and her devotion to her religious brother but the foundation for their later love can already be spotted. During the first parts of The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn also shows her talent for drama as she plays a woman whose life is falling apart in just a short period of time – the death of her brother, the destruction of the village, the fact that she suddenly became part of a war that is mostly fought on another continent. In these moments, she displays her dislike for the Germans with a bitter hatred that motivates her further actions before the movie begins to take a more adventurous tone. After all, it’s Rose’s plan to sink the German gunboat and even though she may act with a certain naivety, her determination to proceed this goal is real. During the first half of The African Queen, she plays Rose with captivating earnest and disapproval of Mr. Allnut’s behavior – maybe because it was the first time that she played a character like this, she also did it without any exaggeration or some of her typical mannerisms. And somehow, only Katharine Hepburn could sit in a little boat in the African jungle, drinking tea or throwing Whisky overboard without becoming annoying or unlikeable.

During The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn takes her character around for about 180 degrees but she does it without interrupting her interpretation. The basis for this transformation was constantly created by her – her way of delivering the line ‘Mr. Allnut’, her facial expressions when she realizes that he only wanted to get close to her during the night because of the rain or her development of the plans to sink the German gunboat all help to see Rosie and Charlie as a match made in heaven. And when the moment of her transformation finally comes, it’s one of the most original, funny, touching and satisfying moments of Katharine Hepburn’s career – her way of touching her face with the back of her hand and the expression on her face as she marvels about the delightfulness of a physical experience turn Rose into an irresistible heroine. It’s a scene that reminds me of the musical Tommy and the lines ‘I’m free! And freedom tastes of reality!’ – the mirror is broken for Rose, all the feelings and emotions that have been locked up inside are allowed to reveal themselves and surprise herself just as much as everybody else. This is also one of the great gifts of Katharine Hepburn in this part – her ability to constantly surprise the viewer, Charlie and herself. She can constantly change the tone of the movie while always staying true to the character – she can delight the audience with her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart and then a few moments later break its heart when she prays in the boat, expecting to die very soon. In her work, she finds a wonderful balance between all the different kinds of genres that The African Queen covers. And in the end, when she proudly declares in front of the Germans that it was their plan to sink their ship and isn’t afraid of the consequences or her moving reaction shots when Charlie wants them to get married before their execution make it clear that Katharine Hepburn creates one of her most vibrant, full, living, exciting and captivating characters.

Overall, Katharine Hepburn has seldom been so deliciously entertaining, so wonderfully amusing and so dramatically heartbreaking in one movie. Rose Sayer is certainly not a very deep or complex character but there is still something almost magical about watching Katharine Hepburn bring her to such splendid life. For all of this, she receives 

12/20/2011

Best Actress 1951: Shelley Winters in "A Place in the Sun"

1951 was a strange year for the Best Actress line-up – besides Eleanor Parker, Shelley Winters also managed a nomination for a performance that can be considered a borderline-case between leading and supporting. Her Alice Tripp is an easy to overlook character, not only because Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor are so much more fascinating to look at but also because Alice herself is the kind of woman almost everyone overlooks because her exterior is basically as uninteresting as her interior. But in the case of Shelley Winters, the category placement is less controversial than in the case of Eleanor Parker – Shelley Winter’s character is, in some way, the motor of A Place in the Sun who always dominates the tone of the story and the direction it takes and whose ultimate fate also influences and shapes the second part of the movie even when her character is already gone. It seems as if every character in A Place in the Sun wants her to go away just as quickly as everyone behind the camera but even with all her flaws, there is one thing about Alice Tripp that cannot be denied: her persistence and her (ironically) longevity. Everybody may want her to go away but Shelley Winters and Alice Tripp are determined to stay, no matter what. Ultimately, both women will lose the fight against this constant disinterest but their cry for attention is still admirable.

I assume that I am not the only one who is always…let’s say surprised when it is mentioned that Shelley Winters actually began her career as a ‘blonde bombshell’ before she turned herself into a serious character actress. Shelley Winters has so completely embedded herself into the public memory as the open-mouthed, loud and somewhat overweight mother/grandmother that it’s just impossible to imagine that she could really be mostly praised for her looks at one time or another. Apparently, A Place in the Sun was the important turning point in her career when she could show her serious dedication as an actress when she brought the role of Alice Tripp to life – a lonely, stubborn, sometimes annoying but ultimately tragic young girl working in a factory and starting an ill-fated relationship with Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman. There is certainly nothing glamorous or bombshell-like about Shelley Winters in this part – her face almost constantly reduced to a variety of grumpy sadness or anger, her appearance as plain as possible, she fulfills the task of being the complete opposite of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela Vickers who embodies beauty, elegance, class and sex-appeal. But even though Shelley Winters has to play second fiddle to Elizabeth Taylor when it comes to filling the movie with sexual tension or breathtaking sensitivity, she does have the benefit of actually being given a much more emotional and demanding character – the only problem is: nobody really cares. Shelley Winters and Eleanor Parker may be the two ‘supporting girls that could’ in this year but they also share another similarity: they play characters that are experiencing great personal tragedy (Alice Tripp even much more than Mary McLeod) but are stuck in movies that are never interested in them. Eleanor Parker has to learn that her life as it used to be is falling apart in just a few moments and this one day at the police station will change everything for her forever – but all this is never presented as Mary’s tragedy but only serves as a catalyst for the actions of Kirk Douglas’s character. In this way, Eleanor Parker is basically reduced to a plot device – there is so much to say about Mary McLeod, so much to discover and so many possibilities but none are ever used. Part of the blame here also falls on Eleanor Parker who added to this imbalance between herself and Kirk Douglas by reducing her character to a variety of teary-eyed reaction shots. Shelley Winters cannot be blamed the same way because she obviously invests a lot of thought and dedication into Alice Tripp and was truly able to turn her into the into the movie’s most deciding character. But just like Eleanor Parker, she also faces an almost lost battle because she, too, gets mostly treated like a plot device and very often it appears that Shelley Winters was as unwanted to the movie makers as Alice Tripp to George Eastman.

Shelley Winters’s performance is such an interesting one to observe because there are certainly few performances that are so dominant and lasting and at the same time so invisible and feeble. Ultimately, Alice Tripp is less a character than a presence in A Place in the Sun – she influences the story and always lingers in the back of George’s and the audiences’ minds and is able to dominate the story because her fate (or better: fates) is (are) always influencing the actions and thoughts of everyone else in this movie. But this is less the achievement of Shelley Winters but of the screenplay which in Alice Tripp created a character everything seems to circle around but who is always considered much more noteworthy for what she does than for who she is. There is a lot that is happening to Alice Tripp in her short on-screen time: she falls in love with a guy, she has to see how he slowly turns away from her, she has to face being pregnant out of wedlock and in the end (or better: in the middle) of the movie she has to realize that George would be much happier if she simply did not exist at all. All of this sounds like a heartbreaking and memorable role – and it is: Shelley Winters actually adds much more pathos to this role than expected and it’s commendable that she is not afraid to show Alice as an often impossible, difficult and annoying woman. But she suffers from the problem that A Place in the Sun tells the story of George Eastman – and not of Alice Tripp. It’s always interested in his actions, in his thoughts and in his fate – and because of this, it takes almost the same attitude towards Alice Tripp as George does: she’s a problem that needs to be solved. Considering all the tragic incidents that happen to Alice, she remains a strangely pale character. As previously mentioned she is feeble and dominating. Feeble in regards to the fact that she never becomes her own person and always only exists in connection to George – when Alice is visiting a doctor and talks to him about her pregnancy, Shelley Winters clearly shows all her misery and suffering but the structure of the movie never allows her to step into the foreground because A Place in the Sun makes it clear that much more interesting than anything Alice has to say is a close-up of George, waiting in the car, prompting the audience to wonder what he will do now and how Alice’s pregnancy will affect him. This constant connection to George is also the reason why the character is so strong because she always influences the actions of A Place in the Sun. So, yes, Alice Tripp is a very fascinating case just because it’s so rare to see a character so strongly dominating her movie while constantly remaining so pale and uninteresting. When George arrives late for a date in her home, the following scene so perfectly sums up everything that A Place in the Sun is doing to Shelley Winters and Alice Tripp: when she delivers a moving speech and talks about their relationship, the camera is not once interested in her face but always stays on her back to focus exclusively on how George will react to her words. So, Alice Tripp is a lot: a presence, a plot device, a catalyst – but never a character.

So, Shelley Winters basically lost the fight before she could begin it since she faces a director and a script that is obviously never interested in Alice or Shelley. But even despite this, Shelley Winters never went the easy route in her performance but still realized that it’s worth a shot and did her best to get the most out of her material. As stated in the beginning, she lacks glamour and obvious appeal in her part but she does possess a certain sweetness and friendliness that makes it easy to understand why George would be attracted to her for a short period of time before losing his interest again just as quickly. Shelley Winters is not trying to win any sympathy with her role even though it would be very easy – she is not afraid to show Alice as a woman whom the audience could easily detest despite all the tragic things that are happening to her. Since the movie makes it so easy to sympathize with Clift’s George, Shelley Winters can easily be seen as the intruder, a woman whose nagging and demanding could become tiresome very soon, no matter how justified her demands may be. Shelley Winters manages to turn Alice into a very believable character who somehow neither receives any sympathy nor any hate but who ultimately always remains the pale, almost unnoticeable girl nobody ever seems to think of except when her action are interfering with the lives of somebody else. This appears to be Alice’s tragic fate and Shelley Winters was brave enough not to try to cover this but emphasize it in her work. Alice Tripp may mostly be an invisible presence in A Place in the Sun but Shelley Winters gave her a face and a voice that haunts the viewer for the entire story. Her sad expressions, almost completely covered in darkness during her and George’s ride on the lake, her anger when she calls George on the phone after her left her to celebrate with Angela while Alice remains alone at home or her desperation when there is no judge to marry them are all done beautifully and memorably despite appearing so insignificant at the same time. Shelley Winters did her best to create Alice as the complete opposite to Elizabeth Taylor and, just like Alice, refused to be ignored for the sake of a more beautiful and fascinating appearance. Shelley Winters performance works almost in contrast to A Place in the Sun because her work always calls for attention and makes the viewer want to know more about her while A Place in the Sun does its best to constantly push her in the background for the sake of its main character. In this way, she succeeded in turning Alice into a pitiful, heartbroken and sadly neglected person. She also triumphed in the difficult aspect of making it believable that Alice knows that she cannot hold a man like George forever while desperately trying to at the same time. Shelley Winters shows that Alice is aware of George’s disinterest and very often it appears that she does not even love him herself, that she was attracted to him for a short moment only, just like George to her, but she combines this with her longing to have him forever, not just because she wants to have a husband and a father for her child but also because, in some ways, she still loves him and hopes that, some day, he will feel the same. Shelley Winters portrays this nervousness, this determination, this naivety and this intelligence with clear precision and made the part of Alice seem much easier than it actually is. She willingly portrayed Alice as the aforementioned `problem that needs to be solved` without trying to come out at the end as a poor victim of circumstances and her own doings. Alice Tripp certainly deserved to be treated better for all her trouble – by George Eastman and by George Stevens. But Shelley Winters understood the structure of the role and A Place in the Sun and settled for the little chances she was given – and filled them with touching poignancy.

In the end, it seems almost fitting that Shelley Winters thought that Ronald Colman called out her name as the Best Actress of 1951 during Academy Awards night and was almost on the stairs leading up to the stage before she was called back – like Alice, she got her hopes up only to realize that, in the end, nobody really wanted her there. But also like Alice, she refused to be pushed aside too easily – Shelley Winter’s portrayal works in great harmony with the character of Alice Tripp and while she cannot overcome the limitations of the role and the resistance of the screenplay that always considers her a mere plot device, she still got the most out of what she had been given. Alice Tripp may be feeble because of the way the movie makers presented her and only strong whenever she changes the direction of the movie – but this strength is also owed to the sensitive portrayal of Shelley Winters. Ultimately, Shelley Winters does suffer from the sheer fact that she simply could not turn Alice Tripp into more than what George Stevens would allow her (and this is rather little) and often Alice also does feel too one-dimensional in her attempts to get George to marry her. But if Alice is a plot device, then Shelley Winters made sure that she would at least be a beautifully realized one. For all, she receives



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12/14/2011

YOUR Best Actress of 1938!

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Bette Davis - Jezebel (24 votes)

2. Norma Shearer - Marie Antoinette (17 votes)

3. Margaret Sullavan - Three Comrades (3 votes)

4. Wendy Hiller - Pygmalion (1 vote)

5. Fay Bainter - White Banners (0 votes)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

Best Actress 1951: Jane Wyman in "The Blue Veil"

There can be a lot of reasons why one wants to watch a certain performance. A legendary reputation, a horrible reputation, a general affection for the actor or the actress and many, many more. My personal interest for Jane Wyman’s performance in The Blue Veil was based on the fact that she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama over Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar named Desire. Of course, I do not see this as a puzzling decision – I always say that voters in 1951 surely didn’t know which performance will gain a reputation for being one of the greatest of all time and which one will be forgotten in a couple of years. And let’s not forget that the Hollywood Foreign Press did obviously not care very much for A Streetcar named Desire – Kim Hunter may have won the award as Best Supporting Actress but Marlon Brando and Karl Malden were not even nominated. So, I was very interested to see Jane Wyman’s work which not only resulted in her win at the Golden Globes but also her third Oscar nomination, having won the award three years earlier for her performance as a mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda. Of course, Jane Wyman also won a Golden Globe in 1948 so the Hollywood Foreign Press clearly enjoyed her work.

The Blue Veil is a rather typical tear-jerker that resembles countless other movies that feature a self-sacrificing female character in its center – movies like Stella Dallas, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, White Banners, Mildred Pierce or To Each his Own come to my mind. All these movies have various things in common – they feature either an Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated performance and characters that are either the self-sacrificing mother or the self-sacrificing secret mother (of course, in different shades – Mildred Pierce also wants to do everything for her child, too, but there are limits to her selflessness). The first fact shows that these kinds of roles are true award-magnets – how could Academy members resist such a teary display of motherly love and selfless suffering? The second fact is a bit tricky – it is both a difference and a similarity to The Blue Veil. Because Jane Wyman does not play a selfless mother in this movie – instead, she is a selfless nursemaid, a nanny who takes care of various children during the course of her life after she lost her own child when it was a baby. But even though Jane Wyman’s LouLou is not the real mother of all these children, the role actually gives her even more sentimental value because it offers her the opportunity to be the ‘secret mother’ and a ‘stranger’ at once: she is the one taking care of the children, she is the one who watches them grow up, helps them, shares their worries and their happiness – until one day she suddenly has to leave them again. Like Mary Poppins, she comes and goes but she does not go because she is not needed anymore – her reasons for not staying are always rather personal and more sentimental. Because of all this, The Blue Veil gave Jane Wyman a part that is guaranteed to win the audience’s affection, offers her plenty of touching (of would a better word be manipulative?) moments and even allows her to age gracefully from a young maid to an old woman. Sound like a juicy part – and it is. In some parts. But at the same time, the sentimentality and simplicity of the story also prevent Jane Wyman from making her character truly interesting. Everything about LouLou is played safe – she is lovely and nice, never complaints, suffers quietly and nobly. But a lack of life in both the movie and Jane Wyman’s performance leaves an undeniable impression that everything could have been more intriguing than it really is.

There are different approaches that can be used to play such a sentimental character. The actress can either completely surrender to the sappiness of the story and give a performance that only rests on the material she is given, hoping that the tears from the audience will come anyway and this way help her to appear more moving than she really is. The complete opposite of this approach would be to avoid any sentimentality in the performance and contradict the script by trying to find more shades and unexpected depth in these usually underwritten characters. This second attempt is always much more exciting than any schmaltzy emphasizing of the character’s misery. But, of course, there are many more approaches that can work – Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet emphasized the pain of her character to the maximum but she did it with so much life and energy while always keeping her character believable that the final result was a heartbreaking and surprisingly satisfying performance. Jane Wyman’s work in The Blue Veil can be found somewhere in the middle of all this. She neither wallows in LouLous’s constant desperation to leave yet another child behind but she also does not add anything to the character that isn’t written in the screenplay – considering that The Blue Veil basically follows LouLous’s whole life, it is a bit disappointing that everything the viewers know about her in the end is the same as they knew in the beginning: she likes children. So, Jane Wyman can be accused of going a too easy route in her performance but simultaneously she can also be applauded for adding real human emotions to her part instead of disappearing completely under the sugar-coated story. Within her work, she knew how to use the sentimental tone of the story to her advantage and make the material watchable while also suffering from the overall too weak material.

The tone of The Blue Veil is obvious right from the start – when LouLou lies in a hospital bed in a big room with many other women and a nurse brings in a cart full of babies (this may sound strange but this is actually what is happening) only to tell LouLou that her baby is not here and a doctor will talk to her in a few moments, it’s already clear that Jane Wyman’s major task in this part is to grief with as much dignity as possible. The plot of The Blue Veil overall certainly doesn’t do Jane Wyman any favors – the movie is basically a succession of the same scenes over and over again: LouLou finds work, she is happy and takes care of a child (or children) with gentle love and grand understanding until she has to leave again and her heart is broken. LouLou either must leave because a new woman has arrived in the house who wants to take care of the child herself or because she realizes that the child became too attached to her and she must leave for the sake of the real mother – all this gives Jane Wyman the chance to display the expected amount of different emotions. But even though Jane Wyman’s performance constantly follows this expected formula, she still does it on a high level – her performance does not surprise but it does impress. She perfectly understands her material and is able to combine the sweetness of the story with the actual suffering of her character with touching effect. In some ways, Jane Wyman is a rather limited actress despite the range of characters she played – her face mostly knew two different expressions, happiness or sorrow but she knew how to use these limitations. LouLou may not be a very interesting character overall (everything about her fate is so trivial; it never really seems to matter what happens to her or what will become or her simply because the structure of The Blue Veil is so uninterested in all of this. LouLou’s short affair with a man whom she almost marries is another example for this – the love between them comes and goes and never touches the core of LouLou’s personality.) but Jane Wyman is still able to give her substance. A movie like The Blue Veil certainly evokes a lot of different reactions – cynics will probably roll their eyes while others may reach for a handkerchief more than once. But Jane Wyman cannot be blamed for the weakness of the story – she can be blamed for not fighting harder against it but it was her decision to play LouLou with the sentimentality that was expected of her. I may not appreciate this decision but I can appreciate the performance that resulted from it.

Jane Wyman’s wisest decision in her role was to underplay LouLou as much as possible. Like Fay Bainter in White Banners, Jane Wyman crafts her character with quiet dignity and subtle emotions but unlike Fay Bainter, she is given a truly central part that completely carries the picture. The way LouLou was written could easily have turned The Blue Veil into an uninteresting and exaggerated experience – but Jane Wyman’s calmness and beautiful facial expressions kept everything going smoothly. This also helped her to achieve the most important task of her performance – plausibility. When LouLou worries about one her children or her heart quietly breaks when she has to leave, Jane Wyman always stays believable – it would be easy to dismiss her character because of the overly schmaltzy sentiment behind it but in the hands of Jane Wyman, LouLou always wins the respect of the audience. Especially in the scene when LouLou wants to fight for one of her children in front of a judge after she ran away with the boy because his mother had spent her whole life away from him anyway, shows Jane Wyman’s ability to find a true inner life in LouLou – in this scene, Jane Wyman lets LouLou truly fight for the first time as she openly rejects the boy’s real mother and insists on the fact that she is now the boy’s mother after having taken care of him for so many years. It’s a strong scene in which Jane Wyman again balances between cheap sentimentality and honest feelings – and she again does it by underlining this sentimentality while adding a shade of touching realism.

Jane Wyman also handles the aging of her character with grace and beauty. Neither exaggerating her scenes as an old woman nor completely keeping the same acting style, she shows a woman with a lively spirit – even though her age has taken a lot of her strength by now. Mostly, Jane Wyman succeeds in her final scenes – when she meets all ‘her’ children again and is overwhelmed by their love and support. It’s a scene that really shouldn’t work as well as it does because it’s so impossibly sugar-coated but Jane Wyman’s quiet joy makes the viewer feel to actually know LouLou for the first time in this movie. It’s a very satisfying final moment to a performance that offers a lot of touching scenes but also lacked these overall satisfying moments too many times before. As mentioned in the beginning, Jane Wyman suffered from her weak material and very often limits her performance to two different facial expressions but within these limitations she crafted a touching piece of work that is saved by her decision to remain realistic while highlighting the sentimentality of the story and her strong final moments. Overall, the unsatisfying moments that dominate a lot of her work are too strong for a higher grade, but her ability to be moving without annoying and strangely captivating without alienating is still enough for a strong




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11/22/2011

Best Actress 1951: Eleanor Parker in "Detective Story"

In 1950, Eleanor Parker convinced the Academy for the first time during her career and received a Best Actress nomination for her touching and impressive work in the prison-movie Caged. Back in the old days, a leading nomination like this basically established your whole future relationship with the Academy – if you’re leading, then you stay leading. After all, leading means you’re a star. And stars don’t sink to that low, pitiful level of supporting players, no matter how small a part may be! Among the actual Best Actress winners, Jennifer Jones was the first one to receive a supporting nomination after having won in the leading category – just one year after her star-making turn in The Song of Bernadette, she settled for the secondary category for her performance in Since you went Away. This is certainly very surprising since Jennifer Jones was build up as a true leading lady and because her role in Since you went Away is actually the most central one but Claudette Colbert had been a leading lady for more than a decade already and so David O. Selznick probably thought that, if one had to go supporting, it had to be Jennifer. After Jennifer Jones, one needs to look right up to the 70s to find Ingrid Bergman, Maggie Smith or in the 80s Jane Fonda receive nominations in the supporting category. Of course, some winners did get nominated for Supporting Actress before they won Best Actress but after their win, they probably never looked back. Anne Bancroft received three nominations for Best Actress for rather small roles that might have entered the supporting category if they had been played by an unknown actress. Contrary, among the nominees for Best Actress, there seems to be a little more diversity – Geraldine Page jumped back and forth between the two acting categories and Shelley Winters won two supporting awards after having failed in the leading category. And what does all this mean? It means that, with a few exceptions, most actors and actresses back then cherished their leading status by the Academy since it also gave them leading status in Hollywood and vice versa – Rosalind Russell famously declined any campaigning for her supporting turn in Picnic because she wouldn’t want to deny this leading status. So, to sum it all up – once an actress caught the eyes of the Academy members in a certain category, she mostly stayed in this category. And that’s probably the only explanation for Eleanor Parker’s nomination in the Best Actress category for her work in William Wyler’s Detective Story.

Category placement is always debatable and in most cases, fair arguments for both categories can be found – but it’s hard to come up with any reason why Eleanor Parker’s performance as Kirk Douglas’s wife, which consists of maybe 15 to 20 minutes of screen time, was nominated for Best Actress other the fact that her work in Caged the year before had established her as a leading actress. Okay, now with this out of the way, it has to be said that, of course, screen time isn’t a factor when judging a performance – not even one that was nominated in the leading category. After all, many actresses have done a lot with small parts but almost always those parts were either extremely well written or at least gave the actress the opportunity to become a complete show stealer. The truth is that, even though screen time is no indication of quality, a performance is simply judged differently if it is in another category. In the supporting category, a short and maybe even underdeveloped performance can be excused and is even expected – in the leading category, the demands are simply higher and one would expect an actor or actress to not only give a multidimensional and lasting performance but also one that is able to define the movie, change its course and create its atmosphere. If a leading nominee cannot do that, then it becomes a bit difficult – but there is still hope if the performance itself is still so wonderful and outstanding that lack of character development, lack of influence and lack of depth can still be excused. But what about Eleanor Parker? Where can her performance be found in all this? Well, let’s see: does her performance influence the tone of the movie or the story? No. Is there any character development? No. Depth? No. Well, that doesn’t look too good. So is there at least a wonderful, little performance that can overcome these obstacles? Unfortunately not.

First, let’s take a closer look at what the screenplay was giving Eleanor Parker. The Detective Story tells of one day at the 21st police precinct in New York City and the work of Detective Jim McLeod, played with powerful honesty by Kirk Douglas. Various storylines intervene at the police station, telling of the fate of different characters – some are moving, some are shocking, some are entertaining (one of the storylines surrounds newcomer Lee Grant who adds to the strange reception the female performers received for this movie – while Eleanor Parker got a Best Actress nomination, Supporting nominee Lee Grant won Best Actress in Cannes). Among all these storylines, the most central one is McLeod’s fight against an abortionist – not knowing that his own wife has a secret connection to this man. All this already suggests that Eleanor Parker is not a central character but rather one of many – and even among all those, she is shockingly minor. Eleanor Parker appears for the first time right at the beginning of the movie during one of the few outside shots when Mary McLeod comes to see her husband who hadn’t been home for two days. In this short scene, Eleanor Parker and Kirk Douglas establish the relationship between their two characters – they are obviously very happy, their kisses are passionate and they are also trying to get a child. Eleanor Parker may not have much to do in this moment but she immediately presents Mary as the loving and caring wife, a woman who lives to please her husband and finds fulfillment by being his supporting wife. Unfortunately, this is the only time the viewer sees Eleanor Parker during the first 50 minutes of the movie. When she finally arrives again, the movie has already developed its own pace and atmosphere and the arrival of Eleanor Parker does not truly add to this – instead, the character of Mary McLeod feels like a constant outsider, which she obviously is in this police station, but she also feels like an outsider to the whole movie. The revelations regarding her character are never truly as interesting as they could have been because Mary McLeod so completely comes out of the dark into the spotlight in just one second without ever having had the chance to prepare for this moment. Because of this, Mary McLeod never becomes truly her own person – rather, she is always a reflection for the character of her husband. Nothing she does ever feels connected to her as a person but only becomes interesting in the way it will affect Jim McLeod. Detective Story tells about a life-changing day in the existence of Mary McLeod – but all of this is reduced to a variety of whispered and teary-eyed please of forgiveness to a variety of different male characters for a couple of minutes. The movie is not interested in what happens to Mary McLeod but only about how the display of her secret influences the further actions of her husband. For Mary McLeod, this day may be the end of her life as it used to be – for Detective Story, it’s only a means to an end.

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, Eleanor Parker unfortunately not fights the problems of the script and the character but even emphasizes them and adds a few more, too, along the way. Eleanor Parker was a rather melodramatic actress very often but she always displayed a softness, tenderness and kindness that worked in great harmony with her artificiality. In Caged, this acting style helped her to set her character apart and create a memorable and moving person. In Detective Story, this acting style also stood out – but not in the good way. Among all the realistic, brutal and modern performances, Eleanor Parker too much resembles a performer from the past. Again, this could make sense since Mary McLeod is a woman who has no connection to the world she has entered this day and it could also symbolize the distance between herself and her husband but at the same time, Eleanor Parker’s work which turns Mary into a deer caught in the headlights misses all the elements that might have turned her into a deeper character – there is no trace of the woman who has married a man like Jim in the first place, no sign of the girl who had to go to an abortionist in the first place and a too weak and passive characterization to make Mary’s final realization, that she cannot live with Jim anymore, truly believable. Just like the screenplay undervalues the true dimensions of Mary McLeod’s fate, Eleanor Parker does so, too, by reducing her to a different variety of teary breakdowns, teary reaction shots or teary moments of self-realization which all may be moving and occasionally heartbreaking in itself but lack too much dimension in the overall context of the story. Instead of trying to grasp all the different emotions that Mary McLeod may be experiencing at this moment, she limited the character in too many ways. On this single day, Mary McLeod is suddenly confronted again with her past, she begins to see a new, unexpected side in her husband and decides to start a new life without him – but all this is only suggested by the screenplay. In this way, both the screenplay and Eleanor Parker mistreat Mary McLeod – the script reduces her unnecessarily by not investing into the character before putting her in the center so suddenly and Eleanor Parker reduces her unnecessarily by dropping almost every aspect of her personality and simply resting on her ability to drop some tears at the right moment. At the beginning of this review, it was stated that there is no development in the character - this is actually not true because there is a lot of development. In just a few moments, Mary McLeod has to evaluate her past, her present and her future, she has to watch her marriage fall apart and face all the ghosts she had pushed aside for so long. This is actually a lot for any movie character but in Detective Story, this arc is simply too large for the character. The way Mary McLeod is written, she cannot live up to the demands of this arc and the way she is acted by Eleanor Parker, it all happens too much on the surface without any sign of depth.

Even though Detective Story is obviously based on a stage play since all the story takes place inside the police station, it never feels ‘stagey’ since it provides a dynamic and intensity that captivates the viewer easily while jumping between the different storylines with the exact right rhythm and tempo. Unfortunately, Eleanor Parker almost threatens to destroy this tempo – her theatrical crying scenes don’t only lack effectiveness because Mary McLeod is such a thin creation but also because these crying scenes feel too theatrical compared to all other cast members just like her whole performance is too lifeless compared to all her screen partners.

In Eleanor Parker’s defense, it has to be said, as mentioned before, that her scenes itself, taken out of the overall context, somehow work. Her chemistry with Kirk Douglas is surprisingly intriguing and there are some moments when her performance does actually reach a moving intensity – it’s all very simple in her hands but within this simplicity, she achieves some results that actually do create the effect they are supposed to. It’s easy to imagine that her whole performance could have been much more satisfying and actually overcome the limitations of the writing if she had actually dared to leave her own comfort zone and invest all the possibilities the character offered nevertheless – but she played it too easy overall and therefore cannot get more than

11/15/2011

Best Actress 1951


The next year will be 1951 and the nominees were

Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen

Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar named Desire

Eleanor Parker in Detective Story

Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun

Jane Wyman in The Blue Veil

Best Actress 1938 - The resolution

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



Wendy Hiller achieved to be both completely logical but also strangely inadequate as Eliza Doolittle. The role seems to both over- and underwhelm her and as a consequence she stayed on one note for most of the time. Still, she saves her performance in parts with her own personality that is certainly right for the role and her own instincts which make her mostly do the right things, even though unfortunately often the wrong way. 



                     
Fay Bainter sprinkles with charm and warmth and it is not hard to believe that her smile, her support and her understanding can brighten up the live of anybody she ever meets. It’s neither a complex performance nor a complex role but Fay Bainter does find the right tone, the right face and the right approach to this character, creating some beautiful moments, making her actions and intentions believable and not overdoing the sentiment of the story – she’s strong, believable and loving.


Margaret Sullavan’s performance is a beautiful example of an actress taking what could basically be considered a throwaway-role and filling it with life, meaning and much more. Her unique screen presence that helps her to appear so completely mature and decisive while also emphasizing the emotional desperation of Pat Hollmann is combined very effectively with her instincts for the role and so resulted in a maybe still limited but much deeper and more captivating performance than expected.



2. Bette Davis in Jezebel

Bette Davis's take on this character is spellbinding, entertaining and unforgettable. Her mysterious screen personality may have prevented her from creating a complete Southern Belle but it turned other moments, even simple ones like walking into a bank, into movie magic. And because of her ability to show various different aspects in Julie’s character while also displaying an honest core, she was also able to make the final moments of Jezebel believable without turning them into hollow pathos.




Norma Shearer’s acting style is not everyone’s cup of tea. But in this case, she has risen to a whole new level of dramatic intensity. When an image of a young Marie Antoinette, rejoicing about her future as Queen of France, is laid over the scene of Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine, it becomes clear on what an exhausting, captivating and heartbreaking journey she has taken the audience and how epic her achievement truly is.




Best Actress 1938: Norma Shearer in "Marie Antoinette"

Whenever the queens of the Oscars are mentioned, the names Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep are mentioned. And this makes perfect sense since all three of them, at one point in their career, held the record of most Best Actress nomination (and, of course, Meryl Streep still does and most likely will for a very long time). But before these three legendary performers wrote their names into Oscar’s history book, it was Norma Shearer who held the distinction of being Oscar’s favorite performer with a total of 6 nominations until 1938. And it was certainly more than fitting that she received her record-breaking 6th and final nomination which truly turned her into the Queen of the Oscars (even though only for a couple of years until Bette Davis overtook her) for her performance as the doomed French Queen Marie Antoinette who lost her family and ultimately her life during the French Revolution. The Oscar race between Bette Davis and Norma Shearer in 1938 is an extremely interesting one – of course, nobody will ever know how many votes each nominee received but Norma Shearer’s status in Hollywood, the surely still strong sentiment about the death of her husband Irving Thalberg and her popularity with audiences must surely have resulted in a strong number of votes. Of course, on the other hand she surely did not make a lot of friends during her marriage to Thalberg and the royal treatment she received as the ‘Queen of MGM’ which also resulted in a Best Actress Oscar for one of her first talkies undoubtedly put a lot of actresses against her – so maybe her loss in 1938 cannot be exactly considered a surprise. Still, in some ways, the 30s almost belonged to Norma Shearer even though she became largely forgotten during the following decades and rivals like Joan Crawford, who had to play second fiddle during Norma Shearer’s prime, have used her declining fame to great advantage since it enabled them to write her off as an untalented performer who was able to sleep her way to the top. Today, Norma Shearer’s reputation is beginning to improve again and the release of many of her old movies enables a new and comprehensive look at her filmography. And looking at Norma Shearer’s Oscar-nominated performances, one thing becomes clear very soon: her improvement as an actress over the years. During her first talkies, she often displayed a tendency for theatrical over-acting that belonged to the time of silent pictures and she also did not truly know how to use her voice in a natural, unaffected and believable way. But with time, Norma Shearer developed an unexpected strength as an actress that maybe did not always cover her melodramatic acting style but allowed her to dig surprisingly deep into her characters and very often display an unexpected willingness to completely let go of herself, forgetting all awareness of herself and act truly in the moment. And this strength was never more visible than in Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette is as grand, lavish and pompous as one would expect it to be. Costume designer Gilbert Adrian and set decorator Cederic Gibbons obviously followed their credo ‘more is more’ and filled every frame with opulent design, grandiose sets and extravagant gowns. Marie Antoinette screams ‘epic’ at every second of its running time and doesn’t waste one second pretending anything else. But on the scale of ‘epicness’, Marie Antoinette did not reach a very high level because underneath all the glamour and opulence hides a typical melodrama from the 30s. And in some ways, the central performance by Norma Shearer also offers that typical melodrama from the 30s – she stares into the open space, moves her body very often as if she hadn’t realized yet that the invention of sound had brought a new acting style years ago and uses her face with such exaggeration that one feels the need to move a few feet away from the screen. But the miraculous thing is that all these aspects that usually rather destroy a Norma-Shearer-performance this time completely disappeared in Norma Shearer’s overall characterization. Because in Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer displayed her ability to act ‘without a net’ – she did not act with visible strings between herself and her character but instead wholly let go of her own control and let her instincts dominate her work. This way, her performance became an overwhelming kaleidoscope of human emotions, from the joy and playfulness of a young girl to the broken spirit of a lost soul.

Basically, a lot of aspects of Norma Shearer’s performance should not work. Her age alone could have been disastrously distracting – Norma Shearer was 36 during the making of the film and certainly looks like it. Robert Morley was 30 but looks actually older than her. And so it could easily have become rather confusing to watch these two actors play characters who obviously have no idea what to do on their wedding night and feel a strange distance that comes from the difference between the ideas of youthful dreams and the reality of royal protocol. And a grown-up Norma Shearer jumping around at the beginning of Marie Antoinette, playing a young girl expressing her childish happiness about becoming the Queen of France is certainly another moment that could have been a complete failure, especially because Norma Shearer played these early scenes with the expected high-pitched voice and overenthusiastic movements that older actors often display when playing somebody younger than themselves. Yes, this all could have easily become a total disaster – but thankfully it didn’t. Norma Shearer may be exaggerating her acting a little but it somehow so wholly harmonizes with the style of her movie that her performance not only becomes immensely captivating right away from the start but also the human and emotional centre of this lavish production. Norma Shearer did not let the production overshadow her work but instead single-handedly crafted the human atmosphere of Marie Antoinette, may it be joy, love or terror. In her performance, Norma Shearer took the role of Marie Antoinette from the usual level of melodrama and carried her to a level of real, honest and shocking human drama. Everything in Marie Antoinette is solved in the easiest way – Marie Antoinette and her husband are portrayed without any flaws, the world outside their palace apparently filled with evil-minded revolutionaries and if Marie Antoinette was a bit too carefree and careless, then only because her husband denied her physical affection for so long. Yes, Marie Antoinette creates an artificial world full of artificial characters – and even Norma Shearer’s performance emphasizes this artificiality and it’s doubtful if her work would have worked in a context outside of Marie Antoinette but simultaneously she also reached a level of realism, authenticity and plausibility that lifted her performance on a whole new level of excellence.

Right from the start, Norma Shearer takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster ride – she believably shows the anxiety of a young woman entering a new life that seemed exciting and adventurous at first but only turns out to be dull and limited. It may be odd to see two so obviously mature actors in the parts of such inexperienced teenagers but both Norma Shearer and Robert Morley know how to portray these aspects of their performance without overdoing it – Robert Morley finds the right amount of shyness and frustration in his work while Norma Shearer plays her disappointment, her attempts to bond with her husband and her anger and frustration that she cannot give France an heir with just the right mixture of girlish inexperience and mature decisiveness. This way, both actors managed to create a remarkable chemistry that may not be truly romantic but turns into a believable friendship and Norma Shearer achieved the almost impossible task to display how much feelings Marie Antoinette actually has for her husband – which made their final moments together at the end even more heartbreaking. But the movie makers obviously thought that they could not tell the story of Marie Antoinette without some true romance – enter Tyrone Power to give the female audience something to dream about and Norma Shearer the chance for some romantic close-ups. And again, everything so easily could have gone wrong in this production but Norma Shearer not only handled these parts of the storyline with wonderful clarity in which she refused to turn the scenes with Tyrone Power into typical love scenes but instead always underlined a certain tension, a certain sadness and impossibility but she also found the perfect balance between the scenes between herself and Robert Morley and herself and Tyrone Power – she displayed a strong chemistry with both actors but both are completely different and seem to exist independent from one another while Norma Shearer also makes it clear how much she is thinking of Power in her scenes with Morley and how much of Morley in her scenes with Power. And Norma Shearer also managed to make it completely believable that Marie Antoinette would not only stay with her husband but also develop feelings for him that may not be the same as for the other man in her life but also strong and honest.

Norma Shearer also may have been handed a character that was written too saint-like but she never actively tried to act her like this – instead, she portrayed the ignorance, the single-mindedness and the arrogance of Marie Antoinette with an intriguing honesty. And even though these feelings might have been born out of her anger of rejection and unhappiness (at least in this movie version), Norma Shearer showed that Marie Antoinette was not fully without flaws – her carelessness at various parties at which she is giving away her jewelry during little games or her flirting with various men may mostly serve the movie’s need for some glamour and excitement but Norma Shearer again refuses to take the easy way out and uses these moments to constantly surprise the audience with new shades of her character which never seem like unconnected attempts to deepen the role beyond the page but instead always create a believable and complete flow. But Norma Shearer always knows when to change Marie, when to develop her and when to let her find new aspects of her own personality – she can challenge Madame du Barry during a ball in front of her father-in-law, she can show her loyalty to her husband when he is made King, she can enjoy his little, awkward moments of affection just as much as the passion of Count von Fersen or fight against the intrigues and gossip of the royal court – and does it all splendidly. Norma Shearer runs the gamut of basically every human emotion in her role and does so with a visible willingness to challenge herself, to prove herself, to display her talents while developing them at the same time. She can be intimidated just as convincingly as she intimated herself, she can be arrogant and loving, scheming and helpless, desperate and hopeful. Most of all, Marie Antoinette is a showcase and Norma Shearer truly delivers, but thankfully without ever turning it into pure attention-seeking but always in harmony with the character.

Norma Shearer takes the viewer on an artistically utterly fascinating journey – and all this even before her real tour-de-force begins. Had Norma Shearer mostly found the human drama in the opulent melodrama so far, she rose to a level of dramatic excellence that she never had before – and few actresses would ever after. From the moment she watches her husband as he loses the respect and loyalty of his troops to the scene when she runs around her room, looking for her clothes to pack as the royal family plans to escape the occupied palace, she slowly, step by step, introduces the human drama that is about to follow. And Norma Shearer not only displays these moments but, like few other performances, is able to create such an atmosphere of helplessness, of confinement and desperation that these final moments of Marie Antoinette become almost unbearable in their tension and devastation. In these scenes, she does not become the messenger of the movie’s story but instead shapes and defines the story herself, adds the tragedy and horror instead of projecting it. Her scene when she watches her husband and her children, knowing that this is their last night together, is completely heartbreaking and with her silent suffering, her ‘smile through tears’, Norma Shearer again proved how much she had developed herself from the theatrical and mannered performer she had been at the beginning of the decade. And later, when she listens to the execution of her husband, Norma Shearer once more displayed her willingness to completely surrender herself to the moment, to the context of the story – her head shaking uncontrollably, her eyes so wide with panic that they seem to fall out at any moment, could have been so overdone but Norma Shearer’s instincts perfectly guided her though the scene. But in the last part of Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer constantly manages to top herself – her delivery of the line in which she asks the men, who came to pick up her son just moments after the execution of her husband, what they just said is one for the ages. No shrill panic, no over-expression – instead, she delivers her line completely calm, almost amused as if she thinks that these men are joking since she cannot believe that they would take away her son now, at this moment. The way she slowly stands up, hiding her child behind her back, trying to fight the men away is done masterfully and her final acceptance of the inevitable, her comfort of her son and her telling him to be brave while clearly dying inside is certainly one of the most shocking and harrowing scenes in movie history. And in a later scene, she gives one of the most unforgettable displays of silent acting ever put on the screen when Marie, alone in prison, recognizes an old friend coming to say goodbye – her disbelief, her shame, her fear, her desperation all wash across her face in just a few seconds. It’s a towering moment that brings the exhausting journey of Marie Antoinette to a tragic end.

I admit that Norma Shearer’s acting style is not everyone’s cup of tea – very often not even mine. But in this case, she has completely won me over. Her slight smile as Marie Antoinette is brought to the place of execution could have been played so easily but Norma Shearer finds so many different emotions in this expression that it seems impossible to mention them all. And when an image of a young Marie Antoinette, rejoicing about her future as Queen of France, is laid over the scene of Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine, it becomes clear how epic her achievement truly is. For all this, she receives

11/10/2011

YOUR Best Actress or 1944

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Barbara Stanwack- Double Indemnity (33 votes)

2. Ingrid Bergman - Gaslight (14 votes)

3. Claudette Colbert - Since you went Away & Bette Davis - Mr. Skeffington (2 votes)

4. Greer Garson - Mrs. Parkington (1 vote)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

Best Actress 1938: Margaret Sullavan in "Three Comrades"

In 1938, Margaret Sullavan became a member of a group of many actresses who were not awards magnets in any sense of the word but still well-known and popular actresses who did manage to receive at least one Oscar nomination that would forever enable them to carry the famous expression ‘Academy Award nominated actress’ in front of their name – others are Marlene Dietrich, May Robson, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Harris, Ava Gardener or Doris Day. In the case of Margaret Sullavan, it’s a small tribute to a very underrated career even though Three Comrades is certainly not among her most well-known performances – rather, her work opposite James Stewart is mostly remembered today, especially her role as Klara Novak in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner. But the height of Margaret Sullavan’s critical success did most certainly come in 1938 – not only the Academy recognized her but also the New York Film Critics who gave her their Best Actress Award and apparently the donations for organizations fighting against tuberculosis went up significantly after American audiences watched Margaret Sullavan die from it on the screen. This one nomination maybe did not change the curse of Margaret Sullavan’s career – she never again received another nomination but it adds to her overall reputation as a talented and a strong performer who should not be as forgotten as she probably is today.

Three Comrades tells the story of three friends in post-war Germany and of one woman, Patricia Hollmann, who enters their life and eventually marries one of them. This description already suggests what can be expected of the character of Pat Hollmann – she is the girlfriend, the woman, the wife, the obligatory female presence in a movie mostly about men. And yes, these expectations do come true – Margaret Sullavan plays a part that has been played countless times and sometimes gets nominated for an Oscar even though the actress almost always suffers from the limitations such a role brings – there is almost always hardly any character at all, no development, no depth, especially if the actress misses a strong screen presence to fill some of the emptiness of the character with her own personality. So yes, just like Fay Bainter in White Banners, Margeret Sullavan faced a limited character in Pat Hollman – she mostly exists in relation to the three male characters, she rarely gets a chance to develop her own personality and lacks the typical screen time of a leading player. But – yes, Margaret, here comes the but – sometimes an actress is able to overcome these limitations and not only fill the part with her own spark but actually add to the character, bring more layers to it and create something beautiful to watch – despite all the obstacles. And this is what Magaret Sullavan did as Pat Hollmann in Three Comrades. There is something about this visibly intelligent and thoughtful actress that enabled her to create something very tragic, disturbing, moving and captivating in her character. Her voice, her eyes and her looks somehow turn her into a mix of Bette Davis, Romy Schneider and Greta Garbo and even though she may lack all the fascinating qualities that these actresses usually display, she is still much more than just ‘the woman’ who adds some emotional tragedy to an otherwise rather straight and direct story.

In her role, Margaret Sullavan uses the ultimate fate of Pat Hollmann to great effect because she handles it with so much subtlety – Pat knows that she is dying and this is clearly and obviously influencing her life and her character but it does not prevent her from finding joy and happiness. Margaret Sullavan demonstrates how Pat always seems to think inside her head if something or someone is worth her time since she cannot waste it – death is always flowing above her but never dominating her. From the moment she gets out of a car at the beginning of Three Comrades, Margaret Sullavan makes it clear that Pat is not a two-dimensional character but a deeply troubled and at the same time strangely uplifting person. In her role, Margaret Sullavan does not truly deepen Pat by suggesting at countless untold backstories but rather by simply emphasizing her present and her thoughts about the future and what it might bring to her – and what will remain unreachable forever. In some way, Margerat Sullavan keeps the character of Pat constantly in the dark – she rarely opens up and shows a more intimate side but mostly keeps her feelings outside but simultaneously, Margaret Sullavan achieved to actually do show a deeper and more meaningful side to Pat simply by focusing on her obvious worries and the pain she is carrying around inside. She shows that Pat is neither an empty shell waiting for the inevitable end nor a woman who is destined to get everything out of life before it is over – rather she portrays her with a serious but also loving side that covers a hidden melancholia under it. Pat has accepted her fate – death may constantly be on her mind but she learnt to push that thought aside even though it is never completely gone. Pat is also a woman whose fate has made her strong but also lonely – she clearly longs for an emotional connection with somebody but she also feels guilty because she knows the position she is in and how it will affect anybody close to her. That way, Margaret Sullavan avoided to turn Pat into a victim of her own fate and instead crafted her independently from the ultimate outcome of the story without downplaying it at the same time.

Margaret Sullavan’s performance in Three Comrades mostly consists of two tasks – add the necessary amount of tragedy and create a female love interest. And she not only fulfilled the first task but thanks to her strong characterization and her mysterious screen presence was able to add a constant amount of secrecy to her role. And this also helped her to become more than a female love interest – she never lets the male characters of the story, even though they are its center and constantly redefine it, overshadow her work or her character but uses all her scenes very wisely to create strong presence that is able to maybe not dominate the movie but be one of its strongest assets nonetheless. She lets Pat become a whirlwind of different emotions and reactions but always very calmly and contained. And she also chose a very simple yet very effective way to let Pat become more than ‘the woman’ of the story – by letting her become the fourth comrade. Margaret Sullavan is not the typical love interest as she is neither charming in the usual sense of the word nor overly erotic and not even actively trying to get married or even get attention. She clearly did not expect love to come to her and Margaret Sullavan never portrays Pat as a truly desirable woman since she constantly downplays her appeal. Her chemistry with all actors is always more that of a friend and she’s the kind of woman that would never break up a group of men but instead becomes a part of it She perfectly fits into the group of male characters and that way displays an even greater appeal – she manages to be completely natural, relaxed and non-caring which beautifully contrasts with the seriousness of the part. In her role, Margaret Sullavan is very mature and manages to be both light and seriousness. This way, she was able to be a romantic dreamer, a best friend and a true companion.

The biggest miracle in Margaret Sullavan’s performance is the fact that she was actually able to find so many layers in her role because, as mentioned at the beginning, it is a very thin and underwritten part. But, considering the nature of the role, she does achieve various beautiful successes that may never turn into something truly amazing but are still remarkable nonetheless. But most of all, Margaret Sullavan truly created some unforgettable moments during the last part of her performance – her quiet acceptance, her beautiful display of love and happiness, her ability to find so much magic in such a tragic scene is truly heartbreaking. And even surprising since the inevitability of that scene had been clear right from the start.

In the end, Margaret Sullavan’s performance is a beautiful example of an actress taking what could basically be considered a throwaway-role and filling it with life, meaning and much more. She shows that Pat Hollmann is a woman who is longing for something else while having accepted her tragedy at the same time. Her unique screen presence that helps her to appear so completely mature and decisive while also emphasizing the emotional desperation of Pat Hollmann is combined very effectively with her instincts for the role and so resulted in a maybe still limited but much deeper and more captivating performance than expected. For this, she receives

11/09/2011

Best Actress 1938: Fay Bainter in "White Banners"

It’s certainly very interesting that so many actors and actresses who made Oscar-history have basically become completely forgotten by now. Luise Rainer was the first actress ever to win two acting awards – but apart from people actually interested in the Oscars, who does actually remember her? And the name Fay Bainter isn’t exactly common knowledge, either. But she, too, was the first one to achieve a very remarkable feat that has been copied only a few times since 1938 – being nominated in the leading and the supporting category in the same year. And in the case of Fay Bainter, this is even more special because she is foremost one of those typical supporting actresses who almost never got a chance to truly shine in a leading role – other wonderful actresses like Gale Sondergaard, Mercedes McCambridge, Alice Brady, Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Anne Revere, Gladys Cooper and many more know about this, too. And so it’s refreshing to see Fay Bainter not only being given a leading part but also receiving an Oscar nomination for it – she was neither an overnight sensation in 1938 nor a veteran finally getting her share of the spotlight but instead simply an actress who managed to impress enough Academy members with her two performances to earn two nominations. Nothing more and nothing less. In the supporting category, she won the Oscar for playing Bette Davis’s worrying and suffering aunt in Jezebel while her performance as a mysterious woman who becomes a cook and housekeeper for an overworked science teacher and his family earned her a leading nod (which she lost against Jezebel herself, Bette Davis). All this makes her nominated work in 1938 surely a little bit more interesting than it otherwise might be – but at the end, it’s all about judging her work independently. So, what about her performance in White Banners?

Anybody who has seen Jezebel (and I suppose that’s more than those who have seen White Banners) knows that Fay Bainter is a very warm and earthy, but also elegant and dignified actress who is able to express a lot of inner pain and troubles with heartbreaking facial work that never is too obvious nor too subtle – and that way extremely effective. Jezebel is mostly a one-woman-show for Bette Davis but Fay Bainter’s sad face as she either watches Julie disgrace herself in various situations or worries about her well-being is among the most memorable aspects of the entire production. But Fay Bainter is also an actress whose effects seem to be stronger when her appearances don’t dominate her movie – she is able to create very memorable moments but she also suffers from a certain limitation that very often reduces her performances to two different expressions in which she either looks sad or gives an encouraging smile. In a supporting role, these limitations are not too noticeable because they are enough to fill her performance with enough depth and energy to bring her character to life but in a larger part, a feeling of repetition starts to grow after a while. In the case of White Banners, this feeling is strengthened by the fact that the part of Hannah Parmalee adds to this impression since it’s a role that benefits from Fay Bainter’s acting style but also even more underlines the limitations of both the performance and the character. This means that Fay Bainter fills the small range of the role with her beautiful acting style and screen presence – but does not widen her in any way. Because of all this, this performance might easily have turned into a two-dimensional and narrow portrayal, resting on the sentiment of the movie – but Fay Bainter thankfully knew how to use her own limitation to her advantage. So yes, her acting style may feel underdeveloped at times but at the same time she excelled within these limitations – combined with her warmth, charm and loveliness, she was able to give a very mature, loving and touching performance that works in great harmony with the movie’s sentimental nature without feeling like a manipulating attempt to win the audience’s sympathy.

In some ways, the character of Hannah Parmalee resembles the most beloved nanny of all times, the magical Mary Poppins who appears out of nowhere to take care of a chaotic family. Hannah Parmalee, too, appears out of nowhere as she suddenly stands in front of the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ward – she actually only wants to sell apple peelers but just a few moments later she is already cooking the dinner and washing the dishes. In these early moments, Fay Bainter is surprisingly honest in her portrayal – the woman who is walking into the Ward’s home isn’t some kind of saintly angel but a worn-out, cold and exhausted person who has obviously been living a hard life so far. Unfortunately, this interpretation soon gets lost when the movie starts to treat Hannah exactly as this saintly angel, a woman who not only helps Mrs. Ward to run her home but also becomes a guidance for their daughter and a constant voice of encouragement for Mr. Ward who is inventing an ‘iceless icebox’. Fay Bainter does all this with an expected performance that misses every bit of complexity but what she misses in depth, she makes up for with warmth and charm. The character of Hannah Parmalee only exists to improve the lives of the Wardens but Fay Bainter truly understands to fill all these little moments of her performance with her own loveable screen presence. She is like a combination of a wise and warm grandmother and a supportive best friend and even though her facial work may often seem like a never-ending repetition, she still avoids to lose her grip on the character simply by displaying this support and this worrying with honesty and seriousness. Fay Bainter may to a certain extent miss a needed spark that would enable her to portray more different emotions at the same time and that way find a little bit more complexity in Hannah, but she still knows how to portray these single emotions and thoughts that are the driving force behind her character. When Hannah convinces Mr. Ward to go on with his work, with a fierce determination in her voice, Fay Bainter shows how much strength is actually hidden behind her dignified face and her calm voice and in her work, it is always believable that Hannah may have such strong and yet so subtle influence over the other characters of the story. Hannah may be very selfless and noble but never to a point where she appears to be lacking her own personality. And she is also completely believable in all her worries about the Warden’s daughter and she always knows how to create her character accordingly to the seriousness of the situation. She can be standing outside the house in the cold, worrying about the health of a close person, or sell the old furniture of the Warden’s to get them some extra money – all simple moments but somehow enlightened by Fay Bainter’s beautiful simplicity. She may never surprise in these moments or create a truly three-dimensional character but to watch her worry and suffer is somehow incredibly heartbreaking because her face was simply made for these kind of close-ups. She perfectly knows how portray her character with the utmost dignity without making her preachy or arrogant.

But step by step, White Banners reveals that there is actually something hiding underneath Hannah’s constant friendliness and support – years ago she gave birth to a child out of wedlock and is now trying to find some closeness to the boy who has turned into a young man and the boyfriend of the Ward’s daughter. This storyline allows Fay Bainter to actually widen Hannah a bit and give her some extra looks of sorrow and grief that she doesn’t play in the usual way but this time tries to hide, soften and cover. When Hannah meets the father of the boy again, Fay Bainter, just like in the earlier scene with Mr. Ward, shows that she can act with much more fire and energy if she wants to – her plea to him to keep quiet about the boy’s real extraction, her determination to remain unknown is striking to watch and provides the movie’s best moments.

When Hannah leaves the household of the Ward’s again in the end, it becomes clear that she is, after all, not truly Mary Poppins – meaning that Hannah is the kind of character that seems to be forgotten the moment she leaves the scene because Fay Bainter always shines whenever she is on the screen but does not have a lasting, truly unforgettable appeal. Yes, singular moments are hard to forget (just like with her work in Jezebel) but these are always individual scenes that are highlightened by the context of the story – but the character herself feels strangely separated from these moments, remaining rather pale and slowly becoming forgotten. Fay Bainter does have the power to be truly memorable – but somehow the character of Hannah does not.

Overall, Fay Bainter sprinkles with charm and warmth and it is not hard to believe that her smile, her support and her understanding can brighten the live of anybody she ever meets. It’s neither a complex performance nor a complex role but Fay Bainter does find the right tone, the right face and the right approach to this character, creating some beautiful moments, making her actions and intentions believable and not overdoing the sentiment of the story – she’s strong, believable and loving. For this, she receives




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11/04/2011

Best Actress 1938: Wendy Hiller in "Pygmalion"

The story of Professor Higgins who makes a bet that he is able to turn the common flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a true lady by teaching her to speak perfect English is probably well-known all around the world – but not necessarily because of the original play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw but rather because of the later musical version My Fair Lady which is among the most beloved and successful musicals of all time. And if that wasn’t enough, the movie version of My Fair Lady took home 8 Academy Awards and connected the characters of Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle forever with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. But a ‘beloved’ movie does not automatically indicate ‘acclaimed movie’. Yes, My Fair Lady did sweep the awards in 1964 and critics adored the way George Cuckor brought the musical extravaganza to the screen but today, My Fair Lady is often considered one of the more overrated movie classics and especially the performance of Audrey Hepburn is often called one of the weakest efforts of her career – while critics in 1964 mostly complained about her non-singing, movie fans today often criticize her inability to become a truly believable flower girl because her charm, poise and grace are always visible and her attempts at a Cockney accent are often considered too over-the-top. Because of all this, Wendy Hiller’s performance in the original 1938 movie version of Pygmalion is often considered a superior effort, a kind of insiders’ tip since she was not a glamorous star but a British character actress who could be both – the common and the transformed Eliza. Do I agree with this? Let’s find out!

Right from the start, Wendy Hiller shows that her physics are just right for the part of Eliza Doolittle – her hard but strangely captivating face, her strong voice and her whole body language serve the character well and craft Eliza Doolittle as the common, uneducated flower girl she is supposed to be. Wendy Hiller does not possess the natural sweetness that Audrey Hepburn displayed in 1964 but Pygmalion and My Fair Lady actually strive for different goals – even though My Fair Lady consists of basically all the original dialogue (with some songs added in between), it’s still a much brighter and more entertaining look at the story of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, filled with more focus on a possible romantic relationship between these two characters. In 1938, Pygmalion appears much darker, more grown-up and neither Wendy Hiller nor Leslie Howard intended to turn their characters into loveable outsiders. Her Eliza Doolittle isn’t the kind of amusing girl she would become in the musical version but instead a more realistic and flawed character, a woman who does her best to survive on the streets of London and doesn’t care about how she might seem to others. In this aspect, Wendy Hiller clearly understood Eliza Doolittle and she can easily be admired for being so honest in her portrayal of both the early, unrefined Eliza and later the more self-assured, independent Eliza who not only found a new way of speaking but also a new way of thinking. She also never overdid any aspects in the transformation process – again, My Fair Lady is a grand spectacle and so it made sense that Eliza Doolittle turned into a beautiful, elegant lady but Pygmalion is much smaller and tries to be more realistic and because of that Wendy Hiller did the right thing by always keeping true to the original Eliza – in her work, Eliza Doolittle discovered a new world and a new life but this does not mean that she completely changed. There is a new intelligence in her, a new view on the world and also Professor Higgins but she is not a new woman who completely cut all the connections to her old life and her old existence. On the contrary, Wendy Hiller used the former life of Eliza Doolittle as a foundation for her transformation and displays that Eliza did not completely change but rather develop, becoming a combination of her old life and the new life Professor Higgins taught her.

All of this does sound as if Wendy Hiller did indeed succeed in turning the character of Eliza Doolittle into a wonderful triumph – but there is also a different side. Wendy Hiller may know what to do with Eliza Doolittle – but she often did not know how to do it. Her own appearance and screen presence and her clear understanding of her material helped her to give a performance that is certainly right from a technical point-of-view – but as right as her work seems on the surface, it feels rather shockingly empty on the inside which puts Wendy Hiller in the interesting situation of inhabiting the character without acting the character. Most of all, she constantly seems to rush through her role as if she wanted to get off the set as quickly as possible. This way, she missed almost every chance the script offered her to either deepen the character of Eliza or underlining the tone of the story. Actually, both Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller miss almost every single chance for humor or drama that the script is offering to them. Neither has the ability to let a joke unfold its effect, going from one line to the other without barely any pause between them, either over- or underplaying their dialogue and that way missing their chance to turn their characters into full human beings. Wendy Hiller behaves like Eliza Doolittle and speaks like Eliza Doolittle but she never becomes Eliza Doolittle. Her acting stays too much on the surface of the character and the story which results in a performance that never realizes all the possible potentials that were given to it. Wendy Hiller often focuses on one single emotion or feeling per scene, overlooking the drama in comedy moments or forgetting the comedy during the drama and that way hardly doing anything at all. She walks through the movie with all the right movies but she mostly feels like a disciplined dancer who knows all the right movements but forgets to put any meaning into them.

Pygmalion mostly suffers from the fact that Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard have absolutely no noticeable chemistry. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison knew how to work together to show two people disliking each other immensely but still growing closer and closer together. Neither Leslie Howard nor Wendy Hiller achieved the same in Pygmalion. Their constant fights and insults come and go without every defining effect since both seem to act almost independent from each other. Of course, it should normally not be necessary that these two characters develop a strong relationship or that the actors portraying them develop a believable chemistry simply because Pygmalion is originally not supposed to be a love story. Professor Higgins may show Eliza Doolittle a world beyond Covent Garden and beyond the limits of her own mind but he also symbolizes a certain type of man, of class who cannot accept human beings unless they are a product of his own demands. It’s a fight of classes and of the sexes, and a very serious one in which both characters try to keep their dignity and their own point-of-views. So yes, Pygmalion is not the romantic My Fair Lady but a certain kind of chemistry between two leads in a movie is necessary, especially if the relationship between these two lead characters is the foundation of the whole movie. And, of course, the fact that Pygmalion is not the same romantic story as My Fair Lady is only half the truth – because even though My Fair Lady is often accused of its ending in which Eliza Doolittle returns to Professor Higgins, this ending had already been added to the story in the movie version of 1938. But in this case, it comes so sudden, so unexpected and even…unwanted. The way Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard portrayed their characters, there is basically no reward in seeing these two come together at the end. It may be that Wendy Hiller wanted to portray a more independent and dominant Eliza but she also had to consider what was expected of her during the final moments of the story. Maybe this suddenness even makes sense because the question always remains if these two characters will ever be able to stay together but this is a question for the future – as for the presence, Wendy Hiller simply failed to build Eliza’s final decision on any believable foundation.

The whole process of turning Eliza Doolittle into a lady is done without any truly interesting moments – oh, they would be there but both Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller fail to see them in their work. Only when Eliza Doolittle for the first time ‘tries’ her new personality during a tea party of Professor Higgin’s mother does Wendy Hiller find a shining moment. Her awkward delivery of Eliza’s learned lines and finally the story about her aunt and those who ‘had done her in’ shows that, if she took more careful attention at her material, she was able to bring a more captivating side to Eliza. But this one scene remains the only highlight in her work and even during her later, more dramatic moments she again feels too much like an actress reading her lines since she puts almost no feeling or emotion into her words. This way, the fate and the awakening of Eliza Doolittle becomes never as interesting as it might have been. In a way, the audience might look at Eliza Doolittle like Professor Higgins does – a bit appalled, slightly amused, but always distant and never truly interested.

Wendy Hiller achieved to be both completely logical but also strangely inadequate as Eliza Doolittle. The role seems to both over- and underwhelm her and as a consequence she stayed on one note for most of the time. She saves her performance in parts with her own personality that is certainly right for the role and her own instincts which make her mostly do the right things (but unfortunately the wrong way). Most of all, Wendy Hiller is a too subtle actress for this kind of character. The technical aspects of her performance may be fine but she never truly connects – maybe her work would have impressed more with the distance of a stage than the personal intimacy of a movie. So, for her work that is both correct and wrong, in which her instincts are always right but her acting mostly distant, uninspired and shallow, she receives an overall grade of