Mercedes McCambridge is an incredibly unique screen presence and this helps her to give an incredibly unique performance. Most of all, her Sadie Burke is a very intense creation, especially thanks to her strong and dominating voice. Overall, Mercedes McCambridge simply has one of the strongest screen presences ever and she gets everything out of her role and even much more.
Just like Katina Paxinou’s Pilar, Sadie Burke is a strong woman in a world of men, not sexy or attractive but still fascinating. Sadie is a hard-bitten woman who knows how to play the game. She never gets treated like a lady (more than once she is told to ‘Shut up’ and when she asks for a drink, all she hears is ‘Help yourself’) and Sadie has accepted it, playing with the boys on the same level instead of wanting to be a little wife. She always talks in an amused way about Willie’s wife, probably laughing about her fate as a housewife.
Mercedes McCambridge’s Sadie belongs in the world of politics and when she says ‘Anybody that pays me is smart’, there is little doubt that she is right. And very soon these two unlikely romantic interests, Willie Stark and Sadie Burke, start an affair and Sadie discovers that, despite all her strength and willpower, she, too, knows the feeling of jealousy and betrayal when she has to discover that, after having laughed at Willie’s wife, she also is just another woman for Willie. She angrily shouts ‘I hate all women!’ and again underlines that she feels more comfortable around men. All this leads up to her scene in front of the mirror when she sees the picture of Willie’s newest affair. She compares that image to herself and then opens up, telling that she had smallpox as a child which ‘leaves your face hard.’ She now shows that she, too, would like to be beautiful and attractive, showing all her lost dreams in her face. But at the same time she begins to tease Jack, knowing that it is his fiancée who is Willie’s newest affair. And then in just a small second she is tough self again when Jack slaps her and she just laughs in his face, saying ‘Well…’, as if he was a little boy.
If ever a small part was made outstanding by the unique work of a unique actress, then this is the case.