My current Top 5

My current Top 5

10/22/2011

Best Actress 1944: Greer Garson in "Mrs. Parkington"

Somehow, Greer Garson always seems like a perfect product of the 40s. Very often she projected that typical, rather dated acting style from those years, a certain melodrama that dominates her performances and includes long stares into the open space, very controlled body movements, a posing in front of the camera and a tendency to milk every scene for dramatic effect. But Greer Garson had one, no two important advantages over other actresses from that era that helped her to become a product of her time while appearing strangely timeless, too – namely the ability to combine her acting style with a certain naturalism that enabled her to appear surprisingly fresh and spontaneous and a huge amount of charm that carried most of her work and made it possible for her not to rely only on her talent for melodrama but also to fill her character with poise, sweetness and dignity. She never had to rely on over-the-top crying scenes or hysteric breakdowns to command the screen – the phrase ‘less is more’ was certainly the credo of her acting performances. And this combination of charm, naturalism, subtlety and obvious melodrama resulted in performances that are almost always entertaining and lovely to look at even though they may never truly appear like truly grand achievements. From a modern point-of-view, most of her work may appear rather harmless and limited, even though also satisfying enough to make it understandable that she used to be such an Oscar darling during her reign. But more than her old-fashioned acting style it is the quality of her movies has damaged the reputation of Greer Garson over the years. By 1944, she would probably have been nominated for reading the phone book – even though she was clearly capable of more. But for an actress of her status it does seem confusing that she was so seldom cast in movies that truly deserved her. Next to her, Bette Davis is the only other actress to have received 5 consecutive nominations for Best Actress. But Bette Davis starred in Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes and Now, Voyager – all of them classics in their own way and hardly forgotten. Greer Garson made her Oscar-run with Blossoms in the Dust, Mrs. Miniver, Madame Curie, Mrs. Parkington and Valley of Decision. Mrs. Miniver is at least a winner of the Best Picture award, even though a rather forgotten one, but the rest of these movies are standard melodrama without any true recommendable features apart from its leading lady. This does not mean that these movies resemble pictures like Sophie’s Choice or Monster which are also average movies but with overpowering lead performances. A Greer-Garson-movie is always a rather dated, lifeless and unremarkable experience, even with Greer Garson’s charming presence. And these dated and unremarkable movies also did hardly ever offer this actress truly challenging parts but mostly let her do what she did best – be gracious, charming, shed some tears and hold her head in the right angle in front of the camera.

This all sounds maybe rather confusing. Was she a good actress or a bad actress? Well, the answer is easy: definitely a good actress but she’s always caught in her own limited range and never as great as one might expect her to be, considering her overall 7 Best Actress nods. And what about her role as Susie Parkington in the not very cleverly titled Mrs. Parkington? Well, the movie itself is the average Greer-Garson-vehicle – and even among them it is rather sub-standard but it also offers the wonderful realization that Greer Garson could truly rise above her material sometimes even when she still did not move herself outside her own comfort zone. Mrs. Parkington receives all its energy and emotional content from Greer Garson and she single-handedly prevents the movie from collapsing under its own melodrama and pretentiousness. Mrs. Parkington only exists to supply the leading actress with a flashy part and so it forgot everything else – from a well-written screenplay to an appealing supporting cast (with one exception) to any other interesting characters (again, with one exception). So basically, her performance should not differ very much from most of her other turns, Oscar-nominated or not. And in a lot of ways it doesn’t – but there is something about Greer Garson’s work in Mrs. Parkington that somehow comes together so beautifully entertaining, moving and captivating that she and her performance, even though in no way unique or a step out of her comfort zone, feels somehow more impressive than it usually does. Again, this does not mean that this performance will secure her a place among the all-time greats but she does project such an admirable character out of paper-thin writing that it feels hard to deny her a little more respect than usually.

Mrs. Parkington, as mentioned before, is neither the height of sophistication nor of entertainment. It does what so many movies during the 40s did – tell the story of a woman’s life in flashbacks while the present challenges her with various serious problems and situations. Mrs. Parkington – the movie and the character – ask a lot of Greer Garson; she has to be a young, poor girl working in her mother's guest house who marries a wealthy Major from whom she begins to distance herself until she realizes in the end that she indeed loves him. All this while the present-day Susie has to deal with her spoiled children who certainly did not turn out the way she probably hoped they would have. The movie also covers a large part of Susie’s life – from her days as a young woman to an old grandmother. Yes, it is indeed a showy role and Greer Garson plays it with her usual mix of freshness and old-fashioned posing but still with a stronger emphasis on her natural and charming side than her melodramatic one. When Greer Garson first enters the movie, in her old-woman make-up, the whole performance basically depends on the first few seconds of her work – is she convincing and that way invites the audience to follow her story or does it all appear too unconvincing to be anything else than preposterous? Thankfully Greer Garson did everything right in this first moment – the way she nods at her family which is waiting for her downstairs is so different from her usual graceful self and in just a few moments communicates the feelings of a proud, loveable and lively woman, a woman who undoubtedly looks back at a long and eventful life. Greer Garson captured the spirit of this woman so well in this moment that she creates the foundation of everything to follow in this single scene.

In Mrs. Parkington, Greer Garson certainly faces one of the most curious dilemmas in movie history: she manages to be both too young and too old for her role. But as just mentioned, she solves the dilemma of the old Susie Parkington extremely well – there is warmth, wisdom and strength in her portrayal and she also combines the woman of the present-day scenes perfectly with the woman of the flashback scenes. There are obvious moments when the audience certainly has to wonder how her children could turn out to be such problems but Greer Garson manages to show that Susie is wondering the same, too, and therefore does not need to give an answer because there is none. Greer Garson’s performance does not work quite as well during her early flashback scenes – her age is far too visible in these moments and she sometimes simply lacks credibility as an unsophisticated woman growing up in the middle of nowhere. But Greer Garson again is much more relaxed, open and honest in her portrayal than usual – she does not speak for a long time after the inevitable Walter Pidgeon appeard but the lusty and fascinated looks she is throwing at him make her intentions perfectly clear. Greer Garson also did not overdo these scenes – she did not try to copy girlish charm or teenaged attraction but kept her characterization very low-key. The biggest problems in Greer Garson’s performance come during the early scenes with Walter Pidgeon but she is not to be blamed for them – in Pidgeon, she has an impossibly pompous screen partner, playing a purely despicable character. During what is certainly supposed to be a romantic scene when they are both talking at night on a balcony, they hear a man slap his wife which only causes Parkington to say ‘Ah, he must love her very much’ before he asks Susie if she would like to be thrashed by him. Even Greer Garson seems to be lost in this scene. Later, things get even worse when Susie’s mother dies – a death for which Parkington could be indirectly blamed. But Greer Garson reacts to the news of her mother’s death only with a stern look without any emotional content. But maybe she cannot believe that the script is actually forcing her to listen to Parkington trying to cheer her up by telling her she must come to New York with him. Again, maybe Greer Garson’s lost expression is her inability to find any kind of emotional outlet for a horrible scene like this and it’s hard to blame her but she could have at least tried…Later, she suddenly finds an unexpected shining moment among this insulting plotline. The scene in which Parkington proposes to her is again almost offensive but her delivery of the line ‘Oh, Major Parkington’, which is basically her agreement to his proposal, is as good as it gets under the circumstances, maybe even better. She finds the right amount of surprise, delight, doubt and fear in this short sentence without any sentimental exaggeration.

Later, the chemistry between both actors improves especially because they never play the love between their characters as something pure, unique and eternal – instead, they give a realistic portrayal of a marriage that was half out of love and halt out of convenience while these two different personalities get used to each other. Greer Garson also shows the growth in Susie with slow, logical steps – it’s an inevitable process as Susie needs to find her place in New York’s society and deal with the behavior of her husband which is causing unhappiness and ruin around them. Her sad, painful looks during a ruined dinner party and later the scene when she leaves him because she cannot stand his behavior anymore are done very movingly by Greer Garson. Overall, it’s very impressive to watch how she takes Susie from the naïve, inexperienced girl to a woman who takes her life into her own hands, intervened with the scenes of a wise and loving grandmother.

Greer Garson’s chemistry with Walter Pidgeon may sometimes lack the necessary spark and plausibility but she always works extremely well with Agnes Mooreheard – the aforementioned exception to the unimpressive supporting cast. As a French aristocrat, she gives new life and energy into the movie whenever the two leads lack too much of it. In her relationship to the Baroness, Greer Garson again shows a constant growth in Susie – first, she does not know if she can trust this woman who used to be an important part in the life of her husband and then, step by step, develops a true and meaningful friendship with her.

Greer Garson may not truly create something otherworldly in her performance but the sheer energy and naturalness she shows in this part is enough to praise her for having done so much with so little. The way she constantly blows her hair out her face is maybe a simple and banal characteristic that often comes at the expense of more important emotional reactions but she does it with so much vitality and so often contrasts with her usual screen personality while never leaving her comfort zone that it’s quite simply much more intriguing and entertaining than expected. The audience certainly wonders how a woman who found so much strength insider herself during the run of the movie could accept such behavior from her children – and so the final scene of Mrs. Parkington, when the older Susie suddenly finds her youthful spirit again and decides to act the way she thinks is best, brings the whole character of Susie to full circle. For all this, Greer Garson receives

1 comment:

dinasztie said...

I just loved her. I'm very glad you liked her, too.