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