My current Top 5

My current Top 5

8/26/2011

Best Actress 1975: Louise Fletcher in "One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"

What do Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Angela Lansbury and Geraldine Page have in common? They are among the many actresses who rejected the role of the sadistic, manipulative and unforgiving Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and that way made it possible for the unknown Louise Fletcher to come out of nowhere and win the Best Actress Oscar for her take on this infamous character – a highlight that would be the only one in a career that could never benefit from this Oscar win and Louise Fletcher disappeared again just as quickly as she had arrived. In fact, right after her Oscar win she already admitted that she had not received any good movie offers since One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – it was probably the unlucky combination of being type-cast and not having shown enough talent or personality for leading roles that prevented her from ever becoming a bigger star. Because the role of Nurse Ratched, as fascinating as she may be, did not allow Louise Fletcher to either display a wide variety of emotions nor proof that she could carry a picture since her role is relatively short compared to other winners and nominees in this category – another disappointment for Louise Fletcher who also had to spend some of her post-Oscar-win time defending herself against accusations that hers was actually a supporting role and that only a weak year like 1975 could have allowed her to win in the leading category…maybe people thought that Nurse Ratched would be strong enough to stand all those accusations but Louise Fletcher actually suffered pretty much from them and she also had to defend herself even before the Oscars when last year’s winner Ellen Burstyn went on TV and urged Academy voters not to vote for Best Actress because of the lack of good female roles – maybe Ellen Burstyn’s heart was in the right place when she made this plea but it was certainly a slap in the face of the nominees and it’s understandable that Louise Fletcher made her anger about those remarks publicly known.

So, this start for this review already made it clear that the role of Nurse Ratched brings back this old, never-ending argument – leading or supporting? I don’t want to have this argument here since it makes a) no sense since the race is over and done and b) no satisfying answer will ever come from it since arguments could be made for both categories. Yes, Louise Fletcher does only have limited screentime and a limited character to accompany it but her role is undoubtedly of great importance for the whole story and, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, an unforgettable counterpart to the central character of the movie. Okay, the same arguments could be made for Vanessa Redgrave in Julia but the structure of Julia and One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is very different and Louise Fletcher a larger presence in hers than Vanessa Redgrave. Okay, and I have started the argument…let’s just say that some performances cannot be categorized easily – and if an actress enters the leading category despite a lack of screentime, she risks to be judged lower simply because she may not have enough opportunities to craft her character and become the strong presence that a leading player needs. I have complained about this myself – some performances simply lack too much depth and power because of the size of the part and therefore are not truly able to compete with other, more fully realized performances. But sometimes it happens that an actress is able to overcome these obstacles and create an intriguing and exciting character that is able to show how much careful attention and preparation can help to dominate a movie even if the character is largely absent. Other winners for Best Actress who achieved this are Luise Rainer whose Anna Held could easily have disappeared in the extravagant, three-hour long The Great Ziegfeld if it hadn’t been for Rainer’s witty, charming, funny and heartbreaking interpretation or Frances McDormand whose role as Marge Gunderson is even rather short in a movie which isn’t very long to begin with but the unique humor, line-delivery and facial work she used did nothing less than create one of the most unforgettable movie characters of all time. In these cases, those actresses not only turned their material into gold (that’s something also supporting actresses can do) but they also let their characters become such powerful and dominating presences that the screentime becomes of secondary importance when deciding if this is a supporting or a leading performance (unlike Vanessa Redgrave – in her case the screentime does give the answer even if she may be a powerful and important presence). And Louise Fletcher also belongs in this group. In the part of Nurse Ratched, she had both an advantage and a disadvantage against Luise Rainer and Frances McDormand – on the one hand, she benefited from the fact that her movie presented her with a character that was already written as extremely fascinating and of central importance while Anna Held and Marge Gunderson were rather a part of the whole. But on the other hand, these two characters were allowed to be explored, crafted and realized – Luise Rainer and Frances McDormand could construct these women themselves while Louise Fletcher was basically given a certain type of role that required her to follow a certain path and never leave it, forbidding her any experiments with the part and therefore limiting her in her interpretation. So there are a lot of riddles in this performance – does Louise Fletcher make Nurse Ratched fascinating or is it the other way around? Is she only a vessel for her words and the system she symbolizes or does Louise Fletcher herself create the character and turns her into such a subtle ambassador of evil? The answer is not easy but what can be said is that Louise Fletcher perfectly gave a face to an almost faceless woman, a disembodied presence floating above her ward – her success in this part was that she took this character which, even though intended to be a powerful presence, could have been easily overshadowed by the central storyline surrounding Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and turned her into one of the most mysterious and intriguing movie villains of all time. Maybe Louise Fletcher benefited from the fact that Nurse Ratched is such a juicy character but she is also a limited character, mostly sitting in a chair, hardly moving at all and it was up to Louise Fletcher to give these scenes the intensity it needed, to turn Nurse Ratched into a force to be reckoned with without making it noticeable, letting all the evil happen behind her stone-faced façade – a task she was wonderfully up to.

In the universe of One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher’s performance is by far the most interesting aspect – yes, Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career and is able to combine the comedy and the drama of the movie in his work and from this point of view gives probably the most accomplished performance of the cast. But Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched presents such a thrilling enigma, a woman whose thoughts and intentions always remain in the dark and are therefore so hard to grasp – all this turns her into a character which provides endless opportunities for speculating and guessing. The truth also is that all this could have become very boring very soon since a character which leaves too many questions unanswered could easily loose the interest of the viewers but Louise Fletcher’s soft-spoken and cold-eyed performance in which her face becomes almost like a masque of stone was able to prevent this from happening and combined the riddles of the character with her own talent to appear either like a caring nurse or almost a goddess of wrath without changing her facial work for one second.

Nurse Ratched is a two-dimensional character without any emotional clearness or depth – she only exists in the world of the hospital, it’s impossible to imagine this woman in the ‘outside world’. Apparently she and Billy’s mother are friends but it’s almost impossible to imagine Nurse Ratched in a private life, involving friends or a family. When she leaves her ward, she seems to fall into a dark hole until she appears again in the next morning. All this could have harmed the character but the script and Louise Fletcher perfectly understood to use this two-dimensionality of Nurse Ratched to create a villain without any reasoning, who doesn’t even give one hint at some kind of backstory or a more private, hidden side. The question ‘why?’ is constantly floating above her but is never answered.

Since Louise Fletcher spends most of her on-screen time sitting in a chair, most of her acting is done by her face – a face that is rid of any emotions. All expressions are torn away from it when Nurse Ratched watches her patients, forcing them to speak about things they don’t want to and then enjoys the discussions that arise among them and in which the patients show a constant state of mockery and self-loathing. Only sometimes her face seems to change a bit, a little smile seems to escape when she is satisfied with her results or she calculates her next steps. But even more, Louise Fletcher can change her appearance so easily – in some moments she looks almost delicate, pale and small but in other scenes her face appears almost vast, red with anger and her body surpassing everyone else around her. The other important aspect of her work is her voice – again, she can deliver her lines very soft-spoken, friendly and thoughtful but there is always an almost threatening undertone that suggests a greater truth and during the final scenes of the movie, her voice changes to a more ‘obvious’ evilness when Nurse Ratched cannot find any other way to keep control over the ward than open threats.

Probably the most important aspect of Louise Fletcher’s performance was the fact that her underplaying of Nurse Ratched helped her immensely to establish the character as a very untypical villain – in fact, there could even be the question if she is a villain at all. In some ways, Nurse Ratched seems rather to be a symbol of efficiency, a woman who tries to keep control in her ward and does not tolerate the rebellious McMurphy and the effect he has on the other patients. But this is the power that actually allows her to keep such tight and complete control over her ward and her patients – her ability to appear strict but not evil makes her the unquestioned symbol of accepted suppression. Nobody, not the patients nor the other workers at the hospital, see anything else than a woman who does her job since she gets her personal joy from very little things – like letting the men get their hopes up about voting if they are allowed to watch baseball on TV while she already knows that they will not get enough votes. She likes to see them get excited with anticipation only to destroy it a few seconds later. She enjoys the complete power she has over the men, her unquestioned authority developed in an environment that has no means to reject it. She never does anything ‘obviously’ evil and that way escapes any accusations – until the end when she discovers that McMurphy is close to destroying her precious authority. Bullying her patients with uncomfortable questions and controlling their lives is all she has so when McMurphy gets them to cheer at a TV that doesn’t show anything and that way gives them back their own will and ideas, Louise Flechter thrillingly shows the hidden anger burning inside Nurse Ratched. And during a later session, when one of the men keeps standing up despite the fact that she prohibits it, she lets her lose her self-control for the first time, shouting at him ‘You sit down!’ – in this moment, Louise Fletcher’s head almost becomes like a skull, covered with anger and rage. In this way Louise Fletcher quietly, almost unnoticeable develops Nurse Ratched – the calm and confident woman from the beginning slowly begins to lose her power over her patients and needs to find new ways to keep her authority intact.

Louise Fletcher’s most chilling scene comes at the end when she sees how the rebellious, anti-authoritarian McMurphy is destroying the structures that have enabled her to keep her power. Billy’s refusal to feel ashamed, the cheers of the other patients, her dirty cap – it all represents the fall of her power and Louise Fletcher thrillingly shows how Nurse Ratched is thinking about her options at this moment, finally deciding that only open threats can re-erect her authority. Acting against all morale principles, she informs Billy that she will tell his mother about what he did even though she must expect the consequences of her doings. The final look she gives McMurphy at this moment, after Billy has been dragged away, shouting and screaming, tells him that she, after all, has beaten him. But even after all these incidents on her ward she still is in charge at the end – again this underlines the power of Nurse Ratched as she apparently found a way to let her own actions disappear and lay all the blame on McMurphy while also silencing all the other patients who witnessed the event.

It’s not clear if this is a case of brilliant acting or brilliant casting or brilliant writing allowing a limited performance to impress because of the fascination of the character – but something brilliant happened nonetheless. It may be that Louise Fletcher benefited from the way the character was written and presented but it's still her presence, her face, her voice and her ability to show so much with so little that brought Nurse Ratched to live and made her an everlasting part of movie history. Her ability to use the one-dimensionality and the limited determination of Nurse Ratched and turn it into a thrilling piece of work is surely a wonderful achievement for which she receives

8/24/2011

Best Actress 1975


The next year will be 1975 and the nominees were

Isabelle Adjani in L'Histoire d'Adèle H.

Ann-Margret in Tommy

Louise Fletcher in One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Glenda Jackson in Hedda

Carole Kane in Hester Street

8/23/2011

Best Actress 1969 - The resolution

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



Liza Minnelli is the emotional, but also intellectual core of this movie and carries it with ease and naturalness on her shoulders. She does not re-invent the free-spirited character she is playing but still gives her own, touching and beautiful interpretation of it and her performance is ultimately very warm, memorable, beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking.



                     
With her believable display of royal status and of strength in a woman who must constantly hold her own against a man who wants to control every aspect of her life and her easiness of delivering Anne’s constructed lines without losing their emotional core and her ability to display charm and happiness just as effectively as anger and fear, Geneviève Bujold surely got a lot out of a part that could easily have been lost in a movie that is actually about her.


Jean Simmons delivered a very touching performance in a challenging role that took good use of her own characteristic screen presence and charisma. She showed the few ups and many downs in Mary Wilson’s life and while most of her performance seems to follow a standard formula for depressive characters, she still mixed it with various refreshing and unusual acting choices from which The Happy Ending benefited greatly.



2. Jane Fonda in They shoot Horses, don't they?

As Gloria, Jane Fonda was able to use her usual screen presence and acting style and create a character without falling into the traps of her own deficiencies as an actress because Gloria is a character that benefits from the strength of the movie and the strength of the remaining players and also does not overexpose Jane Fonda and that way gave her just the right amount of both support and screen time to use her own talents with great effect. The final results is a very natural and haunting performance beautifully fitted to the dark and haunting atmosphere of the movie.



Maggie Smith handles comedy and drama with equal ease, she is a leader, a victim, a lover, a manipulator, she's entertaining and provoking at the same time and she commands the screen with so many outstanding scenes that the end result is quite simply one of the most fascinating tour-de-forces ever put on the screen.





Best Actress 1969: Liza Minnelli in "The Sterile Cuckoo"

Just like Jane Fonda became a truly independent actress in 1969 by parting herself from the name of the farther, Liza Minnelli also turned herself into an acknowledged actress with her turn as the free-spirited, cheerful but also sad and insecure Pookie Adams in The Sterile Cuckoo. Apparently, her mother Judy Garland was very positive about the part and Liza Minnelli’s possibilities with it but unfortunately died before the movie was released. But just as she predicted, critics reacted very positive to this performance and an Oscar win might have appeared very likely but the upset win by Maggie Smith delayed Liza Minnelli’s Oscar dreams – but only until 1972 when she won the award for her career defining turn as Sally Bowles in the classic musical Cabaret.

Cabaret is a good cue at this moment – when one hears the words ‘Liza Minnelli’ and ‘free-spirited’, isn’t the character of Sally Bowles that first images that comes into ones head? Yes, in some ways the part of Pookie Adams appears like a warm-up by Liza Minnelli in which she prepared for the most famous role of her career but The Sterile Cuckoo presents a character that may be similar to Sally Bowles in some ways but is ultimately also very different. Both women are very out-spoken, they aren’t afraid to open their mouth and say what they feel or quickly come up with some story if the situation demands it. Both women enter a relationship with a rather insecure, conventional man whom they fascinate with their unconventional behaviour and character. And both woman are, beneath the surface of fun, cheerfulness and the constant urge to either talk or do something, highly insecure, afraid of rejection and basically little girls trapped in the body of a desirable woman and unable to really open their characters up – so instead of truly wanting to find a relationship, both Sally and Pookie are rather looking for approval, for guidance and for security. So, yes, Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated performances are rather alike in various aspects – but there are also differences. Sally Bowles has her own agenda, she likes to get ahead in the world even if that means parting from the things she truly loves – she’s a woman who has mastered the technique of overshadowing her own feelings and emotions with a masque of playfulness and loveable eccentricities. Pookie Adams has no such ambitions and she is rather desperate for any kind of human contact which she just can’t seem to find or hold. She is living a very lonely life and it’s never truly clear if she pushes others away by choice or involuntarily.
But all those comparisons are certainly not helpful when it comes to judging the individual performances. But what can be said is that Sally Bowles is certainly Liza Minnelli’s personal masterpiece which is probably also the result of the fact that Cabaret is a movie that gives her much more to work with, much more chances to impress and a character that allows her to be much more irresistible, careless and entertaining than ever before. The Sterile Cuckoo on the other hand suffers from a rather undecided script and while it gives Liza Minnelli a lot of opportunities to use her natural charm and spacy personality, it also holds her back at various moments and doesn’t allow her to develop such a full character as she would with Sally Bowles.

Right from the start, The Sterile Cuckoo and Liza Minnelli make sure that Pookie Adams appears as free-spirited as she can be. During her first scene, she suddenly introduces herself to Jerry while they are both waiting for their bus to their colleges and immediately everything about her screams the words ‘unconventional’,
‘unique’, ‘different’, ‘intriguing’ or ‘unusual’. Later in the bus, these first impressions are strengthened when Pookie displays her ability for making up all kinds of stories and lies in the face of a nun while still keeping her charm and that unique freshness. During the bus ride, she keeps making up stories about her and Jerry whom she had introduced to the nuns as her brothers and she combines those stories with other sentences or remarks that are totally out-of-place without making a single stop between them, jumping from one topic to the next, constantly talking or asking questions. It’s basically everything you would expect from this kind of character and the way Pookie is written it’s clear that the author was very proud his creation but it all could have become annoying very easily – not because of the nature of Pookie’s character but rather because everything about the way she is written is so full of clichés and stereotypes. But there is one aspect that helped Pookie Adams to survive all this and become a captivating and later heartbreaking character – Liza Minnelli. She has the unique charm and appearance to sell this character, to make her believable and to let her become a real, three-dimensional human being. In her hands, Pookie is much more interesting and mysterious than the script would have suggested and she also has the talent to constantly show that Pookie’s personality is not a natural part of her but rather something she uses to both keep people away and get closer to them. Liza Minnelli always displays the loneliness in Pookie – when she and Jerry are visiting a bar and she tells him that all the girls who have lived with her in a room have moved out again very quickly and nobody is really interested in talking to her, Liza Minnelli does not make it truly clear how much Pookie understands in this situation but she does show on her face how deeply insecure she is at moments like this. Pookie likes to call everyone she does not approve of ‘weirdo’ – or better, everyone who does not approve her. Liza Minnelli never makes it clear why Pookie is such a lonely girl, why she is not truly able to connect with others but she manages to make it understandable – somehow, her Pookie possesses both a lovely spirit but also a very difficult character, she can be very hard to accept, especially when you are not charmed by a woman like her. With all this, Liza Minnelli always avoids to play Pookie free-spirited just for the sake of making her free-spirited (the scene in an empty sports hall in which she pretends to fall only to laugh at Jerry afterwards would have been a disaster without Liza Minnelli’s charm) – instead, she displays how Pookie finds no other way to express herself, even in more serious scenes and moments.

Liza Minnelli finds various beautiful, silent moments in her performance which help her to craft the complexities and the inner life of Pookie Adams – when she covers herself with leafs during a little trip to the beach, when she sits in a church, lies down in a cemetery or simply remains silent for a few moments, dropping the masque from her face and showing the simple hopes and fears of her character. Pookie Adams was created to break the viewers’ hearts and while the movie and the character are sometimes too underdeveloped to completely succeed in this aspect, Liza Minnelli still achieved a lot. Her face can express thousand emotions at once and few other actresses can combine the joy of life with a fear of life like her. Her Pookie is a lost soul, almost like a woman who had to suffer a lifetime of misery and yet she is still young and only at the beginning of her way through the world. Somehow she has turned into a woman who lives a life of loneliness and pretends not to care about even though she clearly longs emotional and physical connection. In Liza Minnelli’s performance, Pookie Adams becomes a character who is both realistic and almost dreamlike because of all her contradictions and unusualness.

Unfortunately, Liza Minnelli does not truly work very well with her male co-star – both actors seem more concerned with their own work than creating the necessary chemistry which ultimately also harms Liza Minnelli’s performance in some parts. The combination of this lack of chemistry and the underwritten character never make it clear just why Pookie is so focused on Jerry. From the way the movie presents this relationship it seems as if she was trying to get close to him even before she spoke to him for the first time but neither the movie nor Liza Minnelli ever give any explanation for this. Also in the later scenes, the relationship does not truly develop in a way that explains her love for him – sure, Liza Minnelli portrays very well how much Pookie is looking for any kind of closeness and affection but she does not explain why this has to be Jerry. And so, her most famous and celebrated scene in which Pookie calls Jerry on the phone and goes through a firestorm of emotions by basically begging him to stay with her, has never truly connected with me the way it probably should simply because the relationship that is so close to fail at this moment never convinced me as working to begin with. But even though, there is no sense in denying how powerful Liza Minnelli is in this scene – a conversation on the phone is always a welcome opportunity for an actor to show off his skills since there is no partner to share the screen with and the character can so be played in a much more honest and open way. And Liza Minnelli’s talent for always appearing completely natural and making her character so complete helps her immensely in this scene – she believable goes from anxiety to fear, from desperation to false hope, from tearful breakdowns to sad smiles and does without ever exaggerating Pookie’s emotions since she has earlier displayed just how extrovert she truly is. Pookie does not hide her feelings at this moment and yet there still remains the feeling that the audience has not even learned ten percent about this woman yet.

The Sterile Cuckoo is a movie that does not exist to tell a certain plot but it rather only wants to tell a little story about two people and how their pats met and parted. Because of this, Liza Minnelli cannot truly follow a certain guideline in her performance but rather has to use every opportunity, every dialogue, every monologue and every wordless expression to craft her character – and she does so very beautifully even when sometimes the limits of the screenplay prevent her from going all the way. But even despite various obstacles in both the movie and the performance, Liza Minnelli still manages to be both touching and captivating, she possesses the gift for creating complex character in the most simple ways and so beautifully crafted a woman without any social skills, who depends on the kindness of strangers, who tries be lead a life that enables her to be who she really is but who also is too afraid to drop the masque she is constantly wearing to protect herself from rejection or disappointment.

Liza Minnelli is the emotional, but also intellectual core of this movie and carries it with ease and naturalness on her shoulders. She does not re-invent the character she is playing but still gives her own, touching and beautiful interpretation of it. Because of all this, Pookie Adams does not need to hide herself next to Sally Bowles since both women are unique creations and even though Liza Minnelli reached the peak of her professional career in Cabaret, her turn in The Sterile Cuckoo is warm, memorable, beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking. For all this, she receives







8/22/2011

Best Actress 1969: Jane Fonda in "They shoot Horses, don't they?"

Jane Fonda is certainly one of the most interesting women in the entertainment world – not only because of her acclaimed performances but also because of her social interests and her political activism, especially her involvement in the anti-war movement, no matter how one looks at it and which side one is willing to believe. Especially all the controversy that surrounded her right from the start makes her success in Hollywood even more interesting – it seems that her talent as an actress was always to obvious to ignore, even if Jane Fonda repelled as many people as she fascinated. The foundation for her critical acclaim was laid in the year 1969 when Jane Fonda suddenly stopped being ‘Henry Fonda’s daughter’ and turned herself into one of the most respected and praised dramatic actresses of her generation. While she had already received respect for various on-screen performances, ranging from the comedy Cat Ballou to Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford, nothing seemed to have prepared critics for her turn as a desperate contestant in a brutal dance marathon in Sidney Pollack’s They shoot Horses, don’t they?, especially since this performance came right after her turn as Barbarella, the eye-candy in the science-fiction movie of the same name. But with this performance, Jane Fonda started her dominance over the next decade, winning two Oscars and various other awards during the following 10 years.

I have never made it a secret that I am one of the few people who isn’t blown away by Jane Fonda – there is always something too ‘knowing’ in her work, she never truly seems to inhabit her characters but instead always makes it obvious how very hard she is trying to appear to be not trying at all. A lot of fans and critics see her acting as a wonderful example of an actress being driven by her instincts but I can always see the wheels moving in her head, an actress who works with a very obvious preparation – most people see her ‘in character’, letting the character take over herself and that way inspire all her gestures and movement but I see an actress delivering all those gestures and that way hoping to get ‘in character’. Jane Fonda clearly has a wide talent for playing various kind of characters and I admire her very much for never creating her own comfort zone in which she preferred to play and interpret her characters but instead always played different and unique women without finding a typical ‘Jane-Fonda-character’ – but she always appears a little too…unpolished. A strange word but it means that she always seems to be one step short of truly becoming a master of her art – she has mastered all the gestures, she knows how to cry, she understands her characters, she lets her own intelligence help her find the emotional and intellectual core of the women she plays, but she is not fully able to bring these women to a complete life because her work as an actress is always visible, always lingering above her characters and that way prevents her from truly becoming the person she plays. Well, it all comes down to personal opinion and nothing is as subjective as ‘art’, may it be a painting, a song or a performance.

Because of all this, Jane Fonda’s work is always never as exciting or interesting to me as to most others. But – yes, Jane, there is a ‘but’ in this case – there is also a loophole: because Jane Fonda is also an actress whose success depends on the success around her. She needs to have a strong character in a strong movie or otherwise her shortcomings become too obvious and distracting. In Klute, she played a fairly interesting character in a rather uninteresting movie which resulted in a very good but also lacking performance. In Coming Home, she was surrounded by a rather good movie but was stuck with a too simple, uninteresting and underdeveloped character. But – we’re getting closer – in They shoot Horses, don’t they? everything was working in her favor. It’s is one of the most powerful presentations of de-humanization, humiliation and degradation ever presented on the screen. Sidney Pollack shows an absolutely merciless environment which forces the main characters to endure physical and emotional exhaustion as they try to win the prize money in a dance marathon – under the eyes of the cheering spectators. For a woman like Jane Fonda the role of Gloria must have been a gift since it helped her to express her own political and social views through her work as an actress. But this alone is not the reason why this role is Jane Fonda’s biggest success – the character of Gloria also fit her especially well because these kind of bitter, sarcastic, lonely and hardened women come very easily to her. Gloria, like Bree Daniels, is a woman who was hardened by the life she experienced and who, like Greta Garbo, wants to be alone but unlike Garbo not out of unhappiness but rather out of anger, anger at the world and at society that has forced her to become the woman she is today. So, if Gloria and Bree Daniels are so alike, why did Jane Fonda not impress me as much in Klute as she did in They shoot Horses, don’t they? – well, as mentioned earlier, Jane Fonda is too underdeveloped as an actress to shine in a movie that suffers from a bad screenplay or from an undecided execution like Klute which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a suspenseful thriller or a character study (of course, it could have been both but was to weak overall to lift this heavy task). Also, Jane Fonda’s shortcomings also become too obvious whenever a movie focuses too much on her and her character – and that’s why They shot Horses, don’t they? was the perfect vehicle for her. It’s a powerful and unforgettable display of human misery and it is also, by and large, an ensemble movie in which Gloria may be a more prominent character than others but is still part of a whole group of interesting and captivating characters. Because of this, Jane Fonda was able to use her usual screen presence and acting style and create a character without falling into the traps of her own deficiencies as an actress because Gloria is a character that benefits from the strength of the movie and the strength of the remaining players and also does not overexpose Jane Fonda and that way gave her just the right amount of both support and screen time to use her own talents with great effect. There is much less pressure on Jane Fonda which resulted in a natural and haunting performance that may still not be as great as other actresses could have been, but, given my usual dislike for Jane Fonda, still offers very high quality.

With her interpretation, Jane Fonda constantly shows that Gloria was turned into the kind of woman she is today – the bitterness does not seem to be a natural part of her but rather something she acquired as the years went on, as her life was slowly destroyed by the economical crisis around her. In this way, Gloria is a character that benefits from Jane Fonda’s acting and personality but Jane Fonda also benefits from Gloria and They shoot Horses, don’t they? – because Sidney Pollack constantly takes the desperation and de-humanization of the main characters further and further and this way all these character receive the audience’s sympathy and interest. Gloria is not an unlikable character even when she vocally attacks a pregnant woman or constantly pushes every kind of human closeness away from her – because the movie presents her and the other characters in a way that makes it clear how much they have suffered, how much they endured and how they now have to leave their last bit of pride behind them to take part in a show that basically treats them like animals for the purpose of entertainment. Every character in They shoot Horses, don’t they? has his or her own problems and back-story and they all help to turn these characters into complex and realistic human beings – Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia portray a couple which doesn’t know how to take care of their child when its born even though they won’t admit it and in this way even Bruce Dern’s loud and aggressive character does not evoke any dislike because he is too understandable. Susannah York and Robert Fields play another kind of desperateness and Michael Sarrazin is the sensitive, soft-spoken and sad-eyed harbor which provides some quietness among the spectacle. Even Gig Young as Rocky, the man who directs the marathon, seems only to be a product of circumstances and just as unwilling to participate in the whole affair as everyone else – but, also just like everyone else, he seems to have no other choice.
They shoot Horses, don’t they? gives all these characters their own kind of personality and back-story – some are dreamers, some still have hopes in a world that refuses to give them any reason to have it. Gloria Beatty is different – she has given up hope a long time ago. She is not a helpless woman who feels sorry for herself, instead, she refuses any sympathy and has retreated deep inside herself and build a shell of bitterness and anger that keeps all human contact away from her. In this aspect, Jane Fonda’s Gloria symbolizes a more bitter, angry and pitiless look at society – she presents a woman without any illusions, who still has the strength to keep on going but who would prefer to go alone and for whom living has turned into a constant struggle to survive. In this aspect, Jane Fonda’s Gloria also seems to stand as stronger character compared to the others – during the footraces that the totally exhausted contestants are forced to do from time to time, Gloria is absolutely unwilling to give up, getting strength from somewhere inside herself to keep going, even carrying her partner on her back only to avoid being thrown out of the contest after having endured it for such a long time. Because Gloria seems to inhabit so much strength in her, her ultimate downfall at the end is the final chapter in this presentation of decline and defeat, a capitulation which leaves the whole atmosphere of the story without any hope and shows that this process of de-humanization finally even brings the last one to fall. During this whole process, Jane Fonda manages to turn Gloria into a symbol for lost hope while keeping the integrity of her character intact.

No actor in the cast actively suggests a life outside the circus, all the characters seem to exist in a little micro cosmos that forgot about their old lives. In this way, Gloria Beatty is almost a mystery – who is she? What are her reasons? In the whole presentation of They shoot Horses, don’t they? Jane Fonda thankfully constantly stayed true to the core of her character and the theme of the movie. The screenplay, as mentioned before, is very strong and gives each actor and actress the chance to shine by presenting them with carefully constructed characters but all these characters often are more impressive for what they represent than for what they truly are. In this case, Jane Fonda is never given a true opportunity to expand the character beyond this bitterness and anger – but she takes a lot of opportunities to hint at an untold story, to suggest what else there may be inside of her and how her life might have turned out if circumstances had been different. In that way, Jane Fonda leaves a lot of Gloria open for interpretation but she also fills her with her own and the script’s ideas and intentions. In the hands of Jane Fonda, Gloria becomes a lost fighter, a woman who refuses any help or pity but who also knows how miserable her life has become and how little hope she has left. In her determination during the race sequences, she almost becomes like a wild animal, willing to push herself to the limit and not caring about whom gets left behind. Just like in a lot of other performances, Jane Fonda is not out to win the audience’s sympathy but to give an honest portrayal of a woman who doesn’t care about how she appears to others – Gloria does not care for social conventions and when she sees a poor, pregnant woman she tells her quite openly that in her opinion, there is no use in getting a baby when you don’t have the money to feed it. By doing so, Gloria constantly underlines that she is her own master and rejects any kind of kindness – after all, why should she be kind when nobody else is?

Jane Fonda also works very well with Michael Sarrazin as her co-star. Both actors almost seem to interchange the clichés that would be expected from their roles – in They shoot Horses, don’t they? it’s the female lead that is hard and bitter while the male lead is sensitive, soft-spoken and caring. Both are bound together by tragedy and necessity and he seems to be the only one who can break through her shell – Gloria has no problems to cope with all kind of characters around her, may they be powerful or weak, but when Robert suddenly protects her from the anger of another contestant, Gloria suddenly appears speechless. There is no love between them but a feeling of closeness and friendship in a world that seems to have forgotten about it even though Gloria does her best to again reject these feelings and Robert as a person. The fear of being betrayed is too deep inside her and so she keeps most of her personality to herself – she does not lie to Robert but she doesn’t want to share the truth either.

They shoot Horses, don’t they? tells the story of all the contestants beyond what the audience in the movie sees – they have to stay outside while the camera brings us backstage and gives us more intimate portrayals of the characters. Right with her first appearance, Jane Fonda shows the toughness and anger in Gloria and in some way, she never changes these aspects of herself – but Gloria also seems to learn and to develop during the marathon, the broken woman at the end is different from the broken woman at the beginning. Jane Fonda succeeds in showing the constant decline that the main characters suffers – and in doing so she does not only focus on the emotional decline which slowly takes Gloria’s will to go on but also her complete physical exhaustion. Jane Fonda believable makes the pain of the contest noticeable in her whole body and shows how Gloria becomes less and less aware, how the ongoing tiredness and exhaustion is not only affecting her body but also her mind. Gloria is a woman who is a thinker but also a woman who listens to her instincts – and as the movie goes on, her instincts become more and more dominant. At the beginning, the toughness is more apparent but slowly changes into hopelessness and it becomes obvious that the aura of the contest brings Gloria to her limits, not only because of what she has to endure herself but also because of what she witnesses. And so, when her stockings tear, it makes the whole marathon even more useless.

By displaying this whole process, Jane Fonda made the ending of the movie very believable – Gloria’s decision does not seem out-of-character or too sudden but instead as the ultimate display of sorrow and helplessness for which Fonda had laid the foundation during her entire previous performance. They shoot Horses, don’t they? kept pushing its characters further and further on the edge and Gloria’s choice now seems to be the climax upon which everything was going for. It makes sense that Jane Fonda’s Gloria does not want to let her fate be decided by somebody else – after the marathon has taken away almost all her pride and own power over herself and forced her to become a product, a puppet, she now wants to decide her ultimate fate for herself. Only the fact that actually needs somebody to help her in this moment makes it clear how much the contest has influenced her. It’s a powerful scene but again probably more powerful because of what it represents instead of Jane Fonda’s acting. Especially in her delivery of the lines ‘Help me’ and ‘Please’ Jane Fonda again retreated to her ‘obvious voice’ which is rather distracting in a moment like this.

Everything that was said in this review about Jane Fonda’s work, from her way of developing her character and her ability to show the heartbreaking reality behind a contest like this is also true for all the other actors – in this way, Jane Fonda never stands out among the ensemble but she fitted perfectly into it. Still, all this does not mean that her work is flawless – more than once, Jane Fonda suffers from the limitations of the character which does provide her a lot of good moments but ultimately does not truly allow her to go beyond the obvious bitterness and whenever it eventually does, Jane Fonda is not fully up to it. As mentioned before, Jane Fonda also simply benefited from the fact that she got so much with Gloria – she has shown later in her career that she is not able to make a character interesting if the writing does not help her. In They shoot Horses, don’t they? she was given a character that basically had everything an actress could ask for – and she took those great ingredient and gave consequently a great performance, even if this performance is more the product of everything around Jane Fonda than Jane Fonda herself. She also is never the best thing about her movie – almost all other actors and the story constantly overshadow her and in various occasions, she again turns into that ‘obvious actress’ who walks through her performance with too much preparation and calculation. And ultimately it's the kind of role a lot of actresses could have impressed with simply because it fits so well into the enviornment of the movie and provides many opportunities to reach high levels within a limited frame. So, if she succeeded so highly than mostly because she received so much help which made it so easy for her to succeed. All this means that her Gloria does not necessarily become fascinating by herself but she is part of the overall mood that the movie presents and all characters become interesting because of their own will to degrade themselves – They shoot Horses, don’t they? shows how far people are willing to go for money and the time and place of the movie also shows that this is not done out of free will but because they have to. Because of that it was a wise decision by Jane Fonda not to try to dominate the movie but become a part of its overall flow.

Considering the final grade for this performance, the length of this review may be surprising but if Jane Fonda finally manages to convince me, she does deserve to get some more attention and detail. Overall, Jane Fonda is very powerful in her role but she also received a lot of help from the script and the overall tone of the story. In Gloria, she found a character who is interesting enough to overcome her general problems as an actress in a movie that thankfully does not put too much pressure on her by putting her in its center and that way allowed her to truly shine. It’s a very dark and haunting performance that fits to the dark atmosphere of the movie and for this, she receives

8/19/2011

Best Actress 1969: Jean Simmons in "The Happy Ending"

21 years passed between Jean Simmons’s first Oscar nomination which she received for playing the ill-fated Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and her second one in which she played a depressive, suicidal, alcoholic housewife who escapes her life to find some happiness in The Happy Ending, written and directed by her then-husband Richard Brooks. Nobody really ever complains that Jean Simmons is an actress who didn’t receive enough love from the Academy – two nominations seem to be a very fair reward for her overall career, even though her work as Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry would have made a very deserving third nomination.

I don’t know if Richard Brooks wrote the part of Mary Wilson especially with his wife in mind – the role itself is the rather stereotypical depressed housewife, with alcohol, attempted suicide and a trip to the Bahamas to spice things up, and it’s not hard to imagine a lot of other actresses in this part. Jean Simmons faces the dilemma that in a lot of her performances she displays an impressive variety of emotions and leaves no doubts about her talents as an actress but she rarely becomes as fascinating as other actresses in this role might have been. Jean Simmons is probably mostly referred to as the actress who resembles either Vivien Leigh or Audrey Hepburn but she does not possess the screen presence, pure beauty, charm or unforgettable charisma of either of those. Her appearance on the screen is always rather pale and quiet which worked very well in Hamlet where her performance perfectly captured the tragedy of her character or in Elmer Gantry in which she played a woman who overcame those obstacles by her believe in God. And it thankfully also worked very beautifully in The Happy Ending since this part basically required her to use her own lack of screen presence to play a woman who suffers from her own lack of happiness, from depression and regrets – a ghost of a woman that could not have truly been portrayed by an actress with too much dominance on the screen. The result is a strong and memorable performance that, again, maybe could have been more satisfying with an actress who possesses a stronger talent for carrying a movie that jumps back and forth between flashbacks and presence and who also could have made the journey of self-discovery more captivating but Jean Simmons was still a perfectly fine choice to play Mary Wilson and delivered some extremely heartbreaking but also intense moments and this way made an overall very deserving comeback at the Oscars this year.

Mary Wilson might be a rather stereotypical character but she is also a great challenge – Jean Simmons needed to find the right balance to play a woman who lost affection for her own family and her own life at the beginning and who makes a believable transformation to a new life at the end while delivering various dramatic moments in the middle. The Happy Ending is also a rather slow movie which desperately needed a leading lady who could overcome the obstacles of the often too contrived script and some less interesting moments and turn the story of Mary Wilson into a gripping and powerful tale – and Jean Simmons succeeded in all those tasks and made her Mary a very alive and energetic character despite her dissatisfaction and depressions. This way, her escape to the Bahamas is much more endearing than it could have been and the various flashbacks which show Mary in a hospital or dunk at a police station much more heartbreaking.

Right at the beginning, both Jean Simmons and The Happy Ending are off to a rather bad start – maybe her husband didn’t want to tell Jean Simmons that she didn’t look like a twenty year old girl anymore and so also cast her as the young Mary in college, long braids on her head, but these scenes are so ridiculous to look at that it takes some time to fully appreciate the domestic drama that follows. But Jean Simmons very soon uses her own personality which is always an intriguing combination of charming naivety and hardened bitterness to shows that Mary Wilson’s life did not follow the rules she knows from her favorite movies – the old black&white-classics she loves to watch always end with a happy couple and we all know that they will live happily ever after. So why does she feel so sad, so lonely, so helpless?

While Jean Simmons establishes her character very early, The Happy Ending takes some time before the troubles in the Wilson’s marriage become clear. The movie takes many rather confusing steps and presents Mary as some sort of enigma who goes to dark bars in the city and later meets her mother to get some money. Through flashbacks and other scenes it becomes clearer that Mary is having problems with alcohol and suffers from depression. In most of her scenes, Jean Simmons did the wise choice to avoid presenting Mary as a character who wears a constant mask – she shows that Mary is not suffering from her problems all the time, she is not like Virginia Woolf in The Hours who cannot even say one sentence without making her problems visible. Mary Wilson is a woman who recognizes her own problems and tries to escape them by escaping her family. In this sense, Jean Simmons chose a very wise characterization – she does not overstate her sadness but also does not play her arc of new self-discovery with any girlish excitement. There is a constant calmness in Jean Simmons’s acting in those present-day scenes while she keeps her more dramatic acting for the flashbacks which show Mary’s downfall. Her moments in the hospital are extremely moving but the most heartbreaking moment in The Happy Ending comes when Mary is at a police station and has to walk a straight line, something she is unable to do because of her heavy drinking. Jean Simmons plays this scene with total honesty and since she has already before explored the unhappiness of Mary so beautifully, this scene is even more saddening than it already is.

Jean Simmons also works very with all her co-stars. Even though she is clearly the central character with the showiest arc, she also seemed to understand that her role is also the quiet pole in The Happy Ending around which all the other characters circle. She leaves the saddened reaction shots to Teresa Wright, the cheery spirit to Shirley Jones and the constant worries to John Forsythe and that way allowed her own character to become a very independent creation. With John Forsythe, she mostly excels in their fighting scene – when she finally lets out all her restrained emotions during an argument in their bedroom, Jean Simmons become much more alive than usually on the screen since she so often lets her own calmness overtake her characters. And with Shirley Jones, she believably develops a beautiful friendship in just a few moments but never turns Mary into an admirer of Jones’s Flo who refused to get married so far and instead preferred to lead a life of being a mistress to married men instead. During the scenes on the Bahamas, Jean Simmons also avoids to fall into the clichés that the script throws upon her – the story of a lonely woman who goes on vacation alone only to end up with a former friend who has the exact right personality to get her out of her emotional hole is as old as it is unconvincing but Jean Simmons does not overdo any of her scenes here and does not turn Mary around 180 degrees – she may show Mary’s downfall with all the extremes that accompany it, from breaking down in a dressing room to hiding liquor in a perfume bottle, but she does not do the same with Mary’s escape. There is no large amount of hope in Jean Simmons’s acting in those scenes, she plays them with a lot of subtlety and never suggests that everything will turn out for the better. When she finally moves out of her house and starts to take lessons at the university, it is not the freedom that Mary desperately wanted but rather a first step for her to see if this different life will be better for her. With this, Jean Simmons achieves much more satisfying and touching results as she refuses to give the audience a happy ending in The Happy Ending.

Overall, Jean Simmons delivers a very touching performance in a challenging role that took good use of her own characteristic screen presence and charisma. She showed the few ups and many downs in Mary Wilson’s life and while most of her performance seems to follow a standard formula for depressive characters, she still mixed it with various refreshing and unusual acting choices from which The Happy Ending benefited greatly. For all of this, she receives

8/18/2011

Best Actress 1969: Geneviève Bujold in "Anne of the Thousand Days"

Anne of the Thousand Days is the kind of movie always associated with the Academy Awards – long, historical, British. And a lot of times, these kinds of movies are not only a big hit with the Academy but also with critics and movie fans alike – The Lion in Winter, A Man for all Seasons, Becket or something more modern like Elizabeth all have secured a comfortable place in movie history. Anne of the Thousand Days somehow did not age that well – despite its ten nominations, the most of any movie that year, critics did not really care for it and the fact that Academy members were served champagne and filet mignon during private showings of the movie made those nominations look even more suspicious. But on the other hand, a lot of its nomination can hardly be complained about – the technical values are quite good, the movie is nice to look at and the cast is also up to their tasks – mostly. Elizabeth Taylor did not even try to hide her anger and disappointment when she presented the Oscar for Best Picture that year after her husband Richard Burton had lost the Oscar for the sixth time but she really did not need to be upset – his uncomfortable and over-the-top portrayal didn’t have any business to receive Awards attention, even though his status as an often overlooked actor might soften this opinion a bit.

And what about the leading lady of Anne of the Thousand Days? I am not very familiar with Geneviève Bujold as an actress (in fact, the only other movie I have seen her in was Earthquake, made in a time when she was apparently still famous enough to be cast in those all-star disaster flicks). And even despite her Golden Globe win, I was not looking forward to this performance – how many new and young actresses have received undeserved Golden Globes over the years just for being new and young? Probably too many. But oh, what a wonderful feeling to discover that a performance you expect to dislike is actually quite a strong and memorable piece of work.

Geneviève Bujold’s enters Anne of the Thousand Days just as you would expect in a movie like this – dancing in a great hall, displaying an expected coquettish charm and that way attracting the attention of King Henry VIII. But right from the start, Geneviève Bujold avoids to overstate this charm or fall into the trap of turning Anne Boleyn into either a childlike dreamer or manipulative shrew as so easily could be done with a part like this. Instead, she shows a refreshing maturity as she challenges both the King and convention when she refuses to become another mistress after she has seen her sister being pushed aside by the King once he got enough of her. Geneviève Bujold is never as playful in those scenes as you expect her to be and she does not seem like a little girl trying to see how far she can go with this man – instead, there is a lot of honesty in her objections and she makes it quite clear that Anne feels that she has the right to decide her fate and her life for herself. Geneviève Bujold lets Anne become much more relaxed and loveable in her few scenes with the man she would actually want to marry – when she quite frankly tells him that she is not a virgin anymore, Geneviève Bujold displays that little spark in her character that also fascinates King Henry.

The script of Anne of the Thousand Days follows basically every aspect you would expect from it – there is love, intrigue, death and carefully constructed sentences that make sure at every moment of the story that they are telling something ‘important!’. At the beginning, Geneviève Bujold gets to deliver a lot of juicy lines in which she constantly defies the King and tells him very honestly and openly what she thinks of him and his plans for her – and she does so again with a lot of honesty, but also a lot of fire and intensity. While most other actresses would probably have wallowed themselves in those lines, emphasizing every little insult and making it clear how much Anne is enjoying herself in these moments, Geneviève Bujold almost rushes through her lines, spitting them out angrily without losing the dignity and grace that women of her stand must possess – she isn’t playing with the King, isn’t trying to charm him or denying him what he wants to drive him into a state of mad passion. Instead, Geneviève Bujold lets Anne keep her own character – Anne Boleyn must follow a certain path, not only as the chosen mistress of King Henry VIII but also a character in Anne of the Thousand Days and it would be very easy for her to get lost in the proceedings because everything is just so clear and expected right from the start, not allowing any surprises in the character or the acting. So it was a wise decision by Geneviève Bujold to build this strong, dedicated and fiery foundation which makes her a much stronger presence next to Richard Burton’s more central character.

In her role, Geneviève Bujold has a remarkable talent for getting the audience on her side – she does not play Anne as an over-ambitious social climber but a woman who is fascinated by both the man and the power he represents. She makes her Anne surprisingly understandable and there is something very entertaining about watching her getting Henry to marry her, testing her own influence over him and others or getting a house by making Henry take it away from somebody else. Sometimes, Geneviève Bujold did decide to play a more coquettish side in Anne which unfortunately did not work as well as her more mature moments but overall, she very effectively shows how men are driven by desire and women take advantage of that. Geneviève Bujold has also the right looks for this kind of role and interpretation – her face and body may appear almost doll-like in some moments but she never appears like a little girl, emphasizing the will-power and maturity of her character at every moment. Just as she refused in the beginning to become a mistress to the King, she later refuses with the same dedication to be turned into a woman like his first wife – who was brushed aside for a new lover. Geneviève Bujold is almost thrilling to watch when she calmly but very decisively informs Henry that she has sent one of her maids away after she has seen him lusting over her too many times.

Geneviève Bujold not only constructed Anne very carefully but also develops her with wonderful instincts. The maturity she shows once Anne has become Queen is quite different from her earlier maturity when she denied the King the pleasure of her body and during the second half of the movie, she begins to show how Anne is slowly starts to become afraid of her future while never giving in during her confrontations with Henry. After the birth of her daughter she asks Henry if he does not want to kiss his child, trying to ignore how much he wanted a boy. And later, she takes Anne to an almost frightening level of intensity when she loudly cries after she had a miscarriage, knowing how much her life is in danger now.

If there is something working against Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days it is the already mentioned structure of the story which does not allow her character a real arc - Geneviève Bujold is in the strange situation of playing a title character without ever truly being allowed to expand Anne and herself beyond the written page. Just like Anne’s fate is decided by others, Geneviève Bujold depends on the kindness of her director and the script to really shine. She does get a lot out of her role and commands the screen with the kind of ease and determination that is desperately needed when playing a member of the royal class who has to carry a historical epic like this but her character is often presented as almost negligible – Anne is mostly pushed aside and is mostly never allowed any action. In that way, Anne Boleyn is a role that requires Geneviève Bujold mostly to re-act and even though it is a juicy part that gives her the possibility for high drama it is also a limited part that keeps the actress in certain boundaries. Geneviève Bujold finally gets to do some more active acting during her court scenes in which she shows how much Anne holds on to her pride while she also cannot hide her disbelieve and anger at the accusations that are thrown at her.

During her final scenes, Geneviève Bujold takes Anne back to the start – as the woman who denies the King his wishes. She again portrays Anne with strong determination but this time she adds more drama to the scenes as she and Henry do not discuss a love affair during their final scene together but nothing less than her own life. Geneviève Bujold uses all those final moments to display, again, an expected but still very effective amount of emotions.

Anne Boleyn is not truly a great role – an actress is not allowed to go truly deep into a character in historical dramas like this because they are more interested in showing history and events and for this cause, all characters must go the expected steps from A to B to C and so on. But characters like this also give the opportunity for a lot of emotions, drama and maybe even comedy – it may be acting on the surface but if done right, it can be both very entertaining and also impressive. And with her believable display of royal status and of strength in a woman who must constantly hold her own against a man who wants to control every aspect of her life and her easiness of delivering Anne’s constructed lines without losing their emotional core and her ability to display charm and happiness just as effectively as anger and fear, Geneviève Bujold surely got a lot out of a part that could easily have been lost in a movie that is actually about her. And for this, she receives

8/16/2011

Best Actress 1969: Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

According to Inside Oscar, Maggie Smith’s win as Best Actress for her performance as the free-spirited, eccentric, fascinating but ultimately dangerous title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was considered the biggest upset in this category since Loretta Young’s win over 20 years ago. But in some ways, the nomination itself must have been more surprising than the win – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie came and go and while Maggie Smith received excellent reviews, her film must have been largely forgotten around Oscar time and new, apparently more exciting actresses appeared on the scene. Jane Fonda stepped out of the her father’s shadow and amazed critics with her turn as a desperate dance contestant in They Shoot Horses, don’t they?, Liza Minnelli stepped out of her mother’s shadow and amazed critics with her performance as a free-spirited but sad girl in The Sterile Cuckoo and Genevieve Bujold hold her own against Richard Burton and took home the Golden Globe for her performance as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn in the historical drama Anne of the Thousand Days. And also along for the ride was Jean Simmons, like Maggie Smith a respected British actress in a little seen movie but Jean Simmons had the advantage of having been around longer, having starred in such classics as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet or Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster. But somehow Academy members remembered Maggie Smith and nominated her along these four other actresses – and the actual win may have been a huge surprise but looking back, it shouldn’t have been. Enthusiasm for the other nominees was obviously not very high and Maggie Smith gave the kind of domineering performance that, in an open field like this, can easily receive the necessary amount of votes – if enough Academy members actually bothered to watch the movie. Which they thankfully did.

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith constantly walks a very thin line between authentic and implausible, between larger-than-life and exaggerated, between domineering and oppressive – and she succeeded in never crossing this line but always going as closely to the edge as humanly possible and that way created one of the most spell-binding and memorable movie characters in screen history. The part of Jean Brodie is a gift – but a double-edged one. It’s the kind of role that offers endless opportunity for an actress to show all her talents but at the same time demands such careful consideration and attention that it could turn into a disaster very easily. ‘She always looks so...extreme’ are the words of another teacher at the school, unable to come up with any other adjective. And it seems that there is actually is no other word. Some parts could be played by a lot of talented actresses because they present a clear picture of how to bring them to life – Blanche DuBois, Sophie Zawistowska or Martha make it very hard to fail as long as an actress brings the necessary talents. But Jean Brodie is such a complex character, colourful but also very dark, over-the-top but also down-to-earth and a collection of so many theatrical eccentricities and mannerisms that many of the greatest could have failed badly. Calculating actresses like Meryl Streep or Geraldine Page would probably have exaggerated the one side while more natural actresses like Susan Sarandon or Sissy Spacek would have been lost with the other aspects. But Maggie Smith is an actress who brings just the right combination of both – she is an actress who was born to play these kinds of characters. Her own rather eccentric screen presence and acting style is always combined with a very believable, warm and honest side – this way she could create characters that are three-dimensional and realistic, no matter how exceptional or unique they may be. Jean Brodie is one of the great ‘over-the-top without being over-the-top’-characters – like Norma Desmond, Jean Brodie is an artificial creation but unlike Norma Desmon, Jean Brodie fits into a non-artificial environment: a movie character like Norma Desmond could only successfully exist in a surrounding like Sunset Boulevard but Jean Brodie never feels limited to the frames of her own movie – instead, she is always a person, a bit unusual, maybe even bizarre but always real.
Does this mean that only Maggie Smith could play Jean Brodie? Probably not. The part was originally created on the stage by Vanessa Redgrave and later Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award for playing her on Broadway – but it still means that the part fit her like a glove, or maybe better like a glass slipper: a lot of other actresses might have worn that slipper but they would have needed to cut off their toes to put it on. Maggie Smith took the part and made it look effortless. Jean Brodie never appears to be a result of Maggie Smith’s personality and acting but rather a logical creation that stands firmly on its own two feet.

Who is Jean Brodie? The easy answer would be to say she is a teacher but actually, she is so much more. She may say to Miss McKay, the headmistress of Marcia Blaine and Miss Brodie’s arch enemy, that she considers teaching as a process of letting the pupils develop their own ideas and thoughts instead of feeding them with information but at the same time she proudly declares that her girls are hers for life and tries to influence and to form them according to her own ideas and believes. Everybody at the school knows that Miss Brodie’s girls are different – they are the marchers behind their leader. They are consumed by Miss Brodie’s charm, difference and her unorthodox character just as easily as the viewer. Because besides being eccentric and unique, Maggie Smith displayed another quality of Jean Brodie – fascination. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is essentially a one-woman-show and Jean Brodie needs to be played with the right amount of honesty to believably show her downfall in the end and fascination to explain her role and status at the Marcia Blaine School for girls. It’s the same difficult combination as being larger-than-life and down-to-earth and again, Maggie Smith’s natural talents for these kinds of roles helped her to achieve the highest results.

But right from the beginning, there are certain aspects of Jean Brodie that should actually be visible much sooner but constantly seem to disappear behind Maggie Smith’s and Jean Brodie’s presence. Her own captivation with Benito Mussolini, her obvious favouring of pupils, her inability to separate her own opinion from universal truth – all this should make it easy to see what Miss McKay sees right from the beginning but Maggie Smith displays such a combination of kindness and interest in the first parts of her movie that these aspects are constantly overlooked. When she tells one of her pupils that she is not interested in her activities as girl scout and later tells another one that this should be an activity for boys, Maggie Smith already shows how deep Jean Brodie is buried in her own ideas and unable to look beyond. When she asks her pupils about the greatest Italian painter and one of the girl answers Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Brodie simply says that's incorrect and that the answer is Giotto because ‘he is my favourite.’ As a teacher, she is unwilling to learn anymore because she considers herself in her prime – the best time of her life in which she has reached a kind of perfection in which she glorifies herself. She says that her pupils benefit from this but the movie shows how dangerous this fascinating woman actually is.

The biggest success of Maggie Smith’s performance is the fact that she does not show any change in the character of Jean Brodie – but instead slowly, step by step, widens and changes her interpretation and that way allows the audience to finally see the dark truth behind this woman just at the same time as her pupil Sandy and one of her lovers, Teddy Lloyd, see it, too. It slowly becomes apparent that, at the bottom, Jean Brodie is not as extraordinary as she likes to present herself. Angela in American Beauty cannot think of anything worse than being ordinary – Jean Brodie had the same thoughts many years before her. Because of this, she build a shell for herself with a high-pitched voice and colourful outfits which easily allow her to become the centre of attention wherever she goes and she also prefers to surround herself with her pupils since it’s so much more easy to manipulate them – the others teachers at her school, at least the female ones, don’t seem to care for her and so she uses her qualities where they are the most helpful, with children and men. But this fascination does not go on forever and the change of the political landscape in Europe slowly unmasks her true identity. At the end, Jean Brodie thinks that she is past her prime – but actually she simply went too far and lost the loyalty she was always so sure of because others were finally able to uncover Jean Brodie as a character. When she says ‘Arrivederci’ to Teddy Lloyd, she unknowingly also says goodbye to her old life. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a movie that presents a central character and during the run of the movie completely changes the view in which this character is seen – without actually changing the character itself. This is a true challenge for every actor and actress and Maggie Smith fulfilled her tasks marvellously. When Maggie Smith's Jean Brodie praises Mussolini for saving some birds in Italy, it can be accepted as a mere eccentricity - but when she gathers her pupils under a tree and slowly encourages them to join the war in Spain without seeing anything wrong with that, Maggie Smith beings to peel the layers of Jean Brodie to present something shockingly appaling in a woman that used to be so appealing that even the fact that she tries to organise a love affair between Teddy Lloyd and one of her students could be forgiven. But now it becomes obvious how far her love for dictators and conquerors really goes and how she is willing to use the power she has over 'her girls' even though she herself would never think of doing any harm to them by this. In her interpretation, Maggie Smith never tells the audience what to feel – should they love, pity or hate Jean Brodie? Maggie Smith leaves it open for everyone to decide for him- or herself.

Maggie Smith also shows that, no matter what her political, personal and other believes are, Jean Brodie is a dedicated teacher – she is not a perfect teacher, not even a good one but, unable to see this herself, she still lives for her profession. The scene in which Jean Brodie defies Miss McKay and tells her that she is a teacher ‘first, last, always’ is among the finest acting moments ever put on the screen and Maggie Smith perfectly fills Jean Brodie with fire and energy, making her a force to be reckoned with despite her so often jocular appearance.

As mentioned before, Maggie Smith is able to show both sides of Jean Brodie – the eccentric one and the honest, more open one. She did this by delivering a performance that is obviously very calculated and prepared but projects all these aspects away from her own work and to her character, this way showing that all this is part of Miss Brodie’s personality and not Maggie Smith’s acting. Only sometimes, when Jean Brodie has no other choice anymore, she drops that masque. When she is showing her pictures to her class and slowly suffers a break-down at the same time, Maggie Smith finds almost a poetic core in this scene while slowly paving the way for her later moments. And especially in those final scenes, Maggie Smith shows, for a short moment, the real woman when she stands before the ruins of her whole life and says with a broken, desperate voice ‘I don’t know…” just seconds before she catches herself and begins again to speak in that theatrical manner. Miss Brodie realized that her prime is over but she still holds on to it.

Maggie Smith’s experience as a stage actress is clearly visible in her performance – and ‘that’s how it should be’, as Jean Brodie would say it herself. From her way of walking through the halls of Marcia Blaine like a conqueror supervising his lands to her ability to raise her voice without losing her dignity, Maggie Smith is in full control of every single aspect of her character and her performance while losing herself in the role at the same time. When she sits outside with her girls and quotes a poem with the most serious dedication, Maggie Smith becomes the ray of light that an actress in this role must be – she attracts and fascinates but very soon she will lose her spark and face the consequences of her own doings. Maggie Smith creates this woman by combining realism with a satire-like quality and by letting her be as theatrical as possible without letting it dominate her performance. Her Jean Brodie is everything one would expect from her based on the screenplay and even more.

There are many performances that deserve to be mentioned as being among the greatest one-woman shows in movie history – and Maggie Smith’s work as Jean Brodie is clearly one of them. She handles comedy and drama with equal ease, she is a leader, a victim, a lover, a manipulator, she's entertaining and provoking at the same time and she commands the screen with so many outstanding scenes that the end result is quite simply one of the most fascinating tour-de-forces ever put on the screen and for this she easily receives




8/14/2011

Let's all bow to Sage!


I want to use this opportunity and congratulate Sage on an incredible achievement - not only did Sage see 399 nominees in the Best Actress category but Sage also wrote reviews about every single one of these performances and ranked them all, too!

I think this is a fantastic achievement that deserves a lot of attention and applause! So, if you want to know as much as possible about the Best Actress category, go to
http://sageslowdive.blogspot.com and enjoy Sage's hard and wonderful work!

Congratulations, Sage and all the best for the future of your blog!

8/07/2011

Best Actress 1969


The next year will be 1969 and the nominees were

Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days

Jane Fonda in They shoot Horses, don't they?

Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo

Jean Simmons in The Happy Ending

Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Here they are again...

 
So, this was it. I hope you enjoyed my ranking even if you don't agree! As usual, all my thanks for all the comments without which it wouldn't be half as much fun!
 
And here is the ranking again:
 
01. Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker
02. Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously
03. Sandy Dennis as Honey in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
04. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath
05. Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense in Zorba, the Greek
06. Josephine Hull as Veta Louise Simmons in Harvey     
07. Juliette Binoche as Hana in The English Patient         
08. Kim Hunter as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar named Desire
09. Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story
10. Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show
11. Maggie Smith as Diana Barren in California Suit
12. Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins in Paper Moon
13. Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India
14. Vanessa Redgrave as Julia in Julia
15. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton
16. Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men
17. Anna Paquin as Flora McGrath in The Piano
18. Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer
19. Mira Sorvino as Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite
20. Rachel Weisz as Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener
21. Mo’Nique as Mary Jones in Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire
22. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krassner in Pollock     
23. Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront
24. Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement
25. Renée Zellweger as Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain
26. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly in Chicago
27. Mercedes Ruehl as Anne Napolitano in The Fisher King
28. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman in Reds
29. Anne Baxter as Sophie Nelson Macdonald in The Razor’s Edge
30. Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair in Bullets over Broadway
31. Donna Reed as Alma Burke in From Here to Eternity
32. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator
33. Katina Paxinou as Pilar in For Whom the Bell tolls
34. Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot
35. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind
36. Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn in Key Largo     
37. Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde
38. Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Florence Baker in Butterflies are Free
39. Jessica Lange as Julie Nichols in Tootsie   
40. Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls     
41. Marisa Tomei as Mona-Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
42. Shirley Jones as Lulu Bains in Elmer Gantry
43. Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Christina Barcelona
44. Beatrice Straight as Louise Schumacher in Network     
45. Dianne Wiest as Holly in Hannah and her Sisters
46. Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love
47. Wendy Hiller as Pat Cooper in Separate Tables
48. Anne Revere as Mrs. Araminity Brown in National Velvet
49. Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle Massey in Jezebel
50. Goldie Hawn as Toni Simmons in Cactus Flower
51. Olympia Dukakis as Rose Castorini in Moonstruck     
52. Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracket in L.A., Confidential
53. Dorothy Malone as Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind
54. Shelley Winters as Mrs. Petronella Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank
55. Alice Brady as Mrs. Molly O’Leary in In Old Chicago
56. Mary Steenburgen as Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard
57. Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus in Anthony Adverse
58. Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor
59. Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind
60. Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost
61. Geena Davis as Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist
62. Angelina Jolie as Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted
63. Jo Van Fleet as Kate in East of Eden     
64. Teresa Wright as Carol Beldon in Mrs. Miniver
65. Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby
66. Lee Grant as Felicia Carr in Shampoo
67. Miyoshi Umeki as Katsumi Kelly in Sayonara     
68. Helen Hayes as Ada Quonsett in Airport
69. Melissa Leo as Alice Ward in The Fighter
70. Ethel Barrymore as Ma Mott in None but the lonely Heart
71. Shelley Winters as Rose-Ann D’Arcy in A Patch of Blue
72. Margaret Rutherford as The Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s
73. Mary Astor as Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie
74. Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson in Murder on the Orient-Express
75. Gloria Grahame as Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad and the Beautiful