My current Top 5

My current Top 5

1/24/2012

Best Actress 1963: Rachel Roberts in "This Sporting Life"

Interestingly, three of the nominated actresses in 1963 had also taken home BAFTA awards for their performances. Leslie Caron won the prize for Best British Actress in 1963 and the next year, Rachel Roberts received the same award for her work in This Sporting Life while Patricia Neal took home the gold as Best Foreign Actress in Hud. For Rachel Roberts, it would be one of overall three BAFTAs she received during her career and her performance in This Sporting Life would also result in her first and final Oscar nomination. Her work as a young, repressed and bitter widow opposite Richard Harris was definitely a critically highlight in a career that would that would end tragically when Rachel Roberts killed herself in 1980, apparently out of misery and regret over her divorce from Rex Harrison. Harrison himself had also been nominated for an Oscar in 1964, making him and Rachel Roberts one of the few husband-and-wife-teams that scored nods in the same year. Rex Harrison would win an Oscar one year later for his signature role as Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady. And what about his wife? Does she have any signature part? The biggest problem with this question is certainly the fact that Rachel Roberts is not truly the kind of actress that is still largely remembered or praised. When it comes to high-profile British actresses from this time, there are many names that are mentioned much more easily and quickly and even among those actresses mostly referred to as ‘character actress’, others like Wendy Hiller enjoy a much higher reputation. Personally, I am also not too familiar with Rachel Roberts’s body of work – like most followers of the Academy Awards, I have seen her work in Murder on the Orient-Express even though I never watch it for this purpose. But even in the small part of Hildegard Schmidt, Rachel Roberts’s hard face, her cold and suspicious glances and her tight body movement left a lasting impression even if the role itself is a little bit of nothing. So, on paper, the combination of Rachel Robert’s cold screen presence and the part of Margaret Hammond, a cold, almost merciless, judgmental and depreciating young widow who still lives in the memories of the past while trying to handle her strange relationship to Frank Machin, an upcoming rugby player who rents one of her rooms, appears like a perfect match. But the right personality is certainly not the only important factor for a great performance. Nearly every character that Audrey Hepburn played was elevated by her radiant charm, poise and personality – but this does not mean that all of these performances were masterpieces. Margaret Hammond suits Rachel Roberts and vice versa – but what about the actual performance that results from this match?

In This Sporting Life, Rachel Robert faced some of the same obstacles Patricia Neal did in Hud – mostly the fact that her role often feels rather secondary compared to that of her male co-star. And if this wasn’t enough, both Paul Newman and Richard Harris dominated their movies with uncompromising, challenging, riveting and stark performances that haven’t lost a bit of their energetic and realistic appeal. Both actors crafted characters that defied conventions, that pushed the opinion of others aside and that spread an aura of pure sex, no matter how unappealing or off-putting they may appear. In This Sporting Life, Richard Harris may easily be confused with a young Marlon Brando, as not only his acting style but even his looks remind the viewer of Brando’s personality and electric screen presence. But Richard Harris never felt like a copy of Brando and instead found his own voice in his role and therefore gives a raw and powerful piece of work that matches the celebrated, brutal but also sensual and sensitive work of those new and realistic actors like Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift or James Dean at every step. Okay, but enough of Richard Harris for now. Because does this have any significance for Rachel Roberts’s work? Having a powerful co-star does not mean that the other actor cannot be equally impressive. Well, but a lot here simply depends on the writing – Patricia Neal faced a severely underwritten character in Alma Brown and even though she improved her material vastly by adding wisdom and experience to her role which made her performance a very satisfying experience, she was still constantly overshadowed by the work of those around her, mainly that of Paul Newman. Rachel Roberts also has the problem that This Sporting Life focuses most of its attention to the character of Frank but it also has to be said that her role is still significantly larger than that of Patricia Neal in Hud and that Mrs. Hammond also plays a much more central role in the structure of This Sporting Life than Alma Brown in Hud. Okay, but comparing Patricia Neal and Rachel Roberts here is basically rather pointless since this review is supposed to focus on Rachel Roberts – the ranking at the end of the year can do the comparison. But what’s still left to say is the fascination in comparing these two actresses attack these two similar and yet also different parts. Patricia Neal took a part that offered her pretty much nothing on paper and added various dimensions and inner brokenness to turn Alma into the complex and earthy creation she turned out to be. Rachel Roberts on the other hand was given much more by the script – Margaret Hammond suffers from the death of her husband, her inability to deal with a man like Frank and her unwillingness to change her life outside or inside. Because of this, Mrs. Hammond was rather already fully developed before Rachel Roberts became her and the actress therefore had to follow a stricter guideline in her characterization. But since the character of Margaret Hammond is certainly an extremely fascinating one and Rachel Roberts’s own screen presence already suited to the part so wonderfully and she not relied on this screen presence but crafted Margaret’s rejection, fear and hate with a strangely intriguing coldness, Rachel Roberts’s performance is much more memorable, spellbinding and exciting than it could have been by either an actress who didn’t suit the part so well or by Rachel Roberts herself if she had decided to simply rely on her personal effect in that role instead of creating Margaret beyond that.

The first moments of Rachel Roberts’s performance happen as memories of an injured Frank – even though he has such strong feelings for her, the first image of her that seems to come into his head is that of her rejecting, disapproving glances and of the shoes that she keeps by the fire side. Shoes that used to belong to her dead husband and which she still cleans and polishes as if he might walk through the door any moment. Like an evil ghost, Mrs. Hammond lingers in Frank’s mind and even his memories cannot change her character – she tells him that she is sick of him and that she and her two children will be better off without him and in the delivery of Rachel Roberts, there is no doubt that Margaret really means those words. She also states that she won’t pretend to be happy for him – that angry, constantly disapproving face that seems to have not seen a smile in years is as strong a part of her character as her desire to clean the shoes of her dead husband. And when Frank asks her if she doesn’t want to be happy, her answer is a stern ‘If I’m left alone, I am happy’. Especially this last line is delivered by Rachel Roberts without any exaggeration and she did not try to turn this single bit of dialogue into the central symbol of her character. Again, a comparison with Patricia Neal can help because both actresses thankfully resisted the temptation to fill various of their on-screen moments with big declarations or attempts to make their words appear more important than they truly are – instead, both women live in their roles and show that her moments on-screen may be the only time the audience gets to know them but in their own world, they have already experienced a lot without the audience. Rachel Roberts shows that Margaret Hammond is not limited to the world of This Sporting Life but demonstrates in her acting that she is also a product of earlier times. But surely the most fascinating aspect of this performance is the fact that Mrs. Hammond can never be truly explained or understood – did she turn into this bitter and cold woman after the death of her husband or was she already like this before? There are rumors that Mr. Hammond’s death was not an accident but actually a suicide – does she realize this, is this the reason for her behavior or was her behavior maybe the reason for the suicide? Rachel Roberts gives no answer to this but it’s clear that, even though she still cleans the shoes of her dead husband, she does not live in a parallel fantasy world in which she expects him to return any moment – it’s not even clear if there was really love between them or if Mrs. Hammond treated her husband with the same kind of annoyed anger as she treats Frank. Maybe it is just the memory of him that she truly cherishes, the thoughts of a time in which there was a father, a mother and two children – surely an ideal situation for a woman who so often feels embarrassed because of what the neighbors might say about her and Frank. Overall, Rachel Roberts beautifully succeeded in turning Mrs. Hammond into a woman who is very secluded, off-putting and often downright disdainful without making her unlikable or an unwelcome presence in This Sporting Life, which might even be her biggest achievement in this part. That she was able to captivate the audience for so long and turn her character into a kind of fascinating enigma while basically constantly telling Frank and the audience to leave her alone with a voice full of hate and anger is certainly a remarkable feat. Mrs. Hammond is the kind of woman who can destroy every bit of happiness in others – when Frank tells her about his new contract and how much money he received, Mrs. Hammond only needs one small comment to ruin this whole moment for him. And just as Rachel Roberts gives no reason to the question how Mrs. Hammond became like this, she also leaves it open why she keeps acting like this, why she apparently feels the need to destroy happiness, push Frank away and almost retire from all human contact. But again, Rachel Roberts did a beautiful job in creating Mrs. Hammond like such an almost unbearable woman without becoming unbearable.

Another highlight in Rachel Roberts’s work is her chemistry with Richard Harris. Both actors had a certainly very demanding task in crafting their own characters but also creating a believable relationship. Especially Rachel Roberts needed to work very carefully since her character basically loathes Frank and everything he stands for but also falls for him at some time – and she also had to make it believable that Frank would even want to get involved with her. Margaret tells Frank quite open that she does not care to see him play rugby, she does not want to go with him on a ride in his new car, she more than once tells him to go, that he makes her sick and what not – but for some strange reasons, the fact that Frank keeps trying to get involved with Margaret, that he wants her, does not seem unbelievable at all. Rachel Roberts is not a sex bomb and even downplays her looks in this role, so any kind of erotic attraction from his side is not the simple answer. Mrs. Hammond is also not the kind of woman who makes you want her by pushing you away. But there is a certain chemistry between these two actors and Rachel Roberts walked a very thin line between being completely unlikeable and unlikeable, but still appealing. Just like the character of Mrs. Hammond itself, the appeal of Rachel Roberts in this part is hard to explain but the relationship between Mrs. Hammond and Frank and the chemistry between Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris is strangely captivating and satisfying. When she finally decides to go to the country with Frank and her children, the viewer almost waits for her to destroy the happiness of the others but when she catches a ball and finally smiles, it’s almost a relieving moment. And Rachel Roberts again did not over-emphasize this smile as a fundamental change in Mrs. Hammond but instead showed that she can find a little happiness in her life without softening her character. When the relationship with Frank develops and Mrs. Hammond even puts her husband’s shoes away, Rachel Roberts lets her character even smile a bit more, talking about old times with her husband, making it again an enigma why she turned into such a stern and icy woman. But a relationship like the one between Mrs. Hammond and Frank is destined to be broken from the start and Rachel Roberts impressively displays how much Margaret hates herself for actually falling for him, how the embarrassment during a dinner in a fancy restaurant with Frank is hurting her inside and how she now hates herself even more for having given him a chance. And later, Rachel Roberts become immensely heartbreaking when she begs Frank to leave, packing his things while he hits her, trying to remove herself from him, fearful that he might again speak out about the rumor of the suicide, an accusation to which she replied with a shocked ‘You want to kill me?’ Rachel Roberts’s character and role may never be as prominent in This Sporting Life as that of Richard Harris but her powerful work certainly prevented her from being over-shadowed at any moment.

It’s a performance that mixes moments of pure intensity with shocking and heartbreaking images. Rachel Roberts can accuse Frank Harris of being a big ape and take a slap in the face outside of a church without any kind of emotional reaction. Very often, she moves her head away from Frank and the camera as if even the contact with the audience is too much for her but Rachel Roberts did not turn Mrs. Hammond into a lonely spinster nor a crazy woman who wallows in her own misery. It’s a very effective turn that leaves a lasting and hunting impression and for this she receives

6 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

She is utterly fantastic - the Black & White atmosphere of this year amazes me. They all work incredibly well within the context of their films & characters.

Fritz said...

Yes, so far I was very pleased with this year which is surprising because it is mentioned so often as very weak.

Louis Morgan said...

She is terrific, and her chemistry with Harris is fascinating.

Fritz said...

Louis: I totally agree! :-)

dinasztie said...

I don't know why people say it's a weak year. Just because it's not talked about, I guess.

I disagree on the character, though. Sure she was repressed and all but I sensed some kind of a warmth in her that was shining through her cold behaviour (like when she's watching her children playing with Harris' character). Her face in the brilliant restaurant scene says it all, IMO: the way it turns from quiet happiness to embarassment, intimidation and maybe even disgust, eventually. I guess she was terrified of loving someone and losing him once again plus I felt she was also very ashamed of herself for some reason. And if I remember well, I also felt some kind of a sexual tension between her and Harris from the very beginning.

Anyway, brilliant performance... :) I also loved her in Saturday Night and Sunday Moring (I'm crazy about the British free cinema of the early 60s and those wonderful kitchen sink dramas). The character's somewhat similar and she fantastic there as well. But that's a real supporting role, one that should have won her an Oscar (or a nod at least). I think she's 100x more talented than her ex hubby, Rex Harrison.

mrripley said...

I would have nominated her for 79's YANKS.