My current Top 5

My current Top 5

3/30/2013

Best Actress 1949: Loretta Young in "Come to the Stable"

The Best Actress category of 1949 appeared to have all the ingredients to become a perfect copy of the previous race in 1947 – both years featured an overwhelming frontrunner in a praised and award-winning dramatic performance that received accolades from critics and industry insiders and was sure to win the Oscar without any serious threat from the four remaining nominees who both times included rising star Susan Hayward, twice nominated as a woman facing the consequences of her alcoholism as she looks at the ruins of her own life and popular, endearing leading lady Loretta Young who received her two career nominations for light and charming performances in crowd-pleasing dramadies, one time as a housemaid running for congress and later as a nun determined to build a children’s hospital in New England. But the main difference between these two occasions was the fact that in 1950, Oscar favorite Olivia de Havilland did indeed and expectedly win the award over Susan Hayward, Loretta Young, Jeanne Crain and Deborah Kerr for her acclaimed performance as a shy young girl who experiences rejection and betrayal in director William Wyler’s The Heiress, becoming the first overwhelming frontrunner in the Best Actress category to actually win the Oscar in the end – contrary, the year 1948 saw one of the biggest upsets ever in Oscar history when Rosalind Russell’s work as Lavinia in the movie adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra lost the Best Actress Award to Loretta Young for her performance as Katie Holstrom in The Farmer’s Daughter. So, both years had many of the same premises but saw strikingly different results – and a loss for Olivia de Havilland might have been an even bigger upset than the past loss of Rosalind Russell who maybe received strong praise for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra but the movie itself was met with little critical acclaim and, as legend has it, even made the head of her PR campaign fall asleep during a screening, while The Heiress, despite disappointing box office results, was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year and one of the five contenders for the Best Picture Award. And furthermore Rosalind Russell hadn’t established herself as the same kind of admired and respected thespian like Olivia de Havilland even if she was among the biggest stars in Hollywood and constantly made a smooth transition between drama and comedy, finding success in both genres quite easily – but Olivia de Havilland received an undeniable amount of appreciation from critics and the Academy for her change from admired movie star to respected character actress and her willingness to constantly challenge herself as an artist during the second half of the decade, making an upset win by Susan Hayward, Deborah Kerr or Jean Crain even more unlikely. And just as unlikely must have been another upset win for Loretta Young – after her Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter, she found herself again nodded for a similarly innocent and reserved role, showing that Academy members clearly responded to this phase and these parts of her career but a second Oscar in three years appeared rather improbable, not only because of Olivia de Havilland’s dominance in the race but also because Come to the Stable is an even less likely ‘Oscar movie’ than the already harmless and very often rather unaspiring The Farmer’s Daughter, even if this story of two nuns who collect money to build a children’s hospital was among the most-nominated movies of 1949, proving that Oscar voters obviously reacted very well to the positive message and sentimentality of the plot which tells how never-ending faith, honest decency and goodness can create little miracles and help those around to find a new and deeper meaning in life. But Katie Holstrom, despite the guileless and simple execution of The Farmer’s Daughter, gave Loretta Young a character that maybe lacked complexity and depth but still remained the sole focus of the picture’s attention, allowing her to charm and beguile audiences and she took full advantage of her frank nature and combined it with a sparkling personality and an amusing accent that enabled her to turn the role into a characteristic ‘star vehicle’ that lived from the mild comedy and an engaging love story, making it easy for audiences to appreciate Loretta Young both as a star and a lightweight comedienne and character actress. In contrast, the role of the dedicated and more serious Sister Margaret in Come to the Stable asked for a much more straightforward approach, both in context of the story but also in Loretta Young’s demands towards her own performance to carry the picture without taking away from the overall storyline – Loretta Young was among the most famous members of the Catholic Church in Hollywood, a devout Christian who liked to set up swear jars on movie sets and apparently more than once annoyed co-star Celeste Holm by telling her to act and behave more like a nun during the filming of Come to the Stable and considering the rare opportunity to find a role that so wholeheartedly embraces personal faith, it is likely to imagine that Loretta Young’s inner beliefs also influenced her work and her approach to the role. But even if Loretta Young did not win another Oscar for her work in Come to the Stable, the project itself and the character of Sister Margaret were most likely much closer to her heart than Katie Holstrom and The Farmer’s Daughter, giving her the chance to realize her religious feelings on the screen and presenting audiences with a warm and touching story that embraced the idea of Christian virtues and its power to change the world for the better. Come to the Stable must therefore have been a true ‘passion project’ for Loretta Young – but one that lived from its simplicity, modesty and her own willingness to play a role that offers no vanity or artistic challenges as the movie never turns into an actor’s showcase since the characters are always of secondary importance to the mawkishness of the plot and its uplifting message. And so Come to the Stable became a passion project without being a star vehicle, asking Loretta Young to reduce her own star presence for the sake of her character’s humility and devotion, letting her carry the significance of goodness and decency without actively asking her to shape a three-dimensional person underneath the habit – it was a task that came certainly easy to Loretta Young and she implemented her part with the right style and tone but Sister Margaret was still a part that put its limitations too visibly and strongly on her performance. But even if the role did not allow Loretta Young a precise characterization, she still found some room to add a spark of personality and individuality, avoiding the risk to become a mere symbol of Christianity and successfully combined her star qualities with the demands of the script, giving a performance that fulfilled the task of existing behind the overall storyline but also realized that its sentimentality and positivity still depended on the cast to be brought to live and be filled with reason and character.

While the tone and style of Come to the Stable may have been created in regards to a serious topic, the movie itself still aimed for a lighter approach, trying to achieve a goal that would be described as ‘heartwarming’ and ‘enchanting’ and balancing an honest earnestness with a facetious overtone – an execution that was not only realized by the screenplay and the direction but especially by the cast which had to craft these different aspects and circumstances into the presented characters and performances, balancing a light playfulness, a slight touch of humor with a visible seriousness and dedication. Considering Loretta Young’s own dedication to the Christian faith, it is not surprising that her Sister Margaret stood for a more serious and thoughtful approach, one that moves the story along and fills it with the necessary solemnity and determination while her co-star Celeste Holm provided the lighter, more humorous moments of the story as her companion Sister Scholastica, a nun who is characterized by the same amount of faith and goodness but lacks the same determination and experience, following Sister Margaret in her quest and often adding unexpected wit with her naivety and frankness. These separate additions that both actresses provided to the story further underlined the contrariness of a movie that did not give its actors any complex or profound material, often asking them to reduce their own presence to the point of becoming a vessel for the story’s own intentions while depending on the commitment of these actors to carry its message nonetheless and work in harmony with its own modesty and simplicity to insert a variety of distinct personalities into the happenings. This already indicates that Loretta Young could not rest on her star appeal in the role of Sister Margaret and that she was also not offered any kind of challenging material that would have asked her to add unexpected layers to a rather flat character but as the story’s main link between its different principles, she nonetheless needed to find the right rhythm and tonality in her performance that would give the picture a grounded sense of reality but would also leave room for a more fairytale-like interpretation, using the simplicity of her role to give a performance that subtly suggested and hinted at something more beneath the surface and to inject her character not only with the message of the screenplay but a life of its own. It’s a task that did not find its solution in a multifaceted portrayal but rather in a straightforward presentation of goodness and gentleness as Loretta Young’s work left little doubt about the honesty of Sister Margaret’s intentions and the seriousness of her ambitions – and while Loretta Young put those limitations in the context of the story, moving the character within the boundaries of the screenplay and giving it the needed sincerity to support Come to the Stable in its aims to both entertain and move the audience with its edifying structure, the overall result was nonetheless a performance with clear limitations and an often distinct superficiality since carrying a picture with a role that only exists in connection with a constant focus on an undying goodness is a task that can easily create a sense of repetition and unimaginativeness. Loretta Young might sometimes have benefitted from the script of Come to the Stable since the struggle of Sister Margaret to raise money for her hospital is its major storyline and presents a constant array of different obstacles and challenges that need her guidance and consideration, giving both Sister Margaret and Loretta Young the chance to find new or maybe even unexpected sides in themselves but Come to the Stable is also a movie that never truly dives into its broader issues and constantly stays on the surface of its own presentation. It therefore never offers obstacles that truly endanger the mission of Sister Margaret or finds her doubting her own abilities but rather only presents contemporary setbacks, always maintaining the sentimentality of the story and never trying to add a darker or more demanding angle to the proceedings as all outcomes and twists are already expected long before they happen and Come to the Stable very often becomes more noteworthy for its parts instead of its whole, letting single moments become more engaging for small incidents within instead for their results as even the task of getting land for the hospital from what appears to be well-known criminal is only a matter of minutes for these two persistent nuns. Come to the Stable obviously never intended to challenge itself or the audience, providing light entertainment instead of deeper social questions or a closer look at the different roles of religion in the life of its various characters – this also signifies that all actors in the picture suffered from the thin writing and the underdeveloped templates they are asked to play but Loretta Young is actually the cast member who faced the most severe problems in this aspect as the presence of her co-star Celeste Holm but also Elsa Lanchaster, as a slightly confused but goodhearted painter of religious pictures, is primarily needed to contribute a charming and comedic touch to Come to the Stable, an exercise they both fulfilled adequately and with the required facileness but this ultimately shows that their performances are mostly defined by being a counterbalance to Loretta Young and their restrained and secondary parts also allowed them to stay more decisively within the frames of the script since they mostly added to the story without having to carry it. Loretta Young, on the other hand, needed to be the more plausible character, the one who drives all events and therefore had to shape Come to the Stable with a balance of sentimentality and realism, focusing more strongly on the serious moments of the script – and all this while actually starring in a movie that is not truly offering such moments since Sister Margaret’s fight for the hospital is always done in the most harmless but also heartwarming way, resulting in moments of quiet desperation that never feel as grand as they would like to be. All this unfortunately leaves Loretta Young with little else to do than present the aforementioned display of goodness and warmth without any shades or any look at the inner personality of Sister Margaret. And this thinness of the central part makes Loretta Young’s performance also one of the most peculiar in the history of the Best Actress category – seldom has a nomination been given for a role that so completely lacks every bit of character, every bit of wider life outside a single mission, every bit of depth and even the smallest kind of development or storyline that is not solely focused on the major plot. It’s a performance that can be praised for being heartwarming and doing nothing wrong and at the same time be criticized for doing nothing at all – and both statements are true. The role of Sister Margaret is indeed almost completely empty – but thankfully Loretta Young’s performance isn’t and like Come to the Stable itself, it is more noteworthy for smaller details than its entirety. Her performance undoubtedly shows how close the overall theme of Come to the Stable had been to her heart and how strongly she connected to the role of Sister Margaret, willing to accept all limitations for the sake of the greater theme – which was certainly a noble choice, further underlining the importance of this passion project for her own beliefs, but consequently also denied her the possibility to give a truly multidimensional piece of work.

As mentioned above, the performance of Loretta Young in Come to the Stable mostly impresses with its attention to detail and her ability to find small suggestions at the inner core of a character that was written without any depth at all. Such small moments show that Loretta Young was always in full control of Sister Margaret and understood that the story’s aim to entertain rested on Celeste Holm’s charm and lightweight acting style while its credibility depended on her own ability to bring a certain level of deeper understanding to her role and let her appear not only optimistic and faithful but also give her a sense of pragmatism and everyday capabilities. She is not only the main force who pushes the story forward but also a woman who is much more aware of the world than initially expected, who naturally takes charge and to whom others often turn for guidance and support. Celeste Holm’s Sister Scholastica might share equal screen time but she is always a companion who goes along without ever stepping into the foreground, who is often mostly defined by her naivety and who lacks the same kind of determination and leadership qualities even if both women might be equal in their faith and their human spirits – but the acting of Celeste Holm and the presentation of her character nonetheless supported Loretta Young in her own work thanks to the creation of an entertaining and charming contrast, showing how both actresses carefully constructed their work in relation to each other. Loretta Young maybe suffered from the fact that her performance, more than all the others in the picture, had nowhere to go but she still fulfilled the task of personalizing the story’s overall theme and motives, using only her rich and distinct voice and her bright face in a characterization that is never deep or truly challenging but serves the movie’s purpose and adds the necessary amount of honesty and sincerity without feeling either too forced or too exaggerated. It's a natural friendliness and honesty that was eagerly embraced by Academy members – 30 years had passed between her film debut and her first Oscar nomination for The Farmer's Daughter, making it seem that Oscar voters did not pay attention to her work in comedies of the sexes, romances or dramas but waited until Loretta Young re-invented her personality and turned herself into a symbol of decent wholesomeness in the later parts of her career. Her Katie Holstrom displayed strong inner beliefs despite a certain naivety while her Sister Margaret is much more worldly-wise, despite the contrary ideas of those around her, but both women always believed in a greater good and the general benevolence and kindness of people that needed to be supported against darker influences. In the case of Sister Margaret, this display faced a much stronger danger of becoming repetitive very soon since the character had significantly less personality than her Katie who was not only following a single goal but still had to find her place in society but Come to the Stable was smart enough to let the two central characters constantly counterbalance each other for the sake of the overall story arc – both Loretta Young and Celeste Holm faced limited characters but the combination of humor and sincerity made it possible to let both parts appear more dimensional than they really are and the chemistry between both actresses helped to underline the friendship and respect that these two Sisters share while letting the different aspects of their work intertwine in effective harmony as the humor of Celeste Holm lets Loretta Young appear less straightforward and limited while the seriousness of Loretta Young gives Celeste Holm's performance more maturity and sincerity than the role itself intended to. It's an effect that both actresses wisely used to their own advantages and that helped to keep the viewer's interest in these two characters alive throughout the story and gave Loretta Young the chance to demonstrate that Sister Margaret’s innocence and sincerity are more often than once just weapons that she uses precisely at the right moment to get what she wants – but Loretta Young is still honest enough in her performance to prevent the character from becoming calculating or slyly in the process and there are little scenes during which she is able to emphasize the character of Sister Margaret a little more than the script actually asked her to. It is certainly easy to overrate Loretta Young's work whenever it finds any chances to suggest the inner character of Sister Margaret because these kinds of small successes appear grander than they really are in the context of a role that only exists to express unlimited optimism and trust in the help of God and Loretta Young was also not able to insert Sister Margaret with a true inner depth or an identity of her own – but what she did was still crafting her as a believable and strangely complete character who maybe only exists for a single purpose but her performance and strong personality made it appear that there could be many untold stories about Sister Margaret even if the picture decided not to tell them this time. When she informs Sister Scholastica that this is not the right time to ask a man for a donation or that they cannot ask for more support from Mr. Rossi, Loretta Young adds a friendly yet decisive guidance to her role and again fulfills the task of giving plausibility to the story of two nuns who are able to get everything they want not just by persistence and faith but also their own kind of wisdom and social competence. Obviously it is rather likely that many other actress would have realized the same kind of small successes in this role, too, but Loretta Young’s strong screen personality, even if it was not permitted to truly shine, still added a special aura and sincerity to Sister Margaret since her personal connection to the part most likely caused an even more precise consideration of the role and its characteristics. And so it is not surprising that her most memorable moment on the screen comes when this honest concern and thoughtfulness is at its most effective display – when Sister Margaret learns that the son of Mr. Rossi used to fight at Normandy, she tells him that he and his wife must be very proud and prepares to leave before she turns around again and asks, with a sensible tone of care, ‘Mr. Rossi, your son did come back, didn’t he?` When his answer turns out to be negative, Loretta Young’s face expresses the right amount of sorrow and condolement and her answer ‘How sad for you and your wife’ is as straightforward as possible, neither trying to give him any comfort when she knows that she can’t and also not trying to add even more pathos to the moment. But while Loretta Young occasionally found a beautiful immediacy in her character, she let various moments that would have allowed a more personal realization quietly gone by, again underlining her determination to carry the sentimentality of the story without adding any complexity but a deeper look at her character would have been possible during certain moments, even within the thin writing, and would have opened her interpretation without throwing the movie off-balance – when Sister Margaret begins to reveal her reasons for her determination to build a hospital and talks about her experiences in Normandy during the war when the hospital in which she worked was close to being destroyed during a military attack, Loretta Young wisely avoided any sentimentality, reminiscing about this time in a way that emphasizes her positive outlook on life as she only wants to remember the positive events she experienced but also does not want to burden Ms. Potts with her personal backstory, further underlining the lack of darker aspects within the story, but with this approach Loretta Young also avoided all possibilities that could have shown how this time shaped and influenced her character, how she truly feels about these memories and what they ultimately mean for her apart from her desire to thank God by coming to America and build a hospital herself. A later scene repeats Loretta Young’s neglect of a more widened look at her own part when Sister Margaret learns from Mr. Mason, a musician next door, that he knows the city in Normandy where Sister Margaret used to work, and she only replies with a bright ‘Oh, how nice’ – Loretta Young may be not to blame for the dialogue in this moment but since the audience knows what this expression means and it also knows that Sister Margaret must understand the deeper meaning of these words, too, she could have used this moment to show more than just kindness but also to communicate her own experience and the connection between herself and Mr. Mason at this deciding moment. So while Loretta Young deserves a certain recognition for letting the kindness and gentleness of Sister Margaret dominate her performance without overbearing it, she also missed the chances to inject more shades into this character – as small as these chances might have been.

Overall, Loretta Young’s performance serves the movie well by never contradicting its intentions and it is also noteworthy that she is not only believable as a women of kindness and decency but also as a nun – scenes of her praying or praising God seem to flow naturally from her body and her spirit and demonstrate the closeness between herself and her character as well as her personal belief in the production and its wider theme. But even if Loretta Young made many right or sometimes even intelligent choices in her performance, the role of Sister Margaret never allowed a multilayered approach – and Come to the Stable also did not need it, only existing on a carefully defined surface without any deeper emotions. Therefore, Loretta Young clearly understood her material and the simplicity of her work is beautiful to look at but her work is nevertheless often shockingly empty even if it provides occasional moments of grace and love. In the end, Loretta Young’s distinctive screen presence and her ability to radiate warmth and kindness leave a maybe not lasting but often satisfying impression that never symbolizes an outstanding artistic achievement but fulfills its overall goals nonetheless.


4 comments:

dinasztie said...

Glad to see your great comeback. :)

I haven't seen her, but I liked Loretta a lot in The Farmer's Daughter. I feel that there is realy honesty behind her benevolent presence. And if there isn't, then she's a real kick-ass actress. :)

moviefilm said...

I'm so much happy to see you back. :)

Derek Bowman said...

Very nicely put. "Acceptable" is really the perfect word this performance, nothing mind blowing but warm and simple nonetheless.

How this film got 3 acting nominations is beyond me.

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot!