Best Actress 1928

Best Actress 1928

4/21/2013

Best Actress 1949: Deborah Kerr in "Edward, my Son"

What qualifies an actor or an actress to become one of Oscar’s biggest losers? It certainly can’t be a lack of talent – after all, a lot of nominations are necessary to be among the biggest losers and nominations need to be earned just as much as the actual win. For the same reason it also cannot be described as a case of lack of admiration by Academy members. The most obvious reason is clearly the simple fact that Academy members never considered any of the nominated performances in an actor’s career as the best of the year – this is basically also the reason for any Oscar loss but there need to be some other factors that can explain why an actor or an actress was able to collect and impressive number of nominations but simply was never able to turn one of them into a win. Besides the feeling that none of the nominated performances were ever the best of the year it must have been a case of wrong timing plus a lack of sentiment and attention at the crucial time – some actors can be seen as overdue when they receive their second nomination, others can be a five-time loser and still don’t become a factor in the race. Of course, the status ‘overdue’ should not be the main token when Academy members fill out their ballots but the truth is that more than one Oscar winner benefitted from a surge of ‘isn’t it time?’ feeling among Oscar voters, irrespective of the quality of their performances which might either have been strong enough to actually merit an Oscar by themselves and received only additional support by this sentimentality or which would most likely not have taken home the award without it. But how does this sentiment arise in some cases and fail to emerge in others? Surely the impact that the actor made during those previous losses plays an important part in this – how close was this person ever to winning and how satisfied are Academy members with the actual choices they made those years? Were the previous losses a surprise or had they been expected? And even if the sentiment for an overdue award is strong, the nominated performance still needs to provide some kind of artistic or popular appeal to convince Academy members to give their vote to an actor or actress whom they might have ignored otherwise. Obviously, all of this is pure speculation but it provides an interesting look at the fate of Deborah Kerr, with six losses over a time span of 11 years between 1949 and 1960 the biggest loser in the Best Actress category before she finally received her blessing from the Academy with an Honorary Award in 1993. Why was she never able to turn one of her nominations into an actual win? Again, the most obvious answer appears to be that Academy members simply never considered her performances the best of the year but why was there never a surge of sympathy or support that maybe could have turned her into an Oscar winner when so many other performers were able to finally triumph after a couple of unsuccessful nominations? Overall, her misfortune during those 11 years can most likely be explained as a combination of all different circumstances – the constant presence of an overwhelming frontrunner or at least strong co-favorite made her losses always expected and therefore less noticeable during all those years, sentimental reasons that might have existed were constantly overshadowed by even more sentimental reasons for the actual winner and her performances maybe qualified as ideal nominees but lacked the overall impact that most other Oscar winners during those years provided. But why was this? Unlike many other performers, Deborah Kerr was able to secure a nomination for the most iconic role of her career – the adulterous wife who makes love to Burt Lancaster on the beach in From Here to Eternity. Considering the popularity of From Here to Eternity, which was the first movie to tie the overall Oscar record of Gone with the Wind, and her change of image from a constant display of lady-like dignity to a bitter and unfaithful retaliator, Deborah Kerr could have been a strong contender for the Oscar trophy but the appearance of Audrey Hepburn on the international movie scene with her praised and award-winning first major film performance as a lugubrious princess in Roman Holiday made a win for her out of the question rather quickly. Besides this, Deborah Kerr's part in From Here to Eternity lacked the screentime and importance of other leading ladies during that year and contributed no more to the overall tone of the movie than Donna Reed’s Oscar-winning supporting role which most likely also prevented an Oscar win for her in 1953. Three years later Deborah Kerr won her next Oscar nomination for her performance in the musical The King and I which was a popular blockbuster with audiences and critics alike and had already brought a Tony Award to Getrude Lawrence for her work in the same role on the Broadway stage. The King and I was also popular enough to gain an Oscar for leading man Yul Brynner but co-star Deborah Kerr again faced a definite frontrunner as Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Anastasia had not only been hailed and awarded by critics but also marked her official return to Hollywood after her ‘exile’ in Italy which was caused by her extramartial affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Of course, it’s impossible to say how the race would have turned out without Ingrid Bergman in the running but it’s easy to imagine that Deborah Ker might have had a legitimate chance for the Oscar since the performances and movies of Nancy Kelly or Carroll Baker had most likely been too controversial for most Academy members and surely no one was eager to give Katharine Hepburn a second Oscar for her third nominated lonely spinster in The Rainmaker. The following year provided another good chance for Deborah Kerr to win an Oscar for her work as a stranded nun in Heaven knows, Mr. Allison – it was her fourth nomination, she had previously received the New York Film Critics Awards and she must have slowly been starting to appear as an ‘Oscar waiting to happen’. But Deborah Kerr always faced either a seasoned veteran or a promising newcomer who gave the kind of performance that the Academy loves to honor – and in 1957, newcomer Joanne Woodward played the part of a woman who was haunted by three different personalities which was surely an almost engraved invitation to an Academy Award and had therefore turned her into a likely winner on Oscar night. The following year, Deborah Kerr received not only her fifth nomination overall but also her third in a row – two facts that would usually put a lot of attention on her and her work but the circumstances of the race were again against her. Just like in From Here to Eternity, Deborah Kerr was again nominated for a role that could be described as supporting and again lacked the necessary impact to benefit from any sentiment that might have been on her side. But more than that, 1958 also saw the fifth nomination of Susan Hayward who had never made any secret out of her desire for an Oscar and, after several losses for playing drunk, drunk and singing or wholesome and singing women finally took the last step and dared Academy members to deny her the award for portraying a woman walking innocently into the gas chamber in I want to live! But Susan Hayward’s performance not only overshadowed the work of Deborah Kerr like Joanne Woodward did the year before – her previous losses had also been much more noteworthy and she was most likely a close second in 1955 and the only alternative to Shirley Booth in 1952, making her win in 1958 an almost sure thing even with other overdue contenders like Deborah Kerr and Rosalind Russell in the race. And when Deborah Kerr received her sixth and final nomination, it was the beginning of a new decade, the consolidation of new talent and a change of style which makes it’s debatable how much Academy members were actually still paying attention to her career – maybe her sixth nomination could have created a sense of sentiment and considering that her performance had won Deborah Kerr a record-breaking third award from the New York Film Critics, a vote for her work would not have been a purely sentimental choice but her losses and nominations had been so quiet over the years that it’s unlikely that she could have turned into a serious threat for the win now, especially since the ceremony in 1961 was completely overshadowed by the longing of the Academy to bestow the honor on Elizabeth Taylor whose tragic illness turned her critically panned work in BUtterfield 8 into a sure victory on Oscar night. After this last nomination, Deborah Kerr continued to deliver noteworthy performances but the Academy had moved on – Deborah Kerr had just not been its true love but rather a good friend with whom it had spent a couple of years but dropped after a while when its taste and interest shifted. So basically, Deborah Kerr combined all the factors that were needed to turn herself into the biggest loser in the Best Actress category – her losses were never surprising nor considered undeserved in their days which also led to little attention to her overdue status and her performances simply did not offer enough impact to convince Academy members to bypass the strong frontrunners or obvious choices she was competing against. At the end all the favorites took home the gold, the missions were accomplished and casualties are to be expected. Promising newcomers and seasoned veterans won the awards over Deborah Kerr and she somehow never managed to be either of them. But her maybe biggest misfortune at the Oscars was most likely the fact that she might have had the best chance to win during her career in 1947 – her work in Black Narcissus was honored by the New York Film Critics and it was also generally considered one of the weaker years for Best Actress which might have allowed her an actual win but the Academy did not nominate this particular performance but waited another two years before they recognized her for the first time for her role as the suffering wife of Spencer Tracy in the movie version of the stage play Edward, my Son. This first nomination has not been mentioned yet in the look at Deborah Kerr’s Oscar nominations and again it’s easy to state that there has been little chance for her to win the award as Olivia de Havilland was the overwhelming frontrunner due to her universally acclaimed transformation from a shy, introvert girl into a remorseless spinster in the Best Picture nominee The Heiress. Of course, this look at Deborah Kerr’s Oscar chances over the years is based on the trends of the time, what is known about the respective races and how her performances were perceived during their time and not any kind of indication of the quality of her actual work, if her losses were underserved or justified and it also doesn’t mean that she would have easily won without the actual winners in the competition – but this review of the nominated performance that started her relationship with the Academy seems like an ideal opportunity to speculate why she never benefitted from a surge of sympathy during her career like so many other performers did and how close she actually ever was to win the coveted award. But an actual analysis of her efforts needs more careful consideration and it is also not meant as a mere comparison of different performances but an appreciation of her work judged by itself. So the question is not if Deborah Kerr’s performance in Edward, my Son was actually more deserving than that of winner Olivia de Havilland but rather how strong it was, irrespective of her competition or any other circumstances.

Most of the talk on the Best Actress lineup of 1949 seems to focus on the aforementioned transformation of Olivia de Havilland’s character in The Heiress – but the year actually saw two equally drastic changes in the category that were equally caused by bitterness, desperation and regret but shaped more strongly by the influence of alcohol which turned Susan Hayward’s Eloise from lovelorn college girl into a bitter and regretful drunk in My Foolish Heart and Deborah Kerr’s Evelyn from a supportive wife to a desperate and lonely shell of her former self in Edward, my Son. In the case of Deborah Kerr, it’s a change that doesn’t come over a short period of time but actually slowly develops over the course of many years, from the birth of her beloved son Edward to his ultimate death as a young man at the beginning of World War II. It’s a character arc that can be viewed in clear, distinctive steps during Edward, my Son – the character of Evelyn is not of secondary importance in the story but she is still a secondary role compared to Spencer Tracy’s Arnold who drives the story forward with his desire to spoil his son and giving him everything humanly possible with means that are both legal and illegal and ruins more than one life during the run of the story. His wife Evelyn appears in various, almost closed chapters that constantly display a different side to the character and show her way to a destruction that is both self-inflicted and caused by her husband in precise steps. The part could be considered supporting but unlike From Here to Eternity and Separate Tables, the two other movies that won Deborah Kerr leading nominations for comparatively small roles, Edward, my Son does not feature another prominent female character and the struggle between Evelyn and her husband is the main emotional center of the movie, even if Evelyn constantly drops out of the story which focuses more strongly on the character of Arnold anyway. Interestingly enough, the most important character in Edward, my Son remains an invisible influence – like Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer, Edward is the constant reference point of the story, the constant subject of conversation, the reason for the action of all other characters and the only thought in the life of his mother and father but also like Sebastian, he always remains unseen and unheard, only existing through the reflections of his parents, friends and acquaintances. Their thoughts and ideas on Edward differ drastically and while Arnold worships his son and is willing to do everything to get him ahead, his mother cannot overlook the faults of his characters even if they are mostly caused by the actions of her husband – the money, influence and actions of his father have apparently gone to his head and turned him into a spoiled and careless young man who treats other people with the same lack of respect as his father does. It is ultimately the combination of these two men that will cause the downfall of Evelyn – her inability to shape her son according to her own ideas and teach him the meanings of such values as respect, self-responsibility or humility and the hate of her husband who is even willing to destroy his own wife as long as he can keep his influence over his son lead to her decline and downward spiral of despair, surrender and alcohol. It’s a surely drastic and unlikely character arc and the lack of screentime could easily have resulted in an exaggerated development but the role benefits from a clear presentation at each state of this arc, making the different steps in the life of Evelyn both believable and memorable. Still, a character like Evelyn Boult seems to be strangely unprobable for an actress like Deborah Kerr – even in her most unusual parts she always possessed a rare charisma of poise and elegance and while Evelyn was allowed to display those qualities in some parts of the story, the role mostly asked Deborah Kerr to be exactly the opposite of those features and appear completely ordinary in the beginning and broken-down and washed-up in the end. Most of all, the role of Evelyn stands as a symbol for all the damage that her husband is causing – like a vessel that has to accept and absorb all the pain he is inflicting on others and herself, Evelyn Boult stands as the constant reflection of her husband’s actions. She doesn’t benefit from his way to the financial top and has clearly never been more happy in her life than when she and Arnold were an ordinary couple without a large amount of money but still happy around each other and adoring their little baby boy without knowing yet how he would turn out as a young man – she is the living reflection of her husband’s amorality, being destroyed more and more as he sinks lower and lower on the scale of moral behavior even if his actions are not always directed against herself. But Evelyn accepts her burdens and maybe creates even new ones for herself – the story and her husband leave the opportunity to accept her life as it is and make the best out of it but Evelyn’s arc leads right into a mere existence of pity and self-pity, wondering where everything went wrong while doing nothing to try to set it right. All this makes the role of Evelyn Boult both exhausting and exciting because the rise from housewife to trophy wife and subsequent decline to bitter drunk while also presenting the movie’s sole conscience is thrilling and impressive but the passive nature of the part and the little influence it presents in the story also make it difficult for an actress to not let the tragedy completely overshadow her own intentions. Deborah Kerr’s own interpretation of the role made it possible for Evelyn Boult to fulfill all the tasks of the story and she successfully adds the emotional intensity to both her role and the picture to become a contrasting mirror for her husband’s actions but she could not avoid all the traps of the role, especially in the final parts of the movie which show that she was not always comfortable outside of her usual acting style.

If the appearances of Deborah Kerr in Edward, my Son are single chapters, then the first one would likely be titled ‘happy housewife’ – but maybe the word ‘happy’ is already too strong because even if Deborah Kerr is showing her character at her most carefree and relaxed, she still already showed hints of her inability to fully grasp all of her husband’s ideas and intentions and is not able or willing to understand all of his plans for their future life and his business. But even more noticeable in those moments is how much Deborah Kerr is unlike her usual screen-personality, letting the normality of the character shine with little but still intriguing acting choices like silently quieting her husband down so that he won’t wake up their baby boy or quickly cleaning up the room before a visitor comes to their son’s birthday party. She also portrays Evelyn as a woman who is more than content with the life she is leading, telling her husband how happy she is with the way things are for them right now but she again injects this moment with a certain worry as if Evelyn is trying to prevent her husband from doing anything that might damage their life, apparently already sensing his determination to get ahead for the sake of his son and consequently ruining those around him. But even with those frail hints at the movie’s later scenes, Deborah Kerr also uses this first scene to display the passiveness of her role and shows how Evelyn is constantly willing to accept her husband’s plans and behaviors as long as it benefits their son and how she is already completely focusing her life on her child, letting Evelyn react with a mixture of delight and implicitness to her husband’s announcement that their new baby carriage was the best in the store. The next appearence of Evelyn might be titled ‘suffering mother’ as she and her husband learn of their child’s threatening condition but the scene itself does not allow Deborah Kerr more than a display of tears and worries and she also tends to be slightly overdramatic in those moments, emphasizing the sorrow of her character too strongly without finding the right balance to her more quite and dignified screen personality. Her maybe strongest impression comes in her next two chapters which could be called ‘trophy wife’ and ‘rebellious wife’. After her husband has managed to turn himself into a rich, influential but morally more and more dubious character, Evelyn constantly rejects his decision for Edward and the life he is giving him while taking that exact lifestyle also for granted. She cannot stop herself from quietly mocking and blaming Arnold for organizing an extravagant skiing trip for Edward but accepts those opportunities and possibilities for herself apparently without thinking about it. Nevertheless, Deborah Kerr adds another intriguing layer to this character by hinting at the fact that Evelyn is very much aware of her own status and of her dependence from her husband but also the benefits she gets to enjoy – but she fears that her son might turn out to be just like her and Deborah Kerr movingly shows a woman who has apparently given up hope for herself but still thinks that her child can be different and find a way of life that she could not. When she asks an old friend to talk to Arnold about Edward and tell him that one can kill somebody else by not treating that person as a human being, there is little doubt that she is talking on her own behalf just as much as on that of her son – but that scene also stands as a symbol for the major problem that draws through her performance, namely that of a melodramatic tendency that lets her acting style appear too stylized and exaggerated in certain moments. But it’s also a testament to the strength of Deborah Kerr’s screen presence that even if those moments always become clearly obvious she still avoids to ruin the effect of her performance by crafting the tone of that moment in perfect harmony with the tone of her own intentions – she might be exaggerating her emotions or staring too strongly into the open space in certain moments but she still always adds the necessary amount of gravitas and pathos to her scenes without either letting any opportunities pass by or overdoing them. Even if her acting style might somehow be too melodramatic, the melodrama itself always finds the right balance, becoming a part of the story instead of interrupting it. Her whole appearance in this scene is an effective and intriguing display of a woman who beings to doubt everything she has achieved in life so far but is not able yet to try to direct her will in a different direction. But Deborah Kerr laid another foundation in this scene for her next chapter ‘rebellious wife’ in which the marriage between Arnold and Evelyn has turned into open despise and she openly questions the character of her son, fearing that the influence of her husband will destroy his morals completely. The whole scene is dominated by the theme ‘will she or won’t she?’ which Deborah Kerr handles with both plausibility and ambiguity. Even despite the fact that her Evelyn clearly enjoys the privileges that come from her husband’s wealth, making trips around the world with her son and having no worries except how this son is being raised, her plan to abandon Arnold and his money together with Edward to teach him the importance of earning money himself and living a life away from prosperity and bravado feels plausible and believable and in this constant struggle between husband and wife both actors make it very easy to let the audience sympathize with Evelyn and her intentions. Deborah Kerr’s delivery of the line that Arnold’s carelessness about the wrong-doings of their son is the most terrible aspect of this whole situation summarizes the whole relationship with her husband and her son and shows that she hasn’t given up her hopes yet completely. But on the other hand, Deborah Kerr doesn’t let Evelyn talk about her plans with too strong emphasize and she gives up those same plans almost too quickly again after her husband defies and openly threats her – obviously the structure of the movie doesn’t leave a lot of room for Evelyn’s character to develop and therefore often has no other choices but reduce her to a passive and accepting victim to get the story and its message across but Deborah Kerr’s acting makes those shortcomings plausible by doubting if Evelyn would really ever possess the strength to turn her plans into reality or if she actually hadn’t expected that her plans would not succeed in the first place. But she also avoids letting Evelyn appear too weak in those moments – instead, her performance always works as the aforementioned reflection of her husband’s emotional cruelty and she effectively and touchingly shows a woman whose entire life and existence is turned to ruins by the actions of her husband and own inability to reject those actions. In the end, her final chapters ‘drunken wife’ summarize this whole destruction when Evelyn has turned into a bitter and delusional drunkard, finding no other solution to cope with her daily life anymore. In those moments, Deborah Kerr clearly suffers from two things – the fact that her make-up and costumes too much exaggerate her appearance but also her own acting which turns Evelyn too often from character to caricature, portraying the intoxication with a stumbling speech and shaky body movements that again could easily distract from the situation. But in those final scenes Deborah Kerr again fulfills the task of being the movie’s conscience, showing a woman standing in front of the ruins of her own existence, desperately shouting that she doesn’t know why it all went wrong and not able to find any use anymore of the company of her old friend Larry with whom she might have had the happy marriage that she couldn’t find with Arnold. Her acting does become too overdone too many times in those moments and she clearly plays the sort of drunk she and the movie imagine a drunk would be like but she still knows how much the camera can take and how far she has to go to fulfill the movie’s message and she even adds some unexpected humor when she wants to get out of a social event by pretending to have a headache and Arnold demands of her to go anyway and she slyly thanks him for curing her so fast. And most of all, Deborah Kerr provides the single most haunting moment of the story when Evelyn finally stands up against Arnold, positioning herself opposite him for the first time and telling him that he can pretend all he wants but that he himself, too, has lost every sense of direction – it’s a moment that Deborah Kerr portrays with the spontaneity of a drunk who just gave in to a sudden urge and with an impression of careful preparation, of finally wanting to say what should have been said for far too long.

In the end, it’s an almost confusing performance – Deborah Kerr always improves Edward, my Son whenever she appears but the effect of her performance is always diminished when she leaves the screen for too many scenes and even years. Edward, my Son does not show the process of her transformation but only the results and Deborah Kerr’s acting style feels clearly out of her comfort zone during her final moments. But even with all those problems she still makes the transformation of Evelyn completely believable and she manages to find the story’s most moving and memorable moments in her performance, avoiding to let Evelyn appear too constructed by making her suffering and downfall a plausible consequence of her husband’s actions. And even her final scenes which could have been easily destroyed by her slightly unadjusted acting style still manage to dominate the movie and bring it to a haunting and devastating conclusion that evokes the overwhelming feeling of a wasted life and missed opportunities. A moving, occasionally heartbreaking and intriguing performance that maybe could have achieved more but still came to life with haunting reality.





4 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

Have not seen this, although I have a seen performances where I have liked her, but I have not seen one yet where she truly impressed me.

Fritz said...

Yes, I think that was probably her main problem with the Oscars... :)

whoiscliff said...

Hey Fritz! My attempts to send this by email were met with failure notices, so I hope you don't mind if I post this here for all the world to see as well:

Hi! My name is Cliff Galiher and I'm a big fan of your writing and Oscar devotion! I just wanted to let you know that I've started a modest blog (http://whoiscliff.wordpress.com) chronicling my the end of my endeavor to watch every Best Actress nominee. While I've tried not to copy your ideas, I greatly admire the incisiveness of your writing and the impressive design of your race recaps. I wrote a post the other day, acknowledging you among those who've been at this long before me, and honed their craft to a high degree!

I'll be finishing up in the next few days--I plan to cap off the quest by watching The African Queen for the first time at the Egyptian Theater this Sunday. In the meantime, though, I just wanted to reach out to another soul who's dedicated to making new discoveries (for me, Jeanne Eagels in The Letter and Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses), even if it means unearthing the occasional dreadful disappointment as well (Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter, Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams). Anyhow, opinions and critiques are welcome, and thanks for maintaining an excellent site!

-Cliff

P.S. I agree regarding Deborah's nomination: she does an effective job in an awkwardly formed part. I imagine the fact that she garnered a nomination for this film was a sign that she'd really struck voters as an actress with great promise (my guess is that they'd also accumulated appreciation for her Powell & Pressburger work prior to her leap to Hollywood).

Fritz said...

Hi Cliff, thanks a lot for your warm words! That's great to hear!

And thank you very much for the link to your blog! I just took a look at it and it looks great! I have a feeling I will spend quite sime time there! :-)