Sunday, August 30, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1954: My Ballot

The monthly series Best Supporting Actress Smackdown is back today over at The Film Experience. If you've been following along this summer, so far we've covered 1979, 1948, 1995 and this month brings us to 1954. Started by Stinkylulu at their website, the Smackdown brings together a different group of panelists each month to reexamine and decide which Supporting Actress that year truly gave the best performance and is deserving of the Oscar win. Sometimes the Academy doesn't always get it right ( most of the time, but their heart is in the right place). The panelist rate each performance on a scale from 1 (boo! how'd you get this nom?!?) to 5 hearts (words can't describe the cinematic heights you've reached). But the best part is that readers are the last member of the panelist submitting their rankings of the films they've seen from that year. And the Smackdown year is celebrated each month with posts and tidbits about the other goings on in the world of film that year. For 1954, I wrote about one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars, Audrey Hepburn, focusing on her stylish ensembles in the film Sabrina and the scandal that was caused with the costume design Oscar win that year. (Read all about Audrey's style here.)

A secretary, a Mexican as a Native American, a girl grieving for her brother's death, a fading beauty, and a brassy loud-mouth, 1954 was kinda all over the place in quality with some truly bizarre choices in nominations. How The High and the Mighty, a multi-character Cinemascope relic with John Wayne as the leading man, managed to score not one but two nominations in this category for this year is just beyond me. Especially when their two spots could have easily been taken by another pair of actresses giving memorable performance in a bonafide classic: Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. And it's hard to imagine that all four of these movies were even made in the same year, they're all so wildly varying in tone, with the clear standout being On the Waterfront. Sometimes when the winner, in this case Eva Marie Saint, is so clearly above the other nominees the inevitable march to Smackdown victory isn't necessarily the goal. It's the journey in discovering these films that I definitely wouldn't have seen without this series and their nominations. So let's jump right in and take a look at these performance from Nina Foch, Katy Jurado, Eva Marie Saint, Jan Sterling, and Claire Trevor.

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Nina Foch Executive Suite

The Role: Although she appeared in Best Picture winner An American n Paris a few years earlier and would star in sword and sandals epics like The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, the Dutch born actress received her sole Oscar nomination for her role as a secretary in this star-studded ensemble.

My Take: Effortlessly gliding down the halls of Tredway Corporation with quite authority as she gathers board members, organizes last minute meetings, and pretty much keeps the office running smoothly and efficiently, Foch's Erica Martin is the picture-perfect ideal of a secretary. (Yes, secretary. This is the '50s after all. No Administrative Assistants here.) And even when the man she works for, CEO Avery Bullard, happens to die of a heart attack, Erica remains steadfast in her duties, loyal to the company and her deceased boss. Erica is exactly the type of employee you want working for you - because it's hard to picture her living any sort of life outside of the office (and I'm not sure the filmmakers or the actress has thought about it either). And while Foch's polished and professional performance sells this portrayal of those dutiful women that safely keeps the company secrets locked away in their desk drawer, she ultimately remains as blank as a page in her steno notebook. As knowable as the distant voice on the other line asking you to "please hold". 

Katy Jurado Broken Lance

The Role: In a remake of a New York City-set film only 5 years old, Jurado plays the matriarch of the Devereaux clan, an Irish settlement in the Old West that has King Lear levels of familial inheritance issues. 

My Take: With her performance as the mistress of a cattle ranch in this flashback-set western, Jurado had the honor of becoming the first Mexican performer nominated for an acting Oscar. It's just a shame that the distinction came from her work here in which the Latina plays a turquoise-sporting Native American (yes, it's just as bad as it sounds) and not her far superior work two years earlier in the classic High Noon. Reduced to the subservient role of wife and mother, Jurado's role is here to service the men in her life. Referred to only as "Princess" or "Señora", she's not even given a proper name, let alone an actual character to play. Only a few years older than Robert Wagner as her son, it's difficult to realistically imagine her as his mother, even when they try to age her by putting an insane amount of gray in her hair like she's in a high school play production. And her scenes with Spencer Tracy just made me feel uncomfortable as she continually addressed him as "My Husband" and is forced to practically grovel at his feet. 

Eva Marie Saint On the Waterfront

The Role: Having already appeared on Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful opposite silent screen star Lillian Gish the year before, Saint would win the Oscar for her only career nomination in her big screen debut at the age of 30 as Edie Doyle, a young woman whose brother is killed by the local mob. Edie starts a relationship with the man who may have had a hand in her sibling's death.

My Take: You can't ask for a better film debut then working opposite Marlon Brando in one of his most iconic performances in a film that won Best Picture and a place among the all-time greats. And while Saint might have been new to the big screen, she had already honed her skills as an actress on stage, in television work, and training at the Actor's Studio. Her performance of Edie Doyle is not the work of some fresh-faced ingenue awkwardly charming their way through the part, but that of a craftsman just as studied and committed as her celebrated scene partner. And the two play off each other beautifully. Brando is often praised for the scene where Saint accidentally drops her glove and he improvises by picking it up and using it. But if you watch the scene again with the focus on Saint, you'll notice that without her reaction and ability to play along, it could've easily become a take that made it to the cutting room floor. Confused by her feelings for him, yet drawn to him at the same time, Saint uses this tension in trying to secure her glove back from him until she finally succeeds, giving herself over to her desires as well. And it's watching that internal struggle play out that makes Saint's performance so compelling. 

Jan Sterling The High and the Mighty

The Role: In her early 30s at the time, Sterling's only Oscar nomination came for her role as Sally McKee in this film in which she plays a former "Popularity Contest Winner" that worries that her beauty is starting to fade. She won the Golden Globe that year for this performance.

My Take: Outfitted in a fashionable travel suit, with platinum blonde hair and a heavily made-up face that reminded me of the first Barbie doll, Sterling's glamor girl is entirely defined by her looks from the very beginning. Even a popularity contest she won years ago was based on her appearance. (Although if movies have taught us anything, it's that pretty girls are popular. That's a fact.) And those good looks are all she has to cling to because apparently at the ripe ol' age of 30 it's all going downhill. That's right - she's already long in the tooth at 30. She's so consumed by how it's all starting to fade away that she's agreed to marry a man she's never even met. But she's deceived him by sending a picture when she was so much younger...than 30. She ends up having a breakdown on the flight in which she tearfully rubs off her make-up, including her drawn-on eyebrows and false eyelashes. It's a startling moment and Sterling doesn't shy away from exposing herself. But the moment would have more of an impact if it didn't feel so phony. Seconds later she's reapplying as if nothing happened, making you feel foolish for having felt any sort of sympathy for her shallowness. 

Claire Trevor The High and the Mighty

The Role: The only actress this year previously nominated, the former Best Supporting Actress winner (discussed in 1948) received her third and last nomination in this category as May Holst, a woman returning from vacation that unfortunately finds herself on an ill-fated trip.

My Take: Each of the other characters in this disaster film are introduced to the audience one at a time as they check-in for their soon-to-be failed flight, allowing the audience to take them in and immediately identify their "type". But Claire Trevor bulldozes her way into the film as the other passengers wait to board the plane as she loudly proclaims her dislike of Hawaii. And it's this type of brash and bossy deliver that will characterize the entire performance. Playing what can only be described as a sassy broad, she makes every moment count in her very limited screen time by playing to the back row as if she's on a vaudeville stage. In her most memorable moment, as the other passengers try to lighten the load of the plane by tossing off their heavy luggage, Trevor takes the mink coat off her back and kisses it good-bye as she flings it out the door. It makes zero sense as its weight couldn't possible make a difference. Which could very easily describe the performance itself, a senseless and weightless diversion that ultimately doesn't matter. 

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The Oscar that year went to a very pregnant Eva Marie Saint and I can't help but whole heartily agreeing with the Academy on this one. It seems unfair to even compare Saint to these other ladies since she's given so much more to work with from the start, thanks to an amazing script and a role that's arguably lead, giving her much more screen time to form a fully-developed character. But it's also hard for me to imagine the Academy even seriously considering any of there other 4 ladies for the actual win. Despite Sterling's previous victory in this category at the Golden Globes. Seriously, what was going on that year?! Be sure to check out who was chosen over at The Film Experience (you can probably guess. It's Claire Trevor, of course!) and share your thoughts on this mixed bag of films and performances in the comments!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1995: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress Smackdown. Originally began by Stinkylulu over at their website, it was brought back to life by Nathaniel at TFE and has to be one of my favorite things on the entire internet. The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a rotating panel of pundits re-examinze all 5 of the nominees in that category with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good they find the performance all these years later. The year chosen for July was 1995 (and to give the year context, I wrote a piece on Nicole Kidman's breakout year). 1995 is a year that has a special place in my heart because it was the first one that launched my obsession with all things Oscar. I blame Kate Winslet in Sense & Sensibility. (Oh, spoiler alert, I guess you know who I chose already...) The last member of the panelists is actually readers who submit their own takes on the performances and weigh-in on who should've gone home with the golden guy that year. Below are my own thoughts on the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year. Before this year of films, I had always watched the Oscars and rooted for whatever Disney film was up for Best Song and Music and loved any period piece that was nominated for costume design. But this was the year that I became more than just a casual viewer and took my interest in the awards to the level where I now write about the annual event year round. I remember seeing Sense & Sensibility with my mother and just falling in love with Kate Winslet's performance. It was my first introduction to her as I was a little too young for Heavenly Creatures the year before, but it made me a devoted fan. Her performance in that film is one of my all-time favorites and I used to watch it once a week in high school. (I even told her when I eventually met her years later.) So looking back on 1995, it was a little hard for me to be biased when it came to judging her performance. But let's look at how I felt about her competition that year, Joan Allen, Kathleen Quinlan, eventual winner Mira Sorvino, and Mare Winningham, and see if any of these actresses came close to dethroning Winslet for me.

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Joan Allen Nixon

The Role: In her first of two back-to-back Supporting Actress nominations, the Tony winner took on Pat Nixon, the wife of one of the most controversial American presidents that ever served office.

My Take: Trying to infuse some life and humanity into a woman that was known in real life as "Plastic Pat" is a daunting task for even the most skilled actress. Luckily with Joan Allen at the helm, an actress whose gravitas and intelligence make even the most underwritten part feel fully-formed and bursting with interior life, there's already an assurance of meticulous care and craft. Because without Allen's natural abilities to draw in the audience, Pat Nixon, as written in Oliver Stone's meandering mess of an opus, remains just as impenetrable and artificial as she was perceived. Asked to play only one of two actions throughout the film: steadfast supporter or privacy-seeking reluctant (sometimes inexplicably within the same scene), Allen's Pat seems like an afterthought in Nixon's hazy structure. That Allen remains unscathed by Anthony Hopkins' histrionic devouring of not just the scenery but everything in his wake is a testament to her strength and fortitude as an actress to command attention even when the film is content to keep her as an unknown. 

Kathleen Quinlan Apollo 13

The Role: Quinlan received her sole Oscar nomination for playing Marilyn Lovell, the wife of stranded astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), in Ron Howard's Best Picture nominated take on this true-life story.

My Take: With misty eyes fixed on her television, Quinlan's Marilyn is intended to be our emotional connection to the loved ones patiently waiting back home while the "brave" men drift in space. But every time the film unnecessarily cuts away from the action of the men's survival it feels more like a chore or a narrative necessity without bringing any substantial catharsis to justify it. (It's telling that we aren't even granted a reunion scene at the end, the film having no use for Marilyn once the men are safe.) And Quinlan is given not so much scenes to play but brief flashes in which the camera focuses on her silently observing, fearful yet hopeful. Even when she's given a little more to play, like telling her son or mother-in-law about what has happened to Jim, it's reduced to a single sentence and Quinlan, ever the dutiful wife and not wanting to draw too much attention to herself, seems to think that less is more in those moments. However when given nothing to begin with, her modestly played character disappears from the screen entirely, swallowed up by the major events surrounding her. 

Mira Sorvino Mighty Aphrodite

The Role: For her Oscar-winning performance, Sorvino (the daughter of actor Paul Sorvino) played a ditzy prostitute named Linda Ash, the biological mother of Lenny (Woody Allen)'s adopted son.

My Take: Aiming for Judy Holliday levels of brilliance, but feeling more like Victoria Jackson in an SNL sketch that airs right before the host says good-night, Sorvino's whiny-voiced dimwit is a one-joke creation that hasn't been fleshed out enough (by the actress or Allen's screenplay) to sustain an entire film. And Sorvino seems to think that having made the choice to give her Linda a nasally monotone is enough to build a whole character, playing every scene with a sameness that starts to grate depending on how funny you found her initially. (Apparently even Woody started to get irritated with her asking Sorvino to change her voice after they had been filming for a couple of days already.) But there's still something endearing about the sweet dopiness Sorvino bring's to her simple sex worker, especially when she reveals her dreams (to be a hairdresser) and shares stories of regret about the son that she gave up for adoption. Giving us glimpses of genuine substance behind the dumb blonde jokes. 

Mare Winningham Georgia

The Role: Winningham (who won the Independent Spirit Award for this performance) plays the title character, a musician whose life is constantly uprooted by her troubled younger sister (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a role written for her by her mother). 

My Take: Anyone with siblings knows that it's always a fight to compete for attention and with Jennifer Jason Leigh's manic Sadie demanding we notice her, it's amazing that the Academy chose to ignore her cry for attention and instead focus their efforts on the less showy sister, Georgia, played with subtlety and deceptive effortlessness by Winningham. As the sister that has it all together, (successful music career, stable relationship with a loving husband) the normalcy of Georgia and her life could very easily become dull, her character in danger of being nothing but the caring, support system for her troubled younger sibling. But Winningham's Georgia isn't some saintly bore, but a woman capable of anger and resentment. She sees her sister as a burden, tied to her through familial obligation. And instead of reluctantly bearing it, she calls Sadie out for her destructive ways in confrontations that Winningham wins with calm and composure. It's a performance reminiscent of the folk music Georgia sings, unassuming and simplistic, but embedded within its framework, complexity and soulfulness. 

Kate Winslet Sense & Sensibility

The Role: The impulsive romantic to her older sister Elinor (Emma Thompson)'s heady reason. Winslet, in the first of her six Oscar nominations, is Marianne Dashwood in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel.

My Take: In a society where women are meant to be seen and not heard, Winslet uses these imposed silences to covey all of Marianne's emotions through her expressive face and body. She doesn't even speak a word in her first scene in the film, but we learn so much about her already (her strained relationship to her sister, her indulgence in melancholy, and her cheeky sense of self-interest). But hardly one to strictly follow the rules of propriety, Winslet's Marianne is certainly not afraid of being heard as well as seen if the moment demands it. Like when she shouts Willoughby's name across a crowded dance floor (scandal!) or schools Edward in the proper way to "feel despair" in a poetry reading. Winslet indulges every passionate impulse that defines Marianne's romanticism, which is all the more heart-breaking when that openness forces her to gain newfound maturity. But it's in those later scenes that Winslet brings a greater depth and understanding to the character, allowing the change to not crush our heroine's spirits but make her cautiously optimistic when it comes to matters of the heart. 

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In a surprise to absolutely no one, Kate Winslet still remains my winner with Mare Winningham giving an impressive showing. I'm most surprised about how much Mira Sorvino just doesn't work for me seeing the film 20 years later. I remember at the time thinking that she was very funny in the role and even if I didn't want her to win, I could see how she did. Now I'm just confused as to how she had such an easy road to victory. Maybe because she hasn't really done anything of note since. Or maybe I'm just bitter that I had to buy a DVD copy of Mighty Aphrodite just to re-watch it. Certainly not a good sign for an Oscar-winning role only 20 years old...Be sure to head on over to The Film Experience to read everyone else's take on this year and tell me all about how much you love Kate Winslet in this role in the comments!  

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1948: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress 
Smackdown. It is the brainchild of practicing actressexual Stinkylulu who hosted many a Smackdown over the years at his on site before finding its new home at TFE. (If you haven't read the previous years' debates, cancel your plans for a week and get lost in the actress-loving splendor here.) The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a selected panel of pundits (which changes each month) re-examinze all 5 nominees with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good they find the performance. With some distance, it's a way to see who the actual winner should've been that year. The year chosen for June was 1948. But most importantly, reader's write-in ballots are the final voters on the panel, helping determine the ultimate fate of the lucky actress named the victor. Below are my own thoughts on the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year. Prior to this month's Smackdown, I had never seen the four movies which garnered nominations for these actresses. So I was going into this with no pre-conceived ideas of who should win nor really knowing what to expect. While I did find myself a little underwhelmed by the category this year, I still enjoyed correcting this oversight in my Oscar knowledge. Of the nominated films, I would recommend Johnny Belinda, which won Jane Wyman the Best Actress Oscar. Tackling a subject matter once considered taboo by the censors, I was surprised by its frankness and Wyman, playing a young deaf-mute, is more than deserving of her win. But without further ado, let's take a look at Barbara Bel Geddes, Ellen Corby, Agnes Moorehead, Jean Simmons, and the Academy's pick for Best Supporting Actress of 1948, Claire Trevor:

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Barbara Bel Geddes I Remember Mama

The Role: In only her second film, Bel Geddes was nominated for playing aspiring-writer and rememberer of Mama, Katrin Hanson, the oldest daughter in a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Fransisco.

My Take: As the narrator of this nostalgic trip down memory lane, Bel Geddes, although appearing in almost every scene of the film, seems so much an observer that you hardly remember she's even on screen. Blonde, bland, and boring, the film appears to have used all its efforts to make Irene Dunn's saintly Mama the only character worth caring about that it forgot to include any personality traits for Bel Geddes' Katrin. And the actress seems content to play her as written. More like a fly on the wall than an actual person, Bel Geddes brings no sense of who this girl is and even her closing act wish to become a writer seems like a convenient device to frame the narrative. In a film thats sole existence is based on fond remembrances, it's a shame that Bel Geddes remains so forgettable. 

Ellen Corby I Remember Mama

The Role: Before earning 2 Emmys for playing Grandma Walton, Corby scored her sole Oscar nomination for portraying Aunt Trina, the put-upon youngest sister of Irene Dunne's Mama that just wants to get married to the love of her undertaker named Thorkelson.

My Take: With a nervous flutter, Corby's Aunt Trina enters the film with a determination to wake it up from its dreamy haze. And while Corby brings some much needed new energy and welcome light-heartedness to the somber proceedings, her ditzy slapstick seems to have wandered in from another film (perhaps entering from that door that she comically walks into) and her urgency in getting married is resolved almost as quickly as it's brought up. But there's no denying that Corby is sweetly charming and her persistent tenacity allows the meek and mousy character moments of gumption that allow you to admire her ability in actually standing up for herself. But the film is as bullying as her two objecting older sisters, pushing her aside to make room for Mama. If only she had been able allowed to share a few more moments with us. 

Agnes Moorehead Johnny Belinda

The Role: Her third of an eventual 4 Best Supporting Actress nominations (without a win), Moorehead plays the spinster aunt, Aggie MacDonald, to the film's heroine Belinda (Jane Wyman) as they try to survive on their farm in rural Nova Scotia. 

My Take: Moorehead, with her no-nonsense style of acting, is always a welcome and dependable presence in any film. But for her first few scenes, her toughened character quickly becomes in danger of becoming one-note. And her hard-nosed aunt role hardly seems like a challenge for an actress that makes even the smallest supporting part worth watching. But in the scene where the doctor confides in her about Belinda's condition, Moorehead lets Aggie's hardness give way to familial compassion. She expresses such heartfelt concern, that you can feel how years of neglecting her niece and taking her for granted have caught up with her emotionally and Moorehead plays the scene as if a weight has been lifted from her heart. Finally allowing her to show a softer side, without completely losing the toughness that has defined her. ♥♥♥

Jean Simmons Hamlet

The Role: Soft you now, the fair Ophelia. Shakespeare's wronged lover that goes a bit mad. She would give you some violets, but they withered all when her father died. Stabbed through by her boyfriend. Tough break.

My Take: From the bizarre Swiss Miss girl braids to the vacant look in her eyes, there's an immediate feeling that something's off about Simmons' Ophelia. And I'm not talking about her eventual descent into madness (which in Olivier's version seems to only exist because it's in the plot, with Simmons doing nothing to justify her character's fate). In a shrill voice that keeps modulating in strange patterns, I'm completely convinced that Simmons had no idea what any of the words are that she's saying. In her early scenes, one minute she seems to strike poses as if she's competing on Shakespeare's Next Top Model, without a thought in her head. Then she'll randomly flail a limb as if she's been directed to do so without any action behind it. And if Olivier was so set against Vivien Leigh playing the role (thinking her fame would upstage the role), then why did he cast an actress that looks so much like her? Taunting us with what could have been. 

Claire Trevor Key Largo

The Role: Oscar winner Trevor plays Gaye Dawn in this Bogie and Bacall Florida-set crime thriller. 

My Take: The cynical yet vulnerable gangster's moll is a well-worn noir trope in a genre that thrives on stock characters. And Trevor's boozy lounge singer with the name of a drag queen (and giving the kind of performance that could find its way into one of their acts) is just the sort of awards-bait role that garners attention, winning the eventual Oscar with a single scene. Forced to sing for her liquor, Trevor's soulful a cappella version of "Moanin' Low" is an emotional showcase. And the actress pours her heart out, conveying the helplessness and desperation of her character through her raw and imperfect vocals. I only wish Trevor had allowed herself the same authenticity within her other scenes. Uneven and at times so outright bad that I couldn't decide if it was Trevor the actress not delivering or a conscious choice since the character is a washed-up performer, it's a flawed but fascinating performance, much like the character herself. ♥♥♥
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The Academy handed the award to Claire Trevor and her drunken antics and of these five nominees, I'm going to have to agree with that decision. Ranking the 5 woman from best to worst: Trevor, Moorehouse, Corby, Simmons, and Bel Geddes. (I'm giving the edge to Simmons over Bel Geddes in a fight for the bottom spot. Even though I didn't care for either performance, at least Simmons is giving me something.) Be sure to read how it all went down over at The Film Experience. And share your own thoughts about these 5 ladies below. Or just express it through a mournful song...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Best Supporting Actress Smackdown 1979: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress Smackdown. It was originally started by Stinkylulu at their website and I strongly encourage you to visit past years there. The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a selected panel re-examinzes all 5 nominees with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good the performance is. Also for that month, there are even articles based on other films that year to give the nominated films context. May was 1979. I personally contributed a post looking at that year: Bette Midler's Best Actress nominated film debut in The Rose. There's also a reader's write-in ballot for the Smackdown that is taken into consideration for the eventual outcome. Below is my ballot of the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1979. I almost feel bad for the other ladies going up against the inevitable winner, Meryl Streep, because not only is it one of her best performance in a career packed with memorable turns, but her character is far and away the best written and developed. Let's take a look:

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Jane Alexander Kramer Vs. Kramer

The Role: Alexander plays Margaret Phelps, the Kramer's neighbor that has previously been through a divorce and the support system for Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer

My Take: At a time when people quote the divorce rate at 50% (everyone knows someone who's divorced), it's almost quaint now to think about how this film was tackling a subject that hadn't been really discussed before. And while the story might center on Kramer Vs. Kramer, it's Alexander's single divorced mother that becomes the face of the issue. Talking honestly about how she feels, stating that she'll never remarry, and confessing that taking the vow "till death do us part" means something, Alexander's "liberated" woman feels just as alone in her new life as she did in her marriage. She's the person Hoffman's character can talk openly about how he's feeling and what Alexander does beautifully in all her scenes with him is actively listen. With a lesser actress, the role could very easily feel like a stock friend or a stand-in for the film's topics, but Alexander manages to make Margaret feel like a woman that has a life outside of the film's narrative, making her feel like a real person.  ♥♥♥

Barbara Barrie Breaking Away

The Role: Billed as "Mom", veteran actress Barrie plays Evelyn Stoller the mother of a young man in Indiana that dreams of bigger things as a competitive cyclist.

My Take: Sometimes the goodwill for a Best Picture nominee in a crowd-pleasing film allows actors to ride the momentum and score nominations. Such is the case for Barrie, a perfectly lovely actress that is given next to nothing to do in this film. In the Academy's wheelhouse of Supporting Actress types, Barrie's supportive mother is all heart and motherly encouragement to her Italian-loving cyclist son. Barrie brings an easy warmth to her scenes with Dennis Christopher as her son. And delivers her lines in that off-handed actressy way meant to convey natural realism, but always kinda seems too calculated in its execution to ever feel completely genuine. Especially her "business" with her passport in the only scene close to allowing us any insight to her character's life. But the film isn't really interested in allowing her to be anything other than mother and wife, unwavering in her devotion. 

Candice Bergen Starting Over

The Role: Jessica Potter, an aspiring singer/songwriter recently separated from her husband (Burt Reynolds).

My Take: Anyone that grew up with Bergen as Murphy Brown knows that she has a gift for comedy (with 5 Emmys for the role to prove it). But at the time Bergen scored her sole Oscar nomination for this romantic comedy, she had been known mostly for dramatic roles. It seems the Academy wanted to reward her for showing versatility, but in this strained performance Bergen still seems to be trying to find her comedic rhythm without succeeding as hard as she's trying. And boy is she trying. It doesn't help that her character is written as a clueless basket case with absolutely no self-awareness. And Bergen, with her air of sophistication and intelligence, is too smart an actress to believably play such an oblivious woman. Particularly in the scenes where she talks about her budding music career. Bergen, the actress, knows how bad a singer she is and seems to be silently laughing at the ridiculousness of Jessica's delusional aspirations. The role calls for light and ditzy. But Bergen plays everything unnecessarily serious and her comedic skills set tends to play better with witty and dry banter. 

Mariel Hemingway Manhattan

The Role: The young actress plays the 17-year-old lover to Woody Allen's 42-year-old television writer, Isaac Davis.

My Take: The character of Tracy, as written, is supposed to convey to the audience how sophisticated for her age she is and how, unlike the supposed adults of the film, she has it all figured out. (And in case you didn't get it, Woody actually says as much at the end of the film.) But nothing about Hemingway, with her baby doll voice and wide-eyed innocence never feels like she's more than the child she is. When she speaks about things like sex and love, she's just reciting lines without any weight, history, or subtext to make it seem believable. She's the weak link in a great movie and seems to have scored a nomination on the strength of the film surrounding her. Her nod more a celebration of her her youth and beauty than for any skill as an actress. 

Meryl Streep Kramer Vs. Kramer

The Role: The second of back-to-back supporting actress nominations (out of a career total of 19 acting nominations and counting), Streep won for playing Joanna Kramer, a mother and wife unhappy in her marriage, seeking a divorce.

My Take: Streep has become synonymous with acting greatness with nearly every performance she creates nominated for an Oscar (whether it deserves to be or not) that it can be easy to take her for granted. But even in her early work the craft and brilliance are there - fully formed, waiting for the world to catch-up. In the past, Streep has been criticized for relying too heavily on craft and technique, finding a character through accent work, vocal change, and wardrobe. But stripped of any artifice, as she is in this film, playing just a regular, everyday woman, she skillfully manages to plunge the depths of Joanna's conflicting emotions while making the actions of what could be seen as an unsympathetic character understandable. Haunting, troubled, and completely compelling, Streep often steals scenes with nothing more than quietness and the pained look in her eyes. The Academy doesn't always recognize genius immediately, but with this performance they completely got it right. ♥♥♥

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Just like the Academy, I couldn't resist Streep's performance. A worthy winner that blows the competition out of the water. Be sure to read the panel's choice (I think you know who) here!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Moment

There was an intensity to him that made it hard to look away. But not that. Not just that. A sadness. A loneliness. I saw it within him because I recognized it within myself.

I think I'm more alone when I'm with another person in that room for 15 minutes than any other time of the day. Watching as the candles melt down. Wishing I was anywhere but here.

But within that moment when he almost hit me with his taxi, we were looking into each other's souls. The rest of the world drifted away. The sticky summer air clinging to my skin. The awful scent of garbage that penetrated my nostrils after weeks of rotting on the streets. None of it mattered as I lived in that moment. Maybe it's a drippy thing to think. But you ever have an instant connection with someone?

That's what it was.

He followed me with his taxi down the road and I could feel his eyes on me. Did he see what I saw? He must've felt it. Everyday tens upon hundreds upon millions of encounters. People's faces become a blur seeing so many as you walk the overcrowded streets. Until they all melt together into one faceless blob. But his stood out from the crowd. It was that intense look he had. It left me naked. I mean, exposed. It was a strange feeling. Sure, I've been with plenty of guys without my clothes on. I'm not as innocent as I may look. But this was different. It wasn't about sex. Not about that. It just was. And it made me uneasy yet comforted. Is that strange to say? I was comforted by it.  

When I saw him again, I knew it was not an accident. The universe does what it does for a reason.

In the room I played my part like he was one of the others. Their clammy hands pawing at me. That's not what he wanted. He asked if I remembered. Remember when I had gotten into his taxi. Of course. It was universe playing her part again. That was him? Of course it was. It had to have been. I played it cool. How do you tell someone that of course you remember. You remember everything. Everything in your being was telling you to scram from Sport. From the city. From what it was you had become. To never look back.

He could've saved me then.

Why didn't he? It wasn't time then. We needed that moment. The moment on the street. He must've felt it it too. Had he come to save me now? Was it crazy to think so? But it had to be. It had to. He was my avenging angel in a checkered taxi cab. (Geez, don't be such a weirdo.) But he was there to rescue me. Save me. Maybe that's what he saw within that moment. He saw. It was more than just a moment. Perhaps it was my salvation.

This post is part of Nathaniel's weekly series Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience. We live within Travis Bickle's thoughts in the film "Taxi Driver", I used my Best Shot as inspiration to see the film from within another perspective...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Crawford vs. McCambridge: A Scorching Showdown

Why is it that whenever a film stars more than one woman in it the media always tries to turn the actresses into rivals? It seems almost impossible from them to believe that women would want to support each other, standing in solidarity of their fellow female. Instead they always imagine them having hair-pulling, drink-throwing, eye-scratching cat fights like the only thing to base actual female relationships on is the interactions of The Real Housewives of <insert a place name> (I'm still not convinced all those ladies weren't manufactured in a Dynasty-style warehouse). But juicy stories of on-set rivalries are often greatly exaggerated and actresses usually reiterate their adoration of their cast mates.

And then there's Joan Crawford.

Crawford is perhaps the early model for why this stereotype actually exists in the first place. Her decades-long feud with Bette Davis has become the stuff of legends and fueled further fascination when the two actresses co-starred with each other (and tormented each other) in 1962's  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (By the way, we need a Mommie Dearest-style film about all that, like, yesterday.) And after we witnessed last week's unhinged interpretation of the actress played to the hilt by Faye Dunaway (making rivalries not just an on-set activity, while vying for attention with her own daughter), this week Nathaniel at The Film Experience had us look at the real thing in the subversive western Johnny Guitar. Despite being named for the bland Benedict Cumberbatch-looking Sterling Hayden's titular character, the manly genre is given a much-needed feminine make-over. The showdown typically engaged in by two macho men in cowboy hats, is instead played out between Crawford and Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge. And to the surprise of no one, the two just didn't get along on set.

Apparently the dispute began because Joan had once dated McCambridge's husband at the time. Crawford also didn't like how director Nicholas Ray seemed to give praise to McCambridge. And one night, Joan took her co-star's costumes (and her actual clothing) and scattered them along the highway. Both women were very much under the influence of alcohol at the time (although you can't really tell in their performances). McCambridge later described Crawford as "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady". (Which I have now made my life's goal to use this description regarding someone.) But Crawford took the high road in regards to McCambridge saying "I have four children - I do not need a fifth." (Huh, maybe old Joan liked her after all. Considering she wouldn't treat McCambridge the same way she did little Christina...)

Before we get to my choice for Best Shot and since these ladies were at odds both onscreen and off, let's just break down what each of them has in their favor and see who will come out victorious in a little friendly battle.

In this corner, we have our first contender.:

Joan Crawford as saloon owner Vienna

  • Named after a European capital
  • A business owner
  • played by a Best Actress Oscar winner
  • In favor of change. That railroad is coming whether they like it or not - get on board!
  • Skilled piano player
  • Unsullied - Spends a good deal of time in the red dirt while wearing an all white dress (complete with white stockings and shoes) and miraculously somehow avoids any stains or spots at all. 
  • Knows the power of an effective soft focus no matter how distracting it is that no one else is allowed one in their own shot within the same scene
  • Good lighting is key. Had all of her "outdoor" close-up shots redone in a studio so that the light could be controlled. 
  • When in doubt - change your costume. (Has at least three costume changes in the last half hour alone.) 
  • Lucky enough to make any outfit work. Although it's a little suspicious that the clothes of a teenage boy named Turkey included a bright yellow blouse with shoulder pads and high-waisted mom jeans
  • She's a straight shooter
And taking her on:

Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small, local shit-stirrer 

  • Loving sister. (Sorry about your brother...)
  • Is possibly a repressed lesbian. Sorry, Small, no one is buying that crush you supposedly have on the Dancin' Kid
  • Played by a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner
  • Take charge kinda gal. Pretty much bullies an entire group of men to do what she says
  • Can really hold a grudge (I'm still not entirely sure why she dislikes Vienna so much)
  • Does her own stunts. Well, willing to fall off buildings and be filmed in the actual outdoors
  • Is possibly a pyromaniac...which, speaking of, it looks like this battle just got a little heated as McCambridge literally sets the competition on fire and blazes in with my Best Shot:

Imagining herself to be the Phantom of the Opera, Emma destroy's Vienna chandelier by shooting it down and setting fire to Vienna's business. It's such an over the top gesture that really rubs her victory in Vienna's face. As if having her rival be dragged out and hanged wasn't enough, Emma's gotta be all small about it and make sure that everything is destroyed. And she is really feeling herself. She slowly backs up and raises her arms as if she's conjuring evil spirits to come and unsex her there. As she rushes out of the burning building she becomes almost orgasmic in her delight. I kept waiting for a witch's cackling to come out. But her power is in this element of fire, feeding the flames of hate. How fitting for an actress that would later go on to provide the voice of the Prince of Darkness in The Exorcist, Beelzebub himself.

Sorry, Joan. McCambridge brought out the big guns. You're gonna have to do a lot better than that tiny flame.

Come on, now don't make that face! To be fair, we'll let everyone else decide:

Who Would Win in a Battle?

Joan Crawford0%
Mercedes McCambridge0%

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I've Written a Letter to Mommie

April 1, 2015

Dearest Miss Crawford Ms. Dunaway,

I've never really sent one of these before and although I do follow you on twitter  (by the way, no tweets since August? Come back to us, Faye...) I felt that an old-fashioned fan letter (I've also enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope so you can send an autographed headshot) is just the sort of gesture reminiscence of Classic Hollywood that you would appreciate. Or maybe I'm just equating you too much with another star that you have become almost synonymous with ever since you sunk your deliciously sharpened talons into her. I'm of course referring to your infamous role as Oscar winner Joan Crawford in 1981's Mommie Dearest. You disappear so completely into the role, that it is hard to remember where she ends and you as an actress begin. And although I feel that you're more inclined to believe your work in such films as Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, and Network are more deserving of accolades (and you're amazing in those as well), there's just something about your performance as Miss Crawford that is truly something to behold.

To say that it was not appreciated for what it was at the time it was released is an understatement. Winning the Razzie for Worst Actress of the year and receiving reviews like this one in Variety, "Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." couldn't have helped your ego. And I've heard that you were crushed after the film's reception turned you into an instant camp classic, honestly believing that you would receive your 4th Oscar nomination for your performance. I bring all this up not to make you feel bad, but to assure that they were all fools! You were right - you should've been nominated for an Oscar for this. (Easily over Katharine Hepburn's much more embarrassing performance in On Golden Pond.) And I've heard that you've said that you wish director Frank Perry had had the foresight to reign you in more. I think I speak for all of us when I thank him for not interfering and allowing you to go as crazy-committed as you did. Cinema needs more of what you were doing as Crawford. Would you deny us this face:

I think the two scenes that immediately come to mind when people think of your work in the film are two of the most quoted and imitated (certainly by decades of drag queens), but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say - and for good reason. The first, after being dropped from Warner Bros for being box office poison and taking it out on the defenseless rose bushes, all while decked out in sequins and chiffon ("Tiiiiinnnnaaaa!!! Bring. Me. The. AXE!!!"). It's the first time that we actually become afraid of what Joan is capable of. When she bellows for that weapon, there's real fear that she's not gonna stop using it once the branches have been taken down. There's an electricity in the unknown, just where you'll go with Joan's meltdown. But it's all just a warm-up for the mother of all breakdowns. I dare anyone that sees a wire hanger not to shout that line that you made infamous. The ferocity and stamina you have in sustaining that scene - from the first glimpse at the hanger in question to the physically violent wrestling match on the bathroom floor covered in Ajax - is epic. It's exhausted just watching you throw yourself so fully into it. It's particularly awe-inspiring to see an actress relinquish all thoughts of vanity and care to create such a monstrous, monumental creation. It is truly the stuff of legends.

But if I'm picking a single best shot from the film - which, incidentally, I actually am. Since my friend Nathaniel from the blog The Film Experience (Faye, as a celebrated actress you owe it to yourself to read the site) has tasked us with that very assignment. In other words, Hit Me With Your Best Shot. (And I don't mean what you throw across Christina's petulant face...) It happens far earlier than either of those previously mentioned scenes, before Joan even becomes a mother. (Which I think we all can agree was one of her worst ideas.) It touches on what makes a legend and shows that stars, like the kind Joan Crawford was and you still are, Miss Dunaway, are most decidedly not like us. And that's why we love them.

After we begin the film with Joan's extensive and masochistic beauty regimen and then see her obsession with making her home spotless (move the damn plant when you mop!), naturally the best place for her to seduce a man is in a three-headed, pristine, pink shower while still fully made up in complete hair and make-up. This is how a star showers. It just makes total sense that this is what Joan would find sexy because it's a perfect marriage of all that she lives for and aspires to: Glamour and cleanliness. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness. And Miss Dunaway as Joan Crawford, you are certainly a goddess. 

Joan Crawford was quoted as saying you were the only actress at the time that had what it took to be a real star. And it's been said that you felt that the spirit of Joan Crawford possessed you while filming. It seems that both of you had a mutual admiration and understanding of the other.  Which is apparent in this performance. So I just want to thank you for your work in Mommie Dearest because I am one of your fans. 

                                                                                All my very best,