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!