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!