Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Barrymore Case

Oscar's Supporting Actress category is a funny one, isn't it? While quabbles and analyses on this topic are better left to the master of said category, two recent blockbuster rentals have collectively compelled me to lodge a few comments regarding a couple of bewildering inclusions on the Academy shortlist, both involving the same woman.

The first of these films is Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, a gothic-style thriller about a serial killer who preys on girls with disabilities. Although there's plenty of dramatic flair about the proceedings the nature of the story (six people in a house seemingly waiting for the threat of death to besiege them) reads as very uninspired. Add to that a frustratingly vague old woman and a romance that stutters but never really starts and that's pretty much that. A film much too reliant upon its thrilling aesthetics.

The other film is Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, which begins with a woman arrested for the murder of her blind husband, and eventually leads to her trial, conducted by lawyer Gregory Peck, who himself is smitten with the alleged murderess. What struck me most about the film is its resounding feminist stance -- a point which I realise is contradictory of Hitchcock's reputation in general, but one that nevertheless is undoubtedly valid. Essentially though, The Paradine Case is very predictable, and, similarly to The Spiral Staircase doesn't really have enough avenues in its narrative borough to sustain interest.

The comparisons between the two are evident. Each of their titles ends in "case", both are forties pictures -- 1945 and 1947 respectively -- and each of them are essentially about murder. But their sole Oscar nominations, both for Supporting Actress Ethel Barrymore, is the comparison I want to discuss.

In Staircase Barrymore is that frustratingly vague old woman to which I earlier referred. As bed-ridden Mrs. Warren she writhes like an elephant on a trampoline for most of the film, pausing only to utter clairvoyant-style comments about the serial killer or death in general and to spit scathing insults at her bemused staff. She plays to her status as a mysterious know-all with uncertainty and quite erratically, to the point where I started to question just why she's in the film at all. This becomes clearer in Staircase's final moments; her role in a dramatic conclusion surely the nomination-winner, even if the scene itself feels like a chilli atop a blancmange.

But for Barrymore's kick-ass moment her nomination would be for very little indeed, but there are no kick-ass moments in her Paradine Case turn, which makes Beatrice Straight's efforts in Network look titanic. As wife of Laughton's grumpy judge, she features in just three scenes (only two of which she speaks), which equates to a meagre four minutes of screen time. Her contribution in these few moments comprises mainly of a scene at the very end, in which she's berated by her husband for showing compassion towards a questionable figure. This, coupled with an earlier scene which marks her as slightly loopy (if totally unrelatable and again, erratic), tars her with the sympathy brush. But the role is such a non-statement, and the performance isn't even memorable in an over-the-top sense, altogether constituting probably the least amount of ability I've seen in an Oscar-nominated performance.

I don't intend to be so mean about Ethel Barrymore. These two performances represent my only view of a very reputable Actress, and certainly a very limited one at that, but as nominated performances they really don't cut the mustard. So how did they make the shortlist? In The Spiral Staircase Barrymore's role has a bit of bait, but not compared to Dorothy McGuire's mute lead role. Despite being lead this could easily have managed a place in the Supp Actress lineup (think Patty Duke's shocking category fraud as a disabled girl in The Miracle Worker), and is backed up by a comic turn from Hermione Baddeley which has got more going for it than Barrymore's stiff upper-lip. The only two explanations I can possibly give for her Paradine nod is that:-
  • A) It was a weak year, and the fact that it ended in "case" reminded them that they'd thought her worthy before.
  • B) That this piece of information (taken from IMDB Trivia) holds the key:-

In Hitchcock's rough cut and 131 minutes version, Ethel Barrymore can be seen as a half-crazed wife of Lord Horfield played by Charles Laughton. But David O. Selznick removed these scenes in the final editing and the final runtime was only 114 minutes.

Does anyone know if the Academy were screened the rough cut of The Paradine Case? Wouldn't this explain why they valued Barrymore's performance and thought it substantial enough to nominate?



goatdog said...

I wonder if it was just a result of Oscar's 1940s obsession with Barrymore--four nominations in five years. It reminds me of Oscar's constant nomination of Judi Dench--six noms in the last 11 years. Although I certainly like Dench better in general, a couple of those noms feel like "oh god Dame Judi is in a movie get me an Oscar ballot!" reactions.

Cal said...

Yeah. I suppose it's difficult to know what the general opinion of Barrymore was at the time. I think a lot of Dench's roles (like Mrs. Henderson, which I did enjoy) play to the English thesp reputation that she has, and so it's almost a leg-up already in awards terms.

Dave said...

I have actually seen both of these films, but I don't really remember them (and certainly don't remember Barrymore in them) so can't really comment. But one of her other nominations (oh, and win, he adds having looked it up)- for None but the Lonely Heart- sticks in my mind. She's not brilliant, but since the rest of the film (including, sadly, my beloved Cary Grant) is so abysmal, her performance looks like a masterful one.

I'd say it had something to do with her being part of the Barrymore dynasty, but the only other one Oscar ever took to was Lionel. She was by far the most successful.

Cal said...

Ah. The dynasty may be a factor. I hadn't thought of that.

You can be forgiven for not remembering either performance. As I've said, she hardly does anything anyway. I'll try and catch None but the Lonely Heart since it managed those Oscar noms. If it's bad as you say I'm gonna be baffled about the Academy's choices once more. I already cannot fathom how the greatest ever comedy actor didn't get a nomination for comedy. Penny Serenade was painful enough.