Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oscar In Retrospect: Actress in a Leading Role, 1958


Even as I set about writing this delve into a half-century ago I think that it's perhaps a mistake to specify this as an 'Actress in a Leading Role' post. While it's often difficult to get excited about the films that get their women nominated for this, my favourite of Oscar's twenty four categories, 1958 was not your uniform year. No Elizabeth: The Golden Age's, Blue Sky's or Chocolat's plague the year's nominees, and only one of these women are playing a biopic-style character. Unsurprisingly, that's Susan Hayward, who went on to take this award after winning both the NYFCC and the Golden Globe for Drama. The scales were surely tipped even more in her favour by the fact she had lost for four nominations in the previous eleven years.

But back to the films: a self-conscious but well-played and very giving adaptation of a famous play, a brazen woman's quest to escape an ill-fated end, a chronicle of the campest childhood one could ever wish for, an epic melodrama about small-town politics and uncertain romance, and a modest, deliciously dry social satire that captures the changing moral attitudes of a new generation deftly. The final film to which I refer is Delbert Mann's Separate Tables, which is by far my favourite of the five, and is poised to emerge later on in my personal canon, so watch out!

On with the 1958 Actressexuality, which will be ordered in terms of preference. If it looks as if I'm bitching about someone a lot, try not to take it to heart. It isn't forgotten that all of these performances (if not perfect) emerge as really important to their films.




Elizabeth Taylor - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Rating: ****

I can certainly see where Montgomery Clift was coming from when he singled out Taylor as the only woman to turn him on. Her posture; graceful, glamourous, but often forward and dangerous, is surely capable of turning a few, and so Paul Newman's Brick (a stud himself) and the utter repellence he has for Taylor's Maggie, is initially difficult to understand or accept. Of course, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a lot up its sleeve with which to besiege us, in the way that really only theatre-born productions can, and it can often feel like a persistent waiter, dishing out information like a ten-course dinner, whether you've exhausted your appetite or not.

But there's an awful lot to take from the film, the titular 'cat' in question being Maggie's middle-nickname, of the sort you're accustomed to seeing attached to turn-of-the-century gangsters, post-war boxers, and modern-day wrestling stars. Maggie's in a tight spot; not least because her husband can't stand the sight of her, but it's somehow fitting to talk of her in the same breath as these bustling physical brutes. She doesn't dropkick Paul Newman off the bedpost, or anything that brutishly severe (although wouldn't that have made for wonderful viewing?), but it's the tenacity she exhibits as a wife that marks her as a real force to be reckoned with, both scared of what lurks beneath her husband's strange behaviour and yet determined to get to the bottom of it.


Maggie's pressing begins with the kind of throwaway nagging that you'd expect of someone that looks like her; middle class, well-brought-up, materialistic. But Taylor soon makes you forget about these first impressions (Jennifer Garner similarly did in last year's Juno), as the film and us quickly lean towards wondering just why the blazes Brick is so damn angry. Unlike Garner's Vanessa though, Maggie's intentions are often selfish, and in the most extreme, confrontational elements of Roof Taylor lets these ingrained, underhand, ambitious (particularly in terms of class and finance) moments slip out of her framed composure and feel like something rather treacherous. That her ambition doesn't temper, even while her husband is drinking himself into a stupor, feels like we we aren't justified in giving her a chance in the first place. But looking back, Maggie never promises anything to anyone, and it soon becomes apparent that she really only flourishes while others are weak and conciliatory. A hesitant leader. Fascinating character work.



Deborah Kerr - Separate Tables

Rating: ****

I keep comparing these women to others, but I just can't help it. Sibyl, the frumpy, inhibited weakling Deborah Kerr plays in Separate Tables is a near clone of Bette Davis' Charlotte Vale in 1942's Now Voyager. Both have dastardly mothers played by Gladys Cooper (can anyone do that role better?!) but where Davis had bigger obstacles to overcome -- her trademark voraciousness in particular -- Kerr, you feel, is a lot less restricted in what she can bring to the role. But Sibyl, even as a woman who finds herself, does so to a lesser extent and in an incredibly compact setting; as well as without the impetus of a passionate, easy love interest such as Paul Henreid. Her Major (David Niven in his deserved Oscar-winning performance) is a lost soul in himself, and together with her stringent mother really ensure Kerr's mousy daughter is well and truly alone.

"B-b-b-b-but mummy" she stutters and stammers on more than one occasion. It's sympathetic but limited, and one wonders, at first, if someone like her, that sheltered and socially awkward, would be as exaggerated, unaware, defensive as she appears to be early on. But such is the brilliant understanding of people (from British stalwarts, to military men, to Americans, to cosmopolitans, to carers, and to the epitome of transatlantic glamour herself, Rita Hayworth) that Sibyl's crust of concession begins to question itself; a cultural enlightenment on a minute, claustrophobic scale. In retrospect it's a touching performance, reaching its height and drama with her shell-shocked reaction to the central event in the film, and her confrontation with David Niven's Major near the end.

A leading performance? I'm not so sure. Such is the nature of Separate Tables that everyone in it feels to be supporting each other and the themes of the film. Nevertheless, Kerr got her place, and personally I wouldn't demote her.



Rosalind Russell - Auntie Mame

Rating: ***

Few films lend their Leading Actress such a valuable amount of screen-time and silly theatrics, but Auntie Mame, as frivolous as it is, needn't purport to be about anything much more than madcap antics, efervescent dresses, and camp behaviour. Two weeks ago, a screening of Travels With My Aunt proved disappointing, the unbearable performance of Maggie Smith (whom I usually thoroughly appreciate by the way) half-channeling Russell's eccentric relative but too conscious of herself and the role that she doesn't really interact with the Actors around her, and is certainly neither as generous nor precious as an Actress. But chiefly, the reason I really wanted to see Travels With My Aunt is Russell's memorable performance in Auntie Mame, which sets a pinnacle for all those eccentric literary Aunts out there. A plea: come out, come out, wherever you are eccentric Aunts. We need you!

The role of Auntie Mame doesn't call for mountain-conquering ability but Russell does all she's asked. You never doubt that her nephew is the most important thing in her life, even as she goes off in tangents where you can't really guage what's motivating her and making her tick. It's interesting to watch Russell evolve in the film from being the whirlwind that enters your life and turns your world upside-down (allbeit a gratuitous one), to a rather tragic leading lady of life. It's of the same ilk as her Gypsy turn, except she doesn't have as much to do here, and the character is only half-heartedly three-dimensional.

I suppose it all depends on what you hold a "Leading Actress" to account for. If you're looking for a driving force Russell is it; if you're looking for a woman that fulfills expectations, she's it and more, but if you're looking for an Actress that can change perceptions of her film, I'm not sure her box is the one to tick on your '58 ballot.


Susan Hayward - I Want To Live!

Rating: ***

For better or worse, Robert Wise's I Want To Live! is a naive piece of Oscar Bait. While modern Leading Actress vehicles are no less upfront in their demands, it's an altogether more insidious, interdependent, media-centric circus that exists now. From the get-go it's fairly obvious where the film's going right up to its conclusion, with a few curve balls and about-turns meandering their way through the dull middle-portion. It's funny that Hayward owes probably as much to her film as any of these other Actresses, since it showcases the pitfalls of being a woman "with attitude" fairly ably itself. Minus the overt comedy, Katharine Hepburn's jailbird shtick in Bringing Up Baby feels almost like Hayward; gutsy, brash, over-powering, ballsy, and a la Hepburn just as likely to annoy, though less with incessance than the fact she's willing to believe that she's worth ten times that of your average con, or indeed your average cop, or crucially, your average man. Hayward's Barbara Graham is on nobody's side, but eminently easy to root for.

Laughing it off at first Hayward is still our charismatic leading lady for way past the halfway-mark, but as the realisation of the consequences of being convicted of this crime (which we're told she didnt commit, even though the real-life Barbara Graham was supposedly guilty) takes its ivy-grip, I Want To Live! turns into something quite harrowing. Her charm fades quickly, just as it's supposed to, but one wonders if this charm (endearing and revealing as it occasionally proves) is one of the few things Hayward is required to turn on and off. She carries your gaze for chunks of the film but nary improves upon what we know or heightens what we feel.



Shirley MaClaine - Some Came Running

Rating:
***

It's only been a week since I watched Some Came Running but I still had to IMDB the film for the name of MaClaine's character, who's called Ginnie. It still doesn't ring that much of a bell, and shouldn't really, since Ginnie lingers in the background of the film for long periods. This is typified by the film's early abandonment of her, introducing Ginnie as the dumb tart that follows Sinatra's Dave to his home town in Indiana, and neglecting her character for a good forty minutes while we figure out the leading man. It proves a good move, both for her and the 137-minute melodrama.

The lasting memory of Some Came Running is the image of Dave and Ginnie marrying, each for essentially different reasons, and their distance as a couple in this moment is all too evident. The two stand committed but far from united, and wholly unsure of what their marriage will mean for their future. It's the part of the film that makes the most sense, anchored by the excellent Sinatra and an assured performance from MaClaine. There isn't an awful lot to her ditzy, impetuous Ginnie, but while we're sometimes encouraged to see her through Dave's eyes, as a tiresome nuisance, it almost feels like she's fighting to vindicate her position in the film and in Dave's life.

It's almost an anti-MaClaine performance in that she doesn't have the intelligence, decision or bite we're treated to in her later creations in Terms of Endearment, Postcards of the Edge etc. but this was very early in her career, and so her naive, child-like affectations and needy, attention-seeking demeanor come across as genuine of the babyface Actress. A girl that needs to clamp on to anything and anyone; funny, loveable, but obvious, blatant and unable to draw the line. I heavily suspect that her nomination is for the eventual fate of her character, but no matter, this is lovely work.

My Ballot

Deborah Kerr - Separate Tables
Kim Novak - Vertigo
Rosalind Russell - Auntie Mame
*Elizabeth Taylor - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof*
Mary Ure - Look Back In Anger

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