Friday, July 22, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Jeanne Crain

Jeanne Crain in “Pinky”
Lost the 1949 Best Actress Oscar to Olivia De Havilland in “The Heiress”

Grade: *

Jeanne Crain’s ivory complexion lends itself to “Pinky” about as well as Neville Chamberlain’s trusting nature lended itself to foreign policy – which is to say that even though bombs don’t fall and millions don’t die, “Pinky” and Crain are – on some level – a sorry tragedy of their own. Even if you can sidestep the cosmetic issues of a pale-faced ‘classic’ actress adopting the role of a Negro woman grappling with the implications of her race, Crain’s approach to Pinky doesn’t afford her much shade between resentment and allegiance.

I’m often excusing performers for the ineptness of their film’s production values – be that direction, script, or otherwise – but the blame here can be placed on Crain as much as it can on anyone else involved. “Pinky” isn’t a good film (it’s probably Kazan’s worst), but she badly gauges the arc of the character and struggles with the film’s insistence on offering degrees and variations on prejudice and discrimination. It’s depending on her to carve something linear and concrete out of the roundabout politics but instead she finds the bitter, wronged defaults in Pinky and rolls with them for most of the way. She’s rigid and standoffish in the way that she sleepwalks through the film, acting within the confines of her own ability and neatly – but blandly - delivering the piteous quips she’s given.

So one-track is Crain’s approach that she fails to strike a bond with any of her fellow actors, and is fatefully unable to generate empathy for the troubled heroine. Pinky’s blooming relationship with neighbour Miss Em, for instance, is supposed to represent a transitory period of enlightenment towards her view on racial relations, but all the work in these scenes is done by the ailing Ethel Barrymore. Crain is a stingy performer here, to the extent where you wonder what Miss Em has seen in Pinky beyond diligence and efficiency to warrant penning a last minute will-rewrite in her honour.  When engaging in conversation with her heritage-loving Grandmother (played by Ethel Waters) and understanding love interest William Lundigan, the same colourless surface of acrimony comes out to play, as Crain consigns Pinky to a fixed position of intellectual superiority and mild disappointment.

It isn’t necessarily a question of being amiable; Crain is attempting to embody a woman difficult to like, who is hostile towards threats to her standing and ungrateful in many aspects of her life. Although she is keen to access the sense of injustice in this girl, the snappish, quicksmart ‘qualities’ in her manner are not suited to distilling the gritty social commentary, and even less inclined to richen the would-be-tense dichotomy of this community. Crain’s reward of an Oscar nomination probably derived from her dual work in this and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “A Letter to Three Wives” the same year, but collectively it really doesn’t amount to much. If 1949 had looked like a pale Best Actress year Crain hasn’t altered that impression, tossing her own strain of tedious inertia onto an already dispiriting roster.

What say you? Was I too harsh on Jeanne Crain's abilities here? Is she merely scuppered by the film's other elements; or is she so at fault that one star reads as generous?  Speak up!

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