Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Women of 1975: Marilyn Hassett

Marilyn Hassett in “The Other Side of the Mountain”

Grade: ***

1975’s equivalent of “The Blind Side,” “The Other Side of the Mountain” was the film with the six-figure budget which produced over $35m at the U.S. box office ($140m+ in today’s climate), giving a leg-up to the already baity Marilyn Hassett in its principal role. The story of Jill Kinmont, a world-class skier paralysed in an accident, the film is incredibly dated, positively oozing with fromage, but nevertheless exhibits the biopic hallmarks associated with nominated films and performers. The cheap production values of this tearjerking venture perhaps crippled (if you excuse the term) the credibility of Hassett, whose own reviews were far more handsome than that of the film itself, leading to the sort of scepticism which led Vincent Canby of the New York Times to advise, “Load up on handkerchiefs and leave your wits at home.” Despite the derision, it didn't prevent the paper from proclaiming Hassett the frontrunner for the Oscar.

From a film in which we’re supposed to find a woman picking up a potato chip emotionally wrenching, Hassett predictably can’t allay the heavy-handedness of the script or direction, but her natural presence certainly helps to strengthen the emotional centre of this overtly tragic tale. She engenders herself to the audience through an ease of compassion towards others (even as she is often the figure most deserving of it), and furrows identification without feeling too much of a victimised pawn of the proceedings. When Jill loses physical capabilities, Hassett presents her mental strength as a façade without suggesting this woman is broken. She’s insecure and uncertain at pursuing career and romance goals post-accident, but in possession of the inclination to confront them, rather than retreat or hide. 

While it's easy to scoff at everything "The Other Side of the Mountain" has to offer, Hassett’s is a far more nuanced performance than you’d expect from such a staunchly biographical drama, limited in gears but, at its heart, well devised.

Accolades: Golden Globe Nomination (Best Actress in a Leading Role - Drama)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Women of 1975: Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue”

Written on the 37th anniversary of the film's theatrical release!

Grade: ** 

Without being so curt as to suggest the “change” was responsible for Anne Bancroft’s acting choices in her later career, there was a distinct period in the 70s where – whether artistic, hormonal, or otherwise – Bancroft made the transition from a sultry crowd-pleaser to a wiry nag. Having thrived upon the rarity of a sexualised ‘older’ woman role like Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft’s work in the following decade rested upon turns such as her bitter, ageing harridan in Herbert Ross’ “The Turning Point,” and as Edna Edison in 1975’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” 1975 was a significant year for Bancroft; she received a BAFTA nomination for the Neil Simon-penned Prisoner,  and was also starring in “The Hindenburg,” the year’s big Christmas blockbuster about the disaster of the same name.

If forty-eight – the age at which Edna’s husband Mel (Jack Lemmon) makes the descension from a working professional into a mental basket case – is the point in life where a man starts exhibiting signs of Pernickety Old Codger Syndrome, then someone please shoot me at forty-seven. I recently remarked upon Neil Simon’s uncanny habit of writing both winners and turkeys, as his penchant for layered characterisation and witty dialogue is frequently countered by laborious storytelling and neurotic drivel. The case leans decidedly towards the latter here, as his geriatric script leaves Bancroft to buffer Lemmon’s interminable complaints with perplexed frustration for the first half of the film, and doesn’t require her to do anything else until it’s rendered Mel doolally, as well as annoying. With a vague arc to work with, Bancroft offers a welcome, alternate brand of disillusioned Manhattanite from the masculine inadequacy of her other half, keenly interpreting Edna’s foolishly hopeful outlook on city life as a product of renewed independence rather than an enforced enthusiasm designed to prop up her Mr. Edison. But what to do with a half-rotten apple of a script? She does about as much as most would: reacts uneasily, gamely has a chomp, and then casually tosses it away.

Accolades: BAFTA Nomination (Best Actress in a Leading Role)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Women of 1975: Marthe Keller

Marthe Keller in “And Now, My Love”

Grade: ****

A vaguely-plotted, two-and-half-hour black and white film, Claude Lelouch’s “And Now, My Love” clearly had an ardent fanbase in 1975, a year championed by many as a standout for cinema. Not only did the Los Angeles film critics single it out as the Best Foreign Language film of its year, the Academy itself surprisingly recognised it in the Original Screenplay category, alongside such powerhouses as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Shampoo,” and “Amarcord.” Having gotten Anouk Aimee a Best Actress nomination in 1966 for “A Man and a Woman,” Lelouch may have been regarded as the Bryan Forbes or James L. Brooks of the period, inevitably leading to cries of ‘Oscar nomination!’ for the film’s principal performer and stunning beauty Marthe Keller.

The reality is that, in its sheer audacity as a century-spanning, philosophising cloudbuster of a film, “And Now, My Love” doesn’t showcase Keller in the way that potential Best Actress nominees often need to be, picking up and dropping actors in order to declare its ideas, coherent somewhere down the line but otherwise ethereal and restless. It’s a wonder that her performance marries so well with the artful concerns of Lelouch’s Godardian exploration of political and existential woe, her character Sarah (the third generation of a three-pronged role for Keller) fickle in matters of love and battle, cascading through emotional octaves with erratic, naturalistic impulse.

Amidst the historical commentary Keller focalises Sarah’s struggle to maintain a sense of challenge in her life, momentarily grounding the meta aspects in her playful, enigmatic flirtations and pouty ignorance. She manipulates the ambivalence of the character to contradictarily suggest that she needs attention from Lelouch and the audience, and he handily cuts away from conventional narration when she becomes unbearably idealistic. Keller’s is a curious performance, but one that thoroughly works for “And Now, My Love,” astoundingly correlative to the film’s social odyssey, and a wispy wonder of actressing at its freshest and boldest.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Women of 1975: Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli in “Lucky Lady”

Written on the occasion of Liza Minnelli's 66th birthday!

Grade: **

The real miracle behind Golden Globe-nominated musical “Lucky Lady” is that 20th Century Fox managed to convince Oscar-winning actors Minnelli and Gene Hackman to star, and legendary director Stanley Donen to direct. A bizarre amalgam of a musical ménage-a-trois and a seaboard action adventure, this shamelessly marketable piece of dross also enlisted the talents of Burt Reynolds to complete the trio of rum-running mavericks, who engage in booze-fuelled orgies and high-speed chases in prohibition-era Mexico. A leading lady in another musical, Minnelli is a performer I find it easy to succumb to idolatry with. Whether effervescently youthful in “The Sterile Cuckoo,” a wondrous entertainer in “Cabaret,” or simply wrenching in “New York, New York,” she is able to colour her persona to incorporate the insecurities of her characters, immensely watchable as a physical performer and yet rich beneath the surface, too.

The character of Emma in “Lucky Lady” is a conceited, reckless heroine, which Minnelli conveys through early admonishment of both men. Her greed is evident through faithless femme-fatale like scepticism, and you often sense that Emma is one temper away from going her own way completely. Is she simply a ruthless smash-and-grab merchant or is this a sinister form of self-preservation? The jury’s out. Minnelli may bring a reliably strong presence to Emma, but in doing so retreads the familiar Sally Bowles position of being in the middle of a 3-way relationship, in a film with a completely different tone to “Cabaret” and Bowles, whose motivations lie in impulse and hedonism. It’s difficult to approach “Lucky Lady” and Emma in the same vein, since the devotion to plot-based elements such as the action set-pieces, at the expense of exploring the emotional ambiguities within the three-way relationship, limit the conclusions that we can generate from her actions. There aren’t the scenes here to give Minnelli the flavour of opportunism that courses through her wilful character, but she wrestles with it anyway, to mixed, scene-stealing results.

Accolades: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress in a Leading Role - Musical or Comedy)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Women of 1975: Stockard Channing

Stockard Channing in “The Fortune” 


As an heiress duped by A-list money-hungry fellas Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing’s Oscar buzz surely stemmed from the novelty of her “Introducing” tag. This was her debut performance on film (in a Mike Nichols film no less) and so those ‘next big thing’ notices clearly got people talking about her chances at a nomination in a fractured year. Evidently regarded as not quite ready for the big time in 1975, it’s possible that she was undone by the film’s spring release, or simply that –as we’ve learned—AMPAS don’t always warm to performers in the way that you expect them to. It took Channing another eighteen years after this performance to grab that elusive nomination, in an adaptation of John Guare’s stage play, “Six Degrees of Separation.” 

A passive object of affection and an eventual target for murder, Channing’s Freddie begins as a foolish young woman lured into adulthood, and genuinely excited by the prospect of a world away from her stuffy roots. The early nature of Freddie requires the actress to be goofy and naive in interaction with the two boys,  and her distant, understated degree of passion allays the character's prioritisation of liberation over love. Once those early scenes subside the script feels so unconcerned with Freddie, limiting her to bouts of frustration and muted drunken stupors, and in the only instances afforded to Channing as a platform for her comic chops she ends up coming off as an intensely dislikeable shrew. "The Fortune" evolves into the kind of sprawling crime caper that the Coens would have fun remaking, but Channing's performance suffers when the focus is blurred. This is an Actress I’m generally fond of, but it isn’t difficult to surmise why this particular, heavily-campaigned performer may have tested the patience of Academy members a little too much.

Accolades: Golden Globe Nomination (Debut Performance by an Actress)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Women of 1975: Diana Ross

Diana Ross in “Mahogany”

Grade: ***

Already an icon of vinyl and screen, Oscar-nominated success Diana Ross migrated from “Lady Sings the Blues” to another story of a troubled woman in a high-profile profession. Berry Gordy cast her in “Mahogany,” a tale of an aspiring fashion designer who gets entrenched in the world of Italian models and temperamental photographers. The film proved a hit for Ross, but the critics didn’t buy it, unsurprising given that the film plays out as a 70s-era soapy melodrama, and has more parallels to Christina Aguilera’s “Burlesque” than just the pop-star-plays-aspirational-protégé premise.

Ross herself is good in the scenes where the film attempts to emulate the vastly superior “Claudine” from the previous year, geared towards Black social commentary and eventually intent on blaming the world of white fashionistas for turning our heroine into a selfish diva. She often sidesteps the badly-written elements of her character designed to inject dramatic effect into a film without legitimately interesting issues of conflict, and is far better than "Mahogany" itself deserves, deploying Tracy’s inherent independence as both a source of charm and a jarring defence mechanism, lending credence to her character’s many erratic eruptions of frustration and self-righteousness. While not a classic tour-de-force, if you’re looking for performances which significantly benefit their film, look no further than Ross, who, on this display, warranted a lengthier filmography than the one she has now.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Women of 1975: Commencement

In 1975 there were many talking points in the world of film: Susan Hayward and Fredric March both passed away; Charlie Chaplin was knighted by the Queen, and Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” became the highest-grossing film of all time. In terms of Oscar, commentators were enamoured with the Academy’s Best Picture lineup, which, as well as encompassing Spielberg’s film, comprised of “Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Nashville,” and eventual winner “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

While many regard this lineup as a benchmark for the category, few people seem to feel that way about the five women nominated for Best Actress. A New York Times article from February 1976 perhaps best articulates the discontent felt in quarters, highlighting the dearth of Best Actress contenders from the previous year and listing their many detractors. Titled “Do any of these Best Actress contenders rate an Academy Award?” Judy Klemesrud’s article names twenty women in with a shot of a nomination, ten of whom eventually won a Best Actress Oscar at one time or another.

As most of you have probably gathered, for the past year my quest to see every Oscar nominee in the major six categories has seen the focus shift primarily onto the Best Actress category, and last May I crossed the threshold of one hundred performances left to see. Ten months later, and that figure is now fifty. As part of a celebration of crossing the milestone of fifty Best Actress Nominees left unseen, I’m going to write a profile on each 1975 Best Actress contender recognised by the Times, culminating in a review of the eventual nominees, two of which – Glenda Jackson and Ann-Margret – I have yet to encounter. The other contenders for the Oscar were Isabelle Adjani, Carol Kane, and the anointed Louise Fletcher.

If you haven’t seen the article (as far as I know, it's only available through subscribing to the New York Times website) then I’m going to keep the contenders a surprise until the profiles are posted. Get ready for the women of 1975!

If you’re interested, these are the remaining Best Actress nominees I have left to see: 

1. Ruth Chatterton, “Madame X” (1928-29)
2. Betty Compson, “The Barker” (1928-29)
3. Corinne Griffith, “The Divine Lady” (1928-29)
4. Greta Garbo, Romance” (1929-30)
5. Norma Shearer, “Their Own Desire” (1929-30)
6. *Helen Hayes, “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” (1931-32)
7. Marie Dressler, “Emma” (1931-32)
8. Lynn Fontanne, “The Guardsman” (1931-32)
9. Elisabeth Bergner, “Escape Me Never” (1935)
10. Irene Dunne, “Theodora Goes Wild” (1936)
11. *Luise Rainer, “The Good Earth” (1937)
12. Barbara Stanwyck, “Stella Dallas” (1937)
13. Margaret Sullavan, “Three Comrades” (1938)
14. Olivia De Havilland, “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941)
15. Katharine Hepburn, “Woman of the Year” (1942)
16. Joan Fontaine, “The Constant Nymph” (1943)
17. Greer Garson, “The Valley of Decision” (1945)
18. Rosalind Russell, “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1947)
19. Ingrid Bergman, “Joan of Arc” (1948)
20. Deborah Kerr, “Edward, My Son” (1949)
21. Jane Wyman, “The Blue Veil” (1951)
22. Julie Harris, “The Member of the Wedding” (1952)
23. Leslie Caron, “Lili” (1953)
24. *Anna Magnani, “The Rose Tattoo” (1955)
25. Carroll Baker, “Baby Doll” (1956)
26. Elizabeth Taylor, “Raintree County” (1957)
27. Rachel Roberts, “This Sporting Life” (1963)
28. Sophia Loren, “Marriage, Italian Style” (1964)
29. Elizabeth Hartman, “A Patch of Blue” (1965)
30. Anouk Aimee, “A Man and a Woman” (1966)
31. Patricia Neal, “The Subject Was Roses” (1968)
32. Vanessa Redgrave, “Isadora” (1968)
33. Genevieve Bujold, “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969)
34. Diana Ross, “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972)
35. Marsha Mason, “Cinderella Liberty” (1973)
36. Ann-Margret, “Tommy” (1975)
37. Glenda Jackson, “Hedda” (1975)
38. Liv Ullmann, “Face to Face” (1976)
39. Geraldine Page, “Interiors” (1978)
40. Ellen Burstyn, “Resurrection” (1980)
41. Jane Fonda, “The Morning After” (1986)
42. Meryl Streep, “Ironweed” (1987)
43. Isabelle Adjani, “Camille Claudel” (1989)
44. Joanne Woodward, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990)
45. Bette Midler, “For the Boys” (1991)
46. *Emma Thompson, “Howard’s End” (1992)
47. Mary McDonnell, “Passion Fish” (1992)
48. Miranda Richardson, “Tom and Viv” (1994)
49. Emily Watson, “Breaking the Waves” (1996)
50. Julie Christie, “Afterglow” (1997)