Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 90 to Go
(Lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette)
Arthur was almost always the best thing in her movies, except when they were as all-around exceptional as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mysteriously, the Academy ignored her sterling, smart, and infectious work in all those Capra vehicles that they rewarded so lavishly in other categories. The More the Merrier earned Arthur, arguably the ablest comedienne in classic Hollywood, her solitary nod. That's a shame, but the performance isn't: the script errs on the thin side, but Arthur's rising and falling inflections and inimitable timing anchor this comedy of human character, and she's a perfect match for George Stevens' sophisticated but unpretentious direction. She also projects a palpable lust for Joel McCrea's Joe Carter, as well as the dismay of a peppy professional who knows she is selling her personal life short with a stuffed shirt like Charles J. Pendergast. Altogether deserving of a prize, either as a career tribute or on this performance's own terms.
Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld)
Precious little works in this movie, a strained and moralizing literary adaptation. Several of the surrounding performances are rock-bottom, the direction is sluggish and unshaped, and the second hour's enormous gaps of time and logic are hustled right through as if nothing is amiss. Still, Gladys George adds an impressively mature, knowing presence in the starring role of a small-town prostitute who is clearly preferable to the gossips and bigots around her, and who is further redeemed by the young orphans she adopts into her care. George has a throaty, suggestive voice reminiscent of Blythe Danner or Kathleen Turner, and she modulates her bearing and even her appearance in concise but articulate ways as the character evolves. She's awfully hemmed in by an increasingly listless screenplay, but apparently the picture was a hit, and based on the strength of her work, you wish she'd gotten more good breaks. (Attentive renters can catch her in The Best Years of Our Lives or as Madame DuBarry in the 1938 Marie Antoinetteor, according to IMDb, in The Maltese Falcon, though I must confess I don't remember her in it. And speaking of IMDb, here's a wild curio: Jean Arthur's birth name was Gladys Georgianna Greene!)
Bette Midler in The Rose (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Sally Field in Norma Rae)
As an actress, Midler shares a certain off-putting quality with Billy Crystal: even when she's working at her best, she seems to demand our approval, almost impolitely; at the same time, she seems to confuse some of her more grating qualities with her better ones, and as she hustles from Big Acting to Big Singing to Big Speeches, she can really exhaust you. Nonetheless, for all of its attention-grabby textures and character concepts, The Rose is a laudably severe depiction of an erratic rock star's reckless immolation. Though you can see very clearly how Midler is building the performancestraining her voice, winning us back with her wide smile, zonking out in her druggie scenesshe has energy and tremendous push, and she keeps a clichéd character breathing for two solid hours. She doesn't try to steal moments from co-stars as good as Alan Bates and Frederic Forrest, and at crucial times, as when she stumbles into a drag revue starring a doppleganger of herself, her goosey verve and relentless drive are exactly what the movie needs, maybe even what the movies need.
Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Bette Davis in Dangerous)
What use was Merle Oberon, really? Her face has a hard, flat quality onscreen that seems to repel the audience's identification, and she seems insufficiently open to the actors around her. She's a disastrously unappealing Cathy in William Wyler's overrated Wuthering Heights, and even in films where she ekes out some passable momentsas in Wyler's These Three, or in this hoary melodrama about war's disruption of romantic destiniesI always feel like many other actresses could do just as well, maybe better. I'll give her this: Oberon is touching when she's finally reunited with the blind lover she has thought dead for many years after WWI. (Yes, it's that kind of movie.) She makes us eager to see and gauge her character's reactions, but then, she has a typically excellent Fredric March performance to work from. An easy scratch-off in a six-way 1935 race that already had one nominee too many.
Valerie Perrine in Lenny (1974) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore)
I have already devoted a whole separate post to Perrine's dexterous avoidance of leering stereotype in her role as Lenny Bruce's stripper-lover. Based on Julian Barry's uneven script, drawn from his own play, it's almost hard to imagine that Honey Bruce could possibly have been as interesting or engaging in real life as Perrine makes her here, and it's hard to think of another actress who would have taken such a relaxed approach to the same part: sexy in ways both conventional and not, and wise without being rigid or deifying. Among many other virtues, Perrine's work stands out for recalling European figures like Anna Karina or Monica Vitti, who generated erotic heat simply by looking so comfortable and creative on screen.
The Pick of This Litter: Oberon is the only washout in a roundup of truly memorable and distinctive performances, but Jean Arthur still takes the cake for being such a total person onscreen while keeping all the comic machinery humming, and injecting almost all of the melancholy subtext that bubbles beneath the film.
(Images © 1943 Columbia Pictures, reproduced from Goatdog's review; © 1979 20th Century Fox, reproduced from this French DVD site; and © 1935 Samuel Goldwyn Co./United Artists, reproduced from the Movie Poster Shop.)