Sunday, July 30, 2006

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 90 to Go

Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier (1943) ★ ★ ★ ★
(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 Antoinette—or, 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 performance—straining her voice, winning us back with her wide smile, zonking out in her druggie scenes—she 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 moments—as in Wyler's These Three, or in this hoary melodrama about war's disruption of romantic destinies—I 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.)

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7 Comments:

Blogger Arun said...

Haven't seen any of these, though I desperately want to see 'Lenny'.

Funnily enough, I learned last week that one of my friends is Merle Oberon's great granddaughter! Apparently Oberon's mother was Sri Lankan

8:17 AM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:41 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Gladys George is indeed in Falcon (as "Iva Archer," the wife of Sam Spade's partner, Miles). She famously claims James Cagney "used to be a big shot" at the conclusion of The Roaring Twenties, takes on Kirk Douglas in Detective Story, and has one of her finest moments playing a washed-up alcoholic in The Hard Way, an excellent 1943 Ida Lupino drama directed by Vincent Sherman (Warner, please release this one on DVD now).

I'd probably go with Milder or Perrine in this group (and seeing the recent Superman made me miss Perrine anew, as I absolutely love her in the 1978 version as "Miss Teschmacher", one of the sweetest sexpots to ever grace a blockbuster).

I like Arthur, but think she's at her best in something like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Only Angels Have Wings (I think Joel McCrea's at the top of his game in Merrier, though, and wish he'd gotten nominated for this or for something during his career).

2:51 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@VP: I totally agree about McCrea, who is wonderful in Merrier. I'll also concede that this isn't Arthur's best work, necessarily, but I like her just as much here as in Only Angels Have Wings, and her own standards are so exorbitantly high that mid-level Arthur is still preferable than many other actresses at their bests. Fair?

1:14 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

I agree Arthur's impossible not to like (and I think Merrier's one of her best vehicles, if not one of her top performances in, as you mention, a very rich filmography) but, unless you're looking at a 'career' win for Arthur via her Merrier nod, I'd probably stick with Jones in '43 (judging by the nominees, that is- my 1943 faves are Ida Lupino in The Hard Way (the NYFC's Best Actress pick that year) and Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt).

I actually like Jennifer Jones best in her comedies: Cluny Brown and Beat the Devil; however, I thought she captured the ethereal essence of Bernadette very well, and it probably is her best dramatic work.

2:06 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Having only seen Jones in dramas, I'm tempted to believe she's better suited to comedy. In fact, I'll be posting on this very topic tomorrow. I do agree that she's very capable and well-cast in Bernadette, though there's no way I wouldn't have voted for Jean Arthur instead. (I haven't yet seen Bergman, Fontaine, or Garson from that race, so I can't comment beyond those two contenders. For that matter—gulp—I haven't seen The Hard Way or Shadow of a Doubt, either!)

3:23 AM, August 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must give me the name of your oculist. Merle Oberon had a beautiful face!!! The camera loved her. Her performance in "The Dark Angel" WAS one of her best. Furthermore, she was an asset to ALL her films and made a fine Cathy in "Wuthering Heights"!

8:41 PM, August 11, 2009  

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