Sunday, July 30, 2006

Best Actress Update: Counting Down by Fives

A few months ago, I wrote this update when I watched my 288th Best Actess nominee, meaning that I had exactly 100 nominees left to investigate in that category. I thought now might be a good time to catch you up on the 15 contenders I've since crossed off my list, urging you all toward the best of the lot. Plus, since Supporting Actress Sundays has turned into such an energizing treat, I've grouped these fifteen gals in brackets of five, determined by the order in which I watched them, and I've rated them along the same five-star system that StinkyLulu uses for our Smackdowns. Enjoy!

(This from Derek, as I prepare to write yet another Oscar-themed blog entry: "Is Best Actress, like, its own sexual orientation?" I haven't thought of a way, or a reason, to disagree with this.)

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind)
Utterly beguiling. I'd halfway expected to feel like Garbo was being goaded along by Lubitsch and the studio bosses, given how the "Garbo Laughs" premise was such an instant, easy sell. Happily, if anything, she keeps the movie going even when the script and the supporting cast hit a few ruts. Her poker face is somehow a different creation from the familiar, enigmatic mask of her romances and dramas, but her eruption into laughter in the famous café scene with Melvyn Douglas is perfectly timed and pitched. Great line deliveries, too. The movie doesn't allow the performance to grow or deepen as much as it might, but it's still a totally fetching piece of work.

Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Previously, I only knew Garson from her sweet but minor love-interest turn in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and from her spry, sensitive, and charismatic performance in Random Harvest, made the same year as Mrs. Miniver. Her appeal on screen is never to be underestimated, and given how doggedly the Miniver script means to endear us to the character, it's impressive that Garson humanizes and particularizes her. She seizes opportunities like the spendthrift purchase of a silly hat to make Kay Miniver a little more approachable, and she works smartly and generously with all of her co-stars. Still, the notes of tactful pluckiness and unpretentious nobility don't stretch her all that much, and she isn't covering the amount of ground or plumbing quite so deeply as the best nominees and winners do.

Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Susan Hayward in I Want To Live!)
When we first meet her on a long bus-ride with Frank Sinatra, MacLaine's character comes across as a pretty standard-issue "free spirit," and it's hard to fix exactly why she hops off with him, uninvited, in his home town. From there, this lengthy, deceptively simple drama will keep MacLaine's character waiting in the wings, and she holds out beautifully until her brilliant closing moments: once everyone else has tied their love-lives into intransigent knots, Ginnie figures it might finally be her turn. Actress and character seize their chances in perfect synch. MacLaine's lovely in her frank prostration before Martha Hyer, and she's truly sympathetic in the film's unexpected finale. All in all, she unearths the human being inside a Kooky Sprite.

Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Susan Hayward in I Want To Live!)
A bull terrier among actresses, Roz is perpetually prone to driving a solid character approach right into the ground. In the early chapters of Mame, especially in the delightful opening soirée, she is grand and fabulous, with gleeful, impeccable comic timing on simple lines like "Knowledge is power." By the end, though—like the film, and in some ways because of the film—she pounds down on all the same keys for far too long. I ended the movie quite eager to escape her rigidly "eccentric" guardianship, especially since she keeps Mame from really learning anything or evolving while the decades swim by.

Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver)
I'm all for actresses having stellar breakout years, and Teresa Wright is such an instantly likeable performer—charming and lovable, while always communicating a sincere thoughtfulness—that I hate to begrudge her anything. She even goes far toward redeeming the "meet cute." Still, this is a supporting performance that, like everything else in Pride of the Yankees, is relentlessly keyed to reflect further glory unto Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig. It goes down easy but lacks weight and insight, virtually by design.

The Pick of This Litter: Greta Garbo wins for showing us so many untapped facets and potentials in a persona we thought we knew so well. Her Ninotchka is several rungs above the stunt casting it could have been... though MacLaine's careful, delicate managing of another "type" is nearly as impressive.

Images © 1942 MGM, reproduced from this Japanese fan site; © 1939 MGM, reproduced from this Spanish-language Bela Lugosi fan site; © 1958 MGM, reproduced from this Lyonnaise movie site; and © 1942 Samuel Goldwyn Co./RKO Radio, reproduced from Modern Art Reproductions.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

All i really must say is that Derek has saved my life. All this time I was so confused about my sexuality and it's EXACTLY this.

Thanks Derek for the laugh and the revelation.

9:09 PM, July 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you're back, my dear. But you know I'm not going to let you get away with dissing Roz Russell and AUNTIE MAME so cruelly. While it may not be your particular cup of tea -- and I'll grant you the film works the theatrical side of the street -- it is an untruth to suggest that Mame doesn't "learn anything or evolve while the decades swim by." On the contrary, she learns to care for others before herself -- Patrick of course, but Gooch, Beau, and Lindsay are also lessons in humanity for Mame. Every relationship she has in the film is an exploration of the nature of essential humanity -- her discovery of the Upsons' preening classism, her attraction to (and later rejection of) O'Banyan's craven selfishness, her realization that her youthful friendship with Vera is no longer satisfying without an adult truthfulness. Is she an idealized representation? Sure...few comediennes in the 50's get roles with much depth. But Russell's Mame packs more genuine emotion into each scene, as it is, than Garbo's inscrutable beauty can muster. (And I say that as a lover of NINOTCHKA, myself.)

11:51 PM, July 30, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

I'm with you on Russell, Nick. Although Auntie Mame was a big hit onscreen, it's clear Roz had played the role of Mame many, many times before filming and, unlike her work in The Women or in Friday, the lines never come out spontaneously- everything seems forced as she plays to the back row).

As the flip side to Russell's work in Mame, look at what Streisand achieves in comedic terms as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl- although Barbra had played the role around 1,000 times before recreating the part onscreen, she's always amazingly fresh in the role, and truly hilarious when it's appropriate (watch, or even just listen to, the first couple of minutes of "I'm the Greatest Star" for an example of Streisand's fearless, instinctive, on-target approach to the comedy- as Brice, she really appears to be 'selling herself' and her "thirty-six expressions" to Mr. Keeney for the first time, making up the lyrics as she goes along, and getting every laugh possible out of the material, and even some chuckles that aren't apparent in the lyrics).

Love MacLaine in Running- she's funny, heartbreaking, and simultaneously flamboyant and naturalistic. Years later on a Donahue show she did with the cast of Steel Magnolias she mentioned Ginnie as her favorite part- I think it's almost her best performance (at least early-career wise), but it's bested by her unforgettable work in The Apartment.

3:39 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I knew I was entering the fray with my comments on Roz, especially since I know that Auntie Mame is ModFab's favorite movie. I concede that it's misleading to say that Mame doesn't learn anything over the course of the movie, at least as it's written—but to me, the force of those scripted changes is dulled by the fact that Russell's playing is so consistent. I agree fully with VP that she seems somewhat rigidly ensconced in the part, instead of feeling like she's discovering Mame in motion (and I think the converse comparison to Streisand in Funny Girl is dead-on).

I should also concede that if Mame were shorter, which it really cries out to be, I think Roz would come across a lot better to me. She's undeniably special in it, but a little wearying, in a way that isn't entirely her fault.

Still friends, right, G? ;)

1:19 AM, August 18, 2006  

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