Best Actress Update: Counting Down by Fives
(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, thoughlike the film, and in some ways because of the filmshe 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 performercharming and lovable, while always communicating a sincere thoughtfulnessthat 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.