Sunday, August 20, 2006

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 80 to Go

Greer Garson in Sunrise at Campobello (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8)
Cast here as a youngish Eleanor Roosevelt, Garson starts her performance on some bizarre and off-putting notes, quite literally: her version of Eleanor's fluty, fruity Old New York accent may well be expert mimicry, but like Jennifer Jason Leigh's take on Dorothy Parker, it's too mannered and outlandish to work as drama. It doesn't help that the script wheedles her for a Big Crying Scene (though Garson's unflamboyant build-up almost makes it work) or that it can't quite decide whether to canonize Eleanor or domesticate her (if you'll believe it, Eleanor sits for the climactic scene while FDR stands). The translucent likeability that anchors Garson's best work can't shine through in this fusty project, but she's still the most watchable actor on-screen, and she mines some persuasively intimate and character-revealing moments, as when she settles down silently in a chair and exchanges a silent, articulate smile with her newly afflicted husband.

Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce)
For an actress with such an appealing veneer, plus an impressive quintet of Oscar nods, Jones sure doesn't come across very well in most of her anointed performances. Her vulgarity as a half-Mexican vixen in Duel in the Sun is at least more tactlessly fascinating than her obedient restraint as a lovelorn half-Chinese doctor in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but this matching set of ethnic caricatures is still pretty embarrassing. Then there's Love Letters, where she plays a 100%-English amnesiac who falls in love with Joseph Cotten, not realizing that she's been in love with him before, but only via a wartime exchange of love letters that he ghost-wrote on behalf of a lousy comrade. The script, by Ayn Rand of all people, is both ridiculous and interesting for all its convolutions. Sadly, aside from Dieterle's timid direction, Jones is the worst thing in it, going unnervingly wild-eyed to communicate both her lapses in memory and her romantic passions, and skating by on some very thin, cosmetic approaches to a potentially layered character.

Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style (1964) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins)
The film and the performance get off to a worrisome start: as former hooker Loren wanes on her deathbed, her heart of gold at last giving out, aging playboy and longtime client Marcello Mastroianni ponders all the times he promised his love but ignored her pleas for marriage and respectability. Loren is timelessly fetching as she strides down a Neapolitan street in the film's most famous shot; still, it's all a little tawdry and clichéd, like Malèna played for casual laughs. Everything brightens considerably, though, when Loren "miraculously" revives, revealing her own duplicitous agendas, and she elevates the movie's second half into a tasty, energetic, and admirably humane comedy. She's sexy, clever, and funny, as three-dimensional in her personality as in her formidable physique. Loren won an Oscar three years previously for the sturm and drang of De Sica's Two Women, but here she shows more art and more charm—call her Irene Dunne Italian Style.

Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Sally Field in Norma Rae)
Like Garson in Campobello, Mason is largely constrained by her vehicle, which casts her as the more interesting half of a romantic couple, only to relegate her into fawning subservience. Yes, Neil Simon writes her a big, cathartic monologue where she shakes the rafters with her proclamations of self-worth, but Mason is actually much better at humanizing the endless one-liners, allowing us to hear a plausible character instead of the steady, recycled voice of the self-regarding playwright. Even at that, she cut deeper and found more variations in Only When I Laugh, and she was funnier in the better-defined situations of The Goodbye Girl. This is a Glenda Jackson-in-A Touch of Class nomination, applauding Mason for a deft, considered presence in a rom-com part that a lesser actress might have phoned in. At least she didn't win like Jackson did; in fact, if 1979 had generated more solid contenders, I doubt she'd have qualified at all.

Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
To respond to the two most common talking-points around this Oscared performance: yes, I think Anna Held is a crucial enough role with enough screen time to count as a leading performance, but no, I don't think that her famous, last-act telephone call to the Great Ziegfeld himself—congratulating him on his second marriage while bursting into tears of regret—is really all that special. Throughout, Rainer ratchets up the antic stage business and vocal affectations, landing somewhere between overripe comedy and overly emphatic imitation of the real Anna Held (who, to be fair, apparently did cut a fluttery, slightly outlandish figure). Ultimately, Rainer's approach kept me on the surface of the character instead of drawing me into her thoughts and feelings; the exception that proved the rule was her calmest scene, an encounter with Ziegfeld's lovely, young, and boozy new mistress, where Rainer underplays her moment of realization, her sorrow, her jealousy, and her frank pity for the latest fling who thinks she's a keeper.

The Pick of This Litter: An easy win for Sophia Loren, not just because her work is so vivacious and well-rounded (brava, signora!), but because Garson, Jones, and Mason have all been manifestly better in other nominated performances than they are in these. The big disappointment for me is Rainer, by whom I'd expected to be wowed. Normally, you don't come out of nowhere, defy your third billing, and defeat Carole Lombard and newly widowed MGM queen Norma Shearer if you don't have some serious chops. Maybe it's just a taste thing. I did, at least, like her better in The Good Earth (but she shouldn't have won for that, either).

(Images © 1960 Warner Bros. Pictures, reproduced from; © 1964 Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, reproduced from this Italian blog; and © 1936 MGM, reproduced from the Ravin' Maven.)

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

don't you worry about running out of these.

I know I do.

4:35 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm sorry—running out of what?

7:45 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

running out of nominees. eventually there won't be any left and you'll have only this year's crop to view.

it seems so. um. final.

or maybe i'm just jealous that i'm so far behind and trying to get you to slow down.

9:11 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Oh, no worries: as the Silkwood example proved, once I've seen all the nominees, I'll still get to return to the performances I saw too long ago to remember clearly, like Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater and Jessica Lange in Music Box and Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adèle H. and Camille Claudel. That's a whole sideline right there.

As you know, a true actressexual never taps out! (I admit I'm a partisan to the alternate spelling.)

10:04 PM, August 20, 2006  

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