Monday, April 16, 2007

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 75 to Go

Jane Alexander in Testament (1983) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment)
The major disappointment of this batch is Jane Alexander's proficient but doomed work in Testament. When I say "doomed," I don't mean the plot of this post-apocalyptic family drama so much as the flat, slipshod direction that zombifies most of the cast, bungles all the edits, and refuses any trace of style. It's clear that the script is aiming for a ground-level view of massive cataclysm; occasionally, a terse vignette like that of a mother sewing up a dead child's body in her own bedroom curtains is allowed to do its chillingly intimate work. Much more often, though, Testament botches its aspirations toward subtlety with moist speeches, heavy symbolism, and scenes that push way too hard to underline director Lynne Littman's clunky interpretations of the patchy script. Within that context, Alexander saves what scenes she can, and her sour, haunted watchfulness is an interesting, unsentimental basis for the character when the director lets her get away with it. But in other moments, even Alexander is sunk by false theatricality (a stagy search for a teddy bear, an unpersuasive collapse into despair followed by an overly rhetorical kiss), and neither the dialogue nor the filmmaking supplies her with the tools to create a sustained, interesting performance. I know a lot of people love Testament, and love Alexander in it, but I have to demur on both counts. Fellow nominee Meryl Streep in Silkwood runs circles around her for multifaceted revelation of character and for conjuring the pure terror of nuclear contamination.

Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust (1941) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion)
In her first of several teamings with director Mervyn LeRoy, and at the outset of a remarkable string of five consecutive Best Actress nods, Garson plays Edna Gladney, a Midwestern debutante who becomes a champion of orphans (though she hates the word!) and "illegitimate" children (though she hates the word!) in Fort Worth, Texas. As so often, there is something so precious and safe about Garson's radiant refinement—her gleaming smiles, her flaming red hair, her accent incongruously posh by way of Wisconsin—that one feels a bit duped in praising or enjoying her work, as though one has fallen for a crashingly obvious marketing ploy. But radiant she is, and particularly once the script catches up with her age, her emotional generosity, ease of movement, and expressive face and voice go an incredibly long way toward selling the treacly script. She also interacts beautifully with Felix Bressart, a gem as a loyal and wisecracking pediatrician, and on the few occasions when Blossoms allows Edna a moment of unsavory affect (envy, annoyance, self-pity), Garson's smart enough to underline it and spry enough to win us right back.

Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress)
Hayward, predictably, is at her best as the taunting alcoholic we meet in the suburban frame story, slurring out some delicious dialogue without too much focus-pulling or fussy mannerism. (Some of the choicest bits include "Who said, 'To forgive is divine'? Probably not somebody I'd care to meet, anyway" and, on the subject of jealous husbands, "They want to think you've spent your whole life vomiting every time a boy came near you.") Still, the very ordinariness that grounds Hayward's work whenever she plays an addict or a rager (which was often) works against her when she's cast as a co-ed, a romantic dreamer, or the very kind of average gal she very much looks to be. She's trapped by unimaginative casting in a thin role throughout much of My Foolish Heart's extended flashback narrative, made worse by Mark Robson's stolid direction, which shares none of Hayward's enthusiasm for the character's darker shadings. Thus, we're only interested when she's nursing a cocktail or cozying up to a witty father (a terrific Robert Keith) who shows, as they say, a little too much friendly interest in his daughter.

Carol Kane in Hester Street (1975) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Louise Fletcher in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Two things can happen in years when Oscar faces a paucity of obvious choices: either the voters challenge themselves to nominate strong work in the kinds of movies and roles they would usually avoid (Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Samantha Morton in In America) or they pad the field with serviceable but unremarkable efforts that achieve little for Oscar besides filling the five-wide quota (Miranda Richardson in Tom & Viv, Susan Sarandon in The Client). Carol Kane's nod, garnered in a year so thin that former winners filed a protest, somehow falls on both sides of this fence. On the one hand, it's lovely to see Oscar pay such headlining attention to a modest, stylistically distinctive, culturally specific tale about Jewish immigrants and forced assimilation, even if nothing in Hester Street, only partially by design, accedes much beyond the thematic or narrative sophistication of The Jazz Singer. Kane isn't the helium-voiced, helium-minded daff we've come to know. She's lonesome, panicked, and finally angry, and she delivers almost her entire performance in Yiddish, to boot. However, she's also a bit overstated in her tremulousness, and she doesn't find much in her character beyond what is asked by the mannered direction and the quaint, predictable screenplay. Like her fellow nominee Glenda Jackson in Hedda, Kane stitches some smart, powerful moments into a somewhat routine performance, in a movie that vacillates between trying too hard and not trying enough.

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth)
What is it about Barbara Stanwyck that makes every one of her superb performances something of a surprise, no matter how many of them she gives? That low, husky voice, that downturned mouth, the narrow eyes, the nearly immobile features of her improbable face, the Brooklyn-bred, working-class butchness that pervaded her whole persona—all of these imply typecasting limitations that simply prove irrelevant to her greatest work, ranging all the way from film noir to screwball comedy to Westerns to melodramas to social realism to thrillers to B-movie macabre. Here, her flinty toughness offers an ideal through-line beneath her engaging, cackly impatience as Stella Martin, then her marital ambivalence as Stella Dallas, and finally her nimble balancing of the dear and the grotesque as one of Hollywood's most famously self-sacrificing mothers...though there's also a mean streak, a brutal cunning, and an obliviousness to Stanwyck's Stella that tend to vanish from popular memories of the character. Laserlike with her smart, forceful gestures and insinuations, keeping the movie alive even when the direction is flat, and interacting exquisitely with all of her co-stars, Stanwyck hits one of her highest peaks.

The Pick of This Litter: You can practically pull out the scenes that got Alexander, Hayward, and Kane nominated, the last two in very dubious years for the category, but none of their performances dig deeply enough, largely because the films won't allow it. Before we feel too sorry for them, though, let's realize that Stella Dallas is no slam-dunk on the page except that Barbara Stanwyck makes the sauciness, the humor, the resentment, the intelligence, and the idiocies of her character so vivid and so bizarrely credible.

(Images © 1983 Paramount Pictures, reproduced from MovieGoods.com; © 1941 MGM Pictures, reproduced from FilmPosters.com; © 1949 Samuel Goldwyn Co./RKO Radio Pictures, reproduced from Carteles de Cine; © 1975 Midwest Films/Home Vision Entertainment, reproduced from Rotten Tomatoes; © 1937 Samuel Goldwyn Co., reproduced, oddly enough, from Stuff Kids Like)

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2 Comments:

Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

hmmm... i wish i'd seen it recently enough to lodge a coherent counter but despite my growing love for Stanwyck i found the Stella Dallas performance ultimately overworked and offputting (and not entirely due to the characters trajectory)

but anyway: so glad you're doing these again and you're so right about Oscar's behavior in unobvious years... though I personally think they botched 2003 even when they went for the less baity choices.

12:38 PM, April 16, 2007  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I haven't seen any of these, but I'm giddy that you're posting. (Missed you...)

1:33 PM, April 17, 2007  

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