Monday, August 06, 2007

Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 70 to Go

The theme this time is: Great Ladies of History

Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc (1948) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda)
I have been consciously postponing Joan of Arc for a while now; you can smell the elephantiasis and the box-office desperation from a mile away. Joan of Arc is the sort of movie that was made so that it could be promoted, and somehow, even though Bergman won a Tony onstage in this role, her casting in the film seems calibrated more toward PR than dramatic plausibility. Her first scenes are uniquely uncomfortable, with the 5'10", 33-year-old actress failing to seem much like a willowy, agonized teenager living under her father's thumb and runneled with sublime ecstasy and terror after hearing her "voices." Happily, Bergman's performance becomes more emotionally credible and more technically proficient the nearer we get to Joan's imprisonment and martyrdom, even though the movie gets stodgier and more pedestrian. Falconetti's shadow threatens at all points to swat her off the screen, and she has a hard time raising a sword with authority, but the solidity of her face and her persona, which sometimes leads to flat-footed performances (see The Bells of St. Mary's), somehow redeem Joan of Arc from being overly wispy and sentimental about its heroine. I found myself rooting for the performance even when it wasn't working; she's missing three stars by a hair.

Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman (1932) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet)
A stretch for the "Great Ladies of History" theme, since Fontanne's impersonation of Queen Elizabeth I (playing the same Maxwell Anderson script, in fact, that generated Bette Davis' turn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) is limited to the first scene of this unusual comedy. It's a tribute to Fontanne's talent, and consonant with her legendary status in the theater, and crucial to the plot to boot, that Fontanne is so succinctly fascinating in this one scene: look at how strangely but expressively she slumps on her throne at the close. But from there, as the curtain comes down on Elizabeth the Queen, The Guardsman really takes off, as Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, married superstars of the 20th-century stage, play married superstars of the 20th-century stage who love to trade barbs about who's the better performer. She's stunned by his chauvinistic assumption of his own superiority; he's horrified to be thought of as anything less than genius, and also nervous about his wife's wandering eye. From there follows a series of farcical impersonations, uncertain realizations, and some remarkably tart pre-Code innuendo. The plot, however light, is too much fun to spoil, but to whatever extent The Guardsman draws us into a comparative evaluation of these performers, Fontanne trumps her clever but hammy hubby. Her remarkable spectrum of acerbic laughs and wry interjections, complemented by inspired gestures and smart, sexy line deliveries, keep this dated material remarkably fresh. She still acts like a doyenne of the stage, with little sense of interacting specifically with a camera, but she's not "stagy," exactly, and though she never played another film role, one surmises that she could have done great things with Kay Francis' part in the same year's majestically saucy Trouble in Paradise, or with lots of Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur-type roles in future years. A foreigner to the screen, not 100% at home, but delightful nonetheless.

Greer Garson in Madame Curie (1943) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette)
In the wake of Mrs. Miniver and Random Harvest, Greer Garson was so popular that she probably could have gotten nominated for anything. Omitting her would be like holding a Best Muffin contest and leaving out Blueberry. Unfortunately, this nom, her fourth in five years (with two more to come in 1944 and 1945), travesties both the award and the actress. Like Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, Garson in Madame Curie follows a career peak with a frustrating nonentity of a performance. Though she admirably declines to coast on simple typecasting—Marie Curie, bookish and muted, permits none of the ginger amiability of her previous performances—the role, for that very reason, requires Garson to abandon everything enticing about her screen persona and leave us with a pretty drab husk of an impersonation, placeholding instead of performing. The film, directed by Random Harvest steward Meryvn LeRoy, is frankly less interested in character or audience connection than in the humility of the brilliant Curies and their long tribulations amid spartan, sometimes squalid working conditions: a safe message for a WW2 audience living on rations, but not a foundation for auspicious drama. The only memorable scenes linger because of camerawork or smart manipulations of offscreen space. Garson is an inevitability rather than an asset—the public's favorite actress playing the world's most famous female scientist—and though she doesn't crash to earth the way stiff, stodgy Walter Pidgeon does, there's almost no life to her: the last thing you expect to say about Garson onscreen.

Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Jane Fonda in Klute)
For quite a long time into Mary, Queen of Scots, Vanessa Redgrave is an unmitigated disaster. She overdoes her usual mannerisms of the gaping smile and the twinkling eyes, making herself cloying and foolish instead of ethereal and incandescent. Her line readings often border on the laughable, when they don't stumble right into the laughable, and she's so thoroughly bested by the sharp, sexy, epicurean, and forceful Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth that Mary, Queen of Scots arrives as something of an annoying afterthought in what is putatively her own movie. What saves the performance, and the film, are the two direct confrontations between Redgrave and Jackson. Even here, Redgrave hasn't thought herself all the way through the character the way Jackson has, and she's still guilty of racing through lines and character beats that she might have handled more slowly. Still, her fury, jealousy, exhaustion, and unlikely self-beatification are tartly communicated, and her sparring with Jackson in their first, secret rendezvous in the forest describes a terrific arc from false friendship to heated rivalry to shrewd, reciprocal assessments. In a better year, Redgrave wouldn't be anywhere near this list, but she saves herself from outright embarrassment and yields some surprisingly memorable moments in this silly soap-operatizing of royal history.

Janet Suzman in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Jane Fonda in Klute)
Like Redgrave, Suzman transmits the impression that she is a much more interesting actor than her drab performance in this bloated film would have one believe, yet one is disinclined to make too many excuses for her Czarina Alexandra. True, in some impressive early scenes, her aloof, nearly agoraphobic take on the character strikes a welcome note of mystery in a superficial and almost comically inflated drama, the kind where Czar Nicholas (Michael Jayston) comforts his screaming child in the night with the words, "Oh, you're just dreaming about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand!" Barely half an hour into the film, however, Suzman gets stuck in the cluttered background of the film, fretting and doting over her frail heir, and enlisting unreasonably as a disciple of Rasputin (Tom Baker, one short skip away from Monty Python). Her reticence passes from interesting to unilluminating, and one ends the film knowing nothing about her, and barely caring to know.

The Pick of This Litter: No suspense here: Lynn Fontanne is the only gal in this batch who has any business appearing on a ballot. Still, hers isn't just a relative victory, compared to a weak group of peers; she's a treat and a revelation, and I happily recommend the film, right down to its joyously teasing final shot (which is all about Fontanne).

(Images © 1948 RKO Radio/Sierra Pictures, reproduced from; © 1931 MGM/© 1998 MGM Home Video, reproduced from the IMDb; © 1943 MGM Studios, reproduced from Internet Movie Poster Awards; © 1971 Universal Pictures, reproduced from the IMDb; and © 1971 Columbia Pictures, reproduced from the IMDb)

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Blogger John T said...

I love the theme here. I'd actually been looking forward to seeing Nicholas and Alexandra, but this made me want to put it off for a little while.

3:45 PM, August 06, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@John: I'm doing my best to organize the Actresses I have left into themed groups, instead of random assemblies of five, but sometimes scheduling or viewing companions will twist up the recipe a little bit. Glad you like the idea, though!

4:02 PM, August 06, 2007  
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