Supporting Actress Smackdown: 1955
I am nominating myself as the Betsy Blair, and not just because I (alone) think she should have won. Van Fleet, as Ken sums it up especially well, is "a submerged mountain of radioactivity" in East of Eden, and Oscar should be proud of counting her among his anointed. And, as you'll see, Natalie Wood has her vehement champions. Still, to me, Blair gives her whole movie a raison d'êtreMarty is just loafing along, pleasantly but unimpressively, until she arrives both to comfort and unsettle him with a persuasively wallflowery romance, a girlfriend who is both appealingly bright and almost spookily recessive, but without overdoing the "appealing," the "bright," or the "spooky" part. There's a bookish loneliness as well as an ingratiating decency to Blair's high-school chemistry teacher that I haven't often, or maybe ever, seen evoked quite this lucidly on screen. She eventually becomes a character who, like Van Fleet, is discussed more often than she is seen, and she manages to give a performance that allows everyone's competing opinions to be correct: she is wonderful, she is a threat to an uneducated mother-in-law, she is a surprising and somewhat abrupt choice to be Miss Right. The one thing she isn't, despite frequent allegations, is a "dog," but I also love that Betsy Blair lets Clara be so average in looks and demeanor, and not one of those Hollywood "wallflowers" who's really just a beauty behind big spectacles.
But why else am I the Betsy Blair? Well, again, she is the bookish nerd in the group, and I am bookish and nerdy enough to make webpages like this one, expanding my website's year-by-year archive of past viewings. (None of those other pages from the 50s are live links yet, but just you wait.) From my 1955 Oscar ballot, you'll note that Blair is the only one of Oscar's actual nominees who qualifies. Jo Van Fleet still wins, but for her gruesome stage mother in the Susan Hayward corker I'll Cry Tomorrow, not for East of Eden, though she's a close 6th for that performance. In truth, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from Oscar's list, 1955 was a great year for supporting actresses: there's Shelley Winters' obedient, sex-starved, and vulnerable widow in The Night of the Hunter and Lillian Gish's steely protector in the same film, Agnes Moorehead's acerbic and unsettled friend in All That Heaven Allows (where her slamming of a door on a vacuuming maid is the single funniest thing in Sirk), Jean Simmons' righteous reformer in Guys and Dolls, Ann Doran's angry, inhospitable, and sensationally layered wife-mother in Rebel without a Cause, and Harriet Andersson's lusty servant in Smiles of a Summer Night. Smiles didn't open in the U.S. until 1957, so in more ways than one, my ballot is impossible, but it's all about fantasy anyway.
Lastly, about Blair: she was married for many years to Gene Kelly, which is reason enough to want to be the Betsy Blair. She was later married for even longer to Karel Reisz, an important actressexual in his own right. (Screw Pete Kelly's blues; try Patsy Cline's. No, really: try 'em.) Blair was one of the first to propose and organize a non-discrimination committee within SAG and later was blacklisted for her liberal-radical convictions, which would be awful to live through but easy to admire, on principle. She apparently wrote a hell of a memoir; the reviews were mostly raves a few years ago when it came out. And speaking of books, Betsy came this.close. to being in The Hours; she filmed all of old Laura Brown's scenes opposite Meryl Streep when Julianne had to go leave to make Far from Heaven, though Stephen Daldry & Co. eventually decided that, for emotional continuity, Laura needed to be played by the same actress we'd been watching for the rest of the movie. Even if she was the world's oldest hugely pregnant woman. Which I'm fine with. Still: poor Betsy. Never could get a career break, that one. Wouldn't you love to see that footage somewhere?
And can't you see in Betsy Blair's Clara, in Marty, the possibility that she might marry Marty, but she also might leave him and cut all ties with her children to be a librarian in Canada, alone with her books and her memories? Can't you draw a pretty straight line from Ernest Borgnine's Marty to John C. Reilly's Dan, and even though Betsy isn't playing hesitation or misery in Martyquite the opposite, in many sensesdoesn't this train of thought sort of call into relief that strain of sadness and of craving for solitude that's still there, glinting and upsetting, at the heart of her warm, generous, but frightened Clara? It all comes back to how much I like her in this movie. I am not the Betsy Blair because I wish I could leave everyone I know and go seek solace among my books as a librarian in Canada; as I've just finished explaining, it's Australia that I want to flee to. But I would love to give a performance this candid and quiet and articulate and be remembered for it decades later, despite a truncated career. And if my career is ever truncated, I hope it's for the reason of firm and unimpeachable principles.