Sunday, November 25, 2007

Supporting Actress Smackdown: 1955

As always, StinkyLulu is the Anna Magnani of this month's Supporting Actress Smackdown, dedicated to the tier-two ladies of 1955. He is the centerpiece, the star, the grande diva, and he make-a the prom dresses for-a all of us-a. If Stinky could actress at his own edge, I'm sure he would, but you can only be so many places at once, so he invites his own supporting cast. Nathaniel is the Natalie Wood: colorful, wicked, impassioned with his clipreel of the nominated performances. Goatdog is the Jo Van Fleet: marvelous, versatile, and brilliantly concise. His one-line captions for all five performances had me rolling on the ground. I am not accusing anyone of being the Marisa Pavan, or by all that is holy the Peggy Lee (Actress Edition), though Canadian Ken, Criticlasm, and Adam Waldowski could proudly count as the Peggy Lee (Singer Edition), beautifully carrying the tune and shaking up the rhythms of the Smackdown.

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'être—Marty 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 Marty—quite the opposite, in many senses—doesn'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.

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Blogger goatdog said...

If I'd been able to rate Blair's performance on the basis of this writeup, Stinkylulu would have to allow more than five hearts. Just wonderful.

I noticed something missing from your 1955 pages. Where's Picnic, Nick? It's really great, and I really think you'll love it--

[goatdog was just struck by lightning for being a dirty liar]

2:40 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

seriously now. i'm so jealous that you can do that -make me question my entire reaction to a performance.

anywho. i haven't see PICNIC either. perhaps next time i visit will pull that one outta your vhs spreadsheet and see what happens ;)

4:15 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

oh and p.s. you know i luv ya for naming me the Natalie Wood!

4:17 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I think I'd give the actress Blair a full 5 hearts; alas, she's stuck in Marty...

But I love that you love Van Fleet in I'll Cry Tomorrow -- that performance is to blame for our doing 1955 this month (allotting me my full Van Fleet dose in Eden and Rose Tattoo).

6:30 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I completely agree. I consider Betsy Blair's performance one of the most gorgeous ever seen on screen. When she's ditched at the dance near the beginning, and most memorably when she's across the street when Joe Mantell is slagging her off to Borgnine, my heart just melts for her.

The film is so wonderfully simple, and she typifies this really. You're right. A lot of these 'wallflower' characters have underlying hints of being able to 'rise above' awkwardness and sensitivity, and it's great that Blair doesn't have this sense of potential. She's the simple, beautiful core of the film. I feel like I'm gushing now but I just love her. She's ace!!

I do love Wood and Van Fleet, although I think I prefer James Dean's sister-in-law in East of Eden, who I don't recall the name of.

7:57 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: Julie Harris, who I agree is quite wonderful in East of Eden, going back and forth with Dean without letting him steal the scenes. She's one of the ranking legends of the Broadway stage, although she was usually too tough to cast for Hollywood (that is: fragile, androgynous, not "sexual" according to LA convention).

I'm glad you're so into Blair.

9:02 PM, November 25, 2007  
Blogger Gustavo H.R. said...

Betsy was the best.

7:46 PM, June 26, 2011  

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