Birthday Girls: Mary Pickford
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(winner of the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar)
I have seen Coquette (reviewed here) three times, and I think about it more than anyone probably should. Here's why: Mary Pickford, essaying her first speaking part in motion pictures, is widely cited as the worst-ever winner of the Best Actress prize, and before you go around agreeing with a charge like that, you oughta be sure. Coquette itself is, if anything, even worse than Pickford's performance. The movie is instantly dated, maudlin, erratic, gaudily dressed, and technically slapdash, but before we get to feeling too superior, the real reason I dwell on the movie so frequently is that I often, while sitting before a new theatrical release, pose what I call The Coquette Test. Sure, it's easy to kick a 1929 movie that everyone already hates, directed by that same numbskull who, in the very same year, took a notorious "Additional Dialogue by" credit on his film version of The Taming of the Shrew. But if, say, The Last Station or A Single Man or Me and Orson Welles were also 80 years old, instead of just feeling like spotty and desiccated antiques, would we be any kinder to them than we are to Coquette? Have trophy-minded movies really gotten better, especially when you start ignoring publicists, "buzz," and ad campaigns, and when you avoid the oft-floated logic that just because a hundred Tooth Fairys come out every year that deserve nothing but opprobrium, we should induce a sort of Ivy League grading curve by which something as tawdrily mediocre as Station or Welles gets bumped up to a C? When a prestige movie starts heading south, or when it just starts out that way, I often ask myself, "Would I rather be watching Coquette? Is this movie any less incongruous in its own time than Coquette was in the era of Pandora's Box and The Passion of Joan of Arc?" Reader, I must confess, the face-off usually ends in a draw.
But let's not dodge the issue: Coquette is a dog, and Pickford is barely tolerable in it. She handily gives one of the worst performances ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and she won for it, almost certainly because of her stratospheric celebrity and her crucial role in founding United Artists as well as the Academy itself, only two years prior to her copping this trophy. Awfully cheeky to be 36 years old and playing an airheaded chit who can't help flirting with every man in the room, from her father's peers to the local bad boy. Pickford looks suspiciously dowdy, and not just because her infamous haircut has her looking so matronly, or because she's so perpetually clad in distressed housedresses and nightmarish effulgences of figure-killing tulle. Even amidst such intense internal competition, the most antique thing about Pickford's Norma is the actress's creaky performance style, yet this isn't an "old" style so much as a frantic, immature feint at what grand acting by established masters might look like. Dabblers in early cinema might assume that Pickford hasn't yet recalibrated her gestures or mannerisms to suit the new sonic capabilities of the medium, but you could watch silent films for days without seeing anything this garish. Pickford has no one to blame but herself for her insistence upon buttoning and almost corkscrewing her thin lips until her mouth looks like the knotted end of a balloon, and then calling greater attention to this bizarre mannerism by repeatedly pointing an index finger, inexplicably, to her face. She's a fright of uncontained energy, and not in that Clara Bow way that can be infectious in spite of itself; she looks harried and taxed, like she's somehow overthinking the part without actually thinking at all. She whinges, she scowls, she bends over backward as her boyfriend of ill repute whispers sweet pledges to her in a forest glade. She flails her arms in the air when she races across Southern streams to find him, and sinks like an eight-year-old into the lap of Louise Beavers, humming away as her loyal mammy (!). The close-ups are impossible to parse: if you didn't know that Johnny Mack Brown was playing the object of her adoring ardor, you'd wonder why she's sniffing and glowering at this fellow who has come to surprise her at a dance. Her odd vocalisms ("Ooh yoo doon't knoow my deddy!") make Singin' in the Rain's Lina Lamont seem like a creature drawn from life, and when her character gets dragooned into one of those fifth-act court-trial sequences that have felled many a better movie than Coquette, she quakes in her chair and whips her head about, letting her voice go so high and shrill that you worry she might be tearing it.
In truth, such vulgar bathos represents the high point of what Pickford manages here: her spasms of grief and her wracking sobs of divided loyalty between her priggish dad and her rough suitor at least have some energy, unlike her unlovable take on the preening ingenue or her great-auntish lack of softness or ease in her mid-story clenches. Adding final insult to injury, I always misremember Coquette, which is subtitled A Drama of the American South, as a kind of mothy Hollywood pantomime of ante-bellum backwardness. Sadly, a series of party invitations that become key props about twenty minutes into Coquette confirm that this story is set in 1928, meaning that Sam Taylor thinks that women of the world were still saying things like, "Oh, what does it matter what I do? Oh, MICHAEL!" (when Michael isn't even around, incidentally), and Mary Pickford still thinks that the best use of her talents at 36 is to play an already specious character as 18-going-on-7, for maximum irritation and minimal sense of purpose. If the Academy has rarely got things as right as it did when it voted Janet Gaynor its first Best Actress, it's rarely (if ever) been as wrong as it did with Pickford.
(Poster image c/o the Wikipedia entry for Coquette)