Actress Files: Eleanor Parker
Eleanor Parker, Interrupted Melody
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1955 Best Actress Oscar to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo)
Why I Waited: A splashy biopic about a little-remembered performer who contracts a debilitating disease? With Glenn Ford and Roger Moore the only other "names" in the cast, and debuting at that awkward moment when most movies were opting for widescreen even though few directors had really thought about how to approach it? Lots of room for error here.
The Performance: Eleanor Parker: perhaps you have mentally pigeonholed her as the "fifth nominee" in the legendary 1950 race, though she's frankly as good in Caged as her fellow anointees were in Sunset Boulevard, Born Yesterday, and All About Eve. You relished her as the Baroness in The Sound of Music, bouncing that red ball with the nonplussed Von Trapps kids and being the only person in the movie aside from a couple of carpy nuns who's openly got it in for Julie Andrews. Still, you may well not have realized it was the same actress who got incarcerated as a fragile fall-gal in Caged and came out of the clinker a tough, bitter, cigarette-smoking butch. You might have screened her other Best Actress nomination in William Wyler's strangely over-celebrated Detective Story, and again failed to recognize the same actress in the part of Kirk Douglas's haunted wife (although Parker is helpless to countervail the screenplay's guarantee that we've guessed her "secret" at least a half-hour before she divulges it). She also assumed the lead role in remakes of Of Human Bondage in 1946 and Escape Me Never in 1947, though both were less well-regarded than the 1930s versions, and she may well have lost out on a fourth nomination for the scathing addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm because it opened the same year as Interrupted Melody. I haven't seen any of those three titles, so you tell me if this crafty blonde chameleon manages to shift her persona yet again for those parts.
I was vaguely embarrassed at my inability to recognize Parker from film to film, until some Internet research plus some reading around in actual printed books (!) reassured me that her insistent lack of a stable look, star persona, or playing style was both the hallmark and the bugaboo of her career during its peak years in the 1950s. With three nominations but almost no mainstream recognition these days, Parker is perfectly positioned for a small but ardent cult following, which indeed she seems to have amassed. Those faithful must have been elated when Interrupted Melody finally bowed on DVD as part of Warner Brothers' wonderful and apparently very profitable new venture of selling older titles via their website without splurging on huge retail pressings that would likely gather dusts in a lot of Barnes & Nobles, and thereby discourage studios from printing mid-century titles with little to no enduring cultural capital.
Surely Parker would have more circulation value among modern cinephiles and fans of actressing if Interrupted Melody had actually scored her the trophy, and in a less thickly competitive race (for example, if the film had been held until 1956 or 1957), you can easily imagine such an outcome. Already AMPAS liked this unadventurous but reasonably compelling vehicle enough to vote it a writing Oscar, and not only was it Parker's third trip to the nominees' circle after her two losses but it's by far the most "Oscary" of her shortlisted turns. She plays Marjorie Lawrence, a girl from an Australian farm who sneaks off to Glenn's stomping grounds in Geelong, surreptitiously wins a major opera-singing competition, lands herself in Paris as part of her prize, and starts amassing the hurdles, mentors, love interests, sidekicks, triumphs, setbacks, personality shifts, afflictions, inspiring comebacks, and sympathetic, string-heavy blasts from the musical score that any decent biopic would require for her. The obligatory montage of surging successes involves Technicolor remountings of Lawrence wowing 'em with her soprano belting in Monte Carlo, Paris, and eventually the Met, assuming the lead roles and fabulous, kitschy costumes of Madama Butterfly, Don Carlo, Samson and Delilah, Carmen, and Götterdämmerung. Parker lip-syncs imprecisely but with gusto to re-recorded vocal tracks by Eileen Farrell. To the certain delight of 1950s movie patrons, she is, for an opera singer, anachronistically energetic, saucy, and highly actressy onstage while emitting those powerful notes. But then, the real Lawrence apparently did not lack for dramatic flair. Before she became famous for more woeful reasons, she achieved notoriety as the first Met headliner who finally did what is asked in the libretto of Götterdämmerung and actually rides her horse into the climactic blaze, rather than solemnly leading it by the reins, at the end of her final aria. If you know that bit of trivia, you just know what ground Parker and director Curtis Bernhardt are laying with all that equestrian business in the short prologue back in Australia.
Indeed, if there's something to be said against Parker's work in Melody, above and beyond inhabiting the broad, declarative register that big, expensive, middlebrow 50s dramas all but required from their leads, I'd submit that she tips us off a bit too much about how she's assembling the performance and constructing the character. For example, she does a lot of sprinting around in the opening scenes, even more than the script requires, which I clocked as a built-in device for making us feel even worse when Lawrence contracts polio just as her Met career is taking off and spends the whole second hour being frustrated and tortured by her own immobility. I appreciate Parker's willingness to present Lawrence's affliction as an experience that is corrosive not just of her physical abilities but of her personal equanimity. The actress presents Marjorie more than once amid bouts of self-pity, and just as often prone to understandable but unbeautiful anger, picking up but clearly intensifying a bent toward self-destruction that has marked the character in earlier, softer ways. One of the most famous scenes in the movie finds Marjorie's rock-solid husband (Ford) insisting that she at least attempt to build up her strength. His exasperated tactic is to play a recording of her voice, employing a turntable across the room from where she agonizes in her wheelchair. She's furious at being confronted with a memento of her unimpaired successes, but if she doesn't want to hear it, she'll have to shut it off herself. As Parker drags herself across the floor, she remains livid and obviously pained, playing to the character's wrecked self-image rather than aiming to "inspire" the audience.
That scene marks a high-point for Interrupted Melody in terms of credible screen drama, but however merciful Parker is in eschewing either a dewy or a garish, high-dudgeon approach to Lawrence's hardships, she doesn't complicate the portrait or the predictable story beats as much as she might. Three key impressions of Lawrence's stage fright, all of them crippling even before she herself is crippled, stand exposed as bald structuring devices and as crude character psychology, because Parker doesn't find any nuances to play. The final scene of the film involves a corker of a screenwriter's conceit as the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde exerts a cosmic, reparative power on Lawrence's pulverized muscles. Parker does what she can to insulate the moment from outright camp, not least by telegraphing small but crucial gains in Marjorie's upper-arm strength across the picture's last half-hour. Still, Caged notwithstanding, for that film actually thrived on an oddly gruff and heightened species of "nuance" in its performances, Parker is not quite dexterous or commanding enough a performer to keep us believing in the character when all I could hear was the MGM pitch-meeting and the excitable writers of ad copy: She's indomitable! She's a phoenix! Come see her fall and rise!
Then again, with all of that said, Parker's a strong emoter and a decent showman (showwoman?), doing what she can to provide the audience a good time during the operatic interludes, and working capably to suggest that there really was something magnetic about Lawrence and something generally enchanting about operawhich is not a form the movies have tended to treat very well, except insofar as various hookers and working-class gals evince their good-girl cores by tearing up on cue whenever someone finally takes them to watch Musetta or Violetta expire. Parker's capacities for subtlety are not, as I have suggested, evenly distributed across all of her scenes or every plane of her interpretation, but I appreciated how she exaggerated the natural huskiness of her voice to signal the strain that this young, incompletely trained, and somewhat heedless performer was already placing on her instrument before the other, overwhelming disaster sets in. She finds a differently shaded character to play in all of her opera scenes, so long as we accept the unhistorical and cinema-specific flamboyance that she allows herself in those moments, and she plays an early scene of drunken flirtatiousness very adroitlywith sparkling hints of comedy, even, for which Interrupted Melody might have found more use, even after disease takes hold. As is, Parker at first rages against her incapacities and then nobly soldiers forward when she's enticed into a vet-hospital tour, but even the slightest hints of tangy, sarcastic bitterness about her predicament might have lent more tonal and psychological inflections to the second hour.
Lastly, Parker is appealingly unafraid of Marjorie's sexuality and tips its hand even more than the script asks, implying that she knows Interrupted Melody is the kind of film that gifts its actress with a doozy of a "true" story to play (the real Lawrence filed a mixed review) but still needs all the idiosyncratic invention and against-the-grain embellishment that the performers can bring to it. Greer Garson labored for years to get MGM's greenlight for this material, and as much as I like her, I think even the notion of Garson as Lawrence sharpens our contrasting sense of how uninterested Parker finally proves in making the character a hero or a chin-up survivor. At the same time, within her roster of fellow nominees, Susan Hayward shows what real fire and richer detailing can do for a damaged-diva biopic, and Katharine Hepburn and Anna Magnani exemplify a surefire grip on the awestruck camera that Parker cannot claimnot, at least, at anything like the same level. So, a bit of a mixed bag, but a sturdy feat for the actress and a more than justifiable nominationand, perhaps best of all, a bankable rental if opera, 50s Hollywood, Cinemascope, and stories of embattled women fall anywhere on your long list of favorite things.
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