Thursday, May 13, 2010

Actress Files: Eleanor Parker

One day after my write-up of Kate Hepburn in Summertime, another also-ran from the same field...

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 opera—which 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 adroitly—with 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 claim—not, 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 nomination—and, 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.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 26 to Go

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Blogger Tim said...

One of our rare complete and utter disagreements, I'm afraid: I did not like this one at all. Everything about the film felt hugely perfunctory to me, as though everybody involved knew they were making a sudsy melodrama and really wanted to be making a serious character study instead. I don't get the feeling that Parker was as obviously bored as Ford was, but it still seemed like she was fighting to remain interested in the material. She also seemed faintly embarrassed by the "Liebestod" moment, or maybe that was just me.

On the whole it's one of those films that confronted me face-to-face with the fact that I don't actually like '50s movies, I like Douglas Sirk.

12:48 AM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I haven't seen Interrupted Melody Nick but I definitely take your point about Parker being relatively unrecognisable from film to film. After Caged I saw her in Three Secrets (which I think is from the same year) and was completely lost as to which woman she was. The same goes for Detective Story and it's juicy female trio -- particularly after Grant's Cannes win.

Like you I didn't see this as essential or even curious viewing (Tim's cynicism doesn't help!), but your write-up suggests it at least has something to offer. Plus three stars is pretty generous for you.

10:27 AM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

I haven't seen much of Parker's work, but what I have seen I've quite liked. The exception, for me, is The Man With The Golden Arm; her character is a borderline unplayable neurotic who clashes wildly with the rest of the film's tone, and Parker's big performance just makes it worse.

She's lots of fun in Scaramouche, though, playing Ava Gardner to Janet Leigh's Grace Kelly.

12:47 PM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Laika's right, Nick. Keep your Parker expectations way down for "The Man with the Golden Arm".
The whole performance is one big hysterical miscalculation. It's Kim Novak - understated and sympathetic -who provides that film's real actressing highlight. Still, i have to say I usually like Parker a lot. Her work in "Caged" is, as you indicated, fully worthy of competing with Swanson and Davis.
And , speaking of Davis, yes she's great - but I've never cottoned to her cartoonish (and perpetually over-rated) Mildred in "Of Human Bondage". I'm in that minority that thinks both Parker and Novak were far more effective and affecting in their respective cracks at the part.

1:16 PM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: I agree that the sudser/character study frictions are definitely at work in the film, but they paid off often enough that I minded less than you did. And yes, Parker is certainly a bit embarrassed about the "Liebestod" climax, but I feel like she's still trying to save it. It's not saveable, but she'd given enough of herself to the part over the two hours that I felt fondly toward her good-faith effort anyway.

@Cal: Yep, EP is exactly the kind of actress you can watch and even enjoy for a whole film without quite settling which one is her. Love it! I might be a little generous toward Melody here, but compared to several other 40s, 50s, and 60s films in similar veins, I think it comes out okay. (Obviously, there are others that are even stronger.) But I can easily imagine having Tim's reaction, which doesn't read as "cynical" to me so much as unimpressed. I imagine that being as much of an opera enthusiast as Tim is makes IM a tougher go, as well. Still, if you see it, I hope you'll like it, at least moderately.

@Laika: Interesting about Golden Arm, a film about which I rarely hear any misgivings. And thanks for the Scaramouche tip. It seems fitting that not only is Parker hard to track from role to role, but all of us who have encountered her seem to have confronted a significantly different set of films.

1:19 PM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Ken: You know it makes my day when you chime in. I agree that Davis in Of Human Bondage has never seemed deserving of all the hoopla, except insofar as it's a ragged, acerbic playing style that I don't see a lot of actresses attempting around that time. Still, "unusual" doesn't mean "great." In spite of the commonplace that Bette copped an undeserving Oscar for Dangerous as recompense for being overlooked in Of Human Bondage, I actually like her about equally in both roles, with the same pros and cons.

1:22 PM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Parker in "Interrupted Melody"! She's outrageously campy and exaggerated, especially when miming to the operas. Isn't there a montage where she's wheeling her wheelchair while belting "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"? Hilarious. I love every awful minute of her over-scaled performance.

In "Man With The Golden Arm," alas, I hate every awful minute of her over-scaled performance. She's weirdly subdued in "Bondage"--it took a while for her firebreathing style of overacting to set in.

Then there's her "Three Faces of Eve" knock-off, "Lizzie"! And "The Oscar." And the opening of the Mailer movie "American Dream." She has no equal as a shredder of scenery, that's for sure.

Loved the last line of your "Summertime" piece--we're on exactly the same page with our conflicted Hepburn love.

2:46 PM, May 13, 2010  
Blogger Artman2112 said...

i'm a HUGE Eleanor Parker fan so it was nice to stumble across this page! she is long overdue for some recognition as a fine actress and stunning beauty. i did a big blog tribute to her a while back, feel free to check it if interested, lots of pics and info!

2:02 PM, July 06, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, Artman! Glad to know there are such devoted Parker fans out there...

10:36 AM, July 12, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lawrence. Marjorie LAWRENCE.

10:39 PM, October 03, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Anonymous: Holy God, how did I DO that. Thanks for the correction! (For those joining late: I somehow wrote "Marjorie Reynolds" all over this post instead of "Marjorie Lawrence." Too much Holiday Inn!

10:45 PM, October 03, 2010  
Anonymous Mikel3363 said...

Eleanor Parker had that beautiful sensitivity - vulnerable; sometimes with an insecure edge, as if she could come unglued at any moment. That made her interesting to watch, and made me feel I wanted to "reach out" to hold her. Her physical beauty was indelible; her mutable acting had intelligence, emotional range, unpredictability and dimension. She was always "thinking". (Her underrated work in the 1940s was usually excellent, always striking!) She had a bit of mystery and pain; the camera loved her! I've also read she had a great sense of humor!

My favorite films of Eleanor Parker:

CAGED (Great for its time! She gave a complete performance.)

LIZZIE (She convincingly portrays a woman with multiple personalities with skill and excellence!)

SCARAMOUCHE (She was beautiful, sly and fun!)

THE WOMAN IN WHITE (interesting and atmospheric; her beauty here is captivating!)

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (TV movie from early 1970s. Her last scenes are good.)

DETECTIVE STORY (still excellent film!)

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (I preferred her performance over Bette Davis' - seemed more natural.)

I feel she was consistently at her best up through the early 1950s. Afterwards, she was often wonderful - always beautiful!

Many Blessings to her!! There are many who will never forget her!

7:18 PM, November 04, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember her in Frank Capra's comedy drama, "A Hole in the Head." She's ravishingly beautiful, dramatically engaging and a complete joy to watch. The rest of the cast, including Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter, provides a formidable match, and Parker holds her own in every scene in every way.

3:43 PM, July 12, 2015  
Anonymous Paul Day Clemens said...

Wow, I hardly know how to react to all these wildly conflicting assessments of my mom's work. (Yes, Eleanor Parker was my mother.) However, as far as 'Interrupted Melody' goes, that was actually her personal favorite of all her films, and she was passionately interested in every aspect of the material, no matter what some here may or may not have perceived to be the case. And, as for that final scene, she is clearly wearing lockable leg-braces, and so her pushing herself to a standing position, and then moving a couple steps, using a nearby surface for support, does not suggest some kind of miraculous resurrection of her lost physical abilities. (A friend of mine with cerebral palsy and unable to walk from birth, was able to do the same with the aid of braces and had no issue with the believability of that scene.) At any rate, I think one of the most impressive assessments of my mom's work came from Ellen Burstyn who, in a letter she wrote me some years ago, said that my mother's work had been a major inspiration to her, demonstrating the range and depth of character development that was possible for an actress within the arc of a single role.

11:17 AM, March 22, 2017  

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