Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Actress Files: Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1954 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: Kelly's trophy-copping performance has always intrigued me more in relation to her enduring cultural cachet and to the famous nominees she trumped than on its own terms. But she surpassed my expectations in Rear Window and Mogambo, so it was worth hoping she might do it again.

The Performance: It's entirely possible that at the tail end of 60 days and 44 performances, my head is starting to swim from so much actressing. But I hope there are more case-specific reasons why I find Grace Kelly's Oscar-snagging performance in The Country Girl so tricky to write about, or even to form a stable opinion about. It's one thing to be of two minds about a performance, even for the full length of a film. In Kelly's case, though, I was of different minds for different reasons depending on which sequence I was watching, and in shifting relations to a problematic film which itself deserves credit in lots of respects and yet feels over-strained and over-confident in lots of others.

I find this much solid ground to stand on vis-à-vis The Country Girl: Bing Crosby gives an exemplary turn as worn-out and drink-ridden stage actor Frank Elgin. The first half of his performance highlights Frank's broken self-confidence, his fear of failing in a performance that's meant to resuscitate his career and his spirit, and which he can't afford to say No to. We hear rumors of pronounced alcoholism in the past, and both Broadway and Hollywood have generically prompted us to expect some vivid backsliding, but the performance doesn't feel immediately centered on those questions. The second half of the film, though, does feature many more scenes where Frank's sharp, sweaty need for a drink is front and center, taking on a focalized life of its own, in some ways superseding the questions of professional ability and confidence. One of many rare feats that Crosby achieves is that his incarnations of the pitiable, aging veteran and the soaked, volatile lush are equally powerful and specific, and they persuasively add up to the same person. Many a performer would struggle through one of these facets of Frank while thriving with the other, but Crosby offers a detailed, integrated, poignant articulation of both. Moreover, as The Country Girl makes its climactic moves to wrestle specifically with the chicken-egg question of whether Frank drinks because he fails or fails because he drinks—framing these riddles in the dueling contexts of an unsilenceable grief (the heavy past) and of Frank's potential "comeback" show, lumbering toward its Broadway opening (the portentous future)—Crosby pulls all these threads of Frank's suffering into a sad, eloquent synthesis. Through him, The Country Girl puts forward a haunting essay, a kind of didactic parable but also very lived-in, about the problems of success and failure. Why does success in one part of life seem to engender so much resistance from other people or invite bitter cosmic setbacks in other arenas? And why does failure, by contrast, seem to have such an easier time of spreading virally from one realm of experience until it infectiously grips all the others? Once you're living in that grip, how and with whose help can you ever get out?

I don't mean to build up Crosby just to say that Kelly acts less convincingly than he does, but to suggest some of the themes and stakes that become important in The Country Girl through the clarity and force of his performance, and as another way of indicating that success in their two roles involves the agile negotiating of major balancing acts. The characters are highly ambivalent, the script underscores different dimensions of the drama at different times, and it has that heightened, even awkward transparency of theme and language that are typical of Clifford Odets's writing—all while nonetheless requiring that the actors sell that language as "real" in order for the film to work. Plus, the way Kelly's Georgie is structured into the story, she is both a co-lead alongside Crosby and William Holden (in the somewhat simpler role of the writer-director who hires Frank for his play), and a reactor/enabler of Crosby's Frank, to a degree unusual even by the standards of screen wives. When he's in a play, she has to get him through it, as agent, dresser, and morale booster, though the last bit is the hardest. When he wants a drink, she has to try to get him over it. When he inevitably does drink, she has to pull him out of trouble. And all of this upkeep doubles as triage on their marriage, additionally beset as it is by an age difference that has never become easy and a catastrophe in their past to which they will never stop responding. I said before that this battle with grief aligns with the production of Holden's play as two arenas in which Frank's capacity for success—for survival, really—will finally be measured. I add now that the sustainability of the marriage is a third, parallel framework in which Frank and Georgie stand to rise and fall, which is not made any easier when Bernie Dodd, the Holden character, draws the quick, hard conclusion that it's Georgie who most undermines Frank's competence and self-belief, and that she must be exported at all costs.

That's an incredible lot to manage in one part, particularly for such an inexperienced actress. And notwithstanding a few key speeches, Georgie doesn't get the kinds of big, blustery, emotional climaxes that are the frequent payoff of having so much to handle. There's barely even anything in the script that encourages the audience to relate to Georgie. We suspect that Bernie is wrong in his estimation of her, if only because his misogyny is so astonishing and unrelenting ("Did it ever occur to you that you and your strength might be the reason he IS weak?... To be frank, I find you slightly grotesque, Mrs. Elgin"), but the point of The Country Girl is never to bring us around to Georgie's side. Maybe the most admirable commitment made manifest in Kelly's performance is that she respects this vinegary dynamic and never asks the audience to applaud her, feel sorry for her, or even get very close to her. That's not to say that I don't wish Kelly were a bit more permeable and much more flexible in the part. But she takes the role and the script seriously, very much the young actress who expects to improve by working on "good material" written by and starring more estimable talents, even if it means jumping in way over the head of her nascent sense of technique.

I'll say this for Kelly, too: the factors I most expected to interfere with her performance, the dowdying of her physical appearance and the improbability of being married to twice-as-old Bing Crosby, don't cause her any trouble. I almost wish Odets didn't include the line about young women trying to conceal themselves by looking like old ladies because, not unusually in his writing, it saps a visual and a behavioral signal into a coarsely literal assertion. The guarded way Kelly moves and wears her bulky sweaters and large spectacles all feel persuasively like the turtle-shell habits of several years, not like desperate lunges at "acting" through accessorizing. Her merry adoration of her husband in the flashback scene, where a younger, beautiful Georgie beams at a younger, golden-voiced Frank in a recording studio—even as it feels like a predictable producer's gambit to make sure we aren't hiding Grace under so much woolly cotton for the whole movie—handily communicates a real attraction to and enjoyment of each other. I suppose I was most impressed by how Kelly and Der Bingle communicate a long marriage of impatience, discontent, tiny budgets, and echoing tragedy without opting for the cliché of love that has curdled into hate, or even dislike. Kelly manages to seem ornery at almost all times with Frank's shortcomings and prevarications and she is sometimes very hard on him, but without suggesting she has foreclosed on some fundamental sympathy. I never asked myself, "Why are they still married?" and I had expected to ask that soon and often. Just the way Georgie surprises Bernie later in the film with the blunt admission that she has "twice left, twice returned" conveys a sense of beleaguered but genuine attachment. It's also the moment when we hear that Georgie, though less of a chronic or destructive self-berater than her husband, nonetheless has some aptitudes of her own in this area. When Bernie initially can't work out whether or not Georgie is encouraging Frank to take the role in Bernie's play, and he asks, "Are you for him or against him?" I admired the bullish, crabby way in which Kelly's Georgie responds, "I'm his wife," not quite clarifying whether it's to be assumed that she's "for" her spouse or whether wifedom, for her, has been accretively naturalized as a life-sentence of stalemate between being "for" and being "against."

Kelly never orchestrates anywhere near the same kind of "take" on her scenes with Holden, and unfortunately for her, these are lengthy, frequent, important, and prosy scenes. I don't envy her having to embody such an object of withering chauvinist contempt for such a long while, lobbed by an actor who radiates such a flat aggressivity that it's hard not to respond in kind (whereas Crosby's acting seems to engender in Kelly some of the sensitivity and sympathy that are characteristic of his own style). In these scenes with Holden, though not only with Holden, we catch Kelly too often playing not the character so much as some idea she associates with the part, the script, the playwright, the genre of serious drama. She looks off acridly into the distance. She jams her hands into her pockets while she quarrels or mourns. She settles again and again on a kind of hollow, superior-sounding cast to her voice, as though Georgie should be speaking from a perspective of profundity or complex thought, but without implying that Kelly has worked out just what it is that Georgie is thinking. The titular speech, when George describes herself as just "a girl from the country" who thus cannot fathom the foibles, machinations, and vicissitudes of theater people, seems totally opaque to Kelly. Again, the writing is so here rhetorical that I sympathize with its being difficult to play. But it's also a speech you know, as an actor, that the audience will be scrutinizing, and a perfect platform for making one's own decisions about why Georgie is saying this and what else it signifies for other facets of the characterization.

Kelly feels inert about making these sorts of decisions, sailing ahead in that low, etherized register of free-floating disillusion, or of introspection about nothing in particular. She makes the same choice while reciting a related but even more opaque soliloquy about the mysteries of the theater when she surprises Frank and Bernie with an after-hours visit to the rehearsal stage. Later, Georgie makes a morbid allusion to seemingly happy people who startle everyone when they wind up hanging themselves from their chandeliers. When Bernie, nonplussed, asks if she's insinuating something about Frank, Kelly looks off diagonally and says "Yes and no," but so stiffly that neither half of the answer really clarifies anything or leads anywhere. Her Georgie appears to have been doling out a speech, not working through a thought or a specific agenda; she isn't communicating anything through her "Yes and no" response except for Kelly's own seemingly vague sense of the preceding language, as though the overt ambivalence of the line has ratified her own perplexity about Georgie and mercifully absolved her of having to work it all out.

Rhythmically, formally, and narratively, The Country Girl suffers some costly lapses as it nears its conclusion, such that anything that has been frustrating about the film or its performances up to the final 20 minutes or so is only intensified as a question mark or a misgiving. Worst of all, we get a dramatic ellipsis of five weeks just where we wouldn't want one. Again, it's not just down to the actors that the characters' revised ways of relating to each other don't make as much sense, and rarely feel as though they've been plausibly signaled in any of the earlier scenes. But I wouldn't say this leap is insuperable. Particularly in Kelly's case, it seems rather too easy to reframe so much of the performance on so much new ground, under an umbrella alibi that "much has changed" since the preceding fadeout, and losing even the distinguishing marks of Georgie's glum carriage and stalwart physique. Of course, several of the old conflicts keep percolating, but the ways in which Kelly's Georgie relates to them seem superficial or sentimental—not just out of step with her earlier portraits of the character, but a direct antithesis to the woman Georgie is in her first long sequence, where "sentiment" is precisely the curse word she flings at empty praise, impractical assurances, conspicuous avoidances. Kelly and Crosby have to shoulder one pivotal scene of exchanging a long, meaningful look during the recital of a piece of music, and I'd have hoped the director George Seaton could have spatialized the scene in more complex terms than shot/reverse, or guided the performances in ways that had a chance of connecting these close-ups more fully to earlier notes. But here too, Crosby—who has never previously struck me as a born screen actor—looks as though he's trying to hold onto as much tension and emotional prehistory as possible while still managing a fairly direct expression, whereas Kelly looks as though she's favoring the most obvious affect suggested by the scene, and in an almost effusive, shining way that I have trouble squaring with the figure Georgie has elsewhere been cutting, even very recently in the film.

"Don't keep things from me" and "He's shunned any responsibility" are Georgie's two most frequent refrains in complaints to or about her husband. It's tempting, if a bit easy and twitty, to say that she keeps too many things from us that we need to know about Georgie, and she shuns too much responsibility for exploring, coming to grips with the character. Theater training is probably a crucial asset for essaying this character, even in a screen incarnation; I have my beefs with contemporaneous screen performances like Shirley Booth's in Come Back, Little Sheba or Julie Harris's in The Member of the Wedding, which seem too fully, even garishly conceived with only the stage in mind, but Kelly seems paradigmatic of an opposite awkwardness, applying a screen-specific conception of acting and a still nascent one at that to the realization of a very complicated, occasionally thankless part that can only subsist on lots of rehearsal, an ample bag of technical facilities, and lots of spontaneous interactions with co-stars, leading to well-judged and practiced takeaways from those in-the-moment experiences. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Kelly is effective and memorable plenty of times: glaring at Frank with empathy and annoyance as he awaits his first reviews, walking into an unwanted broadcast on the radio and dropping into an angry sorrow, catching Frank as he tries to abscond with a bottle of liquor-heavy cough syrup, without even raising her eyes from her knitting.

From moment to moment, the performance is very up and down, and on the whole, it's an unusually potent merging of the compulsively watchable with the plainly inadequate, in a way that has nothing to do with kitsch. Save the occasional jaw-clenching, eyes-widening, Mae Marsh look of furious panic, as in a scene where she has to slap Holden for one of his sexist vituperations, I never thought Kelly was remotely embarrassing herself or embarrassing the film, even though it's hard not to feel that major opportunities were missed by not casting someone with more chops, more life experience. Georgie is younger than her husband, but 25 is awfully young to have already been through all the stages she is reported to have been through, or to know how to express those ordeals and their legacies for a screen audience (even the ones that turn out not to be true). Having now seen all the performances that garnered a Best Actress Oscar, I'd have to categorize Kelly among the 20 or so that just don't make the case to me that they ought to have carried anyone near the Academy podium, even in a weak year or for heavily qualified reasons. But at the same time, of those same 20 performances, hers is the only one that specifically falls short by testing a very new actress against truly highwire dramatic material (perhaps more formidable than even she realized), and where the infelicitous match of performer to vehicle doesn't yield a flat, a dispiriting, or a mockable result but a compelling spectacle of an earnest performer who wins a couple of key rounds with the script. She goes down, ultimately, but never without a good, inspiring fight. If she were ever really electrifying in her peak scenes, as Halle Berry is in Monster's Ball—the only other winning performance that seems to marry palpable ambition, dubious technique, fitful insight, and impressive sincerity in something like the same way—I might be able to privilege the half-full glass in thinking about Kelly's work. That's what's happened over time for me with Berry, and I just saw The Country Girl yesterday. For now, her Georgie Elgin feels like a glass half-empty, but even if it therefore seems seriously undeserving of an Oscar, I do think it warrants our respect.

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

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Blogger Fritz said...

I really liked her performance much more than I expected because it seemed always clear that she wasn't the greatest talent (but what a beauty!!!). But from the first moment she appeared in The Country Girl I was fascinated. Her worn-out voice and beaten-down appearence are very convincing and it's wonderful to see how she always keeps the character in the dark. It's never clear what her real intentions and feelings are but Kelly manages to make her very three-dimensional still. She's not only Frank's wife, but also his mother, his agent (as you said), his biggest fan and biggest critic. To me, it looks like she simply doesn't want to take care of him anymore but her feelings prevent her from leaving him for good. She does have some rather melodramatic moments at the ending (especially after the kiss) but overall, I think she did a great job. I agree that Kelly was too young for the part but she never really made it noticeable.

Wow, just one left!

By the way, it's amazing how you are able to watch a performance once and then write those detailed essays on them!

12:33 PM, June 09, 2010  
Blogger John T said...

Only you could take a performance that I have always been completely apathetic toward and make it seem fresh and interesting. Film criticism in print wouldn't be a dying artform if you wrote for the NYT Nick.

I'm glad you discussed Crosby here, though-I've always thought this was one of his best turns. What I think was so moving about him here was that he really was at the tail end of his fame-while he would always be a "star" this was the last film for which he really earned that "star" title, after this entering that period of his career of standing ovations and film clips. It feels like you can tell that his moment in the sun is almost over in his performance, as he starts to take risks with the character.

12:51 PM, June 09, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I also prefer Crosby in the film. I wish I'd seen it recently enough to discuss the specifics you cite here.

She is too young for the part and too inexperienced and i absolutely agree that it's the type of performance that stage training would really help with. I like to think someone like Laura Linney could do it justice.

I think one of the reasons i struggle to appreciate "deglam" performances is that I nearly always feel like the actress in question is doing the opposite of what she thinks she's doing. Actresses often want to be well regarded for their talent and not their beauty but when it comes right down to it they don't realize how often they are leaning on that very same beauty, especially when there's consciously downplaying it to signify Character. Lack of glamour is not really that dramatizable of a character trait... you have to dig deeper than that.

I think there's plenty of depth to be dug up in The Country Girl but i don't think she comes equipped with a proper shovel.

Interesting though that the performance she beat also involved a difficult marriage, success vs. failure within the same person, and alcohol.

1:07 PM, June 09, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

A brilliant analysis of this performance's strengths and weaknesses, although I'm going to have to come out strongly on Kelly's side because I don't think she's going to get much support otherwise. The Berry comparison is an interesting and apt one, but I don't think Kelly ever missteps so egregiously as Berry does in her sex scene with Thornton, or the scene in which she assaults her son. It is precisely a stage-derived, post-method, post-Cassavetes improv approach that produces the very worst elements of Berry's otherwise really interesting and admirable performance, and it is precisely the lack of that register that I appreciate in Kelly's performance.

She isn't quite as nimble as Crosby, it is true - and my god, this is the only film I could ever express that sentiment about (how did he nail this so precisely?) - and yes, she is not helped by the love triangle soap operatics. But I think the sparks she strikes with Holden's relentlessly one-note opposition are actually oddly compelling precisely because they are so unprecedented on screen. Her sour passive resistance to his misogyny captures the most unique facet of the script - the complete irrelevance of his good opinion, or bad opinion, or the fact that he might even hold an opinion, of this woman, to this woman (making said love triangle doubly unfortunate).

So not perfect - I'd give it three stars myself - but an infinitely more interesting choice than most of what they were handing out actress oscars to in the fifties. And in this case, I think it was the right actress in the right year, just the wrong performance. Kelly gives what I will always, I imagine, think of as the definitive 'star' performance of studio-era Hollywood in 'Rear Window'. The way she interacts with environment and leading man, the way she holds her body and wears her outfits, her unshowy but devastating line delivery (of a screenplay that is up there with 'All About Eve' in the wit department, but has so much else to offer that nobody ever notices), and most of all her amazing awareness of what the camera needs of her at every single moment... You'd never catch her in moments as misjudged in size or tone as you catch Holden in throughout 'The Country Girl' - or indeed, as you catch best actresses throughout the ages in (say, Liza Minnelli in 'Cabaret', a great performance but at times barely watchable - or the much more controlled Streisand in 'Funny Girl', which is technically flawless except her inability to actually interact with anybody...). In that way I find myself gravitating to Kelly's performance over the more psychologically rich but rather narcissistic work of later actresses. At no point do I not believe in Georgie or her towering bitterness, even if at moments I don't comprehend it.

5:06 PM, June 09, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

An admirably fair-minded summation, even if I tip towards the glass-half-full feeling (and agree with much of what Laika says, specifically on the extra star and the fascinating Berry comparison). I think there's a case to be made that Kelly's tamped-down, oddly indecisive, and certainly uneven playing opens up some unexpected vulnerabilities and weaknesses in a character who might just seem silently, monolithically indignant in her woman-wrongedness, if a more experienced or intractable advocate for the acting cause of wronged women had snagged the part. Does that make any sense? I agree with Fritz that she's instantly quite compelling and better than we might have had any right to expect, and with you that she loses her way in several of the Holden scenes, particularly towards the end, and with everyone that Crosby is a total revelation here. I may have liked both the film and Kelly a small notch more than you, but it's hard to disentangle a thorny ambivalence on both scores, right? When she's disappointing, it's because Georgie doesn't seem to be fighting hard enough, and then the film is a let-down by association. I think it's odd and a little unfortunate that she won, for what's basically promising, hard-graft work that's now stigmatised with some justification as overrated; if they'd just stuck with the nomination and given it to Garland, I'm sure the perf would be remembered better. And anyway, acknowledging that I haven't yet seen O'Herlihy, isn't Best Actor the real race for the ages here?

6:48 PM, June 09, 2010  
Blogger David Giancarlo said...

I am nervous about how you will respond to Judy Garland in A Star is Born. I hope that you will love it, but also hope you won't love it more than Danielle Darrieux's performance in Madame de..., as it is my favourite performance ever, and I want hope it will hold onto your personal win. :D

12:42 AM, June 10, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Fritz: Well, as you know, I agree with your point about how Kelly preserves the ambiguities in the performance, but I also think it's only fair to credit a lot of that to the writing, and to ask whether the character needed to stay quite so "in the dark" right through the end, on virtually every level. But I've stated my feelings quite enough on all that!

@John: I agree! Crosby's so good in this, it's tempting to write a whole essay just about him, but I reacted the same way to the resonance with his own late-career positioning, even if Bing and Frank are hugely different people in lots of respects. And I appreciate that he is able to trade in our knowledge that he's probably coming to the end of really great parts without seeming like he's sentimentally trading on our feelings about "Bing" as a shortcut to winning our sympathies for "Frank."

@Nathaniel: That is a totally good point about what goes wrong in a lot of "deglam" performances. I just don't think "deglam" is one of Kelly's problems here. She really doesn't seem like she's thinking about her looks, or trying to dramatize her lack of glamour. Like I said, I expected that to be an issue, and I really didn't feel that it was. To each his own, though!

@Fritz: I agree here, too, that the "towering bitterness" is the great takeaway. I suppose it's true that Kelly is never as extravagantly bad or excessive as Berry is in some of her most questionable moments, but as you say, we're dealing with totally different epochs and styles of film acting. I think some of Kelly's flattest line-readings and body language are as big a default on the potentials of early-50s studio-style acting as Berry's "red gumball" / "make me feel GUUUD" stuff is by the standards of post-Cassavetes improv. That is, I'm not sure that Berry's lows are lower than Kelly's, so much as they are just different kinds of "lows," set against different standards. (Though, even taking that into account, I might agree with you anyway.) Certainly I'd have applauded a Rear Window nod for her.

@Tim: Selling the "wronged-woman" angle more vociferously absolutely doesn't seem like the way to go, and I agree that it's wonderful Kelly didn't go there. Reviews of Frances McDormand in last season's Broadway revival suggest that she attempted to show a Georgie who uses mordant, ironic comedy as a longstanding coping mechanism, and that doesn't sound like a sturdy route either. I much prefer Kelly's sincerities, even when they feel flat or rough or un-thought-through. Definitely agree that she's have gained from not winning... not unlike how, say, Cate Blanchett gained immeasurably by not winning for Elizabeth and Kate Winslet gained by not winning for anything for so long.

@David: Welcome! Hard to speculate on this point - tune in tomorrow for words on Garland - but I'm so thrilled to hear that a hardcore Darrieux fan is visiting the site! Cheers.

3:47 AM, June 10, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

@Nick -- well, you know it's my blind spot. I'm fully aware. I just hate it when actresses don't appreciate their world reknowned beauty. That's an assett, not a curse!

p.s. agree with everyone that the Halle Berry comparison is fascinating and apt.

@Laika -- you make me want to revisit REAR WINDOW immediately. Maybe I'm one of those people whose never noticed how much it's offering even though I completely love it.

@TimR -- 1954 the best actor trifecta of Crosby, Mason and Brando is indeed rich rich rich but I can't say that I don't think Bogart's Mutiny spoils the perfection of that lineup (I also haven't seen O'Herlihy)

9:53 AM, June 10, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Everyone: As good as the actresses are, the actors really are phenomenal in 1954. I haven't seen Bogart yet, but deciding between Brando, Crosby, and Mason just seems colossally unfair... and though my memories of O'Herlihy aren't as clear as I'd like, and he certainly wasn't on the level of his peers, it was a more than honorable take on poor Robinson. (Still, where on earth is Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window?)

10:13 AM, June 11, 2010  

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