Saturday, April 26, 2008

Happy Just to Be Nominated

My last post turned out to be not so much Last Post as 21 Gun Salute to Grace Kelly’s work in 1953’s "Mogambo". The general idea being that - of the five supporting actress performances nominated that year – hers was the only one to merit that level of recognition. Even situated as it was – in a pretty ordinary jungle potboiler –it’s impressive . Nervous energy, cleverly informed and shaped by instinct, discipline and a certain amount of daring. Definitely work of considerable promise. And the mere three years of career she had left were hardly enough to fully deliver on that promise. Still, it would be wrong to say the other four nominated performances were bad. They were actually all quite okay. But, honestly, not much more than that.
For instance, Geraldine Page in "Hondo". As in Grace Kelly’s case, the picture was an early screen credit for her. But Page’s movie career lasted decades and left us with a raft of memorably etched performances. F.Murray Abraham may have been the only one kneeling onstage on Oscar night, 1986, when Page picked up her trophy for "The Trip to Bountiful". But discerning audiences and most of her professional peers had been doing it – figuratively - for years. She was, by common consensus, the definitive actor’s actor. When you heard Page was in a film, you automatically started thinking Oscar nomination. And though the Academy limited her to a merely sensational eight nominations, several more wouldn’t have been out of order ("Toys in the Attic", "Dear Heart","I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can" are titles that spring to mind immediately). Even more impressive when you realize that Page was primarily a stage actress – one of the theatre’s most admired. And though her filmography isn’t all that extensive, really just a number of thrilling punctuation marks in a long stage career, what she did manage to commit to film stands as enduring proof of an amazing talent. How incredible it would have been to see her onstage! I wonder if she ever did "The Glass Menagerie"? Every time I think of that play, I imagine what a wonderful Amanda she’d have made.
"Hondo" wasn’t technically her movie debut. Alert viewers will notice her brief appearance in a Fox programmer called "Taxi" with Dan Dailey But her screen credit in "Hondo" read "introducing Geraldine Page". And for most movie-goers this was their first look at her. The picture was hardly an indicator of the actress’ future film career. For one thing it was a western. And she didn’t make many of those. And it’s always a little surprising to realize that an actress who was to become so celebrated made her official film debut in a 3D movie. Then again, come to think of it, so many of her later performances were a lot like 3D, providing audiences with simultaneous multiple perspectives. If you hankered for the giddy pleasure of a heightened movie experience, Page was the lady who could give it to you. The tics, the mannerisms, vocal and visual, the quicksilver transitions, the unique, eccentric energy – they were Page trademarks. But she knew when to use them and when not to. When to dole them out and when to drown you in them. For "Hondo", she kept them pretty close to her vest. Tennessee Williams it wasn’t. But it was a well put together western, handsomely shot, skilfully written and very entertaining, charged with a nice forward momentum. Page plays a frontier wife and mother – basically on her own with a young son (her husband’s a chronically absent gallivanter). Leaving her to run a homestead and raise a child in remote Apache country. Page makes a solid impression – straight, clean and stalwart – with few hints in her performance of the dramatic filigree she’d become famous for in later years. And if there are no great fireworks with John Wayne (Maureen O’Hara was pretty much the only one to ever pull that off), the teaming was smooth and believable. And though the performance didn’t convey the compelling promise that Kelly’s did in "Mogambo" – or give much indication of the heights Page would later scale, it was, nevertheless, assured and appropriate. Still, I’d say it was a little over rewarded with that Oscar nomination.
Which brings us to the 3 R’s. Not, in this case, "Readin, Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic" but rather the three other ’53 nominees who weren’t Grace Kelly – Rambeau, Ritter and Reed. The Joan Crawford curio "Torch Song" - unlike "Mogambo" – was no box-office smash. It’s intriguing to speculate what audiences who did go made of it in 1953. The whole point of the exercise seems to have been to celebrate the – at this point - Medusa-like charms of its star. But it’s a doggedly glum celebration . And Marjorie Rambeau is little more than a splash from the mud puddle as Crawford storm-troops her way through a series of airless drawing rooms and grim musical numbers. Rambeau’s contribution – quickly checking off a few standard blowsy mother-of-the-star cliches

– was competent but hardly stood out. Years before, she’d played a similar part - and one that gave her a lot more opportunity to shine. That was in "The Primrose Path"(1940). And she was best thing in the picture (though, admittedly, the film itself was only marginally better than "Torch Song"). That netted her an Oscar nomination too. A deserved one, I’d say. But, here, the nomination’s a real puzzler. Was it backstage studio politicking at work? Was Rambeau really that well liked by her colleagues? Or was it just another example of the vagaries of the Academy’s odd multi-tiered nomination process at work? Whatever the case, speculations on how this nomination even happened remain more interesting than the performance itself.
Thelma Ritter’s work in the goodish (but not that goodish) "Pickup on South Street" provided more likely nomination fodder. The beloved character actress was already developing into a perennial Oscar bridesmaid . And voters were eager to hand her a trophy. (They never quite succeeded – 6 nominations, 6 losses). Yet, oddly enough, they often ignored her finest accomplishments ("A Letter to Three Wives", "A Hole in the Head" and – above all – her sublime contribution to "The Misfits")
Except for a touching final scene, Ritter’s Apple Annie style character in "Pickup" doesn’t really rank with her best work. She’s a kind of urban Mammy Yokum, not so much a believable character but , rather, a walking slice of contrived local color. It doesn’t help that she’s presented as a shady street peddler who basically supplements her income by regularly informing on fellow con-artists. Everyone seems to know it, yet, for the most part, they all stay pretty chummy with her. Doesn’t make sense. One wouldn’t have thought that the distance between Ritter’s patented Bronx-y wisecracks and Damon Runyon would be that great. Yet the faux Runyon dialogue she’s saddled with here boxes her up , constricting her normal speech patterns just enough to rob them of their usual naturalness. Admittedly, the studio could have found even less hospitable roles for her. Someone once asked her why she left Fox in the mid-fifties and Ritter reportedly quipped, "I don’t look that good in a toga". So, no, this wasn’t as extreme as ,say, plunking her down into the Coliseum with Demetrius and the Gladiators. But it still wasn’t an entirely comfortable fit. That pretty much comes down to the writing, I think. But the end result’s that a role meant to spotlight Ritter only succeeds in diminishing her a little. Too bad. Still, as I said, she asserts her distinctive talent beautifully in that final scene, breaking through the role’s constraints to give the picture its one thoroughly effective emotional jolt. Me, I’d still withhold the nomination though, on the basis that the performance remains essentially compromised by those earlier scenes.
I don’t like "From Here to Eternity" – a dull soap opera chock full of its own ( supposed) importance. The Oscar for Sinatra’s unexceptional performance at least re-ignited his professional confidence and popularity, inspiring him to a series of performances that really were Oscar calibre – "Man with the Golden Arm", "The Joker is Wild", "Some Came Running". Burt Lancaster does another of his overstated takes on understatement. Clift’s in early haunted mode. I really don’t think he got that right till ’61 in "The Misfits" and "Judgment at Nuremberg". Here it’s just agitated navel gazing. Donna Reed actually won the trophy that year for her Alma, dance-hall

hostess (read hooker). It’s a sensible performance, and Reed ‘s conscientious about conveying Alma’s mix of steely determination and vestigial sweetness. But though her work represents one of the film’s better features, it’s not particularly memorable. This is an earlier example of the Shirley Jones/"Elmer Gantry" syndrome. An actress identified with virginal good girl roles accepts a racy bad girl part and is rewarded – not so much for playing it well – but just for playing it at all. Audiences and voters seemed over-awed by the celebrated reputation of James Jones’ novel. That certainly played a part in the film’s popularity. And it may have been a contributing factor to Reed’s Oscar win. Oddly, the parallels between Reed and Shirley Jones didn’t end here. Both later achieved their greatest success as stars of innocuous but wildly popular TV sitcoms. And in spite of the essentially flimsy nature of their respective vehicles, both blossomed beautifully as actresses during the course of their long runs. Beyond revealing impressive reserves of charm and beauty, the two became experts at comic timing and droll line readings. And both ladies could bring off a quiet, reflective moment with the best of them. I know I’m talking about "The Partridge Family". But check it out sometime. Jones is really good in it. As is Reed in "The Donna Reed Show". Two classy and talented ladies who, for years, conveyed more about the joys of good acting – and on a weekly basis, too – than pretty much anything I’ve been able to extract from either "From Here to Eternity" or "Elmer Gantry".
At any rate, for a wider range of opinions on the Oscar nominated ladies of 1953, be sure to visit Stinkylulu’s next Supporting Actress Smackdown this coming Sunday (April 27).

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