Thursday, March 31, 2011

Best Supporting Actress Grades (Pt I)

A list of every Oscar-winning performance I've seen for Best Supporting Actress with my grades and assessments.

1939 Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind C+
Character: Mammie, the house servant

Analysis: Imagine that you know nothing about the Oscars but are armed with a relatively good knowledge of the Civil Rights movement and have seen your share of old-timey films. Now someone asks you when do you think an African-American first won an Oscar. Your guess would probably be way later than 1939.

It’s a pretty remarkable, forward-thinking achievement that the Academy honored someone like McDaniel this early in history. At the same time, McDaniel’s character is controversial because it was very much a stock stereotype (known in cultural studies textbooks as “the Mammy“ which I believe was named after her) that contributed to the negative perceptions of blacks as joyfully subservient to white overlords. The debate when discussing McDaniel has always been centered on whether she transcended the mammy stereotype. I’d say only marginally.

1947 Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement A

Character: Magazine fashion editor Anne Dettrey who befriends and takes up the cause of the crusading journalist protagonist (Gregory Peck)

Analysis: It’s a testament to Holm’s staying power that most comments I’ve read about this film come from people who are baffled as to why Peck’s crusading journalist character ended up with Dorothy McGuire’s weak-willed heiress rather the outgoing fashion editor. Holme’s Anne Dettrey is spunky and outgoing and I might have considered her a little over the top until I came to the conclusion that her profession basically required her to be a socialite. I could have easily seen Holm's character cut out of this film and pasted into a screwball comedy in place of Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. At the same time, it never feels like Holm is in the wrong movie here.

1948 Claire Trevor, Key Largo B+
Character: Gaye Dawn, a washed-up floozy hanging out with a  band of mobsters as they seek refuge a hotel in Key Largo, Florida amid a storm

Analysis: I like to see a film like Key Largo rewarded here because while it's not quite a classic, it's a solid film that’s overshadowed by other entries of a legendary director's filmography. The film might very well contain John Huston's best set piece and could be arguably counted as his most suspenseful and tightly scripted piece of drama.

What's interesting to note here is that Dawn was mostly  superfluous to the plot. For most of the film, she's neither vital towards Rocco's plans nor the protagonist's development. When she does finally impact the plot, it's not a particularly well-thought-out plot point (she took one gangster's gun but what about the other 3 on the boat?). 

I only mention that as a curious side note because it really has no bearing to how I viewed the character. Trevor's portrayal of Dawn was a little deeper and a little sadder than your average floozy helped out by a couple of stand-out scenes. Dawn's sad tolerance of her gangster cronies insulting her and her begging her  boyfriend not to leave her are both stand-out scenes. What likely clinched her the Oscar, however, was her a capella rendition of "Moanin' Low" sung as a last-ditch effort to get one more drop of alcohol. Trevor has the hard job of singing well but not too well as she's supposed to be playing a has-been.

The backstage story here is interesting:  When Trevor learned that she had to sing, she asked Huston if she could take singing lessons. Although Huston granted her request, the director wanted her to sound unrehearsed so he surprised her by shooting that scene before her first singing lesson and the rest is history.

1950: Josephine Hull, Harvey B-
Character: A middle-aged woman, Veta Louise Simmons, mistakenly incarcerated in a mental institution when she tries to seek mental help for her brother (Elwood, played by James Stewart)

Analysis: Josephine Hull reminds me a lot of Aunt Bee from “The Andy Griffith Show” or Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers movies. The stuffy quasi-motherly old lady upon who (in the case of the latter) makes a perfect foil to the chaos and comedy that engulfs the scene.

I'm going to make it a rule to avoid comparing the Oscar winners to their competition in that given year, but that doesn't mean I can or should avoid comparing these actresses to past versions of themselves. If Hull, for example, is being rewarded for adding a dark twist to the prissy aunt character (trying to lock up her brother so that she’ll once again fit in with her society friends and attract a proper suitor for her daughter isn’t really the most honorable of intentions), then this role pails in comparison to her performance in "Arsenic and Old Lace." As Aunt Abby, Josephine Hull seems like the sweetest old lady until we learn 20 minutes in, that she and her sister lured old men to her basement to poison them. Her past self is the ultimate in dark humor and it's hard to ignore the comparison here.

The clincher in Hull's performance is the film's resolution which centers around her understanding and empathizing with her brother. It's an emotional moment pulled off by Hull that justifies the film's status as something more than a simple popcorn comedy.

1953: Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity A
Character: Alma Burke, a sophisticated call girl (aka prostitute) in Hawaii as the bombing of Pearl Harbor nears, who gets romantically entangled with a rebellious young private (Montgomery Clift).

Analysis: “Analysis” might not be a fitting term here because I just loved this character and there’s not much more to it that. Montgomery Clift’s antihero character is so enigmatic and Alma’s slow crawl to his heart is just about the only thing that makes us empathize with him.

1961: Rita Moreno, West Side Story A
Character: The fiery Puerto Rican Anita is the proprietor of a dress shop and confidante to Natalie Wood’s Maria

Analysis: There's a personal authenticity to this role as Rita Moreno herself was one of the few Latin American actors in Hollywood at the time who didn't whitewash her name (although it should be pointed out that Moreno isn't her real last name but you get the point) or ethnicity (see Rita Hayworth, Martin Sheen, etc). It's also a well-known fact that Moreno was also raped as a child and channeled those repressed emotions during the scene where she's roughed up by the Jets in Doc's general store.

My praise isn't just reserved for Moreno, however. The demanding nature of the song and dance numbers leaves me impressed with the entire ensemble. Each of the three secondary leads (Moreno, Russ Tamblyn as Riff and George Chikaris as Bernardo) brought their own talents to the mix and it's just as sweet that Chikaris also won an Oscar for that film.

1966: Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf B
Character: Honey, an invitee to a small dinner party that descends into a night of hostility and chaos

Analysis: For any fans of the Office out there, the fourth season episode "Dinner Party" was modelled after this film.

This performance topped the list by of the 10 most histrionic Oscar-winning performances for a supporting actress ("She sells a performance that should be shown at Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings"). It also topped an internet poll for best in show.

It is certainly a performance that's out there. The play as a whole is just a bizarre piece of drama in which four people (two couples) are constantly changing from being offensive to being offended to being giddy and carefree, to being devastated, to everything in between. The screenplay alone requires all four actors to clear massive hurdles before the storyline begins to make sense to the audience. I think Sandy and the others completed it. My only issue is that I felt like the other three actors were leading the race (to continue the hurdling analogy) while Sandy Dennis was struggling to stay in the field.

1970: Helen Hayes, Airport D+
Character: Ada Quonsett, a scheming senior citizen who cheerily scams her way aboard several flights and racks up frequent flier miles at the expenses of the airlines.

Analysis: Jacqueline Bisset as a flight attendant who is coping with her newfound pregnancy at the hands of her lead pilot; Jean Seberg as the whipsmart right-hand man of the workohaulic airport manager; and Maureen Stapleton (an eventual Oscar winner 11 years later) as the preoccupied wife of a potential suicide bomber are all better choices than Helen Hayes here. Hayes' character provides some welcome comic relief and there's a certain delight in discovering that Ada Quonsett is not all that she seems, but there's a difference between how a character might bring a lot to the story verses an actor bringing a lot to the character.

The only silver lining here is that the film that served as the inspiration for the now-more-famous Jerry Zucker comedy "Airplane!" is an unexpectedly rich and entertaining film with characters that go very deep. With great performances by Bisset, Seberg, Stapleton, as well as Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Van Heflin, Airport has a very underrated ensemble for a disaster film and I'm glad that at least someone won an acting Oscar for this film.

1974: Ingird Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express C-
Character: Greta, a Swedish missionary on board a train car the night someone is murdered

Analysis: There are few standards by which I can universally measure all of these performances but a cold and hard rule should be that you shouldn't expect an Academy Award if you can't even outact the other supporting actresses within your own ensemble. Granted, the film boasts one of the best ensembles of the decade and the equal share of screen time between Bergman and three or four other ladies might lead to a splintering of opinions on who stands out the most. Still, I have trouble even seeing the argument that Bergman is the ensemble's stand-out character. In my opinion, Bergman has nothing on the flamboyant performances of Lauren Bacall or Jacqueline Bisset in terms of dramatic impact. Although there's something to be said for the power of a quiet performance, Bergman is  practically invisible in this large ensemble piece. Besides, it's not that much of a stretch playing Swedish when you consider that's Bergman's home country.

1975: Lee Grant, Shampoo C-
Character: Felicia Karpf, the wife of a Los Angeles businessman who introduces her on-the-side lover and hairdresser to her husband so that he may invest in his hair salon

Analysis: If I fail to touch on any prevalent attitudes about what Shampoo is really about in this analysis, bear in mind I'm writing about this performance and film in somewhat of a vacuum, as I know nothing about the film except what's on the back of the DVD cover. With that being said, Grant also commits the cardinal sin "Thou Shall Not be Overshadowed by your Costars and Expect to Win an Academy Award."

To be fair, the story demands that she be a forgettable character: The thematic thrust of the film is that the protagonist has lost his moral compass in his sex life and, as a result, the three women he's screwing are all interchangeable to him. Goldie Hawn plays the woman he begins the film with, Julie Christie plays the woman he hopes to end with, and Lee Grant's character is just a conduit in the middle. So to be fair to Grant, her character's not supposed to be remarkable because the story's told from the point of view of a person to whom Grant's character is insignificant. Of the Oscar races I'd like to see unfold in real time, Lee Grant's would be an interesting one because I have no idea what Oscar voters saw in her.

1976 Beatrice Straight, Network B
Character: Louise, the estranged wife of a television executive engaged in an extramarital affair

Analysis: Straight was on-screen for five minutes and forty seconds, making her performance the shortest of any Oscar winner to date. It seems a little unfair that for just six minutes of on-screen work, someone should be granted what now amounts to the greatest honor an actor can have. At the same time, if you took the highlight reel of some of these other performances, you'd probably get about six really good minutes.

That being said, this is a film that will make drama teachers' mouths water. There are several scenes that should be watched a minimum of fifty times by aspiring drama students. Beatrice Straight's one big scene (she's in another scene that lasts about 10 seconds) where she confronts her cheating husband fits that bill. She descends into all kinds of different emotional levels and it's a very convincing transition through each of them. When she goes from yelling at her husband to facing the fact that neither of them knows what to do, her delivery of the line "I'm not gonna give you up that easily Max" is just so perfect in the moment.

1980 Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard B
Character: Lynda Dummar, a go-go dancer married to a perennially unlucky drifter of a husband

Analysis: Well, the feminist movement can be relieved that this award didn't start a "Show your boobs and get an Oscar" trend. For those who are curious, Steenburgen shows significantly more skin here than as Auntie Clara in Back to the Future III. I was not expecting that.

Moving on...., Steenburgen's character has a little bit of ditziness to her which adds color to the character. Underneath that, however, she's not only a forward-thinking woman, but she is more mature than her down-on-his-luck husband and can see that he has no place in her future. It's a performance to which there's quite a bit underneath the surface.

1982 Jessica Lange, Tootsie B
Character: Julie Nichols, Soap opera actress and single mom who's the object of the cross-dressing protagonist's (Dustin Hoffman's) affections

Analysis: The question I'd like to pose here is: Does it take more acting effort to fall in love with someone than to be the person that someone is falling for? In the case of the latter, you have to sell the audience that you're the kind of girl who's worth all the trouble. Lange also has to make the character innocent (or at least naive enough to be fooled by Dorsey/Dorothy's ruse) but not entirely stupid. With her trademark Southern charm, Lange sells those qualities-innocent, virginal, charming- in every film she's in. Nothing new here, but it's a role that highlights her pretty well.

1983 Linda Hunt, Year of Living Dangerously A
Character: Billy, a half-Chinese photographer who gives professional and personal guidance to an Australian foreign correspondent (Mel Gibson) covering the Indonesian civil war.

Analysis: When I wrote "Billy" in the synopsis, I was not misspelling "Billie." The character in the source novel is male and director Peter Weir opted to cast a female. Supposedly, it's not some commentary on gender roles but rather Weir just felt Hunt was best for the part. This would make sense in a high school play where your star drama student is a female and maybe there aren't enough guys trying out. But this is Hollywood where there should be more than enough capable males showing up to audition for any speaking part in any movie you are casting for.

In the end, I have absolutely zero complaints because even if I'm not reading the film as any commentary on gender and don't award Hunt any "degree of difficulty" points for switching sexes, it is a terrific performance. Billy's eager smile when he meets Guy fills the mood with a childlike enthusiasm. It later resonates in a haunting way as he/she bears that grin with his/her last words. It's also a testament of just how seamlessly Hunt fit into the role that the interplay between Billy and his unrequited love (played by Sigourney Weaver) comes even halfway close to working. The sight of Sigourney Weaver dancing with a woman nearly two feet shorter than her who has romantic longings for her is highly jarring (and must have been even more so in 1984 when lesbian pairings were less common on screen) but it halfway works here (to be fair, it probably wouldn't work with anyone), but it would be a complete disaster if Hunt hadn't played it so well.

1984: Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India B-
Character: Mrs. Moore, a liberal-minded woman in England traveling to visit her son in India. She does not share his racist views and wishes to see the "real India"

Analysis: Ashcroft had been acting as early as 1935 (she was in the Hitchcock movie "39 Steps") so it's been a long time coming for the lady. I'm a softie for awards that are given to someone at the end of their career if it doesn't come off as a lifetime achievement award. In this case, it didn't. Mrs. Moore displays a certain amount of youthful exuberance and she's enigmatic enough to make the deep levels of symbolism work.

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