Friday, March 4, 2011

Oscar? I Hardly Know Her!

Werth: Welcome to our First Annual Oscar Post-Show Wrap-up, Wise!

Wise: It’s good to be here, Werth.

Werth: So since everyone else has re-hashed the ceremony, the winners, the fashions—

Wise: —Melissa Leo’s F-bomb—
Werth: —and Charlie Sheen.

Wise: Charlie Sheen wasn’t at the Oscars.

Werth: I know, but everyone keeps talking about him.  So, we here at Film Gab are going to focus on an overlooked Oscar topic—

Wise: The losers. It must be terrible riding high on the rush of earning a nomination, being feted all over town, getting gussied up by some chic designer for the red carpet strut only to come crashing back to earth when someone else’s name is read.  And the worst part is having your disappointment broadcast around the globe.

Werth: I think the biggest loser this year had to be beautiful, classy, and amazingly talented Annette Bening.

Wise: Because she’s married to Warren Beatty?

Werth: Because she’s been left at the altar four times by old man Oscar.

Wise: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride... except to Warren Beatty.

Werth: But Annette should take heart! She is in good best actress loser company. In fact, in 1951, there were two monumental lady losers.

Wise: I’ll bet neither of them was married to Warren Beatty.

Werth: Not that we know of. The Best Actress category at the 1951 Oscars had two of the most iconic performances in film history going head-to-head: Bette Davis’ willfull, grand dame of the theater Margot Channing in All About Eve; and Gloria Swanson’s neurotic, silent-film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Wise: Now THAT’S a film character throw-down I’d like to see!

Werth: Lots of name-calling, nail-scratching and smoking. Helped along by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning dialogue, Davis is a force of nature in All About Eve as the aging theater star who has to ward off the advances of an ambitious underling. She is tough, elegant, funny and at certain moments, vulnerable. Davis’ song-worthy eyes flash with an intensity that goes beyond mere performance. She becomes Channing and endows her with the fire that made Davis one of the most fascinating actresses, and Channing one of her most fascinating characters.

Wise: Until she did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Werth: Speaking of crazy old ladies, Davis’ 1951 formidable competition came from an old, silent film star playing an old, silent film star. By the time Gloria Swanson made Sunset Boulevard she was already a Hollywood legend, but she had been out of the limelight for many years. So her turn as forgotten silent screen siren Norma Desmond seemed eerily close to home. Swanson always declared she was nothing like Desmond, which is good to hear. As Desmond, her wide-eyed focus, her grandly inflected voice, her flailing gestures with a wire cigarette holder clutching her finger are so over-the-top that her desperation practically reaches through the screen to grab and shake you. Swanson’s genius was to make this grand Guignol character noble and proud, so that as she descended into madness, we pitied instead of laughing at her.

Wise: It would be hard to choose which performance deserved the Oscar more.

Werth: Apparently Academy members that year felt the same way, because they gave the statuette to Judy Holliday for her brilliantly funny turn as a goofy mob moll in Born Yesterday. Neither Davis nor Swanson would ever win another Oscar, but perhaps they get the last laugh as their star turns in these two films have become ingrained in our culture whereas Holliday (despite her amazing talents) has faded into the shadows of these two “losers.”

Wise: It is interesting how shortsighted the Oscars can sometimes be.  What seems like the performance of the year, can quickly fade from memory, while an overlooked performance emerges as iconic.  

Werth: Ya’ hear that Natalie P.?  

Wise: If we’re discussing Oscar’s losers, then I don’t think there are many better examples than Judy Garland’s loss to Grace Kelly in 1954, partly because Garland performance in A Star is Born is the best of her career, but mostly because Grace Kelly’s emotional turn in  The Country Girl has been almost completely overshadowed by the image of icy blond perfection she epitomized while working with Hitchcock in  Rear Window and To Catch a Thief.  The Country Girl was an unglamorous departure for Kelly—

Werth: And we all know how the Academy loves to reward beautiful actresses for playing “ugly”... or demented ballerina bird chicks.  

Wise: Still, as good as she is in the role of long-suffering wife of drunk actor Bing Crosby, she just doesn’t compare to Garland—

Werth: Playing the long-suffering wife of drunk actor James Mason.  

Wise: Garland’s performance is full of subtlety, drama, histrionics and gentleness, plus she sings.  A Star is Born was supposed to be a triumph for Garland.  Four years earlier, she had been fired by MGM and plenty of Hollywood wags has assumed her career was over, but after a spectacularly successful concert tour, she set up Star at Warner Bros. with the help of her husband/manager Sid Luft.  At MGM, Garland had always been surrounded by sophistication and swooning violins.  Decamping to Warner allowed her to tackle grittier subject matter, and in Star she is absolutely heartbreaking as a woman undone by love.  The producers of the Academy Awards telecast were so certain that Garland would win that they dispatched a camera crew to the hospital room where she was recuperating from the birth of her son Joey.  

Werth: And then she lost.

Wise: And the crew packed up and left without saying a word.  At least she got a telegram from Groucho Marx who called it the “biggest robbery since Brinks.”  

Werth: Too bad a telegram doesn’t look as good on the mantlepiece as a shiny gold statuette.  

Wise: I wonder if we’d get the telegram or the statuette for Best Performance by a Classic Film Blog Duo.

Werth: Let’s go for the telegram. Oscar losers rock!  

Wise: Tune in to Film Gab next week for more cinematic winners and losers. 

1 comment:

Teddy Casimir said...

Swanson should have won that year hands down. Holliday's performance was so grating.