424 and Done: Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen

(the 424th and final Best Actress nominee!)

KATHARINE HEPBURN IN THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire

Eleanor Parker in Detective Story

Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun

Jane Wyman in The Blue Veil

There’s so much more to say than I ever could about Katharine Hepburn and this film, and what they mean to me.  This quest could only conclude with an all-time legendary character, actress, and film.  What’s more, of course it had to finish with the story of an outlandish quest in and of itself, a journey that transformed all (characters and people alike) who took part.  As I’ve mentioned before, this was a film that I’d been deliberately saving since 2005, a time by which I’d seen 95 or 96 of the (original AFI 100 Years…100 Movies list, and nearly exhausted the filmography of my heroine, Katharine Hepburn.  Back then, I was so in love with the great movies on this and other lists that I feared there wouldn’t be any more great cinema to discover once they had all run out.  I stowed the pristine African Queen away, until such a day (that might never come) when I could face finishing off the canon.

I’m finally ready to do so, now that I know that of course my own personal canon is endless.  Big, popular lists like the AFI’s can only point you to big, popular films, never the intensely personal works that will resonate with only you.  Those you have to stumble across on your own, off the beaten path, at a random screening or buried anonymously in a random checklist of films.  I knew this all along, of course; I guess I just needed to really experience it a little before I’d truly be ready.  Diving into a pile of mostly unfamiliar, unheralded movies on this Best Actress Quest, I uncovered brilliant works like A Woman Under the Influence, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, or Seance on a Wet Afternoon, all of which I’d barely heard of (if at all) when I took my vow regarding The African Queen.  And of course, even the category of Best Actress cannot close the frontier of great leading ladies yet to be discovered, as my list of the category’s omissions suggests.  So I’m glad to polish off The African Queen, the AFI list, and the Best Actress category and strike out for more adventures!

But as far as the film went, I was again so very glad that I saved a genuine crown jewel for the finale.  This is a classic of such epic proportions that it deserves such a great first viewing: sitting smack-dab in the center of the stadium seating in the Egyptian Theater, absorbing the whole chromatic, humorous, and boldly unique experience.  The lush cinematography by Jack Cardiff, despite the many limits of location shooting in the 1950s, seared a vivid streak through my memory of Technicolor film.  I was of course reminded throughout of other films that touch (intentionally or not) on this one’s myth: Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo in the dreamlike travels through river and jungle; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (another Huston) and the yet-to-be-released Gravity as regards the man and woman engulfed in the wilderness, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Sunshine in the crazy suicide mission.  I even caught a distinct whiff of Jaws in the final moments of the film.  This is a universal story, formed by a legendary filmmaker around two of the most mythic actors in film history, godlike in their personality and presence.

The characters were of course unmistakably the creations of Katharine and Humphrey, though I disagree with the popular perception of them essentially playing themselves, bringing their unadorned personas to shine on the screen.  They really almost play each other more than themselves: at the outset of the story, Bogie’s Charlie Allnut is practically a chatterbox, something that he never portrays onscreen, while Katharine’s Rosie Sayer is bestowed with a serene poise (you can feel the affinity with Bette Davis in the proposed 1930s and 1940s productions), seeming as if she knows from the beginning how all this is going to end.  In this performance, she emerges fully formed, ready to inject Rosie with the unflinching confidence and astounding fortitude that could ignite the characters’ wild commando mission and keep it in motion.  For all the musical biopics and maternal melodramas in the annals of the Best Actress race, Katharine is probably the only one who got there by pulling a boat by a rope, neck-deep in murky, leech-infested water.

This would of course become an era-defining mask for Katharine to wear, dictating the spinster character she would play, at least when it came to Oscar nominations, for the rest of the decade: Summertime and The Rainmaker, and even to a great extent Suddenly, Last Summer.  Of course, she only wore this mask for a time, one in a series of archetypes that could have individually made stars of four or five separate actresses.  Still, this is the role that breathed another act of her career to life, and Katharine embodies it perfectly.  So does she get my vote for Best Actress of 1951?  Well, she still has to contend with the breathtaking Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.  The Davis-Swanson race from 1950 gets more attention, partly because of the dual comeback angle and partly because of the dark horse winner that forever set the two titanesses as equals in defeat.  However, I think that this race deserves almost equal billing.  At the end of the day I can’t deny Vivien’s equally legendary creation, and I’m glad to have Katharine there right behind her.

The End of the Quest

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Time to sit back and exhale after a much-needed 48-hour hiatus to attend to the little things: sleep, school, life.  Thoughts on Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen are to come later this evening, and I’ll post my final picks for all 85 Best Actresses tomorrow!  For the moment, though, I’m quite glad to gaze at this spreadsheet:

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85 Best Actress Omissions

25 Best Actress Snubs

Before I finally close the frontier of the Academy Award for Best Actress, I wanted to quickly acknowledge that, despite the many magnificent performances that it includes, there are many that lie beyond its reach.  I don’t like the word “snub” that much, but I’m willing to use the term for the sake of expediency to describe an array of performances that were omitted by the Academy, for reasons either understandable (Wei Wei in Spring in a Small Town) or confounding (Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby).  Just limiting myself to one performance her actress, I easily came up with 85 of my favorite or most-admired performances, one for each year of the Academy Awards (on average, not one per year).  Of course this list is flawed in its own right, reflecting my own viewing biases and not tackling, for example, the thorny issue of what three 1948 actresses I might consider bumping in my own Oscar Fantasy League.  It even excludes wonderful performances by Rumi Hiiragi and Edie Bouvier Beale by keeping in place the same barriers that the Academy erects to keep out voice acting and documentary.  And God knows who I’m forgetting.  But such is the nature of all lists; the hope being that they can then shine the limelight on those passionately loved inclusions.  Anyway, here’s the list of my biggest Oscar omissions:

Pola Negri Hotel Imperial 1927
Maria Falconetti The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928
Eleanor Boardman The Crowd 1928
Lillian Gish The Wind 1928
Marion Davies Show People 1928
Miriam Hopkins Design for Living 1933
Ginger Rogers Top Hat 1935
Jean Harlow Libeled Lady 1936
Paulette Goddard Modern Times 1936
Ruth Chatterton Dodsworth 1936
Katharine Hepburn Holiday 1938
Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz 1939
Claudette Colbert Midnight 1939
Rosalind Russell His Girl Friday 1940
Barbara Stanwyck The Lady Eve 1941
Dorothy Comingore Citizen Kane 1941
Carole Lombard To Be or Not to Be 1942
Gene Tierney Laura 1944
Wendy Hiller I Know Where I’m Going! 1945
Bette Davis The Corn Is Green 1945
Ann Savage Detour 1945
Ingrid Bergman Notorious 1946
Moira Shearer The Red Shoes 1948
Marlene Dietrich A Foreign Affair 1948
Wei Wei Spring in a Small Town 1948
Machiko Kyô Rashômon 1950
Elizabeth Taylor A Place in the Sun 1951
Debbie Reynolds Singin’ in the Rain 1952
Danielle Darrieux Madame de… 1953
Kinuyo Tanaka Ugetsu 1953
Gloria Grahame The Big Heat 1953
Eva Dahlbeck Smiles of a Summer Night 1955
Véra Clouzot Diabolique 1955
Simone Signoret Diabolique 1955
Giulietta Masina Night of Cabiria 1957
Isuzu Yamada Throne of Blood 1957
Jean Seberg Breathless 1960
Corinne Marchand Cleo from 5 to 7 1961
Harriet Andersson Through a Glass Darkly 1962
Anna Karina Vivre sa vie 1962
Constance Towers The Naked Kiss 1964
Bibi Andersson Persona 1966
Cheng Pei-Pei Come Drink with Me 1966
Audrey Hepburn Two for the Road 1967
Mia Farrow Rosemary’s Baby 1968
Liv Ullmann Shame 1968
Ruth Gordon Harold and Maude 1971
Diane Keaton Sleeper 1973
Shelley Duvall 3 Women 1977
Sissy Spacek 3 Women 1977
Hanna Schygulla The Marriage of Maria Braun 1979
Darling Légitimus Sugar Cane Alley 1983
Jamie Lee Curtis A Fish Called Wanda 1988
Gong Li Raise the Red Lantern 1991
Irène Jacob The Double Life of Veronique 1991
Juliette Binoche Three Colors: Blue 1993
Julianne Moore Safe 1995
Kathy Bates Dolores Claiborne 1995
Pam Grier Jackie Brown 1997
Emma Thompson Primary Colors 1998
Franka Potente Run Lola Run 1998
Cecilia Roth All About My Mother 1999
Reese Witherspoon Election 1999
Cameron Diaz Being John Malkovich 1999
Maggie Cheung In the Mood for Love 2000
Maribel Verdú Y tu mamá también 2001
Naomi Watts Mulholland Dr. 2001
Laura Harring Mulholland Dr. 2001
Scarlett Johannson Lost in Translation 2003
Patricia Clarkson The Station Agent 2003
Isabella Rossellini The Saddest Music in the World 2003
Uma Thurman Kill Bill, Vol. 2 2004
Zhang Ziyi House of Flying Dagers 2004
Julie Delpy Before Sunset 2004
Kate Winslet Revolutionary Road 2008
Laura Dern Inland Empire 2006
Belén Rueda The Orphanage 2007
Anamaria Marinca 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 2007
Yolande Moreau Séraphine 2008
Lina Leandersson Let the Right One In 2008
Michelle Williams Wendy & Lucy 2008
Mélanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds 2009
Leslie Manville Another Year 2010
Tilda Swinton We Need to Talk about Kevin 2011
Jo Min-Su Pieta 2012

Twelve Best Actress Nominees I Would Watch Again in a Heartbeat

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I first got started on this quest in the summer of 2009, when I moved into a new apartment in Santa Monica and had access to their public library system and its incredible catalog of DVDs.  I started renting movies I’d meant to catch up on for a long time.  They were of every variety: classic Hollywood, foreign, critics’ Top 10 films from recent years, and of course past Oscar winners and nominees.

One of the first times I visited, I came home with a batch that included Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In the Bedroom, and Being Julia: all films I’d meant to track down with varying degrees of urgency, and that all happened to be on the shelves that day.  Woolf and In the Bedroom impressed me with their strangely resonant portraits of marriages fraught by a deep wound; Sissy and Liz both earned my votes for their respective Best Actress races.

However, the film that started what I came to regard as a quest was Being Julia, a miniature, yet lavishly polished backstage drama, based on a work by D.H. Lawrence, and featuring a delicious turn by Annette Bening in a revisionist Margo Channing role.  Hers is not my favorite nominated performance of 2004 (Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), or even my second favorite (Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake), and the film falls squarely alongside Stardust and Drunken Master as one that I love irrationally, regardless of its merits.

Watching all three of these Best Actress nominees was immensely satisfying, but Being Julia in particular got me thinking about the many enjoyable films and performances that might lie buried away forever in the depths of this category.  The Best Actress race might be the most idiosyncratic of the major Oscar categories, shaped by the politics of movie star careers and littered with single-nomination films that begin to immediately fade from memory, eclipsed by the image of the star (that is, if she doesn’t fade away, too).  Indeed, even some of the winners fade away: for as iconic as Sophia Loren and Julie Christie have become, I wonder how many have seen Two Women or Darling.

Hoping to uncover more gems among the 240 unseen nominees, I slowly began to work through the movies available (see my introduction for a bit more detail).  The gems were, of course, few and far between, and many of the greatest films (A Woman Under the Influence, Howards End) were films I had meant to see anyway.  Here, however, are twelve lesser-known films (in no particular order) from this quest I would watch again in a heartbeat, diamonds in the rough and miniature classics that join Being Julia in a set that makes the whole undertaking feel worthwhile to me.

  1. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) – I’ve reviewed it here already, but this British drama really is one of the most impressive crime films/psychological studies I’ve seen in a long time, Kim Stanley adds a huge plume to the Actors Studio’s cap.
  2. Never on Sunday (1960) – This is hardly a flawless film, but Melina Mercouri’s hooker with a heart of gold, evoking the best of Giulietta Masina and Sophia Loren combined, is so much fun to watch in every scene!
  3. The Subject Was Roses (1968) – I’m normally averse to family melodrama, but this three-part drama (Martin Sheen, Oscar-winning Jack Albertson, and Patricia Neal) is so perfectly executed that I couldn’t shake these embattled characters from my head now, even if I were to watch The West Wing, Willy Wonka, and A Face in the Crowd on a 24-hour loop.
  4. The Letter (1929) – Bursting forth from the screen in only the second year of the talkies, Jeanne Eagels gives a flawed but nonetheless magnetic performance that is a generation ahead of her peers in its raw intensity, all in a riveting pre-Code adaptation of the Maugham play, later made immortal in high-classical style with an also-nominated Bette Davis.
  5. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – Given my poor opinion of the original, I was prepared to loathe this even more, but was completely surprised.  Here, the story is less Cate Blanchett’s performance, though campily enjoyable, than the absolutely stunning production design, an unbridled fever-dream of early 17th Century England.
  6. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) – I’ve also written about this film, a magnificently sophisticated post-modern play carried onto the screen with flair by Nicholas Hytner, and featuring a scintillating Stockard Channing.
  7. Shirley Valentine (1989) – A pure sentimental favorite, I would watch Pauline Collins resisting the dreary pull of her English surroundings, playing her irrepressible and intelligent housewife straight to the camera, any time.
  8. The King and I (1956) – Perhaps not that low-profile a film, but Deborah Kerr, as a perfectly poised governess, pulls off a beautiful job of acting through and between her musical performances, maintaining her cautious reserve in a world where her unlikely romance must remain forever unfulfilled.  Clearly a case where getting Marni Nixon was the right move (and Kerr agreed).
  9. Educating Rita (1983) – Yes, it’s just Pygmalion set in the ivory tower, but I find Michael Caine and Julie Walters’ chemistry as an English professor and his cockney middle-aged student unbelievably irresistible, and the academic-tinged humor catnip to my Quiz Bowl sensibilities.
  10. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) – For me, one the unsung Great American Movies, a microcosm of humanity in a dance competition in Depression-Era Santa Monica, with an already-hardened Jane Fonda at its bitter core.
  11. The Collector (1965) – A masterfully directed abduction thriller (William Wyler at his most un-Hollywood), with shades of The Silence of the Lambs.  Deeply disturbing, but Terrence Stamp and Samantha Eggar are eerily incredible together.
  12. The Rose Tattoo (1955) – Anna Magnani truly had a blessed career, becoming the patron saint (matron saint?) of Italian Neo-Realism before taking Hollywood by storm in this sincere performance as an immigrant single mother desperate for satisfaction.  Not even Burt Lancaster can diminish this performance for me.

These are far from the only total discoveries, but they definitely top the list!  It makes me wonder what else might lie hidden away in Best Original Screenplay or Best Supporting Actor…all in all, a testament to the serendipity of watching an unknown movie.

423 Down, 1 to Go: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

(the 423rd of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

FAYE DUNAWAY IN BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Anne Bancroft in The Graduate

Edith Evans in The Whisperers

Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark

What is there to say about an American classic that hasn’t been said already?  I absolutely agree with the praise.  What I saw was a cinematic Rhapsody in Blue, an ebullient American classic: chaotic and free-formed in appearance and yet meticulously masterful in every detail.  This is a masterpiece on every level, and I’m crushed that I had to miss it at TCM (I was trying out for an Academy Awards-themed trivia game show, which I consider a justifiable excuse), but thrilled to have finally added this landmark to my movie experience.  I guess the best thing for me to focus on is how the film lived up to its gargantuan reputation.  In addition to the French New Wave-inspired, kinetic energy that Arthur Penn breathed into American filmmaking for the next decade, and the fraught glorification of outlaw violence underlying the entire film, there were many discoveries that diverged from the movie I was led to expect.

There are things in classic films that nobody really pays attention to (I remember, when I caught up with Taxi Driver, how surprised I was that the political campaign takes up such a huge chunk of the narrative).  Here, I was surprised by the sexual difficulties between the two characters; his reluctance toward her advances being a storyline that I had not known of beforehand, and a layer to the characters that added such a complex twist to their charisma onscreen.  I was struck by the intricacies of the story (the duo car running a truck piled with high with furniture off the road during their first getaway, a truck just like the one belonging to the evicted farmers who inspired them to start robbing banks), and in the filmmaking (the in-a-blink game played with the audience when a police officer reaches for a weapon and the retaliatory gunshot that precedes the cut to Warren Beatty firing his gun by several seconds), and the confidence that issues from every choice, from the insistent photo montage in the opening credits to the boldly abrupt end to the final shot.

However, the biggest surprise to me, fittingly enough, revolved around Faye’s astonishing character.  I had always perceived Bonnie and Clyde as essentially a buddy picture, an equal duet between two iconic American figures that could only be perceived as a single unit.  I was unprepared for how much the film takes on Faye’s perspective as the small-town girl swept up and transformed into an outlaw heroine.  The film begins with Faye’s own gaze, regarding herself in the mirror and then watching Clyde unseen, as he attempts to lift her family’s car.  It gives her a narrative voice, in her composition and recitation of “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.”  And it subtly privileges details of her performance, such as the sound mix accentuating her gasp of delight when she first sees & hears a gunshot, or the camerawork barely catching the tops of her knees, pressed up against her chest as she tries to watch The Gold Diggers of 1933.  And of course, Faye imbues the character with rough-hewn energy: a vulnerable, girlish (almost still-innocent) dissatisfaction wrapped up in boisterous gangster bravado, dynamically balancing the woman with the myth.  With such a rich character, beautifully through Faye’s magnetic performance, I guess I have no choice but to give her my vote, over stiff competition from Anne Bancroft and Edith Evans, for Best Actress of 1967.  An unparalleled performance for the penultimate film on the quest!

It’s hard to believe that the next time I get up from watching a movie, I will be at the end of this wonderful, ridiculous, and surreal film-watching saga.  It’s a bittersweet moment to be sure, and the perfect opportunity for a few extraneous reflections on the whole journey.  Stay tuned!

8 Down, 2 to Go: Ann Harding in Holiday

(the 422nd of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

ANN HARDING IN HOLIDAY (1930)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Marie Dressler in Min and Bill

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

Irene Dunne in Cimarron

Norma Shearer in A Free Soul

As I’ve mentioned, I have anticipated seeing the original film adaptation of Holiday for quite some time.  I have a strange fascination with films that take a hard look at the upper class (Love Me Tonight, Howards End, The Rules of the Game), and the 1938 film adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, provides perhaps the most incisive and comprehensive American critique of the deep-seated prejudices of wealth.  This iteration of the play preserves most of its sparkling energy, revolving around Ann’s sister of a wealthy heiress who brings home a self-made fiance after a whirlwind romance on holiday.  Ann’s character, immediately more of a match for the man than her sister, at first sits back and attentively observes other characters’ subtle and polite clashes of will, only gradually emerging as the film’s heroine, the rebel leader against the suffocating force of her family’s iron will.  I found this adaptation to be delightful, filled with a cast mostly able to match the later remake, with a glimmer of two of pre-Code flavor.

Is it even possible to fairly judge a performance, when this is all you can see?  I knew, though, that thanks to Holiday’s lack of home video release, finding decent viewing conditions would be a challenge.  The VHS transfer I tracked down erases most of the nuance in Ann Harding’s (and the rest of the cast’s) performance, as well as the finer features of her beauty, and I’m left only with the broad strokes of her characterization.  Admittedly, then, I am judging the performance only based on the limited amount I can discern, so my apologies to Ann if I do her an injustice.

From what I can tell, Ann’s stagey rendition unfortunately suffers by comparison against the effusive Katharine Hepburn in the 1938 remake.  I think of the character of Linda Seton as a combination of stubbornness and spontaneity, capable of rebelling against the “reverence for riches” that corrupts or paralyzes every member of her surrounding family.  Ann has the stubbornness down; I give her full credit for digging in passionately in the battles against her domineering father.  Ultimately, even disregarding the immediate comparison, what I miss in Ann’s performance is the spontaneity: her dialogue feels more like lines on a page than thoughts springing fiercely to her character’s mind.  In her scenes with the fiancé and her brother (the two characters only partially in thrall to the family’s will), I can’t find the tenacious spark that makes me believe Ann capable of not only resisting, but completely breaking free from her family.  I still give her credit, though, for a respectable portrayal of an excellent role, and cast my vote in agreement with the Academy for Marie Dressler’s acerbic mother with a heart of gold in Min and Bill.

7 Down, 3 to Go: Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants

(the 421st of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

LIV ULLMANN IN THE EMIGRANTS (1972)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues

Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt

Cicely Tyson in Sounder

The story of The Emigrants should be quite well-known: enchanted by promises of plenty, a family leaves behind their impoverished life in the Old World and weathers tremendous hardship on the journey to America.  The story is central to the American mythos, so much so that I would swear I’d seen it filmed a dozen times.  However, while movies such as The Grapes of Wrath tell a similar tale of migration within the American interior, and for as common as immigrant narratives are, especially centered around Ellis Island (The Godfather: Part II, Gangs of New York), I doubt I’ve ever seen the story of the journey to America told with the powerful care of The Emigrants.  The first hour of Jan Troell’s epic takes place in the Swedish region of Smaland, the second on the ship across the Atlantic, and only the final half hour on North American soil.  Residing offscreen, manifesting only in the hopes and tall tales shared by the Swedish voyagers, America truly exists in The Emigrants as an idea, a state of mind that takes deep root in those who brave the journey.  The film reveals a mighty side of the American myth, a fortuitous and excellent supplement to that year’s Best Picture winner The Godfather.

The Emigrants is grand and substantial enough that, unlike many of the ones I’ve watched lately, it boils down to more than just a referendum on its leading lady’s performance.  However, if Liv is only character among many, the film still gives her the most excruciating arc, making her the enduring vessel for the agony and ecstasy of the journey.  In Smaland, she bears the desperation of family’s strife as pregnancy after pregnancy adds to the strain of their struggle to survive.  Later, confined to the inky lower depths below the ship’s deck, she takes on in physical form all the suffering of the hard voyage, withstanding a pregnancy, lice, and a nearly devastating illness (in the throes of which she still preserves a measure of saintly forgiveness).  When the family finally reaches land, there is a scene in which Liv lies down on the grass and lets the New World seep in through every pore in a joyous healing of the wounds inflicted on the journey.  Liv’s preternatural beauty adds to the sublime quality of her ordeal, giving her a fitting Oscar debut after building her stardom in bravura performances for Ingmar Bergman in the 1960s.  For 1972, I still can’t deny the force of nature that is Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, but I am glad that such a legendary actress has such a worthy nominated performance.