The Best Actresses of Them All

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So who was the greatest actress of them all?  What do I think of the Best Actress category, the one I can now claim to know inside and out?  For me, it could really only be one woman: the greatest performance of all time belongs to Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.  In a category absolutely teeming with performances about performers, Gloria makes the ultimate statement about fame, acting, beauty and mortality.  The character blurs into the real life story of the silent film goddess–nominated for the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929–who almost (but not quite) vanished from the screen in the sound era, a pact that magnifies both while forever fusing them together.  As I’ve said before, no Best Actress nominee has ever been more inseparable from a single role.  Playing such a pure performer, from slapstick comedienne to melodramatic martyr, Gloria measures out each gesture with a deft control that always masks her character’s innermost thoughts.  My interpretation of her complex characterization forever eludes me: I’ve thought she was a frightening madwoman, a pitiful wreck, a savvy manipulator, a literal nightmare sprung from Joe’s desperate imagination.  And when Norma reaches out to grasp at that silent flickering image of Queen Kelly, it feels for a moment as though Norma really is the mythic original, the fleeting cinematic spirit from whom all the others spring forth.

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But she gets a run for her money from all sides.  Just like Gloria does, Katharine Hepburn, perhaps still my all-time favorite leading lady, climbs into the top tier of my pantheon by tackling her own aloof star text in a role (unlike Norma Desmond) written just for her: the proud and vibrant Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story.

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I have to mention Gena Rowlands for her crude, tormented, and achingly honest expression of Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence, a performance like almost nothing that came before it, and an inspiration to everyone from Tilda Swinton to Wong Kar-Wai.

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And as a perfect study in a still surface concealing vast depths, Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter also rates as one of the most masterful performances ever.

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And to round out a loose top five, my controversial pick (feel free to disagree with me once you’ve seen all the nominees), I have to go with Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliantly written and miraculously realized free spirit.  This a character who has appeared countless times in nominated and unnominated performances before and since (if the manic pixie dream girl means anything to you, you’ll know what I’m talking about), but nowhere have I found an incarnation that seemed more lived-in or complete in her flaws, where her quirks have origins and where she seems to wrestle with the consequences of impulses even as they bubble up inside her.  It’s a performance that seems almost to dispel the myriad caricatures and constructs that surround her.

If there’s one thing that all five of these nominees have in common (other than the fact that, of course, none were winning roles), it would have to be their characters’ profound and painful awareness of the role in which they are cast.  For Norma Desmond, the knowledge of her decline is the structuring fear that animates her delusions, however conscious you think she is of the fact.  Laura and Mabel both strive against the desperation of their humdrum existences, while Tracy and Clementine rebel, in eloquent fashion, against the image of womanhood inscribed upon them.  They are all playing types, but both the characters and the actresses are smarter than that: they stir in their sleep, or awake to an exhilarating but terrifying world.

But of course the list goes on.  I couldn’t stop short of acknowledging the boldly individual, rightfully Oscar-winning performances by Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Anna Magnani in The Rose TattooFrances McDormand in FargoKatharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (a powerful image to conjure up in opposition to Clementine).  There are other famous performances that crown splendid careers, like Bette Davis in All About Eve and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, as well as startling one-off revelations like Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon.  I’ve loved performances that stretch the parameters of great acting to action hero (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens) and antic comedienne (Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild), and those that excel in time-honored Oscar bait roles like the musical biopic (Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It?) and the desperate housewife (Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses).  There are flawed but brilliant performances like Greta Garbo in Anna Christie or Jeanne Eagels in The Letter, and brilliant performances in flawed films, like Gena Rowlands in Gloria and Joanne Woodward in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.  And finally there is Meryl Streep’s entire gallery of vivid creations, from The Devil Wears Prada to A Cry in the Dark and The Bridges of Madison County.   And I could go on.

I could scoop into this fantastic pool and pull out any five to complete my Top Ten list.  Indeed, I finished off this undertaking with the aim of being that conclusive, as befits the idea of a quest.  But now that it has concluded, I feel an overwhelming compulsion to leave those slots unfixed.  It’s certainly arbitrary where to draw the circle (at 5 or 10 or 85 or 100), and I think I’ll enjoy the improvisation of crafting a new list every time.  I certainly plan to revisit the favorites I’ve encountered along the way, and perhaps even some of those that missed the mark for me, to see if I can continue to make discoveries after the frontier has been closed.  I definitely now know that completing the Best Actress category is a task that, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, never completely ends, even after it has been completed: some of the films I watched long ago, even ones I liked, such as My Man Godfrey and The Little Foxes, are now in grave need of a re-viewing to refresh my memory, and I suppose this will always be the case.

It’s been a great trip, and one I wish I could do again in a heartbeat!  Up next, in coming days, I’ll glance over my lamentable progress in the other major categories and offer some speculation as to where I might venture next.  If you’re still with me after all this, I don’t need to tell you to stay tuned.  Talk to you soon!

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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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.