The Home Stretch: Fay Bainter in White Banners

(the 15th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

FAY BAINTER IN WHITE BANNERS (1935)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Bette Davis in Jezebel

Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion

Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet

Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades

Fay has a secret.  I’ve often watched a film waiting for a Supporting Actor or Actress nominee to give me the Oscar scene; seldom, if ever, have I waited until the last ten minutes to learn of a Best Actress nominee’s actual relevance to the story.  Fay’s character insinuates herself into the narrative by sliding out of a snowstorm and into the family’s kitchen, within minutes playing with the baby using an apple peel as a toy, and by the end of the day negotiating wages with Claude Rains to stay on as their maid.  She thus becomes the nurturing caretaker of Rains’ inventor and his family (strange parallels with Marie Dressler in Emma), keeping to the background throughout the whole film except to dispense sage advice to members of the family, in particular to the teenage daughter (Bonita Granville), and to Rains and his chemistry pupil (Jackie Cooper, all growed up) as they pursue a new refrigeration technology in their basement lab.  I thought her big scene had come and gone just past the hour mark, when she revealed that her character had once borne and lost a child.  All this is the stuff that Supporting Actress nominations are made of, though she already had one of those in 1938 (and a win, no less) for Jezebel, becoming the first individual to net Lead and Supporting nominations in one year.  Why the overflow of Academy support for this pleasant, undistinguished, and hardly leading role?

Then, in the final fifteen minutes, something amazing happens: we learn that all along, Fay’s staid caretaker has harbored a secret relationship with one of the other major characters, a relationship of the kind from which entire melodramas are spun.  I was blindsided: Fay kept the whole thing locked in for nearly the entire film, only letting the truth spill out in the last minutes of the film.  How could I have not seen any of this coming?  I immediately went back and practically x-rayed the scene in which she first becomes aware of this character (from what I can tell, she had no advanced knowledge that their paths would cross).  The film cuts to her closeup immediately, but Fay doesn’t move a muscle, nor do the filmmakers tip off in any way that this moment is of any particular significance to her; she seems to listen to what the other characters are saying, swiftly chiming in once more as the serene voice of reason, cooling down simmering tempers yet again as the scene moves along.

Of course, now that I see that the tells are there; they were just withheld from plain me.  Fay increasingly draws close to this character, but always in the guise of a greater concern for the family’s wellbeing.  She seldom lets her inner turmoil so much as flicker across her face or quaver in her voice; on the rare occasions when she tips her hand, clasping the character’s elbow a bit too long or letting out a quickly strangled “I…”, we’re distracted by the plot—this character has pneumonia, or that character has just suffered a devastating setback to his research.  The filmmakers conspire with her; the score, usually the first tipoff of a character with a secret, whirs along without a hint of attention to her, and the cutting choices always keep her at the side of the main characters and their problems, right up until the moment of her revelation.

White Banners, ostensibly about a Claude Rains and his attempt to succeed in engineering and providing for his family, is actually revealed to be Fay Bainter’s covert melodrama, and her performance is of a certain stealthy genius, holding back until the very last moment to let the relationship suddenly emerge in crystal-clear hindsight.  I was immensely satisfied by this revelation, and count this as a quality competitor to Fay’s own costar, Bette Davis in Jezebel for her second win.  My vote goes with Bette for her master class in period suffering, but I have to salute Fay for a surprising and immensely satisfying portrayal.

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The Home Stretch: Marie-Christine Barrault in Cousin cousine

(the 14th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

MARIE-CHRISTINE BARRAULT IN COUSIN COUSINE (1976)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Faye Dunaway in Network

Talia Shire in Rocky

Sissy Spacek in Carrie

Liv Ullmann in Face to Face

Cousin cousine is a French social satire, built around an extended family and their crazy antics.  At the heart of it is the most scandalous element, involving the two most sensible characters: Marie-Christine’s beautiful young secretary, and her cousin by marriage.  The marriage that starts the film introduces us to the raucous family: the opening scene introduces us to a host of rowdy characters of all ages, acting out bawdy jokes and engaged in sexual shenanigans under the table and behind bedroom doors, before it settles on Marie-Christine leaning against the wall of the dance floor, watching the proceedings with an amused smile.  That she strikes up an easy conversation with a distant cousin (Victor Lanoux) only makes sense, as they’re by far the only characters with anything sane to say to one another.  The romance that grows between them, consisting mostly of free-flowing conversation and loving gazes, seems perfectly natural when surrounded by the shameless hijinks of the self-absorbed family: fisticuffs at a second wedding, phone calls and petty distractions at the patriarch’s funeral.  Their relationship seems so matter of fact, which of course is the moral (and social critique) of this satire. Without subtitles (and I was glad I had them), this would be the ideal two-lovers-meet romantic comedy, and it’s impossible not gravitate toward them and away from the truthfully harmless social barriers that stand in their way.

I appreciated Marie-Christine in this film, especially her relaxed, charmante demeanor around even the most trying of characters.  The family, of course, is scandalized by her budding romance, and her husband (who was canoodling with her cousin’s spouse at the film’s beginning) tries to fight for her.  She accepts it all with grace, wrapped in the comfort of her love and buoyed by a jaunty musical theme that carries the whole farce along in a happy mood.  I can’t say that this performance particularly stood out in this year, and I’m still inclined to give the award to Faye Dunaway in Network for her far more acerbic performance.  Still, this was a diverting French comedy, and an endearing performance.

The Home Stretch: Marsha Mason in Chapter Two

(the 13th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

MARSHA MASON IN CHAPTER TWO (1979)

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The competition (Cliff: 6 for 6!)

Sally Field in Norma Rae

Jill Clayburgh in Starting Over

Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome

Bette Midler in The Rose

Marsha does one thing in each of her nominated performances very well: she plays a New Yorker.  For the lead in a Neil Simon script, that’s job number one, and she serves in Chapter Two as an able spout for his clever quips and snappy rejoinders, as a wry stage actress (we never see her perform, only crack wise about her career).  As a divorcee to a widower played by James Caan (her costar in her first nominated film, Cinderella Liberty), both reluctantly returning to the mating game, she can handle the first half of the story quite effectively: mostly she plays defense, parrying James’ charming advances, steadfastly resisting his attempts to disarm her over multiple phone calls before finally succumbing to a whirlwind romance when they finally meet face to face.  They get married in rapid fashion, but their honeymoon wears thin, so does ours.  Just when it seemed that Simon’s play might sidestep the heavy issue of Caan’s dead wife, her figurative ghost comes back to disrupt their bliss, and Marsha cannot convey the absence of happiness as well as she can glide along wrapped in its presence.  Indeed, it’s hard to tell a genuine emotional plea from the hysterics that she usually employs for comic effect, as she goes through almost all the same motions.  She simply seems out of her element in heavy drama, but again I’ll go back to those witty phone conversations any time.

If Marsha ever had an outstanding performance, it was probably for her second nomination in The Goodbye Girl, combining the salient features of her first nominated role in Cinderella Liberty (a feisty single mother) and Chapter Two, her third (Neil Simon’s savory dialogue).  Of course, she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance against Diane Keaton in 1977, nor can she stand in the way in 1979 of the Academy’s and my choice, Sally Field in Norma Rae, a role that the actress seems to have been born to play.  I’ll be curious to conclude Marsha’s Best Actress career with Only When I Laugh, a heavy emotional biopic, but for now I’ll give her a merit for the comedy, a demerit for the drama, and call it a wash.

The Home Stretch: Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds

(the 12th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

CLAUDETTE COLBERT IN PRIVATE WORLDS (1935)

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The competition (Cliff: 6 for 6!)

Bette Davis in Private Worlds

Elisabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never

Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams

Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp

Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel

Claudette carries a profound warmth and generosity into nearly all of her roles, whether she’s playing the experienced lover in The Smiling Lieutenant, the impish wife in The Palm Beach Story, or the valiant home front mother in Since You Went Away.  Normally, this nurturing presence is channeled into intimate relationships, but in Private Worlds it is her character’s professional strength, as a psychiatrist at a hospital for the mentally ill.  Unlike so many films that proclaim a character’s exceptional ability without demonstrating it to the audience, here Claudette’s star persona plays directly into her character’s extraordinary gift, as we see Claudette’s velvet-gloved doctor enter into the “private worlds” of her patients’ minds to soothe their fevers.  We then are appalled when Charles Boyer’s new superintendent relegates her to a new post more suitable for her gender.  Claudette’s character bravely soldiers on, while the feminist streak in the film is undercut by a host of other women recovering from or poised for a psychotic breakdown.

The film also features a couple of oddly shot Expressionist madness scenes (directed by an out-of-his-element Gregory La Cava), though Claudette remain the real selling point, a pillar of reserved strength amid the many intrigues stalking the hospital’s corridors.  She is content to let the actors around her dial it up and up, while she remains implacable and calm, only springing into urgent action to care for one of her wounded charges.  The role isn’t excellent, and neither is Claudette’s acting, but it serves as a great illustration of her appeal.  The year after winning for the genuinely exceptional character of Elli Andrews in It Happened One Night, Claudette relinquished the title of Best Actress for a make-up award for Bette Davis (whose write-in campaign for Of Human Bondage she’d edged out).  My final vote in this category goes to the salty corset-clad Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, but I’m not sorry to see Claudette get a little more love with this nomination.

The Home Stretch: Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater

(the 11th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

ANNE BANCROFT IN THE PUMPKIN EATER (1964)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5):

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style

Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Category confusion seems rife in the 1964 Best Actress race; in some parallel universe of original casting choices, we could have found a category in which Julie Andrews’ screen screen debut came reprising her stage role in My Fair Lady and not originating the role of Mary Poppins, Deborah Kerr garnering a seventh nomination for Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and Patricia Neal following up her win for Hud with a nomination for The Pumpkin Eater.  However, we live in a much more jumbled world, and the last of these three roles fell to Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater.  Anne somehow channels Patricia’s careworn spirit in this film, doing her best as a British housewife beset by a murky malaise.  I think I see traces of a quality performance from Anne, but unfortunately the film mires her for two hours in an impressionistic labyrinth, splaying her character out into countless facets that I can’t piece back together again.

The film’s title comes from a snippet of the nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” a poem that I learned has some creepy undertones referring to sexuality.  Sex in all of its manifestations seems to hang over this film in some way.  Her character seems only to savor life when surrounded by her indeterminately large litter of children from three marriages: that part I get.  The rest of the film concerns her malaise, which seems to arise from a rather overdetermined combination of empty nest syndrome, despair at her husband’s infidelity, anxiety over sex, obsession with pregnancy, and fear that everyone around her is even crazier than she.  These haphazard pieces are all reflected in vignettes, separated by dissolves that obliterate a sense of past, present, and future.  Most disturbing is a visit to the hairdresser, where an encounter with a disturbed woman in the next chair, who oscillates between simpering adoration of Anne’s beauty and vicious personal insults, bewilders the fragile Anne and propels her onto the couch of a psychiatrist who inserts a number of ideas strange ideas about sex and plants the notion of sterilization in her mind.  I’ll leave off from the plot description here, but though the film ends on a hopeful note for the character, her journey is quite surreal.

I must give British dramas of this period credit for overtly addressing women’s reproductive rights (and the Academy for responding to them); Anne’s nomination is flanked by Leslie Caron’s The L-Shaped Room in 1963 and Julie Christie’s win for Darling, both of which also tackle the issue of their characters’ birth control quite clearly.  Unfortunately, Jack Clayton’s filmmaking dilutes Anne’s attempt at a character too much, and can’t hold up to the Academy’s choice of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins or my own candidate, Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon for turning in a true high point of this quest.  A thwarted opportunity for a great actress.

The Home Stretch: Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue

(the 10th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

MAGGIE MCNAMARA IN THE MOON IS BLUE (1953)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday

Leslie Caron in Lili

Ava Gardner in Mogambo

Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity

The Moon Is Blue has a foothold in history as the film to break the thrall of the Production Code Administration, being released to commercial success without the feared censoring body’s Seal of Approval (yes Howard Hughes had done so as well with 1947’s The Outlaw, but that’s a long story).  After epic clashes between studios and the PCA over films like A Streetcar Named Desire, ironically the floodgate was opened by two little words: “mistress” and especially “virgin.”  Both come from the mouth of (and the latter refers to) Maggie’s cheeky young New Yorker, who is casually wooed over the course of a night by William Holden and then, markedly more awkwardly, by David Niven.  This comedy of manners is mostly about the etiquette of courtship (fun fact: it features the earliest mention I know of the half-your-age-plus-seven dating rule) and only glancingly about sex.  Nevertheless, it places a special burden on the 24-year-old actress.  Whereas women for two decades before her were implicitly sexualized by their luscious looks or their sordid pasts, Maggie’s wide-eyed flirt directly comments on her sexuality ten minutes in, and it remains a centerpiece of conversation for the remainder of the story.

The stakes of the dialogue are thus exceptionally high, and Maggie has the clever confidence to keep up with the patronizing patter of the older gentlemen befuddled by her charm and their own attraction to her.  Maggie has the misfortune of making her screen debut in 1953, the same year as an all-eclipsing Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, whose effortless, uninhibited charisma in particular makes Maggie’s precise posturing seem precious and arch.  One wonders whether, in an Audrey-less year, Maggie could have been the gamine favored by the Academy (though I suspect that the award would have defaulted to Deborah Kerr for From Here to Eternity).  She went on to only an occasional few more film roles, but did leave this curious, spunky little milestone on the Best Actress category.

The Home Stretch: Jessica Lange in Country

(the 9th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

JESSICA LANGE IN COUNTRY (1964)

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Sally Field in Places in the Heart

Judy Davis in A Passage to India

Vanessa Redgrave in The Bostonians

Sissy Spacek in The River

Three of the Best Actress-nominated films of 1984 featured eerily similar tales of women trying to save the family farm.  At least Places in the Heart is a Southern period piece with a single mother and the KKK there to spice things up, though; Country and The River are uncannily identical.  Both films are set in the contemporary American heartland, share a hardheaded & emasculated husband, an uncomfortable bank loan meeting, a natural disaster (tornado and flood, respectively), and a farm equipment auction that’s shut down in mass protest by the assembled farmers.  Clearly, here was something on the minds of Hollywood about the state of American farmers in the midst of Reagan’s economic regime.  While I do think that Country is the subtler and more thoughtful work all the way, it’s hard to evaluate one without the other.

Jessica’s character is more front-and-center than Sissy’s, and unfortunately she pulls off a slightly inconsistent job.  In Country, she reaches less toward the hysterical and more toward the stoic, embracing the humble in her salt-of-the-earth farmer blessed with the cheekbones and hair of a Hollywood movie star.  She resists the temptation to overplay her outrage and despair (I never thought she’d do less shouting and shed fewer tears in a role than Sissy).  However, her basic technique is a little rough, mumbling through some lines and seeming unsure about what emotion to play in others.  I did appreciate one scene in which she must attempt to talk a member of her own family down from the brink of suicide, tacking toward calm comfort instead of desperate pleading.  Staying lower-key throughout most of the performance, she turns in a passable job, even if she’s again more the beneficiary of a meager field of competitors than her own achievement.

When I set out on this quest, I had seen Jessica’s winning turn for Supporting Actress in Tootsie, but none of her five Best Actress roles.  Among the actresses with 5+ nominations, she was the blankest slate for me, and now I say goodbye to her as the one who made the least impression.  I do not think that Jessica is a bad actress.  Nor do I believe that she deserved to be in the thick of a caste of actresses who all got nominated over and over again in the 1980s (all but two of her competitors wound up as multiple-time nominees), going five rounds against the likes of Sissy Spacek, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Meryl Streep.  She was certainly a lucky one!  I’m giving this one to Vanessa Redgrave for The Bostonians and leaving Jessica’s Best Actress career behind once and for all.