The Penultimate Mile: Sissy Spacek in The River

(the actual FINAL installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

SISSY SPACEK IN THE RIVER (1984)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5):

Sally Field in Places in the Heart

Judy Davis in A Passage to India

Jessica Lange in Country

Vanessa Redgrave in The Bostonians

There’s not too much to be said about Sissy or The River, a gushing paean to the simple American farmer (starring everyone’s favorite red-blooded American, Mad Max).  The film fulsome piling of struggle on top of misfortune on top of hardship, from Mel Gibson auctioning off the family tractor to his taking work as a scab to battling the hostile business practices of the local kingpin with eyes on Sissy, his steadfast wife, drowns out (no pun intended) the occasional heartfelt moment, as well as some impressively large-scale filmmaking of the sort that nobody but Spielberg gets to do these days.

In her fourth nomination, it’s great to see Sissy mature into a fully adult role, and her skillful physical presence (I always remember her glances and expressions more vividly than her delivery of dialogue) plays out beautifully in her most memorable scene.  Pinned down by a gruesome tractor accident while out working the field alone (of course), Sissy tips off nothing to the audience as her character wordlessly, gruntingly defies her daunting situation.  It’s otherwise a trite and limited role, with material that’s hard to elevate into something great, although Sissy hits no sour notes and clocks in a credible performance.  Even in this weakest of years, in which the best anyone in the category gets is one good scene, I’m still inclined to give it to Vanessa Redgrave in The Bostonians for her transformational oratory at the film’s conclusion, but this is at least a serviceable performance to shore up the list of five.

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The Penultimate Mile Ends! Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman

(the LAST installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

LYNN FONTANNE IN THE GUARDSMAN (1932)

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The competition (Cliff: 2 for 3):

Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet

Marie Dressler in Emma

Watching this hammy, wafer-thin comedy made me realize just how towering Lynn’s reputation must have been in the early days of the Academy Awards.  Swept up in the invasion of Broadway talent that won Oscars for George Arliss, Lionel Barrymore, and Helen Hayes, the fact that Lunt and Fontanne both got nominated (in a year of three nominees) for adapting their own hit play is a tribute to their sterling reputation on the Great White Way.  The first ten minutes erase any doubt regarding their exalted status, as a recreation of the final scene from their actual recent stage triumph, the Maxwell Anderson-penned “Elizabeth the Queen,” is intercut with helpful gasps of adoration from the boxes.  The twist is that these barely-veiled characters can’t stand each other, and he’s constantly enraged by her hints at infidelity, setting in motion the plot of a twenty-two minute I Love Lucy episode over the course of the next hour (seldom has an eighty minute movie plodded so).

But I’ve given the film enough grief.  Lynn doesn’t amaze me, but even if she and her husband struggle to modulate their easy but broad style for the screen (or perhaps the problem is that they don’t), they still do have a wonderful rhythm together.  She plays by far the more subdued character, parrying and taunting the husband’s jealousies like a bored cat.  Despite what her character thinks, she’s really only interacting with the same actor all movie long, and only has to operate at three speeds: annoyed, amorous, and astonished, the last when the husband’s phony Russian seducer is exposed at the film’s end.  It’s a pretty uninspiring performance that falls far behind the work of Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet for the 5th Best Actress Award, although in such a small pool of nominees, I certainly can’t make any decision until seeing the always entertaining Marie Dressler in Emma.

The Penultimate Mile: Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

BRENDA BLETHYN IN SECRETS & LIES (1996)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):

Frances McDormand in Fargo

Diane Keaton in Marvin’s Room

Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient

Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

I’d better spit this one out, since I’ve been mulling it over for a day now, in between massive doses of homework.  I skipped writing about this film at first, since Mike Leigh’s films lie so far beyond the limits of my ability to talk about acting.  The five nominations that Secrets & Lies got in 1996 (for Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay) feel to me like a collective tribute to a boldly collaborative filmmaking style that does its best to erase the boundaries between the disciplines of acting, writing, and directing.  Brenda authors her character jointly with Leigh; he entrusts her with the film’s tremendous central secret, and it’s her job to feel her way through the seismic upheaval in her character’s life when that secret comes to the surface.

In the very broadest sense, Brenda belongs to a long, strong, and proud lineage of mothers in maternal melodramas.  However, what struck me most about this performance is how completely stripped she is of the regalia of these performers.  Gone are the sumptuous trappings of a Douglas Sirk or Edmund Goulding and the star-centered scenes of a Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo vehicle.  In her two most remarkable performance scenes, first on the phone with a total stranger, and then side-by-side with the same stranger in a restaurant in a seven-minute single take, she brilliantly navigates through a sparse, demanding relationship, letting her character unfold in all of her gaffes, false starts, and strangled attempts to articulate the truths that issue so glibly from the mouths of Bette Davis or Jane Wyman.  Her improvisational manner certainly reminds me of Gena Rowlands, the grande dame of the disrupted housewife, but Brenda’s dishwater-dulled character is even deprived of the exceptional gift of beauty.  Her nomination is truly a tribute to her ability to bring to life a truly ordinary character in the most extreme of conditions.  My vote in 1996 goes to another astounding study in ordinariness in extreme situations, Frances McDormand, but I’ll chalk this one up as another of the great performances I’ve discovered on this quest.

The Penultimate Mile: Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

GLADYS GEORGE IN VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE (1936)

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The competition (Cliff: 6 for 7):

Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld

Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild

Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet

Valiant Is the Word for Carrie is just your run-of-the-mill tale about a city prostitute who retires to a small Louisiana town, befriends a local boy, gets run out of town, comes back and rescues him when he’s orphaned, takes in another orphan girl who escapes from being sent off to the winners of a magazine contest(!) when her train crashes, builds a laundry empire in the city, raises the two children, watches as her “son” gets engaged to the sister of a man he accidentally kills, sees through the fiancée’s machinations to get her hands on the laundry fortune, makes a deal to help spring the fiancée’s convicted doctor boyfriend/former gang partner from jail if she’ll break off the engagement, gets caught while the fiancée is gunned down during the attempted prison break, and voluntarily goes to jail to shield her children from the dishonor of a trial that would reveal their roots as unwanted orphans.  After all that (as a character confides to a guard while looking on at her in her cell, valiant is really the only word for Carrie.

With that kind of plot swirling all about her, it would be easy for Gladys to get lost.  However, I found her former lady of the night really stuck in my memory; her ill-reputed career is over by the time the film begins and hangs over her as a vague shadow (remember, this is the Production Code Era), but Gladys finds many rich aspects of her character’s history to work into her various scenes.  There are shades of both Claire Trevor in Stagecoach and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce as her hooker with a heart of gold turned ambitiously self-sacrificing mother, and in one of the later unbelievable plot turns described above, its great to see a redoubtable, remorseless bargainer brought to the fore, a trace of the hardened businesswoman deep in her past.  For me, the 1936 Best Actress race comes down to two heroines of the screwball comedy, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild, but I credit Gladys for conjuring a rich and entertaining character in the midst of one of the most exceptionally outlandish melodramas I’ve seen in this category (and that is saying something).

The Penultimate Mile: Nancy Carroll in The Devil’s Holiday

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

NANCY CARROLL IN THE DEVIL’S HOLIDAY (1930)

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The competition (Cliff: 7 for 7!!):

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee

Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie

Greta Garbo in Romance

Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire

Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser

It feels cruel to lavish five hundred words on Gloria Swanson in The Trespasser and have only a fraction as much to say about her fellow nominee, Nancy Carroll.  As I mentioned earlier, the two films start off in an extraordinarily similar direction, with a comely working girl netting a guileless young man for marriage.  The stories diverge from there, however: where Gloria bravely sets out on the high road of single motherhood, Nancy’s character slings her pick over her shoulder and gleefully delves into the low business of gold digging, before a pair of curiously inverted finales: Gloria’s longed-for husband finally reuniting with her and Nancy redemptively returning to the man she played for a sap.  The film doesn’t hold much to make it memorable, and while Nancy’s youthful sparkle is offset by her lack of dramatic range, I do particularly enjoy the gusto with which she embraces the scenes that reveal the sharp woman on the make underneath her phony romantic wiles.  I wonder what kind of a femme fatale she might have made if she’d hit the scene in Hollywood a decade or so later.  But now that I’ve finally finished the record seven nominees for the 3rd Academy Awards (1929-1930), I’m pretty giddy to finally cast my vote for Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, a stunningly humane and minutely observed performance that I saw at the very beginning of this quest.

The Penultimate Mile: Jane Fonda in The Morning After

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

JANE FONDA IN THE MORNING AFTER (1986)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):

Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God

Sissy Spacek in Crimes of the Heart

Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens

While it’s easy to pinpoint the features in The Morning After that got Jane Fonda her seventh (and last to date) Oscar nomination–she plays a failed actress and black-out drunkard who wakes up framed for murder in the first five minutes–what’s harder to explain is the good movie that I sense lurking in there, and where it went.  The Morning After had a lot going for it: Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges starring, Sidney Lumet directing, and a refreshingly dropped-in-cold murder mystery.  A friend alerted me in advance to some pretty obvious reshoots that take place in the end, an indication that the script had problems that the production just couldn’t solve.  At the very least, the film has Lumet’s great sensibility for cities the way people live them–it’s the only film I’ve seen that actually follows characters from LAX up the highway stretch of La Cienega–and pair of absorbing scenes for Fonda in the dead man’s apartment, as an innocent woman trying to cover her tracks.  Fonda herself does a fair job capturing the desperation of this never-was actress, digging into the same vulnerability of earlier roles in The China Syndrome and Coming Home–but she doesn’t really succeed in making the movie star disappear.  Despite her pedigree and the baitiness of the role, Fonda owes her last laurel to a weak field for 1986, one that also let in offbeat performances from Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married and, earning one of my proudest votes, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

The Penultimate Mile: Elisabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

ELISABETH BERGNER IN ESCAPE ME NEVER (1935)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 6):

Bette Davis in Dangerous

Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds

Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams

Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp

Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel

Okay, back to shorter posts for a while (hopefully) after a couple of doozies.  Elisabeth is one of the most obscure nominees ever; her film has only 45 votes on IMDb, including mine, and she is one of the ten least-gotten answers in a truly hardcore quiz to name every Best Actress nominee.  A Russian-born British actress, she left more of a mark on the stage than on the screen, and more of a mark in Britain than in Hollywood.  Indeed, I’ve barely heard of anyone in this British production’s cast, though I perked up at the very beginning of the film when I learned that was shot by Gregg Toland and edited by David Lean!

The craft really is the strongest thing in this ornate European melodrama about two composer friends and the urchin woman/girl they take under their wing.  The film is practically a parody of subdued English drama; there’s even a character named Sebastian.  Bergner as the urchin girl, who eventually bears the child of one of the composers and loses it tragically, has a certain self-abandon in front of the camera, but still feels like a stage actress and gets very little chance to shine in the film anyway (this was the last year before Lead and Supporting categories were separated).  The film and the performance are certainly oddities, and while I still have two whole performances to see, Bergner runs distantly behind Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams and Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp.