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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.