The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1959
I’ve covered 1959 a few times in recent weeks. Ben-Hur, sweeps all the big awards, Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Actor for Charlton Heston, and Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith. So all the male awards went to one movie. (Because, in such a male-dominated industry, Best Picture and Best Director are, essentially, male awards.) Which only leaves two. Best Actress, and this one. Best Actress went to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top, which, as you can guess from reading the two categories from this year that I’ve already covered, I’m not okay with. It’s not subtle. So what we have is, outside of Best Picture and Best Director, a year I don’t really like. And yet there were such great films this year.
Wow. I covered it all in one paragraph. That might be a first. I really don’t have anything else to say about this one. Remember this, folks, this doesn’t happen often.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1959
And the nominees were…
Hermione Baddeley, Room at the Top
Susan Kohner, Imitation of Life
Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life
Thelma Ritter, Pillow Talk
Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
Baddeley — Remember all those other categories where I talked about how much I hate this film? Well, this nomination only makes it worse. First, though, let’s recap the film, so you can remember why I don’t like it.
The film is about an ambitious dude, played by Laurence Harvey, who worms his way in to the boss’s daughter. He starts seeing her, presenting himself as more than he is, all of that. And he knows that when he marries this girl, he’ll be set for life. But, while that’s going on, he meets and falls in love with an older woman, Simone Signoret. Her marriage is long over but she’s still married. And basically the husband goes and takes weekends to be with other women, and she hangs around with friends. And they sleep together, and fall in love. But the dude also is ambitious and still wants to be with the boss’s daughter. So he struggles with that, and eventually the older woman starts drinking when he husband leaves her and dies in a car crash. So the dude ends up unhappy anyway.
I hated this movie. Hated it. If if hadn’t won Best Actress, I just would have not liked it. Now, it’s personal. Fuck this movie. And what’s worse, is this nomination. Because, Hermione Baddeley is only on screen for two minutes and twenty seconds. Total. That’s it.
Two minutes and twenty fucking seconds. How the fuck could anyone garner a nomination out of that little screen time? (Note: Ingrid Bergman won for only five minutes in 1974, and Beatrice Straight won for five minutes as well in 1976.) Can you really give a performance accolade for that little screen time? It’s like that year in the Emmys where Ellen Burstyn was nominated for only 14 seconds of screen time because no one actually watched the movie and just saw her name on the shortlist and voted for it.
I’m not even going to talk about the performance, because, it’ll take you longer to read my description of it than it will to watch the fucking performance. She literally shows up, says lines, and leaves. And that’s it. Clearly a number five no matter how you slice it.
I’m pretty sure the only way you can earn a nomination for only two minutes of screen time is if they talk about her the whole movie and her presence hangs on the entire film, and then at the very end, the rapture happens and she comes down as an angel or Jesus or God, and then lays waste to the entire fucking whole of existence. Then, maybe, okay, that deserves a nomination. Because that’s memorable. And even then, you’re thinking — “Yeah, good, okay, but nomination — ehh, I don’t know.”
I could have just two words and ended this one right there, but then no one else would have gotten it. So I’ll do it now.
Kohner — Okay, now, this beast to tackle. I’ll try not to talk too much about it because, one, I love the film, two, I love Douglas Sirk movies, and three, I did an oral presentation on this film in college, and as such, have studied way more about this film than is required for this article. So, I’ll attempt to keep myself in check.
The film is about a white family and a black family. All women. It starts as the white mother has lost her daughter on the beach at Coney Island. The black mother finds her and she’s been playing with the black daughter. They stay and play, the kids, while the mothers talk. Now, just so you have it straight, the white mother is Lana Turner and the black mother is Juanita Moore. And they talk, and we find out the troubles Juanita Moore is going through, and Lana agrees to take her on as her housekeeper, even though their apartment is small. Basically, she lets them stay with her, and Juanita Moore agrees to be the housekeeper to repay her generosity. And they have kind of a weird friend/employer/servant relationship. It’s very weird. And yet perfect for a Douglas Sirk film. And also Lana becomes an actresses during this time and they become rich, but that’s in the background.
The real story of the film has to do with Sarah Jane, who is very light skinned. She hates that she’s black and so wants to be white. And she can pass as white as long as nobody knows, so that’s what she tries to do. And she’s constantly ashamed of her mother. Like, there’s one scene where Juanita Moore shows up at school to bring Sarah Jane her rain boots because she left them at home and it started pouring. And the teacher is like, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any colored students here.” And she’s like, “There she is. Sarah Jane. There’s my baby.” And Sarah Jane is like, “Oh fuck.” Because no one knew she was black.
That’s the main point of contention throughout the film Sarah Jane wants to be white like Lana Turner’s daughter, and wants to be part of that family, and despises her mother because she’s black. And the girls grow up. The white daughter becomes Sandra Dee, and Sarah Jane becomes Susan Kohner. And the same thing continues. Kohner eventually gets severely beaten by her boyfriend (humorously enough, the boyfriend is played by Troy Donahue, who was a teen idol in the late 50s. He also played Merle, Talia Shire’s fiance in The Godfather Part II. The dude she randomly picked up and wants to marry? Yeah, that’s him), when he finds out she’s black. And then she runs away, starts dancing in not very respectable clubs, staying as far away from her mother as possible. And then the movie ends with a fucking brilliant scene between the two of them, where Juanita Moore knows she’s dying, and tries one last time to be close to her daughter, and Kohner pushes her away, even though she doesn’t want to, and the whole thing is just heartbreaking.
Now, Kohner, playing Sarah Jane, is really good in the movie. Even though she shows up like 40 minutes in, she still has most of the emotional scenes, including this one:
Jesus christ, this scene is incredible. That silent “mama” at the end gets me every time.
Moore — Juanita Moore is the other actress in that scene. She’s the mother. She’s actually in the film for the whole way. She does a really great job at playing Annie. Seriously, both of these women were really deserving of this award. It’s gonna come down to these two, but, which one, I don’t know. They were both brilliant in this movie.
Ritter — What the fuck is with this year and nominating performances that are barely on screen?
Okay, this one I get, sort of, because Thelma Ritter is the kind of actress who was nominated six times in this category. She’s a very memorable woman. But still, not doing anything is not doing anything. At some point they’re just nominating her because of who she is and not what she did.
The film is a “sex” romp with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. They play people who share a party line in an apartment building. And every time she wants to use the phone, he’s always on it with one of his many girlfriends. And she always hears him serenading them as if they’re the only one, singing the same “personalized” song with just the girl’s name changed. This is funny, you see, because Rock Hudson was gay.
And she hates him, because he’s a lothario, and she’s a good girl. And yet they’ve never met each other. She just knows his name, and apparently not his voice, because, he meets her in person and sees how hot she is. So he pretends to be a dude from Texas into town and starts dating her for real. And he falls in love with her, but as this fake dude. And she finds out and all that and then they get back together anyway — you know how it is. The film is full of sexual undertones that are actually hilarious, and only like 20% of them have to do with the fact that Rock Hudson was actually gay. (Because he was like this in almost every movie. You get used to it after a while.)
Now, Thelma Ritter plays another woman in the building who also shares the party line. She’s a drunk. That’s her deal. So we see her drinking Bloody Mary’s in the morning, “fur of the dog,” I believe, is how she puts it, and she has about, three scenes in the movie. She basically shows up at random moments. She basically gets her jollies listening to Rock Hudson on the telephone and, I guess, imagining it’s her he’s serenading. And that’s really about it. I kept waiting for her to come back like, “And now she’s gonna have something to do…” But no. Not really. Barely in the film. Not even worth a nomination. Which makes this category a lot easier to pick. But still, not worth the nomination at all. She’s barely in the film. How they managed two of those this year is beyond me.
Winters — And our final nominee. The winner. By default she becomes #3 purely because the other two barely count in this category.
This will be quick, since, it’s The Diary of Anne Frank. Family is in the attic, hiding from the Nazis, they stay up there. That’s the story. And we get scenes of them interacting, scenes of almost discoveries, all of that. The film is brilliant, you should see it, because it’s riveting.
Now, Shelley Winters plays one of the women in the attic. They’re friends of the Franks’, and her and her husband are hiding with them. Her husband is a large, burly man, and she’s a woman who is the quintessential “Jewish” woman. She’s brassy, loud, and fancies herself genteel because she has an expensive fur coat. That’s basically the performance. She’s loud, and she annoys people, and she blurts out things she shouldn’t because, that’s who she is. That’s about it, really. I don’t think she should have won, though she was good in the film. But, in a normal category, she’d probably be 4th for me.
My Thoughts: So, in this category, there are only three people worth voting for. And that’s before we even start looking at it. Two people haver performances that, combined, factor into about, seven minutes of screen time. Maybe less. So that leaves us with, Kohner, Moore and Winters.
Now, it’s pretty easy to see what happened here. Kohner and Moore had a vote split and Winters walked away the winner. Understandable? Absolutely. Just? I don’t think so.
Shelley Winters was a great actress, but, I don’t feel she needed two Supporting Actress Oscars. Plus, her second one, for A Patch of Blue, in 1965, was a much better performance than this was. But even though she was good here, Kohner and Moore’s performances were far and away better. I’m torn as to which one I liked better, because, Kohner gets the more emotionally charged scenes, but Moore, getting to be more wounded on the inside, is in the movie for longer. She’s in there from start to finish, while Kohner only shows up as Sarah Jane gets older, which is still for a large portion of the film.
So, even though I say you can’t go wrong voting for either Moore or Kohner, my nature steers me toward flashier performances over the slow and steady performances, plus Kohner reminds me of Natalie Wood the way she gets manic in some scenes (and, kind of in appearance), so I learn toward her. Plus, I like the Sarah Jane storyline more than I like the Annie storyline (but not by much, so, that’s not really a factor). Also, and this is a personal thing, I didn’t like how “mammy” Moore was. I know that’s part of the character, but I really don’t like the whole slave mentality thing. That whole, happy to be a servant thing and almost treating herself as an inferior to the white woman. I don’t know, I just, don’t like it. That’s kind of what leads me to want to vote for Kohner’s performance more. Though, historically, a win by Moore would have been more important. So, while I’m rooting for both, I kind of would rather vote for Kohner. But either her or Moore really are the best choices here.
Note: I had some second thoughts after watching that scene up there again, but, you know, in the spirit of the melodrama, I still need to stick with my vote. Over-the-top is the way to go, and I think Kohner was the perfect form of over-the-top for this movie (The repetitions of “I’m white!” was a bit much, but hey, it’s melodrama).
My Vote: Kohner
Should have won: Kohner, Moore
Is the current result acceptable?: Yes and no. It’s acceptable from a completely logical standpoint. They didn’t know which of the two to vote for, and Winters won from a vote split. Totally understandable. Is it acceptable because she was the best performance? No. She wasn’t bad, but, the other two were so much better.
Performances I suggest you see: Imitation of Life is a wonderful film, perhaps Sirk’s best. My favorite is probably Written on the Wind because it’s so over-the-top melodramatic, but, this, All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession are all fucking incredible. I highly suggest you watch all of them. Also, if you like Sirk, or the other way around, which is, if you liked Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, that’s basically him trying to recreate the Douglas Sirk style, then you’ll like, whatever the opposite from the one you’ve seen is. The Diary of Anne Frank is a brilliant film that everyone should see because, it’s like To Kill a Mockingbird or Inherit the Wind, they should just show it to you in middle school or high school just so you know about it. Because even if you’re one of those kids who won’t read the book, see the movie, because at least then you’ll have some knowledge of the situation. The film is so fucking good. And Pillow Talk is a fun movie and is great it you watch it for the subtext. Trust me on this, you will not under many circumstances dislike that movie. Just watch it for the subtext. It’s great.