The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1953

And now for one of my personal favorite years and individual categories of the entire Oscar Quest — Best Actress 1953. I posted a list the last time I covered 1953, of all the great films that came out this year. That list is why it’s one of my favorite years for movies. As for this category, there are three films on this list that I love dearly, two extremely so, with the other two being particularly strong as well, leading to a category that, while easy to separate in terms of how I’d rank them, is still one of the strongest I’ve personally seen.

As for the rest of the year, From Here to Eternity pretty much swept everything. While it might not have been my personal choice as Best Picture of the year, it’s still a very good film, and it’s understandable why it won. Fred Zinnemann also winning Best Director HAD TO happen. The reason for that is, one, he directed the hell out of the picture. Two, he didn’t win the year before this for High Noon, which is kind of a shame. Though, John Ford won for The Quiet Man instead, which was a good decision, but everyone acknowledges that High Noon lost all its awards (except the Gary Cooper one, because who’s gonna dispute Gary Cooper?) because it’s clearly an anti-HUAC film and it was a weird time in their lives. So him winning this year was virtually assured. Frank Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor for the film, which I’ve talked about, and Donna Reed won Best Supporting Actress for it as well. Which only leaves two categories: Best Actor, which was William Holden for Stalag 17 (most likely due to a vote split from dueling From Here to Eternity nominations), and this one, which I’ll get into forthwith.


And the nominees were…

Leslie Caron, Lili

Ava Gardner, Mogambo

Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday

Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity

Maggie McNamara, The Moon is Blue

Caron — When this Oscar Quest ends, and I compile my life of favorite films I discovered during the Quest, which ones I’m glad I discovered, this one is going to be #1 on that list. Number one. I fucking love this film.

Now, I’ll tell you straight up — this film isn’t for everybody. Not everybody will love this film as I do. But this film was fucking made for me. Everything about this film just captured my imagination. The film itself probably isn’t as good as the manner in which I love it, but it doesn’t matter. I love this film.

Leslie Caron plays Lili, who is a girl coming to Paris (I think it’s Paris) after the death of her father, looking for a place to work. Her father knew a baker who said, whenever she wanted a job, she could come to his bakery and he’d hire her. So she goes to the bakery, only to find out the man died. So, not knowing what to do, she starts walking up the street. And the man next door to the (now closed) bakery tells her he’ll hire her, but it becomes clear real fast that he’s just looking to take advantage of her and will throw her out on the street once he gets what he wants. And fortunately, a magician comes in looking for handkerchiefs (since his carnival is in town) and saves her. So, not knowing what to do, she starts following him and the people from the carnival. She has no place to go, so she just follows them, and he eventually agrees to get her a job at the carnival. And once he figures out how young she is (she’s supposed to be pretty young, I believe. Not crazy young, but, not to his liking), he plans on pawning her off. And he gets her a job as a waitress, which she promptly screws up on her first day. It’s the kind of thing where she sees the magician perform for the diners and becomes enraptured by the performance and watches it while she’s supposed to be working.

So she gets fired, and, having really no place to go, as she’s walking through the carnival, she sees the big ladder the trapeze artists climb up. So she starts climbing, clearly to kill herself, when, from out of nowhere, a voice calls out to her, telling her not to jump. What it is, is a puppet. Now here’s where the film gets crazy interesting. She goes over and starts talking to the puppet. And the puppet starts asking her why she wanted to jump and starts talking to her. Now, brief pause to explain —

The story here is that the puppeteer, he used to be a dancer, a good dancer, and hurt himself and was unable to dance again. So he became a puppeteer at the carnival and became incredibly bitter. So much so that, earlier, when she met him and his pessimistic ways, dubbed him “the angry man,” a term she pretty much continues to call him for most of the rest of the film. One of my favorite lines in the film is when she’s talking to someone else who is like, “Come on, let’s go see him. He’s okay.” And she just goes, “But he’s the angry man. He’s angry.” There’s something so wonderfully innocent about the way she says it. Or just the character in general. That’s what really appeals to me about this movie. Anyway, the dude is bitter, and, now that he’s so bitter, it’s almost like he’s incapable of being happy as himself. So, what happens is, he falls in love with Lili through the puppets, and the only time he can speak his true feelings is with the puppets. So that’s what’s going on from his end. Now, back to the story.

Lili starts talking to the puppet that he used to keep her from killing herself. And he uses the puppet to talk to her, and brings on the other characters as well, which include Carrot Top, a red headed puppet (no jokes. I love this film too much for jokes), Renardo, a sly fox who will “steal the watch from off your wrist,” Margueritte, a vain dancer, and Golo, a big giant who is scary but cowardly. So, she talks to them, and right from the get-go, you notice, either Lili doesn’t know that there’s someone behind the screen controlling the puppets, or she doesn’t care. And honestly, the film is such that, it doesn’t matter. She’s just talking to these puppets as if they were real. And as he’s talking to her through the puppets, everyone at the carnival comes over and watches, because the way she interacts with them is so simple and so pure, that everyone wants to see it. So what they do is hire her to interact with the puppets. And she doesn’t get it at first, she’s like, “But what will I do for the money you’re paying me?” and they’re like, “You’ll go walking over there, and the puppets will stop you, and you’ll talk to them. That’s it.” And that’s the film. She talks to the puppets, and she tells them about her life and everything, and it’s basically the same as a romance, where the characters get to know one another, except here, the puppets are involved.

The film is just magical. There’s other stuff going on too, like, she’s still interested in the magician sort of. Like, she’ll perk up when he’s around, yet talk to the angry man like she would anybody else. And it upsets him because he knows the magician has a fiance (played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, who, is in a coma as of Wednesday) and is just leading Lili along. And that’s the main storyline, him trying to get Lili to fall in love with him. And there are these incredible dream sequences too, where they’re just silent dance scenes, where, Lili is frozen in place and the dude dances around her. The whole thing has this dreamlike quality to it. I thought it was perfect. And it’s only 81 minutes long too, so it’s not like you can really complain even if you don’t like it.

Now, we come to the performance. I love Leslie Caron as it is, I think she’s a wonderful actress. There’s something about her that just appeals to me. Now, here, the character is just so innocent that you have to like her. And even though I know most people wouldn’t vote for it, in 95% of the other years, I’d vote for her hands down, just because I love the film and the character so much. But, there’s another nominee in this category that brings me back down to logic and reminds me that, yeah, I know this isn’t really a performance that would ever win. But I don’t care. I love it. I think Leslie Caron should have won an Oscar during her career. But, even though I love it, I can’t vote for it. I’ll tell you why in a little bit.

But man, do I love this film. I mean it when I say — #1 on that list.

Gardner — Okay, Ava Gardner. This is an actress I knew about more than I knew about her work. It’s weird. Everybody knows Ava Gardner, but, before this Oscar Quest, I could barely tell you about any film she was ever in. And the reason for that is — she didn’t really do too many films that hold up today. Or rather, not too many films the average filmgoer would see. 80% of them, you kind of have to go out of your way to see. Not many of them are remembered. A nice handful are, though. Anyway, Mogambo.

This is an interesting film in that — it was made before. With the same actor. Clark Gable made this movie in the 30s as Red Dust, which I always want to call “Lust in the Dust,” which was actually what they called Duel in the Sun, so it’s the kind of thing where I can unintentionally get into Movie Title Telephone real quickly when talking about this movie. Anyway, they remade it twenty years later with Gable, which is strange, since, Gable wasn’t exactly the most attractive man in this movie. The years of drinking took its toll on him. And he has that 50 year old man boob sag going on. And he’s got these pants that go up to his diaphragm. It’s not a pleasant sight. And it’s strange, because — he sleeps with two women in this movie. Not just any two women — Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I know, right?

Also John Ford directed this. which is weird. It just doesn’t seem like a John Ford film.

Anyway, the film is about Clark Gable as a game hunter, who meets up with Ava Gardner, who is looking for some dude she was supposed to meet, only to discover he isn’t coming. So she stays with him until the next boat comes in, and she leaves. However, on the boat comes Grace Kelly and her husband. And pretty quickly the husband gets sick from a tsetse fly and is out of the picture. For a while. And then Grace Kelly starts romancing Clark Gable. And then Ava Gardner comes back, since her boat sank up the river. And then her and Grace Kelly get into some shit. It gets very heated between the two. And basically, Ava Gardner doesn’t like Grace Kelly, because she likes Clark Gable, who doesn’t like her, and the husband has no idea what’s going on the entire time. And basically, it ends with the married couple back together and Ava Gardner with Clark Gable. It’s an okay film, not bad, not great. Kinda classic because of its cast and director.

Now, Gardner’s performance. Nothing special, really. Honestly, I thought Grace Kelly was the best thing about this movie. But, I like Ava Gardner, and I’m glad she got nominated. So, while she is clearly a #5 for me here, I do like that she’s on this list, because, I feel she makes it stronger than if it were Bette Davis or somebody in that fifth spot.

Hepburn — Here’s why I can’t vote for Leslie Caron. I love Audrey Hepburn too much. I love Roman Holiday too much.

I know a lot of people haven’t seen Roman Holiday, and that’s because, while they know about it, they just think — “Romance, fuck that” — but fuck you. This movie is great. You need to see it.

Audrey Hepburn is a princess. Hates her boring life. Sneaks out for some fun. Faked illness in order to be left alone. Was given a sedative. Passes out on the street, is happened upon by Gregory Peck, a reporter. He brings her to his apartment, because he’s a good man and won’t leave her on the street. Then he finds out she’s the princess. So he makes it so he becomes her guide to the city and goes and hangs out with her all day. Meanwhile the family is looking for her. And the movie is a nice romance with them getting together (even though you know they can’t). Brilliant film. Classic.

Audrey Hepburn is incredible in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t exactly a Scarlett O’Hara performance. But, in this category, she actually is worth voting for. She’s just so goddamn likable. She gets my vote, no contest. I know you can argue for Deborah Kerr instead, but — it’s Audrey Hepburn. She almost always will get my vote.

Kerr — And now Deborah. I’ve spoken about Deborah several times on this Quest. She’s someone I felt deserved an Oscar, but, every time she was nominated, always managed to lose. This film was probably her best shot at winning, as it was the performance she gave that was most in the Oscar wheelhouse. What I mean by that is, even if actors tend to have bad luck at the Oscars, a good film — good in this case being a film that is clearly gonna sweep a lot of the categories — can get them to vote for anybody. Plus, the film won two acting awards and very well could have won a third if not for the vote split. So, maybe they actively didn’t vote for her because they wanted to spread the wealth. After all, two years prior, A Streetcar Named Desire won three of the four acting awards (except Brando! But, you know, that was a Bogart career achievement Oscar, so, I guess it’s sort of okay). Maybe they just didn’t want to vote for her because of that. Who knows. But, before I get into the film/performance, I will say — this is the last time a Best Picture winner has been nominated for all four acting awards. Nice bit of trivia to keep in mind. Never again after this has a film managed to get a nomination in all of the acting categories.

Okay, if you remember from the last few times I spoke of the film — it’s about the dude who is transferred into the Hawaiian military base right before Pearl Harbor. He transferred because he used to be a boxer and his opponent accidentally died in the ring, so now he doesn’t want to fight anymore. And here, the commanding officer (who is constantly going into town and having affairs and not doing any work whatsoever) loves boxing, and expects him to get in line and fight. But he won’t, so the C.O. decides to make his life a living hell. And that’s the rest of that part of the film. Plus there’s the Sinatra storyline, with him getting in trouble with the stockade officer, who beats him 3/4 to death, and then he escapes and dies. Remember? He won for it. And then the other storyline is, the C.O., who is always going into town and sleeping around on his wife, is constantly putting all his work on his chief aide, Burt Lancaster, who is a perfect officer. He does his duty and is on top of everything and does everything to the letter (he’d be the cop who loves doing paperwork). And Lancaster, starting to get tired of the dude’s antics, ends up having an affair with the C.O.’s wife, who is notorious around the base for being beautiful, but also for — rumor has it — sleeping around with some of the men. And Lancaster starts having an affair with her and falling in love with her, leading to this shot —

And the whole thing is about them falling tragically in love and being unable to be together because of his complete commitment to the army and her desire to marry him. She wants him to become an officer so they can marry, but he despises officers, so he refuses to do it. And that’s where the tragedy part comes in.

Anywho, that’s where Deborah Kerr comes in. She’s the C.O.’s wife. That’s her up there in the picture. Her storyline is, that, but she also gets the added bonus of being the tragic housewife, who actually hasn’t really had that many affairs past this one, and if she did, it’s because — one day her husband came home drunk and led to her having a miscarriage. So she gets her big dramatic scene, gets to be romanced, then gets to end tragically.

It’s a very good performance. It’s strange. This is the one real dramatic performance in this film. The one all around dramatic, anyway. Ava Gardner is sex and bitchiness, mostly. Leslie Caron is innocence and romance. Maggie McNamara is comedic. And Audrey — well, Audrey has almost the same storyline as Deborah Kerr does, except, lighter. Think about it — a life she’s unhappy with, then a whirlwind romance that can’t work out, leading to the realization that it can’t work out and people moving on. Except, the difference is, Audrey’s is more likable because its more comedic by nature. And the Academy will always go for greater likability. Which was my way of rationalizing why she didn’t win, while also rationalizing why it’s okay I’m not voting for her. I love Deborah Kerr, but, I love Audrey too much more.

McNamara — And now, The Moon is Blue. This is a movie I had heard about long before I began this Quest. As a film student, it’s one you always learn about.

Quick film history lesson — because I know you just love it when we do these: I’ll assume you all know about the Production code. Implemented in 33-34, industry-wide censorship operation, telling films what they couldn’t include in the films, like cursing and nudity and stuff. Originally headed by the Hays Office, then the Breen office? Well, it held really strong until — well, 1949 really. In 1949, Roberto Rossellini made The Miracle, about a woman who thinks she had an immaculate conception, and, well, as you can guess, it didn’t go over well. It got released unrated in theaters, a bunch of states refused to show it — partially because of the content and partially because the star of the film (Ingrid Bergman) was sleeping with the director while married to someone else (or he was married to someone else. Or they both were. Whichever, that, along with the content of the film — white people went crazy, as you can guess). And the film went to the courts, fighting for the first amendment, and eventually won a HUGE decision for film — which said that film was art and was therefore protected under the first amendment for freedom of speech. You have no idea how huge that was.

So then, that happened, and also, the Paramount Decision was brewing, which basically was when the studios were told — hey, you guys have a monopoly on the business, that’s illegal, you need to get rid of all the theaters. Because studios owned all the means of production and distribution, but also owned all the exhibition venues too. So, even if someone put together the funds to make and distribute their films, they couldn’t release it anywhere because the majors owned all the theaters. They’d have to release the film in shitty theaters in Tuscaloosa and places like that. And then no one would see them. So, that was happening, the studios were losing power — and also that whole HUAC thing was going on. You know, Hollywood Ten, blacklist, all of that.

So, all of this, basically swirling into one big shit storm, not to mention that, when the studios lost the theaters, a schism was created, where film split in two directions. There were studio films, and then there were, for all intensive purposes, the exploitation films. Shit you’d see in drive-ins, like The Blob, or I Was a Teenage Werewolf, or hell, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein for that matter. Films like that. Films made for no money, meant to just entertain people. Those, being low budget, couldn’t be censored as much, plus they were things kids went to at midnight and shit, so, no one was really able to prevent anyone from seeing them. So, that, along with the first amendment thing, led to a general — relaxing — of the Production Code. The reins got loosened a bit, which allowed people to let more stuff slip through than ever. Which lead to this film.

The Moon is Blue is generally regarded as the first — or at least the most major — The Rossellini film is the big first example, but this one is the one they hold up as, “This was the first film to be released without an MPAA seal.” The film was directed by Otto Preminger, who, as you know, is the dude that is the figurehead in those whole fight for the right to party make a film about whatever you want. It’s him and Fuller are the big two names from the 50s, really. There are others, but those are the big two that come to mind right now. Those two clearly made films that were torpedos against the Production Code. The Man with the Golden Arm, released two years after this, was about heroin addiction (which I talked about here), and he did The Cardinal, a film about the ride of Nazism, as well as abortions and a bunch of other taboo topics — he was an envelope pusher.

This film, as you can guess by its title — is a sex romp. (Get it? Blue film? Yeah, you can’t really guess from the title, that’s the point, but the blue part is a nice little joke.) Maggie McNamara (what a sad story about what happened to her) is a secretary who works in the Empire State Building. And one day, William Holden sees her and is instantly attracted to her. And he spends the first twenty minutes of the film trying to court her. But she’s a good girl, and knows what men are looking for, so she rebukes his advances, while also being charmed by him. And he repeatedly promises to be a gentleman, so she agrees to have dinner with him. And then while they’re at her apartment, David Niven, a dude who lives upstairs, comes down. He’s older, but he’s also clearly trying to fuck McNamara. In fact, the men joke about how they want to bang her. And the rest of the film is about how the men are trying to have sex with her. And then, Niven is Holden’s ex-father in law, and his daughter is trying to fuck Holden again, even though he wants to fuck McNamara. And the whole film is McNamara more interested in talking to them than sleeping with them, and all thy want is to sleep with her.

I love the film. It’s very witty and subversive. It features lines like this. David Niven is like, “The three things I live for are steak, liquor, and sex.” The man is a prophet.

Anyway, the movie is really good. I really, really enjoyed it. I mostly enjoyed it because of the amount of innuendo in the film. It’s seriously not even hidden. You really need to be an innocent person to not get what’s really going on here. And even so, it’s mostly out in the open as well. As for McNamara’s performance, she’s really good. You immediately fall in love with her. She’s very likable, intelligent, witty and sprightly. And she’s really great. I almost wish I could vote for her here, but, with Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, she sadly goes third. But, damn, these top three would be 1s and 2s in many other years. That’s why this year is so strong.

My Thoughts: I love Audrey too much. It’s no contest. Shame for Deborah Kerr. This was probably her best shot. But, I’d have voted Leslie Caron over her.

My Vote: Hepburn

Should Have Won: Hepburn

Is the result acceptable?: Really? It’s Audrey Hepburn.

Ones I suggest you see: Roman Holiday is a must see for everybody. Don’t think, just see it. From Here to Eternity is a great film and a Best Picture winner. Probably a must-see, but probably not. It’s close. It’s very good. I highly recommend it. The Moon is Blue is a great and hilarious film. It’s a sex romp in an era where sex romps weren’t exactly okay. Wonderful film, though I don’t think many people would ever see it. But if you can get your hands on it, don’t let it slip through. This is a very nice film to have on your resume. Trust me. You can see really smart with this one because, it’s very funny, and even if you don’t love it, you’ll probably like it, and other people have a higher chance of liking it than some other films in this Quest, so it might reflect well on you just for having known about it. Just saying. Mogambo is interesting for the cast and such, but, you don’t really need to see it. That’s one you can know about and get away with. It is interesting though, if you’re at all into location shoots and film history and all that. And finally, Lili. You have no idea how highly I recommend this film. I don’t want to get into it, but, when I say, in all this Oscar Quest, of all the films I hadn’t seen beforehand, that this is my favorite film, it should mean something. I will let that speak for itself.


5) Gardner

4) Kerr

3) McNamara

2) Caron

1) Hepburn

One response

  1. Renard B.

    “this is the last time a film has been nominated for all four acting awards. Nice bit of trivia to keep in mind. Never again after this has a film managed to get a nomination in all of the acting categories.”

    Uhhh… not true. “REDS” in 1981 was the last film to do that.

    July 14, 2011 at 3:09 am

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