The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1956

I love 1956. This is a great year for Oscar films disguised under a bad cloud of what actually won. Around the World in 80 Days is considered (somewhat unfairly) as one of the worst Best Picture choices of all time. It’s a bad choice, but not that terrible. Yul Brynner as Best Actor for The King and I is a really bad choice, mostly because he’s nothing more than a supporting actor in the film. Ingrid Bergman as Best Actress for Anastasia (as I’ve talked about here) was a terrible decision. Anthony Quinn as Best Actor for Lust for Life was a mostly poor decision, but I haven’t yet fully decided my feelings on that one. And George Stevens as Best Director for Giant was the lone good decision this year. That’s about it. I love 1956. Back up in that other article, I listed all the great films that came out that year. That list about covers it.


And the nominees were…

Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed

Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind

Mercedes McCambridge, Giant

Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed

Dunnock — Baby Doll, as I’ve said before, is a film I love dearly. I think Carroll Baker should have won Best Actress this year for this film. It really is great.

If you don’t remember (or don’t want to read the linked article), it’s about a 19-year old girl who was sold into marriage to an older man (Karl Malden) who is kind of a bigot, mostly not a pleasant man, and really wants to have sex with her. And her, being not that bright, makes a deal that she’ll do it on her 20th birthday. And that day is approaching, and he’s trying to convince her to let him at her early, meanwhile his business is failing because of a rival’s, and he goes and burns down one of his rival’s factories, which leads the rival (Eli Wallach) to come over and try to get a confession out of the girl. And the movie is a lot of Eli and Baker having an interesting game of seduction, which is ultimately leading to Karl Malden getting his comeuppance. But everyone is more complex than that, and the performances are great.

So, here, Mildred Dunnock plays the elderly cook that Karl Malden hires, and she’s basically senile. And she’s sort of the comic relief of the play — she shows up occasionally and we see that she’s completely gone and does crazy shit. She kind of reminded me of the way they used Cloris Leachman in Bad Santa. You know, she’s sleeping all the time, always calls everyone by her son’s name, a dude who isn’t even in the film, and no matter what is going on, always says to people, “let me make you some sandwiches,” and goes and makes them. That’s kind of what Mildred Dunnock is like here. It’s a fun performance, but, I wouldn’t vote for it unless I seriously had no other choice.

Heckart — Remember The Bad Seed? I also talked about it in that article. It’s the one about the little girl who was adopted from a serial killer on death row? And now the girl’s mother thinks the girl has inherited her mother’s “tendencies,” and may have killed a fellow student in her class? Yeah. It’s a great fucking movie. It’s like those shitty horror movies that come out today, like Orphan, only better.

So, in the movie, Eileen Heckart plays the mother of a boy that drowned. And, the film is kind of like a mystery, in one sense. Sort of. It’s very well-structured. The first ten minutes are the family at home, and everything seems fine. Too fine, actually. A relative or neighbor visits, and the little girl comes in with manners this side of The Sound of Music, and tap dances for the lady and is so well-behaved that you think you’re in a 50s sitcom. And there’s one brief moment in there where the girl loses her temper, and that’s where the hints start coming. And then, later on, she goes to school, and the mother hears on the radio that the boy drowned. And the girl comes home and is completely okay about it. Most kids would be shaken up, or asking questions, things like that. She comes home and is like, “Yeah, he died. It’s not that big a deal. Mom, can you make me a sandwich?” And this is where the mother starts to have questions. And then the rest of the movie slowly gives you more and more evidence that the girl may have actually killed this boy, and more evidence that she might be a sociopath and may have killed others as well. It’s done so well. Rather than show her doing it, they make the discovery be the horror, rather than having action scenes and shit (you know how I hate those when they just pile them on).

Anyway, after the first bits of evidence start coming out that the girl was there when the boy was killed (and that it’s possible she may have done it), Eileen Heckart comes over to the girl’s house, drunk, (I mean, she just lost her son) and confronts the mother, being like, “Your daughter killed my son!” That’s mostly what she does in this movie. She only shows up like twice, and she gets all emotionally charged scenes. You can see why they nominated her, but — considering the rest of the competition in this category, there was really no way she was ever going to win this one.

Malone — Oh, yeah. I love it when a Douglas Sirk film sneaks on here. Douglas Sirk films (or as my friend Max used to call him, “Doug Le Sirk”) are real works of art. It’s great seeing a film or set of films that were never fully appreciated in their day, yet have been discovered as being brilliant films. This one might be my favorite Sirk film of all, just because it’s so — over-the-top is where this film begins.

The film starts with Rock Hudson (which, considering he was in this film and was nominated for Giant, I really think he should have won Best Actor this year. I wonder if they didn’t vote for him because he was gay) being a friend of Robert Stack, who is a spoiled playboy and son of an oil millionaire. He basically spends his days going around, seducing women and drinking. A lot. And Hudson is like his assistant, almost. Stack brings him around with him, and he goes and gets the women and brings them to him, and he’s the dude that gets the hotels ready, stuff like that. And when Stack is done, he escorts the women back safely to where he got them from. And it starts with Stack going after Lauren Bacall, whom he eventually marries. And we can see that Hudson is interested in her, but gives her to Stack out of loyalty and a feeling of debt. So, part of the film is Stack being married to Bacall, who, at first is good for him — she keeps him from drinking — but very soon he goes back to his old ways.

Then the other part of the film has to do with the oil millionaire father. The father sees Rock Hudson as more of a son than his own son, and Hudson is the one he tells all his business to. And on the other side, Stack’s sister, the millionaire’s daughter, is also very spoiled. This is Dorothy Malone, by the way. Now, her deal is — she’s a nymphomaniac. I am not kidding. She goes around, picking up random men — every night — and openly fucking them. It’s no subtle at all. And everyone talks, but, she continues to do it, no matter how impossible it is for her father to keep quiet. And she’s been harboring a — I don’t want to call it a flame. More of a brush fire — for Rock Hudson all these years. And Rock ain’t interested in that.

So, the film becomes about this dynamic, as well as a couple of infertility issues, murder, incest, and one great scene of Dorothy Malone dancing wildly while her father has a heart attack and dies on the stairs.

Here’s the only scene of Malone’s acting I could find on youtube. It’s not that representative of the entire performance, but it is a nice indicator of the pseudo-incest thing that happens in the film.

Malone’s character is the kind of character that knows the intensity she needs be. Robert Stack is great at melodrama, but Malone almost veers into camp with her performance. It’s so wildly over the top that it really does deserve an Oscar. This category really is between her and one other person, who I’ll get to in a second.

McCambridge — Performance-wise, McCambridge really doesn’t belong in this category. Film-wise, I’m so glad she was. Because film-wise, we have four amazing films here, and, in a way, I’d rather a category be filled with strong films and weaker performances (as long as there’s a performance or two worth voting for) than weak films with stronger performances.

Giant, a film that I think probably should have won Best Picture this year (not too strongly, but, strong enough), is an epic about oil. Bigger than There Will Be Blood. It starts with Rock Hudson, a rich Texas rancher, going out to buy a stud horse from a socialite family. And while he’s there, he meets and falls in love with their daughter — Elizabeth Taylor — and brings her back to his ranch. And then the block of the film deals with Taylor being more of a socialite city girl and not prepared for what life on the ranch is really like. And this is where McCambridge comes in, but, I’ll come back to her later. Then Taylor gets settled in and they have kids and stuff, and the next bit becomes about marital tensions. Then there’s a subplot about James Dean being a ranch hand who is jealous of Hudson, and one day he strikes oil on the property. And he gets really rich off of it, but, Hudson decides not to drill with him in order to maintain the integrity of his ranch. And then the two continue to be rivals, and they grow older — the film takes place over the span of like, 30 years — and their kids grow up, and then the film also becomes about racism — since Hudson’s oldest son (who becomes Dennis Hopper), ends up marrying a Mexican woman, and it leads to some tensions around town. It’s a really fascinating film, gorgeously shot all the way through, with incredible performances — it might be a little long, but, for my money it’s a near perfect film, through and through.

Now, McCambridge. She won an Oscar in 1949 for All the King’s Men. Here, she plays Rock Hudson’s older sister, who was born and bred on the ranch. And then when Elizabeth Taylor comes in, she’s like, “That girl ain’t good for herding a head of cattle.” Basically, she’s the hardened ranch woman who you just know has already had a movie about her made. Think of the film where the young woman wants to prove she can work on the ranch just as well as the men can. And she has to fight through the sexism and harassment that comes with it. And she fails a bunch — you get that montage of her trying to lasso a steer, falling off her horse a lot, until finally she can do it. And then the contest with the head cowboy that she wins — all of that. Picture that movie having happened, and then 25 years going by. And that woman gets older, hardened, has never married, and is now bitter seeing a woman her brother married come onto her ranch. And she expresses her displeasure for her by being overly cruel.

She’s really only in the film for like, twenty minutes (which, in a film like this is like three small to medium scenes in a shorter film), and she ends up dying in a horse accident. Basically, her character is there to get Elizabeth Taylor’s character to toughen up. Like, she ends up fainting in the heat early on, and everyone laughs, because, “Oh, she’s not used to the heat yet.” And McCambridge is like the embodiment of that. And then once McCambridge is gone, Taylor ends up being the woman who is ready to be up at dawn, milking cows and stuff. So, the character has a purpose, it’s just, I didn’t see enough of her to warrant the nomination. But even with the nomination, there isn’t enough to warrant a vote at all here. But still, love the film, and I’m glad the film made the list, at least.

Oh, P.S., Carroll Baker was also in Giant as one of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor’s daughters. So, whatever I said about her deserving Best Actress in the Best Actress article, is doubled because she was in multiple great films.

McCormack — I really like multiple nominees from a film in a category. Really saves me time.

So, in The Bad Seed, Patty McCormack plays the little girl who may or may not be (but it’s kind of obvious which it is) a serial killer. I have to tell you, within five minutes of starting this film, I said that the little girl deserved an Oscar. She’s so fucking good here. You have to factor in first how child actors usually are, then you have to factor in what is required of her here. And she’s really good in fully capturing this character. You actually believe her when she says and does things.

Check out this one scene (There’s a surprising dearth of videos on youtube of this film, though the film is available Watch Instantly). It has the girl and her main nemesis (living nemesis anyway), the half-stupid janitor who isn’t fooled by her act, talking about the killing. And at first he’s just talking to piss her off, but pretty soon the dude realizes, “This girl actually did this shit.”

McCormack is fucking great in this movie. And she totally deserved to win this award. She wasn’t going to, because she’s a child, and for a child to win you need to be Helen Keller or really precocious. Technically this film is the epitome of precociousness, but, I think the fact that an adult was nominated from the same film caused the vote split to happen. Either way, I’m not fooled. She was easily top two here and is definitely the main contender for my vote, with Dorothy Malone.

My Thoughts: Oh, this is tough. The two best here are clearly Malone and McCormack. But which do I vote for? McCormack is freaky as fuck, but Malone is great. So, I guess — I’ll vote for Malone, because, McCormack is more likely to lose as a result of a possible vote split (plus she’s a child. I know this is the opposite logic I used in the 2007 Best Supporting Actress race, but I’m a complicated man).

My Vote: Malone

Should Have Won: Meh, I don’t really have a preference here. I liked Malone and McCormack the best. But this isn’t really one where someone “should” have won.

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Malone is awesome. She’s so wonderfully over-the-top as the nymphomaniac sister. She’s just batshit insane, doing what she wants and fucking everything with a dick that moves. I think she should have won. It’s just so fun to watch. The rest are — well, McCormack is scary as fuck, but the rest of them are, whatever. So, yes, acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: I think The Bad Seed is one of the better horror movies I’ve seen. Which is saying something, because normally I can’t get into them at all or be invested in them. This one held me fascinated all the way through, so I highly suggest that everyone see it. McCormack’s performance is leaps and bounds above those of what a child actor would usually bring to the table in an era like this. Also, Written on the Wind is fucking amazing. I love Sirk films in general, so, for you to enjoy this, you need to be ready for unadulaterated (but full of adultery) melodrama with a capital everything and about as over the top performances as you’re ever going to see. It’s incredible. Highly, highly recommended. Everyone should see at least one Sirk film in their lives. And, Baby Doll, I love, and recommend highly, but I’m not sure how well everyone else will like it. You can refer to the other article I wrote on it for why I love it. Oh, and Giant. This is also a movie I love. I won’t go so far as to say you need to see it, but, you really probably should. It’s gorgeous, epic, and just a great film. A real classic of cinema. So, I recommend highly everything in this category.


5) McCambridge

4) Dunnock

3) Heckart

2) McCormack

1) Malone

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