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The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1958

1958 is a year — I think this is my first time talking about it since I’ve been writing these articles. I never really decided my feelings on the year as a whole. I agree with a lot of the decisions, but, for some reason this year just kind of feels like a blank to me.

Gigi won Best Picture, which is why it feels like a blank to most people. It wasn’t a terrible decision, mostly because the year itself didn’t really have a standout nominee. The Defiant Ones was also nominated, and that’s really the film that people can point to the best out of the other nominees and say it should have won, but both that and Gigi feel like films that, in most years, would be solid #2s. You know? I like them but, I just don’t see either of them as being winners. The other three nominees this year were Auntie Mame, which is a good film but kind of a bloated entry in the Best Picture nominees, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is a great film but is very stagy and feels more like an “actors'” film more than a Best Picture winner, and Separate Tables, which is a solid film and a classy film, but not a Best Picture winner. So, this year is kind of a year of all fours without a solid five. That’s why I think it this year doesn’t really stand out among the really good ones.

As for the rest of the year, Best Actor went to David Niven for Separate Tables, which is more of a career achievement than anything. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier probably split the vote for The Defiant Ones, Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — I don’t know, maybe he was too new to the industry to win over a veteran — and Spencer Tracy for The Old Man and the Sea, which is a Spencer Tracy nomination. So I guess that makes sense. Best Supporting Actor went to Burl Ives for The Big Country, which makes perfect sense, as he was great in that and great also in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this year (kind of strange he didn’t win for that, but, hey, a win’s a win). Best Supporting Actress went to Wendy Hiller for Separate Tables, which was a great opportunity to give a veteran an Oscar in a relatively weak category. And Best Director was Vincente Minnelli for Gigi, which was a perfect decision, since Minnelli deserved an Oscar and didn’t get one the other time he was nominated in 1951. So, that’s 1958. A good year but not a great year. One that might be unfairly swept under the rug because of an unflashy Best Picture decision.

BEST ACTRESS – 1958

And the nominees were…

Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!

Deborah Kerr, Separate Tables

Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running

Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame

Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Hayward — What a great start to a strong category. Susan Hayward is an actress I didn’t really know about until I started this Quest. If you look at the list of films she was in, there really isn’t one that most people would have seen without going out of their way for (aside from Valley of the Dolls, but I hadn’t seen it). Maybe someone would have seen some of them watching TCM or otherwise, but, you don’t really look at her filmography and see one that jumps out at you. But, since she was nominated for Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, My Foolish Heart, With a Song in My Heart, I’ll Cry Tomorrow and this, I got a nice taste of who she was as an actress. I mean, not the complete picture, but, hey, it’s a shitload more than I knew beforehand.

So, this movie. I Want to Live! This movie is basically a woman in prison movie. It’s really not trying to be anything but that. But, that definition is completely different than what a “woman in prison” movie would be in, say, the 70s. Trust me, this is not one of those Pam Grier movies. The film is about a, I guess we’ll call her a, loose woman, promiscuous woman. She’s promiscuous and she’s bawdy. One of those women who sleeps around and is pretty brazen about it. She’s not a great woman, she’s gotten into a few scrapes with the law — well, actually, she’s kind of a prostitute, and a bit of an addict too, but, its the 50s, so this isn’t exactly made a huge point in the film. She earns money by luring men into fixed card games. And what happens is, she ends up getting arrested with a man who’s involved with murder. And, since she’s been convicted of perjury before, this time, even though she really had nothing to do with the murder, is convicted anyway. And she’s put on death row. And most of the film is about her in prison, trying to fight the conviction. And, pretty much from the start, you know she’s doomed.

But the real interest of the film is how they make her character more complex as they go along. At first she’s not a likable woman at all, and then you’re not really sure if you want to go along with her, but then, once she’s in prison, you start to feel for her once you know that she actually had nothing to do with the murder. So it’s empathy for circumstances. And then seeing her in prison, she’s still brash, but you understand it more. And then, by the end, she gets dedicated friends who work to get her acquitted, and then there’s also a big crusade on her part to see her daughter, and once you get to the maternal aspect, you’re really with this character. It’s kind of great how they do that.

As for Hayward’s performance, she’s spot on. It’s a really great performance. It’s perfectly understandable why she won. I liked the performance a lot. It’s the kind of performance that, alone, I’d rank at worst, #3, but more like a #2. However, having thought she should have won in 1955 for I’ll Cry Tomorrow, that fact and the strength of this performance puts her in serious consideration for a vote here.

Kerr — Just going into this performance, Deborah Kerr has had a career that was worth an Oscar. It’s almost surprising that she never actually won one.

This film is an ensemble film, but, as is usually the case with these kinds of films, they have lots of room for great individual performances. Weird how that works out. But, the film is a “single location” film. All of the action takes place at a small, seaside hotel. And all the various guests are staying at the same time, and the film is basically them interacting with one another. The title of the film is probably some sort of metaphor, but, literally has to do with them all having breakfast in the dining room of the hotel at separate tables.

I guess it helps to explain the characters in the film. First, we have Wendy Hiller. She’s the proprietress of the hotel. She runs the joint. She’s the one that basically is catering to all the needs of the characters, while also kind of acting as the teacher. Think of it like this — two guests are having a problem, “He stole my newspaper!”, they go to her. And she’s like, “Who was reading it first?” and makes a ruling on it. That’s mostly what she does, along with taking care of the place and such. She’s also having a secret affair with Burt Lancaster, an alcoholic writer. They’re keeping their affair a secret, even though he’s madly in love with her. The reason for this — he’s still married. His wife, though pretty much ex, is Rita Hayworth, who shows up during the movie to sort of tempt him back. That’s their big storyline throughout the film. The other storyline has to do with David Niven. He’s a Major (I think that’s his rank), who is parading as a decorated war hero, and goes on and on about his exploits and stuff, meanwhile, unbeknownst to everyone, he was actually dishonorably discharged for something that’s — well, shall we say — less than heroic. And he goes around figuring no one at the hotel will ever figure out about it, meanwhile, an article appears in a newspaper and eventually everyone finds out about it. And it becomes a big deal. That’s second story.

The third story is the Deborah Kerr story. She’s a spinster, who is past her marrying age, but not completely hopeless (that’s usually how her characters are. They’re at that period where they can finally have love or give up forever. That’s the big struggle). And she’s got severe mommy issues. And why not? Her mother is Gladys Cooper. And just watching her in this movie, you can see why Kerr has never gotten around to love. She’s kind of frail, and is also secretly in love with Niven’s character. But her mother, who’s a real bitch, finds out about his past, and added to her already dislike of the man, causes some shit. And Kerr’s big moment comes when she has to stand up to her mother and decide whether or not she wants to give in or go with love.

Kerr’s performance here is really fucking good. In fact, of the three performances that were nominated, hers was by far the best of the three. Niven’s was good, but, he wasn’t on screen enough for me. It’s like seventeen minutes or something. That’s more of a Supporting Actor kind of performance for me. That would have been a slam dunk. And Wendy Hiller was good, but, Deborah Kerr is the performance that, when I was watching it, looked up and was like, “Who is that?” For the longest time, she was the performance that I had at the top of my list as the probably vote-getter. Now — I don’t know. I hadn’t seen Hayward’s performance at that point and hadn’t seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a while. So, now, she’s definitely in the money for a vote, but, isn’t the front-runner. She’s more at a tie at the top. Still, really great performance. Standout in a film of great performances.

MacLaine — Here’s a film I went into very blindly, actually. First semester senior year, I had seen for the first time The Man with the Golden Arm. I had known a little about it beforehand, mostly that it was about heroin use and that Frank Sinatra was in it. I had no idea just how good the film or his performance in it was. So once I started this Quest, I knew that Sinatra was not only nominated for Best Actor for Man with the Golden Arm, but that he didn’t win. And it just so happened that this film showed up on TCM one day as I was flipping through. I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it for a while otherwise. I went in thinking, “Maybe Sinatra will be just as good in this, so I can complain that they didn’t nominate him.” That was more of a fleeting hope. I kind of just started watching, thinking it would be okay but that it wouldn’t anything special.

So the movie starts after the Robert Osborne introduction, and I saw that it was directed by Vincente Minnelli. And I’m like, “Okay, I can fucks with this.” Minnelli didn’t always do straight dramas, but when he did, they were usually good. Then the film started, and very quickly I was swept up in it. Here’s what it’s about.

The film opens with Frank Sinatra passed out drunk on a bus. He’s an army veteran and was put on the bus by fellow soldiers. And he wakes up and discovers that he’s back in his hometown. He also discovers Shirley MacLaine on the bus with him. And she’s a vulgar woman. One of those “street women.” Not a hooker, but, one of those dames you’d see in a club on the south side of Chicago. You know what I mean? (Note: If you’ve watched enough movies, or, probably, are from Chicago, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

So he’s back, and he doesn’t want to be back. He ran away a bunch of years ago and is still bitter about the whole thing. His brother is now a well-to-do citizen, and Sinatra being back isn’t exactly a good thing for him. So he tries to keep Sinatra from doing anything to hurt him, while also trying to help him. And Sinatra kind of tries. He starts being a father figure to the daughter of a friend of his brother’s and also falls in love with the man’s older daughter. And she’s a teacher, so, he tries to redeem himself by making it work, but he’s kind of aware that it won’t. And while he’s doing that, he’s also trying to deal with Shirley MacLaine, who hopped the bus with him and is madly in love with him. This is how it works. The schoolteacher wants him to work for her. She wants him to really prove that he’s a nice guy, even though she knows he is. And Shirley MacLaine is in love with him the way he is, unconditionally, and wants him to love her back (but, is also sort of okay that he isn’t). And Sinatra basically needs to deal with that. Does he want to ascend higher in society (not really) and work toward that kind of life, or does he want to just not try and take Shirley MacLaine (which, would be more of a lower life). He’s kind of stuck in the middle, and parts of him want both situations. And for most of the film, Sinatra is rebuffing MacLaine and really treating her poorly. But eventually he sees that she’s a good person, and starts getting nicer. And the whole things comes to a head at the end of the film, when MacLaine’s ex-boyfriend, a hoodlum, is stalking her and is going to kill Sinatra because that’s who she left him for. And they’re all at a carnival, and MacLaine ends up taking a bullet for Sinatra out of her love for him.

It’s a really good film. I liked it a lot. I was surprised at how much I liked it. MacLaine is also really good in the film. This was her first nomination, and, she did deserve it. She’s really good in the film. It’s the kind of loud and brassy performance that she’s great at giving, and the whole arc of the character lends itself to extreme pathos. But I can definitely say it probably won’t factor in for a vote later on. And that’s purely because the category is so strong. I’m always looking to give Shirley MacLaine an Oscar, so, if I’m saying this category is too strong to even attempt favoritism, you know it’s a strong year.

Russell — Rosalind Russell is perhaps the biggest example of an actress who got severely fucked over by the Academy. She was the odds on favorite to win Best Actress in 1947 for Mourning Becomes Electra, but ended up losing in what is considered the biggest upset in the history of the category. It’s a shame, because that was really the one chance they had to give her an Oscar. Before that she was nominated for My Sister Eileen, a great movie but not a movie that wins awards, and Sister Kenny, a good performance but one she really had no shot at winning for. After Electra, she wasn’t nominated until this film.

This film, is a film that was seemingly written for her. The film starts with a young boy, whose father kills himself during the stock market crash. So he is placed in the care of his father’s sister, Mame, who is cooky as all hell. She throws cocktail parties with the strangest assortment of people at them, is loved by everyone — eccentric is the word, I think. Within a week, the kid has learned to pour martinis for her. And the film is about the kid learning to live life to the fullest from her. There’s really no plot to the film. I mean, there is, but, does it really matter? She finds a man, gets married, he dies, she finds another man, she goes places, things like that.

It’s a very entertaining film. Perhaps a bit long, but the fun is just seeing Rosalind Russell have fun. The character is a force of nature, so, just seeing her on screen is really enough to carry most of the film. Russell is really good here, and, after the 1947 debacle, I’m certainly looking to reward her for something. This is a good film to do it for, but the competition may be too stiff. I’m not entirely sure yet, but she’s definitely in the running.

Taylor — And finally, Liz. Oh, god, I love this woman. Here’s a woman so beautiful she could do nothing on screen and most people would still consider it a great performance. And yet, she did some fine acting in her career. Some damn fine acting. This was actually her second nomination. Her first was for Raintree County, playing a kind of lesser Scarlett O’Hara (with the added bonus of having her be mentally unstable) in a film that’s a much lesser Gone With the Wind. She is actually the best thing about that movie, and her complete dedication to the film and the role (as well as the sheer amount of energy that went into it — it’s a three hour film) earned her a well-deserved nomination. But Joanne Woodward was superb in The Three Faces of Eve and did deserve to win that year. So now, the following year, Taylor follows it up with this film. What a follow up.

The film is about Paul Newman as a former football star (high school and college) who is trying to relive his glory days. One night out drinking he breaks his leg and has to hobble around for the rest of the film. And Liz Taylor is his wife, who he’s been neglecting for some time. And he mostly spends his days drinking, while she tries to be with him, and he keeps resisting. And then her father, Burl Ives, comes to visit, and the rest of the film pretty much plays out the tensions between the characters. Her father is threatening to disinherit Newman because he and Taylor haven’t had any kids yet, and Taylor wants Newman to be in love with her again and doesn’t know what to do, and Newman is upset at her because he knows she’s the cause of his best friend’s death, yet her father doesn’t know, and during all this, her father knows he has a terminal illness and nobody else does.

It’s a fascinating film. I was really engaged by it. Which is strange, since I normally don’t like Tennessee Williams plays/films. Streetcar notwithstanding, this is the only other film based on his plays that I really like. Baby Doll too. That’s the third one. Suddenly, Last Summer I like because it’s fun watching Taylor and Hepburn go at it, but it’s not a film I love by any means. Most of the films based on his plays I like because there are a lot of actors I like in them. That’s really what it is. But this one, I really do like. I think Paul Newman probably deserved an Oscar for his performance. I know Burl Ives did (and kind of won for it, in a way). And Elizabeth Taylor was fucking incredible in this movie. She oozes sex appeal throughout. She played this role perfectly. Easily my favorite performance on this list. The only thing that might prevent me from voting for her is knowing that she won twice after this (and once a bit unfairly. There’s that whole 1960 controversy to address at some point). Knowing that she did win does kind of make me shy away from voting for her just because there are three actresses who also deserved one on this list and two of them never did win one. But know that I think both she and the film are incredible and she was my favorite performance, regardless of how I vote.

My Thoughts: Tough call, here. Strong category. I’m gonna need to do it by elimination.

First off the list is Shirley MacLaine. I love Shirley MacLaine, I know she deserved an Oscar, but, this was her first performance and, it really wasn’t as strong as some of her later performances, Oscar (vote)-wise. So, she becomes by default the #5. But if it’s any consolation, she totally should have won two years after this.

Second off the list, also to my chagrin, is Elizabeth Taylor. At this point she was just about reaching her peak as an actress, and this could have been an optimal time to reward her. She was my favorite performance on this list, and she was tremendous in the film, but, having history on my side, I know that she won two years after this (beating Shirley MacLaine, humorously enough. There’s a story behind that, which you may know, but I’ll save that discussion for when I get to that category), and won another one in 1966. So, I don’t feel too bad for throwing her off. In fact, knowing she won makes it easier to take her off, because I liked the performance so much, she’d probably be in my top two, otherwise.

Now, the three left are all actresses who should have won this award prior. I’ll explain when or why they should have won when I get to them.

First off this remaining list has to be Rosalind Russell. This is because, now that I’m on the final three, I need to actually factor in the performance they had this year. And of the three remaining performances, Russell’s was easily the weakest. It’s not that she was bad in the movie, it’s just that — the performance is too light, really, for me to want to vote for it. It’s more of a fun, comedic performance. Plus, it’s kind of a “Rosalind Russell” type character. Starting in the late 40s, she started playing these old, not so much spinsters, but more like, older, strong women. Like, older women who are living their lives, spinsters or not, and don’t give a fuck how they’re looked at, and if they want dick, they’ll get dick. Otherwise, they’re living their lives despite what you think. This is very much that character. She is a force of nature in the film, but she’s not the force of nature that Barbra Streisand was in Funny Girl ten years after this. That’s the difference between a vote and no vote. It’s a shame, since, she really ought to have won this award eleven years earlier for Mourning Becomes Electra. That’s widely regarded as the biggest upset in Best Actress history. (People point to Grace Kelly beating Judy Garland in 1954 as a huge upset, but you have to realize everyone loves Grace Kelly. Plus, it’s not like she won for a lesser performance (she was great in the movie), and, she was in four other movies that year. So it’s not that much of an upset.) No one can really explain why Loretta Young won that year.

Okay, final two. This is tough. But I guess, last off the list needs to be — Deborah Kerr. I love Deborah Kerr, and her career had earned her an award by this point — and I loved the performance too — but, I just think the combination of Susan Hayward performances was stronger. I was never really able to single out a specific Deborah Kerr performance and be like, “this is the one that should have won.” Susan Hayward had a hands down performance in 1955 in I’ll Cry Tomorrow where I said, “She should have won for this.” And she lost, to a good performance, but, she lost. And now, she delivers a performance that’s really fucking good. It’s one that, on its own I’d probably stick second and vote for someone else, but, with the previous performance I think the two of those overcome Deborah Kerr and add up to a vote. So, my vote is Susan Hayward.

My Vote: Hayward

Should Have Won: Hmm — Hayward was overdue from having should have won three years earlier, Kerr was overdue for her career (this was also her second-to-last nomination, and really her last chance to actually win one), Russell was overdue for her career and from eleven years earlier (this was her last nomination, and Elizabeth Taylor was so fucking good in her movie. So, really, any of them. But, mostly, if we’re going by circumstances plus performance strength, the two that should have won the most were Hayward and Deborah Kerr. So, either of them.

Is the result acceptable?: Oh, hell yes. Hayward is great in the role. I wouldn’t vote for her for this role alone, but, factoring in the fact that I think she should have won in 1955 for I’ll Cry Tomorrow, I think the pair add up to this being a great decision. Deborah Kerr would have been the second best decision here, since, A) she was definitely deserving during her career, and B) she was playing the kind of role she sort of became famous for, which is “the spinster.” I know Kate Hepburn had a “spinster” period, but, Deborah Kerr playing a career out of women who were just completely almost asexual. She was almost always a nun (Black Narcissus, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), or a spinster (The Night of the Iguana and this film), or like in The King and I, where she’s a widow and there’s no chance of a sexual encounter because she’s dedicated to taking care of the children.. She had some sexual roles, like From Here to Eternity, An Affair to Remember, and even The Sundowners, there’s that scene where she initiates sex with her husband, but for the most part I remember her as being more of a “cold” woman. That is, not a woman interested in sex (ie, not like Elizabeth Taylor). Maybe her duality was why she never won. But, this seemed like the perfect performance to give her the award for, but I think she didn’t win because Niven and Hiller won, and three acting awards for a film that’s really not worth three acting awards (does it really belong in the same category as From Here to Eternity and Streetcar Named Desire?). Anyway, what I’m saying is, it’s very acceptable that Susan Hayward won here.

Performances I suggest you see: I’m gonna recommend them all, but in different ways. So, keep reading to find out specifically how I recommend them.

My favorite single film on this list is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That film is fucking incredible. Elizabeth Taylor oozes sex appeal throughout the film. Paul Newman and Burl Ives have some great films together, and the film as a whole is just so wonderfully put together. It’s a classic film, a great film, and just looking at the names involved, you can be pretty sure that you’re gonna get something positive out of watching it. So that’s the one I recommend the most. Second, I guess I’d recommend Separate Tables. It’s also kind of an ensemble film, and features a lot of stars and a lot of good performances. It’s the kind of film that, I don’t know, I just find really interesting. Put a bunch of people in one location (in this case, a small hotel) and watch them interact. David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller, Gladys Cooper, Rod Taylor — all great stars. And it’s a very interesting film. If you’re not that into the stars, you probably won’t be too inclined to see it, but I liked the film a lot. I thought it was a nice little drama. It does feel really realistic in its portrayal of some (but definitely not all) of the things that happen in the film and how some of the characters are portrayed.

Third, I guess I’d say, go for Auntie Mame. It’s just a fun, joyful film. Beautifully shot in Technicolor. It’s really the only Technicolor film on this list. Some Came Running is in color, but not the way this is. It’s like saying — A Beautiful Mind is in color, but Moulin Rouge! is really in color. That’s what this is like. This film has huge sets, lots of expensive costumes — they want you to notice. Rosalind Russell is a lot of fun and the film is just great to watch. It’s a bit long, so, not everyone will enjoy it, but, a big reason to see it is, hey, it has one of the AFI top quotes of all time (“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”, which, what a Rosalind Russell line. Only she could ever be given that line). Fourth, I’d go for Some Came Running, since, it’s young Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, and a pretty interesting film at that. Vincente Minnelli film. I remember watching, thinking, “Yeah, it’ll be okay, but I don’t need to really pay attention because it won’t be that good.” Then by thirty minutes in I put down whatever I was doing and was totally invested in what was going on. So, it’s a really good film. Not for everyone, but if you think it’ll be interesting and want to put forth the effort, I think you’re gonna enjoy it. It’s really good.

And finally, I’ll go with I Want to Live!, mostly because, the only real interest in the film is Susan Hayward’s performance. The film is a solid 4-star movie, but I don’t think the average viewer would ever care to see it unless you want to see all the winners. It’s definitely a great film, but, like I said, if you’re just casually looking or films to see, and aren’t so much into film or film history or even the Oscars, then, this film will probably be the last one of the five on this list that you want to see. Maybe not, though. It depends on the person. You know what you like the best. But, in terms of films I suggest you see, that’s how I suggest them.

Rankings:

5) MacLaine

4) Russell

3) Kerr

2) Hayward

1) Taylor

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