The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1961

1961 was a good year for motion pictures. Films like 101 Dalmatians, West Side Story, The Guns of Navarone, Splendor in the Grass, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Parent Trap, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Children’s Hour, The Hustler, One, Two Three, A Raisin in the Sun, and Yojimbo will do that to a year.

West Side Story wins Best Picture in a perfectly acceptable choice. It’s a wonderful film, and deserved to win, even though I personally like The Hustler more. But even so, it’s still a great choice. Plus, the other three nominees for Best Picture were Guns of the Navarone, Judgment at Nuremberg and Fanny, so, really it was a good year all around. Robert Wise wins Best Director (with Jerome Robbins) for West Side Story, which is also a great decision. Best Actor goes to Maximilian Schell for Judgment at Nuremberg in a terrible decision. Not because he was bad, but because — Paul Newman was Fast Eddie Felson. He was so good in the role they gave him an Oscar for it when he reprised it 25 years after this. Best Actress went to Sophia Loren for Two Women, a decision I don’t agree with and will talk about pretty soon. And Best Supporting Actor went to George Charkiris for West Side Story, which I’m mostly okay with, even though I’d have gone another way. In all though, aside from some decisions I don’t like (to varying degrees), 1961 is a very good year.


And the nominees were…

Fay Bainter, The Children’s Hour

Judy Garland, Judgement at Nuremberg

Lotte Lenya, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

Una Merkel, Summer and Smoke

Rita Moreno, West Side Story

Bainter — The Children’s Hour is a great film. I originally saw it when I first really discovered the joy that is Audrey Hepburn, and I went on a binge where I tried to see every film she made. And I watched this film, not really interested in it, but knowing that Shirley MacLaine was also in it, I figured it would be worth the watch, no matter how boring it was. Thing is, though, the film was better than I expected, and then some.

The film is about Hepburn and MacLaine, former college roommates, who open a school for girls. And MacLaine’s aunt teaches there, as do the two of them, and Hepburn is also engaged to James Garner (sn OB/GYN, which is just great. There are not nearly enough gynecologists in films). One of the students in the school, Mary Tilford, is kind of a little bitch. She’s rich and spoiled, and regularly bullies her fellow classmates. And one day, she steals a bracelet from another girl, and, caught in a lie, she makes up a story about Hepburn and MacLaine being in a lesbian relationship. And it’s a boldfaced lie, but the girl’s grandmother, played by Bainter, is taken in by it, and it soon spreads like wildfire, because, you know, old rich white women and gossip…

The thing is, though, Shirley MacLaine’s character is actually a lesbian. She’s had a crush on Audrey for years, but never said anything because she knew it wouldn’t do any good. So now all this comes to the surface, and the lie is ruining both of their livelihoods. And the rest of the film is them combatting the lie, but also the truth. And a lot of it is them being ruined before they even have a chance to speak out against it, and eventually it comes to the point where they force Mary to confess the lie, but it’s too late, since all the parents have taken their children out of the school. It’s a great, great film.

Bainter is actually really good in the role. She plays it perfectly. She comes in, having heard the story and starts gossipping about it. Then, when confronted, because it very quickly comes back to her, she stands by her granddaughter on principle, without even thinking she might have made it up. Family above the working class. That says a lot about a character when she’d blindly believe a nine year old over multiple adults. And she causes all the trouble, and, when she realizes she makes a mistake, does try to apologize, but, it’s too late. Like I said, she’s good, but, she’s won before, so, I’m not exactly jumping to vote for her. But, I’m glad she’s here though. She was really good.

Garland — Judgment at Nuremberg is a film I knew to be an important film, but not one I expected to actually be as good as it was. I always cringe when I get near a film based on history — especially World War II Nazi history. I hate when I have to watch a film that deals with Nazis. I’ve always been a World War I guy, and, frankly, World War II just doesn’t interest me. Plus Nazis have been done to death. So I wasn’t exactly excited when I got to this.

The film is about the Nuremberg trials of all the Nazis for war crimes after the war. Spencer Tracy plays the American presiding judge, and Burt Lancaster plays the main defendant of the film, a doctor who engendered genocide, and the whole film is how the man could have done it, and how the German people could have just turned a blind eye to the whole thing. And part of the film has Tracy befriending Marlene Dietrich, who plays a German widow, since a lot of this film is partly about condoning those involved, but its also about not condemning all of the German people. So I get why they included that part too. And for the most part, Tracy is the perfect guy for the role. He has that judicial presence, where you believe him to be fair minded and know he won’t reach a verdict without weighing the manner greatly and reasonably first. There are a lot of famous people in the film, most notably Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, who I’ll get to in a second, as well as William Shatner, Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell, who plays the defense attorney who shows great vigor in his defense of the Germans (the character is interesting, as he treats himself the way a lawyer should, defending his client even though he condemns their actions, but he should not have won Best Actor for the role).

Garland and Clift play the two main witnesses in the case. I’ll focus on Garland now, since this is her nomination, but Clift was nominated to, so he’ll have his day in court. I’ll say right now that both were really great here, and deserved their nominations very much. Now, Garland plays a woman who is afraid to testify. That’s the role. You know the drill. It’s a courtroom movie. So, for a while, we just hear her name and know she’s afraid to testify. Then she shows up, doesn’t want to, is coerced, then has her big testimony scene. It is a great performance. It’s the kind of performance that can easily cruise by for a win, but also one that I can see why you wouldn’t vote for it either.

Point is, this movie is actually really incredible — courtroom movie. They’re all great. This one just happens to be better than most — and Judy deserved to win here. The reason? I’ll explain down below. But, that’s the skinny.

Lenya — The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a film I was interested in seeing because it stars one of my favorite actresses — Vivien Leigh. Now, Vivien Leigh didn’t make that many films in her lifetime, and she didn’t really make that many great films either. However, she’s one of those actresses who is so gorgeous and so interesting to watch, anything she does is great. Plus, being such a fan as I am of Gone With the Wind and knowing as much as I do about her life, any film she’s in will always interest me.

This is the second to last film she made, and is interesting for several reasons. Keep in mind, it’s not a particularly good film, but, there are reasons it’s worth seeing. First, it features her with a young Warren Beatty. And this is really the year where Warren Beatty burst onto the scene. He had both this and Splendor in the Grass this year, and this kind of propelled him into stardom (though it really wouldn’t be until Bonnie and Clyde where he’d reach superstar status). The pairing of an aging Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty is just too interesting to pass up. Plus, it’s a Tennessee Williams film, which means obvious comparisons to Streetcar, which is perhaps her greatest performance (though I’ll always be partial to Scarlett, as I think we all are), and also means — aging southern women. That’s what he wrote. And, if you watch her films, especially after Gone With the Wind, you’ll notice a lot of parallels to her personal life within the characters she played. Now, this one —

An aging (fading, I believe is the appropriate word for a Tennessee Williams play) actress goes on holiday to Rome with her husband, when he dies very suddenly of a heart attack. I believe this occurs in the very first scene — on the plane, no less. Actually, scratch that. Not the first scene. The first scene is her being told by reviews she’s too old to still be a good actress. (I don’t know how she managed to make it through these roles, because that’s exactly what they were saying about her at the time.) Anyway, he dies, and she decides to stay in Italy. And while she’s there, a countess — played by Lenya — who makes a living getting men for her clients, introduces her to Mr. Beatty — who plays a young Italian man. What happens then is an allegedly passionate love affair, which is not passionate whatsoever, partially because of the complete lack of chemistry between the two and also because of Beatty’s terrible performance. He seems to not want to be in the film at all, and also has a terrible accent. And the whole thing is Beatty being money-hungry and exploiting her, but her “loving him” — it doesn’t really work for me. Or for anyone, really. I think most people regard this as a failure aside from the interest in seeing the sets, Leigh’s performance, Beatty’s — uhh — youngness, and Lenya’s performance.

Lenya is good here. She’s a lot of fun. There’s something so wonderfully — oily — about her. There’s one nice scene where she snakes her way through a crowd toward Leigh, and it’s a perfect little moment, because Leigh looks like a fragile little animal about to be swallowed by this woman. I did like Lenya’s performance. I thought she was good. I’m not voting for her because, it just didn’t interest me all that much. But, she is good, so, that’s something.

Merkel — Oh, boy, another one of these movies. Another Tennessee Williams. An awful one at that. At least the other one had Vivien Leigh. This film — what the fuck, man?

The film is about Geraldine Page, who is a common name on this Oscar Quest — she was nominated like six times without winning until they gave her a career/makeup/veteran Oscar in 1985 (which forced her to beat Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple, which is not okay at all) — she plays an uptight woman who’s never been in a relationship and is very much the proper lady. And the whole thing as about a relationship that almost blossoms between her and a traveling salesman. The whole movie is about sexual tension, as she has to get over her whole deal and give in to fucking this dude. She doesn’t, until like, with thirty seconds to go, which means the movie is a complete waste of time. Basically it’s like, she starts a romance, he sees it’ll take some time, so goes off with an “easier” girl, then comes back later “changed,” and now she’s totally given up on that whole thing and everyone has to convince her to give it another shot. And at the end she goes off in the woods to fuck the dude.

Trust me, it’s a boring film. Anyone with even remotely similar tastes to mine will very likely not enjoy this movie at all. Now, as for the supporting performance. Una Merkel plays an old senile grandmother. That’s basically the performance. You know, old and crazy, that sort of thing. She just does batshit insane things and everyone is like, “Oh you crazy bitch, get the fuck out of here, stop doing that!” and Page is the only one who’s like, “Guys, she’s sick. It’s all right mother, now come and sit down.” And basically it’s the kind of thing where they need to keep her on a schedule, otherwise she does something crazy. That’s basically it. She plays an insane mother. Not like, Mommie Dearest insane. More like, senile and prone to do shit like call up the dude her daughter has a crush on and be like, “She really wants to fuck you,” and then when the daughter is like, “You shouldn’t have done that,” she calls him back and is like, “She never wants to see you again, plus she has chlamydia.” That’s the kind of performance. It was enjoyable, since the movie was so bad. I at least got something to hope for. But there wasn’t nearly enough of her in the film, plus, it’s still a #5. So, there.

Also, Rita Moreno is in this film too. Maybe that’s why she won. I mean, she didn’t do that much here, but, two well-regarded films in one year, you do tend to get rewarded. (Look at John C. Reilly in 2002. He was in three of the five Best Picture nominees. The least they could do was give him a Supporting Actor nomination.)

Moreno — I like to be in America, okay by me in America. Everything all right in America — I love this movie. How can you not?

This is a movie everyone is shown at least a half dozen times in their schooling years. It serves so many purposes. It’s Romeo and Juliet, it’s PG, it tackles social issues, and it’s so fucking fun to watch. My first exposure to it was when my next door neighbor, who was (and is. Amazing how that works) three years older than me, performed in it as part of of a local production. (He was A-rab, which makes everything so wonderfully full circle.) I saw it, and, like all people, just knew the story innately, because it’s so much a part of our culture. And then after that I remember reading the book (ie the libretto, I think that’s the word. Or I guess it’s a script, since it’s not an opera and is a musical. Though maybe they also call it that in musicals), and seeing the movie in school at least ten times shortly thereafter.

Is there really anyone who hasn’t seen or doesn’t know this movie? Jets and Sharks, whites and Puerto Ricans, New York street gangs, dance fights, finger snapping, former Jet becomes involved with the sister of the main Shark, forbidden love, star crossed, Jet leader gets knifed, brother gets knifed by main guy, main guy gets shot, and girl rebukes them all for their stupid ways. Juliet lives.

How’d I do?

We all know the film. We all remember the musical numbers. We all remember that trippy dance scene for “I Feel Pretty.” Also, did you know, Maria was dubbed by the same singer who dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (and, a lot of big musicals)? Marni Nixon. You probably recognize the name. Anyway, the film is wonderful, and totally deserved Best Picture, because it’s awesome and wonderful and all of those things.

Rita Moreno plays Anita in the movie. Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s girl-friend. No lesbian shit going on here. And she’s nice and sprightly and vivacious and such, and is really good in the film. I can’t argue with her winning at all. In fact, I might even vote for her. But, there’s this whole Judy Garland business to attend to. Let me explain —

My Thoughts: In a year as weak as this, with no one really poised to run away with the category, I don’t see how you don’t automatically just give it to Judy. Whether you agreed with her losing for A Star is Born or not, you have to agree she was very deserving of an Oscar, and, justified or not, it was a snub to not give it to her. Therefore she should be the de facto winner here. It’s not like you’re dealing with a year like the one after this, where there’s a clearcut winner. No one would fault giving it to her. No one. And that’s including how much I love Rita Moreno’s performance. You have to give it to Judy here.

My Vote: Garland

Should Have Won: Garland, Moreno

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. Moreno was the most spirited performance and was wonderful. I just don’t see her having an Oscar as essential as Judy Garland having one. A competitive one. Not to confuse it with the special one she got for Wizard of Oz. So, while Moreno was deserving, and independent of itself it’s an acceptable choice, I still feel you have to give it to Judy here.

Performances I suggest you see: West Side Story is an essential film. It’s just so great. Everything about it is just classic. Plus, the amount it’s shown to you in school and whatnot, I feel as though, if you haven’t seen this, and you want to not be laughed at, you probably should go out and see it. It’s great. It’s one of the best musicals ever made. Also, Judgment at Nuremberg is an incredible film. It’s so engaging, as all courtroom films are. Plus it’s important historically, so, all around I feel everyone should see it. It’s really fucking good on top of it, and this is coming from someone who isn’t always into the historical thing (and certainly isn’t into the WWII thing). Also, The Children’s Hour is really good. It’s not perfect, but it is engaging, and it stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. I highly recommend it, because it is something that still kind of occurs to this day (albeit in a different sense). It’s actually an interesting companion piece to Doubt. And lastly, The Roman Spring of Miss Stone. It’s not that great of a film, but it is a Vivien Leigh film, so if you love her as much as I do, you should probably see it. Plus it also features a young Warren Beatty, so, that’s another reason you might want to check it out.


5) Merkel

4) Lenya

3) Bainter

2) Garland

1) Moreno

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