The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1952

A person could talk for hours about 1952. This is the year High Noon, the consensus best picture of the year, loses Best Picture to The Greatest Show on Earth. Now, this is unintentionally one of the years that lead to the existence of this Oscar Quest. I unthinkingly said, “Wow, High Noon not winning Best Picture was such a crock of shit,” without actually having seen The Greatest Show on Earth. The rest is history. Now, having seen The Greatest Show on Earth, I can say pretty definitively — it’s not a bad film. It’s actually a very good film, and a very entertaining film. What it is, is — not even a bad choice — it’s a safe choice.

You see, HUAC was big during this time. That’s the House of Un-American Activities. If you don’t know what that is, you probably should have paid a bit more attention in history class. Seriously. Be better. And High Noon, written by a blacklisted writer, was nothing more than an allegory for what was going on in Hollywood at the time. And it was a very controversial film, naturally. So — the Academy, not having any balls, couldn’t bring themselves to vote the film for Best Picture. So they went with the easy choice. The question is — why?

It seems like they were so unsure of what to do (aside from not voting for High Noon), they went and fucked everything up in the most confusing way possible. The Greatest Show on Earth wins Best Picture, but not Best Director. Which is strange, since the director of the film was Cecil B. DeMille, a Hollywood legend (who never won a competitive Oscar. He was given a Thalberg award this same year, so perhaps that’s why they didn’t vote for him). Instead, they gave John Ford his fourth Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man. Not a bad decision, but, he had three. I don’t think he needed it. So they vote one for Best Picture, another for Best Director. And making things even more confusing, they go and give Gary Cooper Best Actor for High Noon. What the fuck? I thought they hated it. Way to be contradictory, Academy. It would have made sense to go another way with it, so at least you can say he didn’t win because of the Citizen Kane-type bias. It makes no sense.

Anyway, the other winners this year were Anthony Quinn as Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata!, and Gloria Grahame as Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful. It’s a very strange and confusing year. It’s like the puberty of the Academy. And on top of that, we have this category, which, isn’t terrible, but also — just strange. Just really strange.


And the nominees were…

Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba

Joan Crawford, Sudden Fear

Bette Davis, The Star

Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding

Susan Hayward, With a Song in My Heart

Booth — Shirley Booth is an actress who primarily worked in the theater. In fact, this was her first live action film. Oh, also, if you don’t know who Shirley Booth is, if you’ve ever seen The Year Without a Santa Claus, she voiced Mrs. Claus. Click here. I bet you’ll recognize the voice. That’s who we’re talking about.

So this was her first film. In it, she plays a housewife, married to Burt Lancaster. And she mostly lives in the past, since, her only ambition in life was to be married to Burt Lancaster (‘s character). And he used to be an alcoholic, and is now recovered. You see, they were together, she got pregnant. He dropped out of med school to get work to support her. He felt guilty, because her father threw her out of the house because of him. The child then died, and she was unable to have any more children. So, he started drinking (and he’s a mean drunk), and eventually quit. Now, he keeps a bottle in the house to remind him of what can happen. I guess it would be like The Incredible Hulk keeping pairs of his torn clothing around to remind himself what happens when he gets angry.

Lancaster works, and leads a pretty boring life. The two have a loveless marriage. He goes to work, comes home, that’s it. She stays around the house, listening to soap operas, and pretends to be transported by them. What happens is, they take in a lodger, a college student. An attractive female college student. She’s played by Terry Moore (Oscar-nominated for her performance and rightfully so. She’s really great here). Lancaster starts to become attracted to her, partially because she reminds him of his wife when she was younger. She makes him upset at what his wife has become. He sees the girl, who is getting on with a boy who models for her (she’s an artist), and it makes him upset, because he sees them doing what he used to do. He thinks they’re having sex, and reaches for his bottle. They end up not having sex, but the deed is done. Burt’s fell off the wagon. He comes back, tries to murder his wife (drunken rage), and goes to the hospital to be treated. He comes back from the hospital and realizes he loves his wife, and she promises to stay with him forever.

That’s the film. A good film. I enjoyed it very much. The thing about Shirley Booth’s performance, however, is that, at first glance, it’s not very — I don’t know — it doesn’t seem like she has much to do. But, when you watch the film, you see how good her performance is. You see all the nuance she gives it and such. And in a year such as this, where I really only like three of the performances, she’s actually a top two choice for me. I, personally wouldn’t vote for her, but I see why the Academy did. A well-respected stage actress, and a top two in the category. It makes perfect sense that she won. Will I vote for her, though? No. I thought someone else was better.

Crawford — Joan Crawford. I’m pretty open about her. I never much cared for her movies. I think she’s a fine actress and all (and on top of it, a very important one, historically), but, she just made a lot of boring films. She played a lot of melodramas, is the thing. And I never much cared for melodrama. Of all her films, the ones I enjoyed were: Grand Hotel (I actually thought she was very charming there), The Gorgeous Hussy (but it wasn’t really about her. I actually enjoyed the part that wasn’t her storyline much more than her part), The Women (that’s a great film. Check that one out), and, of course, Johnny Guitar. I fucking love Johnny Guitar. It’s so gloriously — something. Not sure what — but it’s something. Also, Mildred Pierce — I haven’t yet made up my mind on that one, but it is a good film. Anyway, what I’m getting at — I don’t much care for Joan Crawford films. Just want to get that out there off the bat. So you know where I’m coming from.

This film — meh. It’s okay. Not particularly my cup of tea. It reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob marries Aunt Selma. But not exactly. This one is about Joan Crawford, as a playwright, who has sacrificed marriage for the sake of a career. Then, along comes Jack Palance. he’s an actor who she rejected for the lead role in her play. She happens upon him again, and he sweeps her off her feet. She falls for him. Then, over the course of the film, we find out he may be (but, come on, you know he is. It’s Jack fucking Palance) scheming to have her killed so he can inherit all her money. And the film is about her suspecting him and slowly figuring it out and then having to not let him know until she can get to safety and not be killed. It’s okay. Not too bad. Not particularly interesting, I felt. Maybe some people would like it. I don’t care one way or another about it.

Crawford plays a woman in peril role here. Not sure why she was nominated past the fact that she’s Joan Crawford. I find it funny that both her and Bette Davis were nominated against each other, them having that whole rivalry thing. But, clearly Crawford is the number five here. It’s melodrama and woman in peril. No way she gets any consideration for a vote. At all.

Davis — Oh, Bette. How you made a movie that mirrors your career and weren’t even subtle about it. That’s what this film is. Bette Davis making a film about Bette Davis’s career. No joke.

Bette plays an actress who is past her prime. She used to be the queen of Hollywood, but now is older and hasn’t made a film in a few years. Basically it’s intimated that she got to old and didn’t want to give up her youth. She became difficult to work with, because she kept demanding to be treated as though she were still 25. Now she hasn’t worked in a while, just got busted for DUI, and has no money. She wants one big role to resurrect her career. She loves her daughter (played by Natalie Wood, actually), and has a friend (Sterling Hayden), who helps her out. She still tries to find that one role, though. Eventually she finds a script, which she’s sure will be a big hit. She wants to try out for the lead. Problem is, the studio wants the new “it” actress —  Barbara Lawrence, playing Barbara Lawrence — to star in it. They want Bette for the part of the older sister. Which is still a great part. Problem is, Bette, even though the part will do all she wants, wants to be the star she was. Which just can’t happen. So she basically ends up sabotaging herself by not accepting the fact that she’s older. She gets a screen test for the part of the older sister, and decides to play it as though she were younger, figuring they’ll see her and like her and decide, “Oh yeah, she really is better for the younger sister part.” Instead, it’s a complete disaster, and she doesn’t get it. And then, at a party, she ends up getting pitched a script that’s basically — this movie. An older actress, youth behind her, who will stop at nothing to be on top again. In fact, the ending of the film foreshadows Bette’s later career, a decade after this, where she played in all the psycho biddy films (a legit sub genre. Don’t believe me? Look it up), like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

The film isn’t very interesting except in that meta sort of way. It’s only 90 minutes, so that works in its favor. Davis is — I don’t know, was she acting here? It’s a Bette Davis role. I was never really a fan of the Bette Davis role. So, really, if Joan Crawford isn’t here, Bette becomes an easy #5. Now, I’ll give her 4. It’s meta enough that it’s interesting. Still not gonna vote for it. She had two already. Do you really think I’m gonna give her a third when I didn’t like the first two?

Harris — Here’s your winner. I really fell in love with this performance. I watched this for the first time one night on TCM, when they played back to back Carson McCullers films. That is, films based on Carson McCullers novels. First was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and then they played this.

This film is about a 12-year old tomboy, played by Harris, who just isn’t comfortable in the world. She doesn’t have friends, she doesn’t like the people who are her age. She just doesn’t fit in. She’s her own, unique individual. And she really only hangs around the house with her cousin (played by Brandon de Wilde, aka the kid from Shane and Paul Newman’s brother in Hud) and her African-American nanny, played by Ethel Waters (Oscar-nominated this year for Pinky. She’s also in love with her brother and his fiance. That is, she wants to be with them. She wants to go with them on their honeymoon. You see, they’re getting married that weekend, and Harris believes, since they like hanging out with her when they’re around, that they’ll take her with them when they go to Alaska for their honeymoon. The film is mostly about that period of childhood when you believe you can do anything, before adulthood comes along and destroys everything. It’s a very bittersweet film.

Harris is perfect in this film. It’s probably not the kind of performance you’d think of as being Academy Award-winning, but, she so inhabits this role, and you so believe that she is this girl, that she deserved the Oscar this year. First off, the category is weak, and her and Shirley Booth were really the only two choices. Second — she’s 27. I repeat. She is a 27 year old actress, playing a 12 year old girl. And I guarantee you, unless you knew that going in, you’ll have no idea. No idea. You might — and I mean might — think, “Oh, they got an 18 or 19 year old to play a 12 year old,” but no one would think she was 27. It’s like Alison Lohman in Matchstick Men. You’d have no idea she was 23 unless you knew beforehand. She really makes this character come alive. And that’s why I’m voting for her. You watch this film, and you believe this girl exists. It’s not like other actresses, when you say, “Oh, that’s a good performance,” knowing — oh, Kate Winslet really isn’t a former Nazi prison guard who can’t read, but she’s doing a good job playing one. Here, you actually believe this girl. And that, to me, is what makes an Oscar-winning performance most of all. So she’s my vote.

Hayward — Susan Hayward. She’s one of those actresses who seems to only pop up in her Oscar-nominated performances but nowhere else. I never really saw her in film outside of her Oscar films. And even then, I only liked about half of them. She was nominated five times, and of them, I liked the last three. It was like she was building up to her Oscar win. #1 was a boring melodrama. #2 was a boring melodrama. #3 was this, which, as I’ll get to, is good, but not really worth a vote. Sort of. #4 I think she totally should have won for, but she didn’t. And she did win #5, because — she just had to. So, this is the story of #3.

With a Song in My Heart is based on a true story — which makes it a musical biopic. And you know how Hollywood loves nominating those. She plays a singer who becomes paralyzed in a plane crash. The first third or so of the film is her getting noticed, singing, getting famous, then the plane crash. Then, we show her in rehab, getting better, and then getting offered to sing for the troops overseas. So she goes overseas, without anyone knowing she’s paralyzed, and performs for the troops. And that’s the film, really. Standard biopic fare. It’s entertaining at least, so that helps. It’s not a great film, but it’s worth it. I can’t say I was bored. It’s one of those obvious nominations but no win films. Hayward was good, but, not worth a vote. I could theoretically see her winning, but, she wasn’t going to. Her Oscar performances were really I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which she should have won for, and then I Want to Live!, which she did win for. This, is just a step in the right direction.

My Thoughts: Like I said, Harris is the vote. The reason being, I believed her character. Rather than saying, “Oh, that actress is doing a great job playing that part,” here I actually believed this girl existed. I believed in the character, and there wasn’t any actress there. There was just this girl. And that’s why she’s my vote. I never saw a performance here.

My Vote: Harris

Should Have Won: Harris

Is the result acceptable?: Ehh — maybe? I don’t know. Booth and Harris were clearly the best two, so I guess either winning was the best option. It’s just, for me, Harris was so far and away the best here that her winning is a huge disappointment. Still, I can’t say this is unacceptable, because — is either one winning or not winning a boost or a slight? It’s kind of a blank category, historically. So I guess it’s fine. It’s not unacceptable. It’s just — disappointing. Because Julie Harris was really fucking good.

Performances I suggest you see: The Member of the Wedding is a tremendous film, and it’s because of the reason I stated earlier — I believed the characters. I wasn’t watching a film — I was watching these characters. And it was a fascinating character study. Really, really great. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It might not be for everybody, but I’d imagine it would hold most people’s attentions because it’s so well-acted. Then — that’s it, really. No, Come Back, Little Sheba is worth watching. It is a good film. I do recommend that pretty highly. Lancaster is great, Shirley Booth is good, and it’s a great story. I also really liked Terry Moore as the girl rooming with them. It’s definitely well acted and worth checking out. These are really the two worth seeing here. With a Song in My Heart is good, but, it’s standard musical biopic fare, so, take it or leave it, if you’re into that sort of thing or not. That’s about it.


5) Crawford

4) Davis

3) Hayward

2) Booth

1) Harris

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.