The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1952
Let’s briefly recap 1952. I’ve talked about this a lot. Most of it is contained in the other articles. But, 1952. The Greatest Show on Earth beats High Noon for Best Picture. The Academy takes innocuous over the controversial. Generally regarded as a terrible decision. John Ford wins his fourth Best Director for The Quiet Man (talked about here), a decision that doesn’t make sense and only serves to make it seem like the Academy was openly telling people that, rather than voting for The Greatest Show on Earth, they were voting against High Noon. Like the schoolyard boy who pushes a girl rather than saying he likes her.
Gary Cooper wins Best Actor for High Noon (talked about here), which is what’s strange to me. If they don’t like the film, why give it anything at all? Best Actress was Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor was Anthony Quinn for Viva Zapata!. Both okay decisions, pretty ho-hum though. That’s what this year is. A big fucking mess, just because they had all the controversy. And then there’s this category…
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1952
And the nominees were…
Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain
Collette Marchand, Moulin Rouge
Terry Moore, Come Back, Little Sheba
Thelma Ritter, With a Song in My Heart
Grahame — The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps the best film Hollywood ever made about Hollywood. For my money, you can leave out the “perhaps.”
It’s about Kirk Douglas, as a real asshole producer who has managed to screw over everyone who has ever helped him to get where he is. The film begins with Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner and Dick Powell coming to Walter Pidgeon’s office. Pidgeon says that Douglas — who’s had a couple of flops recently and has a great film he wants the three of them to work on. And they all say “Fuck no.” And Pidgeon, who says Douglas is going to call in soon, begs them to reconsider. He says he knows that Douglas has fucked them all over — and with that, he takes turns explaining just how he fucked them over. And we get to see the flasbacks.
The first is Sullivan as a director who meets Douglas and the two of them work up the ranks together. They make a name for themselves at Pidgeon’s production company, working on quickies together. Eventually, Sullivan gets his hands on a real winner, a film guaranteed to win Oscars. And Sullivan assumes he’s going to direct, because it’s his idea. He’ll direct and Douglas will produce. And Douglas gets Pidgeon to agree to make the movie, but, right as filming begins, hires a big name director to direct it instead of Sullivan, essentially making it so only his name gets made because of it and not Sullivan’s.
And then there’s Lana Turner, who is the daughter of a famous actor who worked with Douglas’s father. Douglas finds her living in her father’s house, drunk. He sobers her up and manages to turn her into a movie star. He takes her, gets her a screen test, gets her a movie role, and gets her into a picture that will make her a huge star. And, in order to get her to act to her full potential, he starts telling her he’s in love with her. And she begins to fall in love with him. However, on the night of the film’s premiere, she seeks him out, but finds him at his house, with another woman. So basically he’d been toying with her feelings in order to get a good performance to help his film out. That’s two.
The third story is the one we’re most interested in. That’s Dick Powell’s. Dick Powell is a southern writer who has just written a best seller. Douglas has paid a lot of money to turn it into a movie. He calls and gets Powell to come out to Hollywood for two weeks to talk about it. Sure enough, he convinces Powell, who wants absolutely no part of Hollywood whatsoever, to write a treatment for the script. Now, Powell is married to Gloria Grahame, who is a typical southern belle. They’re in love, and she’s one of those people who is very interested in the Hollywood lifestyle, and when Douglas suggests they go visit, she’s clearly very interested, but plays it off. And he goes because she wants to go. And as soon as they get there, she goes off, finding all these places, dragging him to see the sights, and he can’t get any work done. And Douglas, seeing this, decides to get his lead actor (a huge movie star and noted lothario) to “keep her busy” for a while so he and Powell can go up to a cabin by the lake to work on the treatment. But, while they’re doing that, Grahame falls in love with the actor and they plan on eloping to Mexico. But they die in a plane crash en route. And Powell, who wanted nothing to do with Hollywood to begin with but was only doing it because of his wife, has now lost his wife because of the man who coerced him out there in the first place. And what’s worse, Douglas conceals his involvement in the affair and gets Powell to continue to work on the film. Yeah, I know, he’s a dick.
Anyway, the film is brilliant and you really need to see it, because it’s just perfect.
Now, as for Gloria Grahame’s performance — I’m torn. I like her, and I love the film. But — she’s really not on screen at all. I rewatched the film again as I wrote this, and, she was off-screen before I got to this point. She shows up, has her big scene at home with Powell, and is fine in that, but it’s pretty brief. Then she shows up later, excited about things. Then, she’s off-screen for the rest of the film, even when she dies. She’s really only in three scenes. And, while she was good, and I like that this film got an Oscar here, I don’t know if I can vote for a performance that was this brief. Especially when —
Hagen — Jean Hagen was so brilliant in Singin’ in the Rain. I know you’ve seen this movie. If you haven’t, you don’t deserve to continue watching films. If you’re seriously reading a blog about the Oscars for 1952, and haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain — something is definitely wrong.
The film, as a refresher, is very interesting on a lot of levels. First off, it’s a frame narrative. The whole thing, pretty much (or maybe it’s just half of it), is an interview with Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen, where they talk about how they became this great on-screen pair. And we see Kelly tell the story, going back to how he got involved in films, working as stunt man in silent pictures, then becoming a swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks fashion. And the film is about one particular film they’ve made, called “The Dueling Cavalier.” It’s a silent picture. However, the industry has just created talkies. So the film bombs in its premiere. So they decide to go back and reshoot the film with sound. However, this creates its own problems. Because, first, sound was difficult to record. Think of that great scene, “Talk into the plant!” Plus, they discover that Jean Hagen, who was so expressive as a silent film actress (and until now hadn’t really spoken in the film), has this really horrible Brooklyn accent and would sound terrible if they let her speak on film.
So what they do is, they get Debbie Reynolds, whom Kelly has met and fallen for, to dub Hagen’s voice. However, the film is a disaster, because the silent movie dialogue is so hokey. So what they do, is decide to make the film all-singing, all-dancing. It’s a Gene Kelly film. You knew they were gonna do it like that. (It’s actually kind of like The Band Wagon, only with a film. Boy, there’s an incredible double feature. And double the Cyd Charisse. Mmmm….) And that’s pretty much the rest of the film. I assume you’ve seen it. If not, stop reading and watch it RIGHT NOW.
Hagen is fucking hysterical in the role. She really nails it. She’s a pampered movie star who is unable to talk — they never let her talk because she sounds so horrible in person. Her voice is so shrill and annoying — and she basically acts as the foil to the entire film. She’s the person that gets hit in the face with the flying cake. (This actually happens, but you understand the concept from slapstick.) And she goes about trying to ruin the romance between Kelly and Reynolds. And eventually she gets her comeuppance at the end when she’s humiliated. But, I really don’t get how they don’t vote for her here. I mean, Gloria Grahame is an actress who’s probably more deserving, and I guess they don’t really care how big or how small a part is (or how good the person is in the role. Sandra Bullock, anyone?), but, for me, choosing between a solid performance with little screen time and a hysterical performance with a solid supporting role — I’m taking that one. I have to vote for Hagen.
Marchand — I love John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. I almost said I like it better than the Baz Luhrmann version, but, you really can’t compare them. They’re too sides to the same coin. One’s a musical, one’s a dramatized biopic of sorts.
This version is about Toulouse-Lautrec (the dwarf painter played by John Leguizamo in the Luhrmann version. Well, maybe not dwarf. He’s 4’6”), who is basically an alcoholic painter. That’s pretty much it. He sits in burlesque clubs, drinks constantly, and sketches the dancers. And then he sells the sketches for money and/or booze. And the film is about him and his problems. He knows no woman will ever really love him because of his condition, and throw himself in painting and in the drink. And the film is basically just a slow crawl toward his death. You know it’s gonna happen, it’s only a matter of time before his alcoholism kills him. And yet, it’s fascinating to watch, because José Ferrer’s performance is so good.
Anyway, Colette Marchand is a prostitute who is rescued by Lautrec. And basically she charms her way into his graces, and he lets her stay with him and starts buying her things and becomes very happy about himself and his life. But then one day she doesn’t come back home. She stays out all night, and this pisses him off so he throws her out. And she tells him she loves him and keeps ignoring his insults. And basically, we get the sense that she really does like him, and despite his paranoia that no woman could ever love him, she’s the real thing. We think she can actually be his redemption of sorts. But then we find out that she was only pretending to like him in order to get money for her boyfriend. Which only drives him further into alcoholism.
It’s a great movie. Very different from the Luhrmann version, but also a great double feature with it. Huston directed the shit out of it. It’s so fucking colorful. Marchand’s performance is also really good. I really liked what she did here. It’s a solid, solid performance. Not one I can vote for, but one I can say is perfectly situated at #3. She was really good here. (She’s #2 for a vote, but I love The Bad and the Beautiful more than this movie. And while I love Gloria Grahame, her performance, and that film, she really was barely in it, so Marchand is closer to a vote for me than Grahame is.)
Moore — Come Back, Little Sheba was a film I surprisingly liked a lot. I figured I wasn’t going to like it, because, you see that Shirley Booth won an Oscar for it, and you know she didn’t do that much screen-wise, and you figure, “Oh, bullshit Oscar.” That and, I’d seen The Member of the Wedding before I saw this, so I knew how good Julie Harris was in that, and figured I’d dislike this out of spite. No, actually I thought this was pretty good.
Burt Lancaster plays a recovering alcoholic who’s in a loveless marriage with Shirley Booth. They were in love as teenagers, and one night they had sex, she got pregnant, and he was forced to marry her. They would have gotten married anyway, but, being married so soon, he had to quit medical school and support her, and to top it off, they lost the child. So he started drinking, and, it made him very mean, and eventually he had a crazy bender that required him to be institutionalized. And he’s been sober since, but, their marriage has also been loveless since then. He just wants to make it through the days, and she’s madly in love with him and doesn’t care that he ignores her.
And she’s a lonely housewife, who uses radio programs to escape the day, and has visions of either a dog or a child, I think it’s a dog, that’s dead. Or something like that. Anyway, she decides to take in a boarder, because they have an extra room and could use the money. And they take in Terry Moore. She’s a college student. And what happens is, Burt Lancaster starts developing an attraction to her. Kind of like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. That kind of attraction/fascination. It’s kind of sexual, but also kind of not. Here it’s not entirely sexual. And he takes a liking to her, but, pretty soon she gets a boyfriend (even though she’s got a long term guy she’s planning on marrying), and Lancaster gets upset. Because, with the long term guy, he can at least live in his fantasies. Here, this guy is coming over to the house and modeling for her. And this drives Lancaster nuts. And eventually, there’s one night where Lancaster thinks Moore and the dude are having sex, and this makes him go on a bender. And basically, he thinks she’s “cheating” (on her intended husband, but also on him) and attacks his wife with a knife (he’s drunk). She didn’t. She actually said at the last minute she didn’t want to (but by that point Lancaster had started drinking, so it was too late). And then the film ends with everyone okay. Lancaster goes back to loving his wife, probably going back to the same loveless marriage (albeit with a little more affection) and Moore goes off with the man she intends to marry.
It’s a pretty good film. The Shirley Booth Oscar I don’t really like, but, whatever. Terry Moore, though, I thought was fantastic in the film. I don’t know why, particularly, but I thought she was perfect in her role. I just remember watching and sort of falling for the character the way Burt Lancaster is supposed to. I feel like it’s the kind of thing where, I saw how, with the performance, she managed to do things that were really attractive, yet at the same time not understand how they could be attractive. You know? I really thought this performance was great, and, a surprisingly strong entry into the category. Now, with the category as strong as it is, I don’t think I’d put her more than like third for a vote and fourth in the rankings (though, I don’t know. Maybe if I watched them back to back, I might consider her worth more of a vote than Marchand. It doesn’t really matter though, since, I have my vote). Which is a lot better than I was expecting. Still, I think her performance was the best thing about this movie.
Ritter — With a Song in My Heart is one of those standard musical biopics. Susan Hayward plays a singer who gets paralyzed in a plane crash. The first thirty minutes is you meeting her and liking her, seeing her get famous. Then, plane crash. Then, lots of rehab, which is where Thelma Ritter comes in. She plays the rehab nurse who helps her and becomes a good friend, and then Hayward manages to overcome the paralysis as best she can, and go on a USO tour and sing to the troops (who don’t know she’s paralyzed. She stands on a moving piano, with her hands on a stationary crutch, and plays the whole show looking as though she can walk). And it’s nice and all, and that’s pretty much the film. One of those films celebrating her achievements.
The film is pretty good, and Ritter is actually pretty good. I was expecting a #5 for any category. Just figuring, standard role, Thelma Ritter nomination (she got a few of those in her career). But, she was actually pretty good, and, I might consider her a #4 in some years, which, for me, means the performance had at least some substance to it (voting-wise. I gauge it as, once it’s nominated, then it has to show me something in order to get me to vote for it. If it doesn’t, it’s a 5. Here, she showed me a little bit. No more than a weak/tepid 4, but still, something). But, with the category as strong as it is, she still has to be #5. I hate when Thelma Ritter is a #5. She’s just so great in everything. I guess it’s that Brooklyn accent that just adds authenticity to all her characters. But, with the category the way it is, I can’t help it.
My Thoughts: So, for me, this comes down to Jean Hagen. But that’s because I don’t share the Academy’s opinion that you can vote for a performance that only shows up in three relatively short scenes (two really short scenes and one moderately timed one). I’d consider Terry Moore and Collette Marchand for a vote, but, Hagen was just so entertaining, and, deciding between two classic films that I love very much, I’m gonna go with the performance that better fits the category and my criteria for it. And that’s Hagen.
My Vote: Hagen
Should Have Won: Hagen
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Because, while it does clearly look like they just wanted to give Gloria Grahame an Oscar, there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus, it gives a great film some recognition. While the performance doesn’t really hold up against others in the category, when you think about it afterwards, you at least get the film and a positive recollection in your head. So, that’s good. So, while it’s not really acceptable based on what it was up against, it is acceptable that this film won an Oscar. (It should have been nominated for Best Picture.)
Performances I suggest you see: The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfect film and one you need to see if you like movies. Singin’ in the Rain — if you like movies and haven’t seen it, you’re pretty much a huge fuck up.
Moulin Rouge is a fantastic film and one I recommend highly. If you’ve seen the other version, this one’s the dark underbelly of it. And that’s what makes it so good, because, set against all the colors, you have two very different (yet eerily related) stories. I definitely recommend you check this one out.
Come Back, Little Sheba is a decent film. You get Lancaster, you get a Best Actress-winning performance, plus Terry Moore is amazing in the film. I really thought she was tops there. So, if any of that interests you, you should check it out. Because it’s definitely worth a watch.
And With a Song on My Hert — meh. It’s okay. It’s a musical biopic. So, you know what you’re getting. If you want to see it, go for it. It’s not bad. Otherwise, you don’t need to. There’s nothing really of substance except 50s Technicolor and the standard biopic trope being used 60 years ago. That’s something, I guess.