The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1951
Love me some 1951. Some of the decisions are a bit — not great — but honestly, the way I’d have voted it, I’d have given everything to one film. And I mean everything.
An American in Paris wins Best Picture. Not the worst choice, but not a particularly great one, either. I, personally, would have gone with A Streetcar Named Desire, which won this category, Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter (talked about here). Best Actor was Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen (talked about here), beating Brando for Streetcar, and somehow being okay in the process. And Best Director was George Stevens for A Place in the Sun (talked about here), a decision I really just don’t like at all. Not even a little bit.
And this category — Vivien Leigh is like Daniel Day-Lewis. When she’s on — there’s no other choice. Wow.
BEST ACTRESS – 1951
And the nominees were…
Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen
Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
Eleanor Parker, Detective Story
Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun
Jane Wyman, The Blue Veil
Hepburn — The African Queen is such a great film. Bogart, Hepburn — you probably should have seen it. I’m not even going to tell you what it’s about if you haven’t seen it. Go out and see it right now.
Hepburn is good here. This is part of her spinster period. But no one’s competing with Vivien Leigh here. No one.
Leigh — It’s A Streetcar Named Desire. You need to have seen it.
It’s Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois. She wins hands down.
Parker — Detective Story is one of my favorite films that I discovered from this Oscar Quest. It’s a movie set in a police station that takes place all in one day. These films are a rarity, especially during the studio era. Here’s a film that begins with a simple frame story — Lee Grant being picked up for shoplifting, and she sits in the station all day and sees all of this going on. And of course, we get to see more. And over the course of the day, people come and go, some return, and a big, overall story develops. It mainly has to do with Kirk Douglas as a detective who is convinced this one doctor is guilty. (He was found guilty of performing illegal operations and disbarred, and Douglas believes he’s continued doing it and has killed some women.) And that’s really the major story of the film.
Eleanor Parker plays Douglas’s wife. Her big thing is that she doesn’t like how he works so much, and that she got an abortion and hasn’t told him about it. And the big thing is that the doctor Douglas is after is the one who performed the (illegal) abortion. So she’s wrought with guilt over both the abortion and the fact that he’s obsessed with catching this doctor, who knows that she’s his wife and could very easily tell him so. It’s an interesting role. She plays it a bit melodramatically, but that’s how it’s written. It’s perhaps my least favorite part of the film, simply because the whole thing feels very realistic, and here’s this melodrama with flashbacks and music swells right in the middle of it. But overall, it’s a successful performance.
It’s the kind of thing where — the film feels ahead of its time, and because of that, the performance seems behind the times. Especially with Kirk Douglas doing what he’s doing. But it’s a good performance. I’m not gonna vote for it anyway because of Vivien Leigh, but the film is really great.
Winters — A Place in the Sun is the big classy film of 1951 that’s not Streetcar. This is the one that, I believe, got the most Oscar nominations that year (or something like that. I think it won like 2/3 of the Oscars it was nominated for, yet didn’t win Best Picture. Making it one of the rare cases where a film wins so many Oscars but not the main ones).
It’s about Montgomery Clift, as a lower class man who is in love with Shelley Winters. And he gets a job in a factory in town, and then falls for the factory owner’s daughter (Elizabeth Taylor). And he’s crazy ambitious, so he gets in with Taylor, and she helps him get a cushy job at the factory. But then he needs to find a way to gracefully dump Winters, which proves difficult especially since they were gonna marry and she’s pregnant. So what he does is, brings her out on a picnic, and while they’re going for a boat ride in the lake, planning to drown her, but then realizes he loves her and decides not to do it, whereupon she accidentally drowns. And then he’s wracked with guilt and is caught and charged with murder anyway. And he’s sentenced to death and ruined and all that, and he basically says, “Well, I deserved it.” That’s the film.
Most people regard it as an American classic. I think it’s good, but I don’t really care for it all that much. Taylor, however — this is the first “sexy” Elizabeth Taylor movie. She’s 19 here, and boy, this is one of the top five films where she looks the best. It’s like, this, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, BUtterfield 8, maybe Suddenly, Last Summer — she looks fucking good here.
Anyway, Shelley Winters is fine in the role, but I didn’t really see her as someone I could vote for. It’s Vivien Leigh’s category. Plus she’d win twice in Supporting anyway, which is more appropriate for someone like her. So I see no need to vote for her no matter how you look at it.
Wyman — The Blue Veil is a movie I didn’t think I was going to like, and then ended up liking a lot. It’s somewhat hard to find, mostly because I think rights issues have kept it off of home video, but it’s definitely obtainable.
Wyman plays a woman who loses her newborn baby suddenly and also loses her husband to the war. So she takes a job working as a nanny for a family, and very quickly bonds with their children. And she takes the job for a while, then goes to another family, and takes care of that child, and then another. And basically we see her as she gets older, caring for all of these children and using that as a surrogate for her own child. And each time she ends up leaving for different reasons. Like, the second time, she sees the child has grown more attached to her than she is to her own mother (who is a fading singer trying to make a comeback and has been auditioning and neglecting her daughter. Joan Blondell was Oscar-nominated for the part), and the third time, the father is killed World War II, and the mother goes off and basically abandons the son. And she stops sending money for him, and Wyman basically adopts him as her own. But then the mother comes back and wants the kid, and Wyman refuses, and there’s a whole legal thing.
Anyway, the end of the movie is really, really great. Wyman is now old and working as a janitor in a school (just to be near children), and gets a letter from one of the children she used to care for. And unbeknownst to her, the guy (now an adult with kids of his own) has contacted all her other “children” and has brought them all together for a big dinner party to surprise Wyman. And it’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen put to film. I know I cry easily, but — every time.
Wyman is great here, and I’m glad she already had her Oscar, so that way I don’t have to consider voting for her (not that I would anyway, but you know what I mean). She’s good, and the film is great, but it’s still Vivien Leigh’s category.
My Thoughts: No contest. Leigh all the way. Why waste time discussing it?
My Vote: Leigh
Should Have Won: Leigh
Is the result acceptable?: One of the top three Best Actress decisions of all time. Which is funny, because Vivien Leigh’s other Oscar-winning performance is number one. I don’t think anyone could say this was even remotely a bad decision. This was a perfect decision.
Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire or The African Queen, you’re dead to me.
You really should see Detective Story. It’s incredible. One of the best gems I found on this Quest. Absolutely fantastic.
A Place in the Sun is a good film. I don’t love it, but it’s good. Liz Taylor is so goddamn sexy here it’s beyond words.
The Blue Veil is a really good film too. Jane Wyman is great, and it’s such a poignant little movie. Hard to find, and the remaining print isn’t in good condition, but if you can see this one, do it. It’s great.