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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1955-1956)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1955

Betsy Blair, Marty

Peggy Lee, Pete Kelly’s Blues

Marisa Pavan, The Rose Tattoo

Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden

Natalie Wood, Rebel Without a Cause

Analysis:

Marty is one of my favorite films. I love it so much. It’s so simple. In context, it’s kind of a “lesser” Best Picture winner in the sense that it’s not epic in scale, historically based, and all those other things we think of when we think of Best Picture. It’s a simple romance tale. But just watch the film and you’ll see why it’s impossible not to love it.

Marty is a lonely butcher who is 35 and unmarried. He lives in Brooklyn, and all the old ladies, including his mother, keep asking him when he’s gonna settle down. He’s overweight and wants to get married, but seems to be unlucky. One night, he goes with his buddy to a local dance, mostly as a plus-one. His friend abandons him pretty quickly. And he meets a a woman there, in a similar situation, a shy schoolteacher, and the two really hit it off. They go and spend the rest of the night together, walking around the neighborhood. And now that he’s actually found some happiness, it’s almost as if all those people, including his mother, don’t want him to be happy. For different reasons. It’s a beautiful film. Trust me.

Betsy Blair plays the woman he meets at the dance. The role straddles the line between lead and supporting. She’s not there for much of the first act, and disappears for the last bit of the film as well. So I can see it being supporting, but it’s close.

As for the performance itself, she’s great. Objectively, she is wonderful. You buy her character, you understand her character, you feel for her character, and you want to see the two of them be happy. She is well worth a vote here, and it ultimately comes down to her and probably one other person.

Pete Kelly’s Blues is a film noir in color. That’s always what I call it. It’s a jazz noir, at that.

Pete Kelly and his jazz band run afoul of a local mobster. He puts pressure on them for a piece of their earnings, and generally causes hell for them when they don’t go along. It’s good.

Peggy Lee plays the gangster’s moll who is forced into the band as a singer, even though everyone (but the gangster) knows she isn’t a good fit. She’s also an alcoholic. She handles the acting part pretty well too. It culminates in one night where she’s too drunk to go on and embarrasses herself. She gets beaten badly by the mobster and ends up having a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized.

She’s good. And she’s also Peggy Lee. So the singing is on point. That helps a lot. The construction of the role did most of the work for her, but she’s definitely solid in the part. I don’t think you vote for her, but you can see why she was nominated. Maybe she’s fifth, maybe she’s fourth. Flip her with Pavan (and maybe Wood), and that’s pretty much the bottom half of the category.

The Rose Tattoo is a weird movie. Tennessee Williams. Won Best Actress, but not remembered all that much.

Anna Magnani is a woman who becomes a recluse after her husband dies. She’s a brilliant seamstress, so the town goes to her for beautiful dresses, but she never comes out of her house. She eventually does come out on the day of her daughter’s graduation. She then finds out her husband was cheating on her, and also meets Burt Lancaster, a truck driver who falls in love with her. It’s… interesting. The acting is solid. The film is just pretty good.

Marisa Pavan plays Magnani’s daughter. She’s the young romantic side character of the story. She has a boyfriend and is constantly frustrated by her mother’s attempts to protect her virtue. Most of her scenes involve her either been annoyed with her mother or in love with her boyfriend. She’s fine. Doubt anyone would have her higher than fourth in this category.

East of Eden is an American classic.

James Dean is the son of a deeply religious farmer who wants nothing more than his father’s approval, even though his father favors his brother instead. There’s discovery or a mother he thought long-dead, a romance, war profiteering, all sorts of good stuff.

Jo Van Fleet plays Dean’s mother. His father told him she was dead, but he finds out that not only is she alive, but she’s running a brothel the next town over. So he goes to see her, and eventually gets money from her to start a business (in order to impress his father). She has a couple of short, but powerful scenes. Definitely in contention for a vote for sure.

Rebel Without a Cause is another American classic. This one more cultural than East of Eden.

James Dean is a kid whose parents just don’t understand him. He can’t take it anymore. That’s what that film is about. The generation gap between children and parents, and how disconnected the youth culture is from the previous generation.

Natalie Wood is a popular girl who finds a kindred spirit in Dean. She’s really good in the role. It’s a hell of a performance. The one issue with it, though, and you see it when you watch the movie — it’s a very dated performance. She’s one of those actresses — you probably have her third on your list, but I don’t think you vote for her. Something feels a bit overdone here for a vote. Maybe it’s just me. I guess you could take her if you really feel like she was the best. I could see a case being made for her. I don’t know if I’d go past “very solid.”

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The Reconsideration: This is one of those you really need to work from the bottom up. Pavan is a no. Wood had the more memorable teenage performance this year. And I wouldn’t even vote for Wood. At best I put her third. And then Peggy Lee probably splits the difference between Wood and Pavan. She’s good, the part is good, the singing is good, and the acting is fine. So she’s fourth. Definitely would not vote for her.

So without really putting much thought into it at all, I’m left with Jo Van Fleet and Betsy Blair. Sentimentally, I want to vote for Blair all the way. Van Fleet is a respected character actress, and is great in the part. She has more screen time than I think she does, and definitely fits the category. And objectively, she’s probably the choice. But who are we if we can’t vote for our favorites? So I’m taking Betsy Blair. Van Fleet gave the best performance, but Betsy Blair is my personal favorite, and is a solid second. So that’s where we are.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden
  2. Betsy Blair, Marty
  3. Natalie Wood, Rebel Without a Cause
  4. Peggy Lee, Pete Kelly’s Blues
  5. Marisa Pavan, The Rose Tattoo

Rankings (films):

  1. Marty
  2. Rebel Without a Cause
  3. East of Eden
  4. Pete Kelly’s Blues
  5. The Rose Tattoo

My Vote: Betsy Blair, Marty

Recommendations:

Rebel Without a Cause is an essential film for film buffs. It’s so hugely important that there’s no way you can be into movies and not come across it. It has to be seen.

Marty is an essential movie. I don’t care if it doesn’t seem that way, but it is. It’s a Best Picture winner (and Best Actor winner) and it’s wonderful. It’s such a sweet and unassuming movie, and so utterly charming

East of Eden is also essential. A film classic. Every James Dean movie is. This is also Elia Kazan, and one of the gorgeously shot films of all time as well. Must-see for film buffs.

Pete Kelly’s Blues is a good film. Not great, but good. Looks great, lotta jazz, and it’s an interesting film, tonally. Not essential, but recommended.

The Rose Tattoo is really only essential for Oscar buffs. Or people who love Burt Lancaster and/or Tennessee Williams. It’s solid, but not something you need to see. Though I do recommend it because the performances are strong.

The Last Word: Objectively, Van Fleet is probably the vote. Her performance is so strong and punctuated it makes complete sense. But I just love Betsy Blair in Marty so much, and I’m taking her. I think she’s a solid second best in the category, performance-wise, and I feel no guilt about taking her, since voting is about taking what you like, while also trying to be objective about everything. So I’m aware Van Fleet gives a better performance, but I still prefer Blair. I also don’t think you could really take any of the other three. Can’t see Peggy Lee actually being the vote, don’t think anyone would take Pavan, and Wood… long shot, but you could try making a case for her. I’d listen to it. Ultimately, I think this is either Van Fleet or Blair, and while I’d go with Blair, I think they made a good decision with Van Fleet.

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1956

Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed

Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind

Mercedes McCambridge, Giant

Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed

Analysis:

Baby Doll is another weird movie. Also based on Tennessee Williams. Elia Kazan again.

Karl Malden is an old racist married to a barely legal girl named Baby Doll, who is essentially a child. He made an agreement with her father that he wouldn’t sleep with her until she turned 20, which is happening soon. That’s a source of tension throughout the film, as is Malden’s rivalry with Eli Wallach, with Wallach turning his eyes to Baby Doll, in order to really get at Malden. It’s a strong film (though very strange), with great performances, specifically Carol Baker’s.

Mildred Dunnock plays Baby Doll’s senile aunt, who is essentially the film’s comic relief. She gets to show up once in a while and be senile. It’s an amusing performance, but not something that actually wins.

The Bad Seed is such an awesome movie. You’ve seen versions of it before, in cartoons or whatever. The premise is not something new, but the execution is really quite good.

It starts off like any old Americana movie. A little girl says goodbye to her father as he goes off on a tour of duty. She’s cute, she plays the piano. She could be Shirley Temple. But then we see what’s really going on. This girl is not what she seems. She has a bit of a temper, and sense she might be a bit of a sociopath. Then mysterious things start happening. A classmate at school who beat her in a competition drowns during a field trip. The mother thinks she’d be worried about this, but she’s completely unfazed. And we slowly find out the girl is the daughter of a serial killer who was given up for adoption while her mother was on death row. So they think the daughter may have inherited some of those… you know, tendencies. And the rest of the film is a bit of a mystery about whether she is or isn’t. And it’s fucking great.

Eileen Heckart plays the mother of the boy who drowns. The first time we see her, she’s drunk and confronting the girl’s mother about the death of her son. She’s convinced the girl did it. She has a really great drunk scene. A really great drunk scene. She loses her shit in that scene. And then she gets a second scene later on, where she shows up again, drunk, and confronts the girl. It’s a great scene. Then she completely breaks down. It’s a hell of a performance. I used to think she was the lesser of the two, but I’m actually reconsidering that after seeing the two performances again.

Patty McCormack plays the little girl. And she’s so fucking creepy in this movie. She comes off as very annoying at first, with how proper she is. Like those fake movie children you can never stand. But then you realize it’s all an act and she’s actually a fucking psycho. It’s when she breaks down and reveals her true colors that you really appreciate the performance. That’s when things really get good. Because she’s actually a complex little girl. She’s a sociopath but won’t lie to her mother and actually loves her mother. So the scenes where the mother is telling her to tell the truth and she does are actually quite impressive. Because Nancy Kelly plays it like she’s talking to an adult and McCormack manages to hold her own.

The acting isn’t perfect. After all, she is a child. But goddamn, is it an effective performance. She’s definitely in contention for a vote.

Written on the Wind is a hell of a melodrama. You might say Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows or Magnificent Obsession is Douglas Sirk’s best movie, but this might be his most fun.

Rock Hudson and Robert Stack are best friends. Grew up best friends and are basically brothers. Only Stack is rich. His father owns an oil company. Stack is a playboy and Hudson is the serious one who keeps him in line and actually has a head for business. The two meet Lauren Bacall on a business trip. She and Hudson have more chemistry, but Stack sweeps her off her feet and gets her to marry him. Thus begins a love triangle between the two. Oh, and then there’s Dorothy Malone.

Malone is the firecracker of this movie. She shows up right at the thirty minute mark and doesn’t let up. She’s Robert Stack’s sister, who is a partier, and a nymphomaniac. She’s heavily made up, and gets off on putting herself in situations that provoke violence. The first scene is her picking up a guy at a bar. He’s about to have sex with her, even though she knows her brother and Hudson are gonna come and beat the shit out of this guy at her father’s behest. And she just watches it with glee. She’s also had a longstanding crush on Hudson, which is unrequited, and there’s a weird incest-y vibe with her and Stack. Her most famous scene is where she dances wildly in her room while her father has a heart attack and dies on the stairs. And the final image of her is thematically perfect. I’ll leave it at that.

She’s pretty great in the film. I can see why she won in a category like this. She’s definitely someone worth voting for. I’ll need to see what I’m gonna do, since there are choices here. But definitely she’s in contention for a win.

Giant is an American epic. One of the great epic films of all time that isn’t as remembered as the other great epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind). It’s so fucking wonderful.

Rock Hudson owns a cattle empire. We see him going to buy a horse and coming back with a wife, Elizabeth Taylor. She comes back to the ranch and learns to get used to that way of living. Meanwhile, James Dean is a ranch hand who despises Hudson but gets to stay because Hudson’s sister likes him. Eventually he strikes oil on the land and becomes an oil baron. So the film becomes about old money vs. new money, and the two families interacting over the years. And the last part of the film becomes about race as well. Since Hudson’s son marries a Mexican woman, and they have to deal with the prejudices of the south. It’s fucking great, this movie.

Mercedes McCambridge plays Hudson’s spinster sister, who runs the ranch. She hates Taylor and how she’s seemingly not cut out for ranch life. It’s a great performance because McCambridge was such a unique screen presence. Most actors of this era feel like they fit within the set, while she always feels like a wild card. But she doesn’t actually do a whole lot within the narrative. She really only has about ten minutes of actual screen time. She dies by minute forty, and doesn’t show up until at least fifteen minutes in. Mostly she’s just a strong presence and a memorable character, and she dies pretty early on. But she stands out enough to be someone you may want to consider for a vote. Though I don’t know if she has enough to do to really be the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is interesting. That’s definitely what this category is. Taking Mildred Dunnock off to start, because no. Other than that, you can make a case for pretty much anyone else.

I wouldn’t take McCambridge because she’s not in the film enough and really doesn’t have a whole lot to do in it. Good, but no. The two Bad Seed nominations are great, and in a different go-through, I’d have said they cancelled each other out. But not. If they’re good, they’re good. I love Written on the Wind and think Malone did a great job, but honestly, I don’t know if I ever really loved the performance enough to actually vote for it. I’m okay with her having won, but the vote… she always felt like a #3. A solid entry that I could vote for but don’t love enough to actually take.

I think it’s between either Heckart or McCormack. And honestly, having seen them again… McCormack is great, but there’s a bit too much “child actor” in there for my taste. Heckart, on the other hand, fucking nails her scenes. Having seen them closely again (because last time I was just watching the movie), she’s my vote. I love what she did. She went from probably a forgettable fourth for me to a clear #1 and the vote. McCormack is also right there, but man, I was truly impressed with Heckart and what she did and want to take her for it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed
  2. Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed
  3. Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
  4. Mercedes McCambridge, Giant
  5. Mildred Dunnock, Baby Doll

Rankings (films):

  1. Giant
  2. Written on the Wind
  3. The Bad Seed
  4. Baby Doll

My Vote: Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed

Recommendations:

Giant is an essential film for film buffs. Must see. It’s perfect. All-timer.

Written on the Wind is probably essential. You should see the Sirk films of the 50s. He had four big Technicolor melodramas, and all four are pretty much essential. They’re all so good. This one also won an Oscar. So Oscar buffs need to see this. Movie buffs should see this. It’s just a strong film.

The Bad Seed is so good. Highly, highly recommended. The performances are great, and it’s one of those movies that you probably haven’t heard of that you’ll love. See this movie. Trust me.

Baby Doll is worth it for the acting. Terrific performances all around. Not essential, but comes strongly recommended for people who love good movies, and definitely for Oscar buffs.

The Last Word: You could make a case for just about anyone here except probably Dunnock. McCambridge is questionable, but I guess you could if you really felt it. Otherwise, Malone, McCormack and Heckart are all completely worth the vote. Malone was a solid choice by them, but I was thoroughly blown away by both Bad Seed performances, much more so Heckart’s (though McCormack was always right there to me). So Heckart is the vote, McCormack is my close behind #2, and Malone is a very deserving #3. They’re all worthy. Just make a solid case and you’re good.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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