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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1959-1960)

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.

1959

Hermione Baddeley, Room at the Top

Susan Kohner, Imitation of Life

Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life

Thelma Ritter, Pillow Talk

Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank

Analysis:

Room at the Top is a film that I didn’t like very much initially, and have completely reversed course on now that I’m older and wiser.

Laurence Harvey is an ambitious young man who will do anything to succeed. He takes a lowly factory job and works his way up the chain, dating the boss’s daughter in the meantime. He doesn’t love her, but knows a marriage to her will set him for life. What he doesn’t expect, however, is to actually find live, in the form of middle-aged divorcée Simone Signoret. So what was once an easy path to success is made complicated by the notion of living poor and happy for the rest of his life.

Hermione Baddeley plays one of Signoret’s friends and is the conscience of the film. She cuts through everything and says how in love Signoret is with Harvey and tells him not to hurt her. That’s pretty much it. She’s only on screen for about two and a half minutes total. It’s shocking they nominated her for this part because it’s so small. Granted, she’s strong in the part… but two and a half minutes? No way she can be considered anything but fifth here. Maybe fourth if you love the performance, but that’s it. Two and a half minutes…

Imitation of Life is Douglas Sirk’s last film. It’s great. There’s no other way to put it except great. The original was nominated for Best Picture in 1934, but this version is much better.

One a random day at the beach, Lana Turner and her daughter meet Juanita Moore and her daughter. They strike up a friendship and Turner ends up bringing them home to stay because they have no home. Moore works as Turner’s maid/housekeeper to earn her keep, but it’s more of a friendship thing than anything, since Turner doesn’t really have the money to pay her. Turner ends up becoming a successful actress and we follow the four women as they go through the years.

The primary conflict, at least as it pertains to the two nominees in this category, is one of race. Juanita Moore is a black woman. Her daughter, Sarah Jane, played by two different actresses, Susan Kohner playing the older one, is light-skinned, and would much rather pass as white. So much so that she starts to publicly disown her mother, and feels shamed by her whenever she has to acknowledge her as such.

As I said, Moore plays the mother and Susan Kohner plays the daughter. They are both terrific in their roles, culminating in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of cinema. If you’ve seen the film then you know which one I’m talking about. It kills me every time. Parts of it are overly melodramatic, but it doesn’t matter. Kohner has moments where it’s bad, but when she’s good, she’s great. She admittedly has one of the trickiest parts one could play. And she acquits herself very well in it.

And Moore — what can you say about Juanita Moore in this movie? She’s positively tragic. This role could have been stereotypical and completely one-note, but she really adds a lot of charm and subtlety to it. She’s the real backbone of this movie, and it’s truly heartbreaking what she has to go through.

Pillow Talk is a bubblegum romantic comedy. It always felt better than it was. It’s actually kind of stupid. But it’s Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and we like them, so we can forgive that.

Doris Day plays a woman who shares a party line with Rock Hudson. He’s constantly picking up women and flirting with them over the phone. She hates that. It’s basically The Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, but with a telephone. They fall in love despite not realizing the other person is the one on the other end of that telephone.

Thelma Ritter plays Doris Day’s drunken housekeeper. Constantly either drunk or hungover. That’s pretty much it. She feels horribly misplaced in this movie. She gets one moment of clarity, where she gives advice to Hudson (so basically a plot device masquerading as comic relief), but otherwise is there for comedy. A lot of this performance feels like it’s making use of Thelma Ritter’s screen presence more than anything. Not a whole lot going on here, and I’m pretty surprised she got nominated. This actually makes that Baddeley nomination look pretty good. (Though I can think of at least one or two other performances that didn’t get nominated. The big one being Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder. But I digress.)

The Diary of Anne Frank is pretty self-explanatory. I’m gonna leave it on you to know what this is about, because needing me to explain it is embarrassing. Not just as a film fan, but as a human being.

Shelley Winters plays Petronella Van Daan. One of the members of the attic. She’s kind of a loud, selfish woman who likes to complain, but in reality it’s a complex portrayal of a woman who is stuck in awful conditions. It’s actually a really strong part, even though I don’t know if it’s one of Winters’ absolute best performances. I think she’s very solid, and it makes sense that she won, and I’m cool with it. I just don’t know if I’d take it, in the end.

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The Reconsideration: This is an interesting category to try to explain historically. Shelley Winters is one of the great character actresses, and she finally got her due here. But wouldn’t most people consider it to be a case of a split vote that got her the win? Moore and Kohner feel like the stronger performances. Not that Winters is undeserving. But it just feels like we’ve seen her do better.

Ritter would never win with a performance like that, to the point where I’d take Hermione Baddeley’s two minutes of screen time over her. Though neither would come close to a vote for me.

There are clearly three choices here, but to me, the Imitation of Life actresses are both completely worthy, and if I could wish for a tie, I would. Since I can’t, I’m gonna go with Juanita Moore over Kohner, simply because she sustains it over an entire film, while Kohner only shows up in the latter half. Plus, Moore’s performance never wavers, while Kohner’s fluctuates a bit (sometimes it feels like she’s doing a Natalie Wood impersonation. Other times she’s sublime). They’re 1 and 1a for me, but I’ll take Moore.

Not to say Shelley Winters isn’t deserving, but every time I go back and watch that film, I’m never amazed by her work. I’m always respectful of it, and see it as strong, but never love it enough to actually want to vote for it. It feels more technically great than emotionally great. In terms of pure performance, I’d say she’s better than Kohner, but I’d vote for Kohner over her, if that makes sense. Which is all beside the point, since I’d still take Juanita Moore over her.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life
  2. Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Susan Kohner, Imitation of Life
  4. Hermione Baddeley, Room at the Top
  5. Thelma Ritter, Pillow Talk

Rankings (films):

  1. Imitation of Life
  2. The Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Room at the Top
  4. Pillow Talk

My Vote: Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life

Recommendations:

The Diary of Anne Frank is an essential movie. Full stop.

Imitation of Life is an essential movie because it’s one of the best Douglas Sirk movies (and his Technicolor melodramas are all kind of essential), and because… well, when you get to the end, it’s still one of the most emotional scenes ever put to screen. I can’t recommend this highly enough, and I deem it essential viewing for all film buffs.

Room at the Top is essential for Oscar buffs, and highly recommended for everyone else. It’s really good, with top notch performances, and is one of the great romances of all time. Low key essential for film buffs, I’d call it. A nice hidden gem essential film. See it. Don’t toy around with not seeing it. It’s better that you see it, because it’s great.

Pillow Talk — ehh. It’s fine. Doris Day, Rock Hudson. They’re good. It’s a light, fun romantic comedy, but otherwise I don’t love it. I don’t think it’s particularly essential. You can skip it for now if you like. Maybe eventually you should see it. It’s amusing. But I don’t see it as a particularly essential film unless you really care about the star or the Oscars.

The Last Word: There are only three people worth voting for, all of whom would have been good choices. Winters makes sense as a winner, both from a performance and a vote split standpoint. I, personally, lean toward either Moore or Kohner. My heart keeps telling me I want to take Kohner, but my head keeps saying Moore is the better choice. They’re both worthy, as is Winters, so really no matter which way you go here, it’s a good decision, and the Academy was pretty much in line to make a good decision no matter which way they went here.

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1960

Glynis Johns, The Sundowners

Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry

Shirley Knight, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

Janet Leigh, Psycho

Mary Ure, Sons and Lovers

Analysis:

The Sundowners is one of my absolute favorite films. I had no idea what this was when I started the Quest, and it ended up as one of my favorite films from it. It’s also impossible to explain. But here goes:

Robert Mitchum is a guy who loves living a nomadic life. So he keeps picking his family up and moving them every few months from job to job, all along the country (Australia). His wife, Deborah Kerr, wants to settle down and have a house, but he seems incapable of doing so. And we follow them through a lot of different situations, all of which add up to a great movie.

Glynis Johns plays the owner of a pub who takes a liking to Peter Ustinov. She’s nice and charming, but she’s not in the film all that much. At best I can consider her a solid third choice in the category.

Elmer Gantry is such an incredible film. I didn’t quite know what to expect from it and was blown away by how engaging it was.

Burt Lancaster is a traveling con man who stumbles upon evangelism. He realizes he can charm the shit out of people and become a preacher, to much financial success. It’s a great movie. Lancaster rightly won an Oscar for Best Actor this year.

Shirley Jones plays a former girlfriend of Lancaster’s who, after he left her, it ruined her social standing and she was forced to become a prostitute. So now she’s got no morals at all, and is looking to bring him down, since he’s presenting himself as someone in the moral right. She calls him and he comes over to see her, and she sets it up so incriminating photographs are taken of him without him knowing in order to blackmail him.

It’s a really complex performance. She gets to show a lot of different sides and is really strong in the part. There’s no way when looking at this category she doesn’t immediately rise to top two. The only question is whether or not you vote for her.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is one of the last films I saw on the Quest, because this film was so difficult to get a hold of. It also didn’t particularly amount to much either, which was a shame. Though I’ve also not gone back to rewatch this, so maybe it’s better than I remember.

Robert Preston is a traveling salesman who loses his job, which makes his home life all the worse. His wife won’t sleep with him, and she thinks he’s having an affair, his daughter is terrified of going out with boys — it’s a theatrical family drama based on a play by the guy who wrote a bunch of plays that spawned Oscar nominated films (Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba).

Shirley Knight plays the daughter. She spends a lot of the first half of the film not wanting to go out to the school dance. She’s an emotional teenager of the era. Then she goes and meets a nice Jewish boy and likes him, and that’s nice. Only the town hates Jews, so that causes problems.

She’s fine in the part. I’d call it more admirable than good. Don’t know if she needed to be nominated, but whatever. I remember thinking it was fine, not good enough to vote for but not bad enough to say, “This shouldn’t be here.” And since absolutely no one knows about this movie, I’ll wager not many people will have seen this and can wager an opinion on it.

Psycho is a film you know about. You don’t get into movies without having seen this one. It’s an all-timer.

Janet Leigh, as you’re aware, is the main character of this movie… for about thirty minutes. Her character arc is that she steals some money, hides out, and then takes a shower. And it works. She’s really strong in the role.

My ultimate question is going to be how much of the performance’s strength is in her actual work and how much of it is because of the direction and the nature of the role. I guess, the nice way of putting it is how… punctuated it is. The shock of what happens, specifically if you haven’t seen it before and don’t see it coming, is quite something. And her character is hugely important to the entire plot. So I’m curious how that’s all gonna shake out for me in the end.

Sons and Lovers is a film directed by great cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It’s a straight up oedipal drama.

Wendy Hiller is a mother who is overly protective of her son. Her husband is a coal worker who drinks his pay away and comes home violent. The son decides he needs to get out of there, so he goes off to live his life. He gets involved with Mary Ure, a sexually free married woman. Though she realizes that Stockwell really loves his mother and not her.

This is another performance I haven’t seen in a while, but I did think Ure was solid in the part. She was pretty charming and did a good job, but I never would vote for her. Even if I saw this again and loved the performance, I doubt she’d make it high enough to actually get the vote.

I do have a good story about her though. And since this was her only Oscar nomination, I’ll tell it here. Her most famous role is in Where Eagles Dare, opposite Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. Great war film. Love that movie. And she told this great story about being on the set, and how the two of them would make fun of her constantly. And one day they said, “Should we tell her?” And she goes,” Tell me what?” And Eastwood says, “We had a bet about who would sleep with you first.” And she says, innocently, “Who won?” And they fell on the floor laughing. Love that story.

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The Reconsideration: I wouldn’t take Knight, and I’m pretty sure 95% of all people wouldn’t either, mostly because 95% of all people haven’t seen or heard of her movie. Of the 5% who actually have seen it, I’d wager that at least 95% of them (meaning 95% of 5%) wouldn’t think about voting for her.

Then there’s Mary Ure. Solid, but I wouldn’t vote for her. I also haven’t seen the performance in a while, so I’d be a hypocrite if I suddenly took her out of nowhere without actually having seen it again. I’ll base it on my memory and say I wouldn’t vote for the performance even though it was good. (I also can’t say you shouldn’t vote for her, since it’s been so long. I honestly don’t know.)

Glynis Johns is awesome and a lot of fun, but I wager that if I actually watched her performance and Ure’s performance again, there’s a chance she might be fourth instead of third. As it is, she’s the performance you enjoy but don’t vote for. Doubt anyone would take her here.

It’s really between Leigh and Jones. I’m certain most people would go one way or the other with this one. My instinct just says, “Take Leigh. It’s fucking Psycho.” But I feel like so much of that is because of the nature of the role. I really liked Shirley Jones, and I think she’s actually the choice here, even though Leigh’s part is by far my favorite. Yeah… it’s Jones. I’m not gonna be swayed by the strength of the direction. It’s clearly Jones for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry
  2. Janet Leigh, Psycho
  3. Glynis Johns, The Sundowners
  4. Mary Ure, Sons and Lovers
  5. Shirley Knight, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

Rankings (films):

  1. Psycho
  2. The Sundowners
  3. Elmer Gantry
  4. Sons and Lovers
  5. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

My Vote: Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry

Recommendations:

If I need to tell you that Psycho is essential and that you needed to have seen it by now, you’re doing movies wrong.

The Sundowners is an essential movie. You may not believe me, but trust me. It is. It’s so awesome. That’s one of those movies I’d make people watch, knowing that the majority of them are going to love it. Trust me on this, this is a great, great movie.

Elmer Gantry is not essential, but it should be. It’s so good. Burt Lancaster won an Oscar for it and it’s just a really engaging film all around. Highly recommended, even if it’s only essential for Oscar buffs.

Sons and Lovers is a solid film, but not essential. It’s a classy drama that was nominated for some Oscars, but otherwise isn’t historically that important. See it because it’s solid, but you don’t need to. Even movie buffs can skip this and be fine. Oscar buffs would be smart to check this out.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs isn’t remotely essential, which is good, because there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to find and watch this movie. Maybe it’ll randomly be shown on TCM, but most people won’t even get the chance to see this. So, maybe that’s what makes it worth seeing. Otherwise, I didn’t particularly love it and don’t think you’re missing all that much.

The Last Word: It seems like Janet Leigh is the sentimental choice, but Shirley Jones is the best performance. This seems like an easy win for her based on overall effort, and a year where they made the right choice. Johns is solid, but window dressing, and Ure and Knight are both fine, but no one would take them. Jones is the choice here, and it’s fairly clear cut, despite the presence of a major fan favorite that might sway some rookie voters.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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