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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1951-1952)

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.

1951

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

Analysis:

The African Queen is one of the great classic films of all time.

Katharine Hepburn lives in Africa with her brother, a missionary trying to bring Christianity to the Africans. This is on the eve of World War II. The Germans show up and burn down the village. This causes her brother to slip into a fever and die. Enter Humphrey Bogart, the drunk river captain who delivers the mail. He shows up and takes her up river, away from the Germans. And much of the first half of the film is them getting to know one another. And the second half is them deciding to stick it to the Germans by turning his boat, (insert title here) into a torpedo that can sink a gunboat on the river.

The film is great. And Hepburn is terrific in it. This is a comeback of sorts for her, having not been nominated (or relevant, really) in a decade. She had a minor comeback in Adam’s Rib and completed it with this. She’s wonderful in this film, and in a different year, she might be the choice. But this is 1951…

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the great films of all time. The epitome of a classic.

Based on Tennessee Williams. Everyone knows this movie and what it’s about.

Vivien Leigh plays Blanche Dubois. It’s one of the great performances in the history of cinema.

Detective Story is one of my favorite films of this era.

It’s a simple noir of sorts. It takes place in a single police precinct over the course of one day. And we see criminals and cops go in and out, and storylines drift in and out. It’s wonderful.

The main story of sorts if Kirk Douglas as a detective who wants to catch this one criminal who has eluded him for years. He’s a doctor who has performed illegal abortions and is now wanted on a murder charge after one of his clients died.

Eleanor Parker plays Douglas’s wife, who secretly had an abortion by the doctor and is keeping it secret from her husband. So she has to hide this horrible thing, which is now weighing on her mind in more ways than one. She’s good in the film but she plays it a bit too much for my tastes. Her storyline veers the film into melodrama territory rather than noir/drama territory. She’s good (though borderline supporting, from what I remember), but stands absolutely no chance in this category. At least three other choices over her.

A Place in the Sun is another film that epitomizes the Golden Age Hollywood classic.

Montgomery Clift is a man trying to make it in the world. He comes from modest roots and wants to be upper class. He’s dating Shelley Winters, a fellow employee in the factory where he works. But pretty soon, he catches the attention of the factory owner’s socialite daughter, Elizabeth Taylor. So pretty soon, he’s quite literally torn between both sides, all of which is made much more complicated when Winters becomes pregnant just as Clift is about to leave her…

Shelley Winters is an actress who made a career playing vulgar women. She’s usually the brash gun moll in the noirs. But here, she gets a real, three-dimensional character to work with. And she really knocks it out of the park, showing her true range as an actress and giving a performance that, in any other year (and I mean just about any other year) would win this category. It’s a shame that she came up against Vivien Leigh in Streetcar, because I’d love to make a case for her. But I can’t. At best I can say why she’s a very solid number two. But shit, is she great in this and would be deserving in any other year.

The Blue Veil is a film that probably would have done a lot better at the Oscars ten years before this.

Jane Wyman plays a woman who loses a child and her husband. She’s rendered unable to have any children of her own. So she takes a job as a nanny for a single father who lost his wife in childbirth. She cares for his children as if they were her own. And we follow her as she moves from family to family over the years, leaving an indelible mark on all the children she cares for. She’s the Mr. Chips of nannies. That’s what it is. It’s a good film. I like it better than its reputation (and lack of awareness) might suggest.

Wyman is good here. It’s a sentimental kind of performance. Not something that makes a lot of headway in the 50s. In the 40s, she might do okay. But here she ends up fifth. I could make a case for her as fourth over Parker, but it wouldn’t really matter in the end, since no one but Vivien Leigh has a shot in this one.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Vieien Leigh. She delivers a powerhouse that holds up even today. All her, no one else has a chance. As open and shut as her previous win.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
  2. Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun
  3. Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen
  4. Eleanor Parker, Detective Story
  5. Jane Wyman, The Blue Veil

Rankings (films):

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire
  2. The African Queen
  3. A Place in the Sun
  4. Detective Story
  5. The Blue Veil

My Vote: Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire

Recommendations:

A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen and A Place in the Sun are all essential films. Streetcar is top 100 of all time essential. African Queen is the kind of film you see if you love movies. No self-respecting film buff would skip this one. And A Place in the Sun is top 200 essential. Everyone needs to see it because it’s a bonafide American classic.

Detective Story is not essential but is very, very good. I recommend it highly, and would put this on a list of 50s films you need to see. Or just a list of films you need to see. This would be on my essentials list after you get through the obvious essentials. It’s really good and people should see this.

The Blue Veil is not essential, but very good. A solid recommend. Catch it if you have the chance. Good stuff here.

The Last Word: Vivien Leigh is the only choice, and it’s one of the top five choices of all time. Shelley Winters was also deserving, but Leigh was the right choice.

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1952

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

Analysis:

Come Back, Little Sheba is Shirley Booth’s first film. Legitimate first film. She was a respected stage actress for years and came over and did this. And earned an Oscar for it.

She plays wife to Burt Lancaster, a recovering alcoholic. He was in med school and dating her until she got pregnant and he had to drop out in order to raise money to support the family. He was a drunk for years and has finally gotten sober. And now, to pad their income, they rent out one of the rooms of their house to a college student, who is really attractive and who Lancaster starts to develop a crush on…

Booth plays a woman who has pretty much nothing left. She and Lancaster were happy, and then she got pregnant, was thrown out of the house by her father, forced into marriage to save face and then later lost the child anyway. So now her husband doesn’t love her and she has nothing else to do except sit around and listen to the radio plays all day and living in the past.

This is the type of performance — the role isn’t a whole lot. That is, she doesn’t have much to do in terms of an arc. But there’s a character there she gets to develop and turn into a really great performance. It’s based on a play, so she gives a performance that a stage actress would give. She’s fantastic in the film. I’m not sure I love the performance, but I can see why it would be the vote, especially in a category like this with two “blanks” as nominees and one on-the-nose nominee. She rates top two very easily.

Sudden Fear is Joan Crawford doing the noir thing again.

She plays a famous playwright who meets Jack Palance, an actor she turned down for her new play. He romances her and they marry. But pretty soon she starts to realize that he’s actually trying to kill her…

It’s fine. Very much the “B” movie version of Suspicion. Whereas there she lost her shit wondering if her husband was actually trying to kill her, here he’s actually trying to kill her and it’s about her figuring it out and trying to turn the tables on him.

She’s fine here. I consider it a weak nomination and something that felt designed to be such. She rates fourth just because Bette Davis’s performance I don’t like at all, but she’d be a #5 almost any other year. Not for me.

The Star is Bette Davis in self-aware phase.

You could say All About Eve was the same thing, but this is one deliberately tailored for her (she wasn’t the first choice for All About Eve. Claudette Colbert was).

She plays a washed up actress who refuses accept reality. She thinks she can still play the star, and clings to that despite all evidence to the contrary. And we see her get her life together and face reality… and coincidentally, rather than compromise and become a supporting actress, take a part about a fading actress who can’t accept that her glory days are behind her. Very Bette Davis.

The film is not particularly great. And she’s… I guess meta in it. But I don’t think she’s very good in it at all. One of her weakest nominations for sure. I think she was still riding the wave of All About Eve resurgence and got pushed through because she’s Bette Davis. That happens a bunch with nominees. She stands zero chance here for me and for just about anyone else, I’d imagine.

The Member of the Wedding is a film that I fell in love with almost immediately upon watching it. There’s something about the Carson McCullers adaptations that I really like.

Julie Harris (27) plays, in her first film, a 12-year-old tomboy whose brother is getting married. And she loves her brother. And his fiancée. She wants to be with them. She wants their lives. She’s an awkward kid. She doesn’t fit in with the other kids, and is the center of the universe in her mind. She figures, “Well, my brother and his fiancée like hanging out with me, so they’ll take me on their honeymoon.” And the film is pretty much about her learning to grow up. That period when you go from being a kid who believe anything is possible to an adult who knows life is full of limitations.

Julie Harris is incredible in this movie. Not something you’d think would be the choice in a category like this, but when you see it, you will understand why I think she contends. She is so good here, and so captivating. You believe she’s a 12-year-old girl. If you didn’t know better, you’d figure she was 18 playing 12. She’s 27. I watched this and believed her. You can’t ignore something like that.

With a Song in My Heart is quintessential 50s Oscar bait.

Susan Hayward plays a (real) woman who was a singer who made a name for herself on the radio in the 30s. Though, on one of her tours, she gets into a plane crash and is left crippled. And the rest of the film is her fighting to keep her leg and walk again… and perform for the troops, who so desperately need the morale boost.

It’s an “Oscar” performance all the way. Classy, well done, and all around solid. But it’s not the kind of performance that most people watch and go, “I wanna vote for that.” You see it and go, “Yeah, that’s solid. I get the nomination.” And that’s about it. She rates probably third here for me. Solid, but no vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s always gonna be Julie Harris for me. I won’t pretend like I’m gonna take anyone else. It’s rare to actually believe a performance. You know another performance I believed? Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. This isn’t on that level, but in its own way, I fully believed I was watching a 12-year-old girl. With Shirley Booth, I was watching an actress deliver a great performance. So no matter how good she was in her film, she’ll always be second choice for me in this category. This is Julie Harris for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding
  2. Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba
  3. Susan Hayward, With a Song in My Heart
  4. Joan Crawford, Sudden Fear
  5. Bette Davis, The Star

My Vote: Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding

Recommendations:

The Member of the Wedding is a great film that I love. High recommend from me, though not essential at all. But I do really recommend these Carson McCullers movies. They’re all terrific. (The other two are Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.) Definitely the movie in this category I’d recommend people check out.

Come Back, Little Sheba is a good movie with great performances. Only essential for Oscar buffs, and just a solid recommend for everyone else.

With a Song in My Heart is a standard Oscar biopic. Not great, not terrible. Worth a watch, but not essential. TCM watch.

Sudden Fear is fine. A noir. Interesting set up, decent film. Catch it if it’s on TCM. Not essential at all.

The Star is fair. Not a film I love. Not something I really recommend. See it, don’t see it. You decide if you think you’ll like it.

The Last Word: Shirley Booth is a decent winner. The category isn’t particularly memorable, so it’s not like there was a truly “bad” choice. Though Bette Davis would have been weak considering the film and that she didn’t win for much better performances over the past 15 years. Crawford also would have been a weak winner for a performance that didn’t even need to be nominated. Hayward would have been a generic winner. Would have fit okay for the year, but not held up great historically, especially considering her next two nominations. Booth and Harris were the two best choices. And all things considered, they’d have held up about even. I think Harris was a much better choice, but they’re about equal in terms of how they’d have held up.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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