The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1953-1954)
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.
Leslie Caron, Lili
Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
Ava Gardner, Mogambo
Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity
Maggie McNamara, The Moon Is Blue
Lili is perhaps my absolute favorite film that I discovered on this Quest. I love it so much, and I can’t explain why. It’s not like it’s some all-time masterpiece (like others in this category). It’s just something that hit me in just the right spot and remains one of my favorite films because of it.
Leslie Caron is a peasant girl in France whose father dies and she is sent to go to a baker friend of his fathers. But when she arrives in his town, she discovers the baker has died. Having no place else to go and knowing no one else in the world, she follows some circus performers, who are in town performing after the magician did a magic trick for her. Eventually she ends up getting a job at the circus, talking to the puppets in the puppet show. This comes about because they discover she talks to the puppets as if they are real, seemingly unaware that someone is controlling them. It’s so endearing that it becomes a huge hit and they basically pay her to hang out with the puppets all day. Meanwhile, the man behind the puppets is a former dancer who broke his leg and has become jaded and bitter. And he, through his puppets, starts to fall in love with her.
I love this movie so, so much.
Leslie Caron is awesome in this movie, though even I’d admit that she stood no chance at this one. I’m shocked she got nominated. Happy, but shocked. For me, she rates third in the category. For most, fourth, if not fifth. I get it. But I love the film and her performance. Still wouldn’t take her, though.
Roman Holiday is one of the most perfect films ever made. Not a wasted second, and if I were stranded on a desert island, this is one of the films I’d take with me to watch.
Audrey Hepburn plays a princess on a tour of Europe. She’s upset because she’s cooped inside all day and unable to actually see the places she’s visiting. So, while in Rome, she fakes an illness and sneaks out on the town. She crosses paths with Gregory Peck, a reporter assigned to cover Hepburn’s visit. He tries to stay with her so he can get the exclusive story of her around town. Though, thing is… he falls in love with her, and pretty soon he wonders if he really does want to turn in the story after all.
I don’t throw around the word perfect lightly when it comes to film. And this is a perfect film.
Audrey Hepburn is utterly delightful in this film. She’s one of those actresses that you just love. Because the camera loves her, and she’s just so charming. And this, as her first real film (after some smaller roles in other movies the few years prior to this), she shines, and coasts to an Oscar. I don’t even hesitate to say that I take her. There’s no actress who jumps off the screen and into our hearts more than her in this category. Easy, easy win.
Mogambo is a remake of Red Dust from 1933. With Clark Gable playing the same role he did twenty years earlier. Which is amusing.
The film is about a singer played by Ava Gardner (basically a hooker with a heart of gold. Not a hooker, but, you know… a woman who gets around) who ends up stranded at an African camp site with Clark Gable, a big game hunter. He doesn’t take her seriously because she looks like a woman you don’t take seriously. She’s there to meet a prince or maharaja or something like that, and it looks like one of those deals. Meanwhile, Gable’s about to take Grace Kelly and her husband out on safari. And while there, Kelly and Gable start fucking. And then Gardner comes back, after her guy doesn’t show up, and becomes jealous of Kelly and the two pretty much start fighting over Gable.
Garnder is fine here. The idea is that it’s a character you think is one thing but then turns out to be more. “Oh, you mean she’s not gonna drop and fuck Gable at a moment’s notice?” And then you realize Grace Kelly, respectable wife, is that type of person. And Gardner is the one who gets Gable in the end and even gets him to curb his more… animal instincts.
She’s fine. I don’t love the performance. The film is a bit staid and the character is a bit two-dimensional. I look at this as her overcoming her material to deliver a fine performance. And something like that really only ends up as fourth or fifth in a category for me. And here, she rates fourth. She’s good, but no way she comes close to dethroning Audrey Hepburn.
From Here to Eternity is one of the great American classics.
A bunch of soldiers are stationed at Pearl Harbor before… you know, Pearl Harbor. So we watch their lives play out leading to the inevitable.
Deborah Kerr plays the wife of the commanding officer of the base. She’s the one all the men secretly whistle at when she walks onto the base, but know she’s off-limits. Meanwhile her husband ignores her and has affairs all the time. She secretly begins an affair with Burt Lancaster, her husband’s aide. The character has a backstory (she lost a baby and the ability to have children after her husband came home drunk from an affair and couldn’t get her to a doctor quick enough), but not a whole lot to do in the film.
She gets romantic scenes with Burt Lancaster, and that famous shot kissing him in the surf on the beach, but otherwise it’s the kind of role where she gets to be the bored housewife, have an affair, and then have it end sadly in the end. She’s good, and the fact that the film is so good and so memorable and that she’s Deborah Kerr puts her near the top of the category. Definitely wouldn’t take her over Audrey Hepburn, but she’s probably a second choice in the category. I personally like Leslie Caron’s performance more than this performance, but objectively I think Kerr is a second choice.
The Moon Is Blue is a film that was considered scandalous at the time because it had words like “sex” and “virgin” in it.
Maggie McNamara plays a virgin who meets a playboy on top of the Empire State Building and agrees to have drinks with him. At his place, she meets his ex-fiancée and her father. And pretty much most of the film is both men trying to have sex with her and doing whatever they can to pop her cherry. And she resists until eventually one of them breaks down and agrees to marry her first. It’s a dated movie, but I thought it was hilarious.
McNamara is enjoyable here. She’s made immediately likable and gets a lot of fun dialogue too. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and really didn’t necessarily need to be nominated. But she is. She ends up fifth, and it rates as a decent nomination for an enjoyable performance. If you want a great “first impression” performance, Audrey Hepburn is the one in this category, not McNamara.
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The Reconsideration: Audrey Hepburn runs away with this. It’s not even close.
I don’t know if McNamara even holds up as a nominee, but even so, I doubt anyone votes for her over Hepburn. Caron — I assume no one has really even seen the film or even likes the film. Highly doubt she’s anyone’s choice (though awesome if she is. I support that). Gardner — ehh. Maybe? But does anyone think there’s really a great performance there? And Kerr — you could maybe want to make the case for her from the outside in. But the performance isn’t really all there. She’s the only alternative, but I think Hepburn runs circles around her.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
- Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity
- Leslie Caron, Lili
- Ava Gardner, Mogambo
- Maggie McNamara, The Moon Is Blue
My Vote: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
Roman Holiday and From Here to Eternity are two of the 100 most essential American movies ever made. Roman Holiday especially. It’s perfect. But both must be seen by all film buffs.
Lili is one of my favorite Quest films. Top five. There are a handful that I love inordinately that I know not everyone else will even like. But this is wonderful and of course I recommend it very highly. Though be warned, not everyone will love this as I do. But it should be given a chance to be loved.
Mogambo is John Ford, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. Is that something I can interest you in? If not then you don’t need to see it. It’s good, but not good enough or essential enough to require anyone to see it. Deep queue/Netflix it if you’re interested.
The Moon Is Blue is an amusing comedy. Fun because of how frank the dialogue is for 1953. Doesn’t hold up now, as most “transgressive” films do from their eras. That’s like watching Midnight Cowboy now. It was rated X at the time! Now it’s a PG! But it’s fun. Essential if you’re really into film history and the tracking of the studio era and production code and things like that. Otherwise it’s just fun and a solid recommend.
The Last Word: Hepburn is the choice. No one would have held up as well as she has. Kerr would have been a decent second choice, but it would have felt a bit on the nose. Sentimentally, everyone would have said, “Yeah, she’s good, but Audrey…” McNamara would have been a horrible winner. Gardner would have been bad. And Caron would have been weak and probably hated/forgotten. It’s Audrey all the way. No one argues with this.
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Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession
Carmen Jones is a black version of Carmen. The opera. Starring Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen.
That’s really all the film is. It’s actually quite good.
Dandridge gets a chance to shine and does a terrific job with it. It’s unfortunate she didn’t get more of a chance to win this, but this is the year of the Garland vs. Kelly fiasco. Everyone else is an afterthought in this category.
Dandridge is superb, though, and is a force of nature in this film. She rates as high as third for me, and any other year, she might be second or first. But, this year is this year. Sucks, because she is great.
A Star Is Born is the remake of the 1937 film, but three hours long and with music. So it’s basically the My Fair Lady to Pygmalion.
Simple story: girl comes from the midwest to make it in show business. She meets an alcoholic, fading movie star. Her stock goes up, his goes down as they fall in love.
Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. It’s a tour de force. Her not winning this is thought of as one of the greatest Oscar injustices of all time. I haven’t seen this performance in five years, and every time I discuss this category on here, I go back and watch the two performances in question. So this will be a different entry than most, as I’ll reserve all discussion of the performances until the voting section down below.
For now, of course she rates top two in the category and is clearly good enough to vote for. This much is a given.
Sabrina is Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn, with William Holden and Humphrey Bogart thrown in for good measure.
Hepburn plays a chauffeur’s daughter who grows up living next door to a rich family who owns a giant business. She’s been in love with William Holden for years. He’s the irresponsible playboy brother while Bogart is the steady brother who actually goes to work. Holden has never really noticed that Hepburn exists, which makes her try to kill herself one night. After this, it’s decided that she should go off to Paris for a while. There, she becomes cultured and breaks out of her shell. She returns a different person. Now, Holden notices her, and barely even recognizes her. Though, as her prepares to make her a “conquest,” Bogart realizes that this would thwart his impending marriage to another businessman’s daughter, which would screw up a merger for the two companies. So he takes it upon himself to try to woo Hepburn himself. It’s great. It’s just a fantastic movie all around.
Just try not to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn in this movie (or any of her movies, really). The scene of her singing “La Vie en Rose” in the car to Humphrey Bogart — my god.
On pure performance, she’s probably fourth in the category. But in, “Oh my god I love her so much I want to vote for her in everything” — she might make third. Still, not gonna beat the main two in this category.
The Country Girl is one of the great dramas of the 50s.
William Holden is a brilliant playwright who wants to cast Bing Crosby in his new play. Crosby is a great actor, but is someone no one wants to work with because he’s a washed up drunk. Holden fights for Crosby to be in the play. Pretty soon, he meets Crosby’s wife, Grace Kelly. Holden begins to think she’s the reason Crosby’s got no confidence. He immediately takes a disliking to her. And the film goes from there. I won’t spoil it, but the performances are top notch all around.
I don’t think anyone would say that Kelly gives a bad performance in this movie. The most you can say is, “I wouldn’t vote for her over Judy Garland.” Which is acceptable. At worst she’s a number two in the category. Maybe number three if you like Dandridge that much. Which I can definitely see being the case. Either way, I’ll watch this film and A Star Is Born again and discuss the pair down below. She’s gonna rate top two for me. That’s for sure either way.
Magnificent Obsession is a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Once he started making them in color, he really hit his stride. After being a serviceable filmmaker who delivered amusing comedies and some interesting thrillers, these films became the ones he was best known for, and some of the most enduring melodramas of all time.
This is based on a novel that was made once before, in 1935 (kind of like how Imitation of Life was made once before in the 30s as well). It’s about a playboy who one day crashes his speedboat while being drunk and reckless. They rush over a rescue team with a defibrillator to revive him. Only problem, that’s the only one in the town. So when the beloved town doctor has a heart attack and dies, there’s nothing to resuscitate him. He then ends up being treated at the doctor’s clinic, where everyone knows what happened and hates him for it.
He then meets the doctor’s widow, Jane Wyman. He tries to do the right thing (while falling in love with her), but it doesn’t go well and pretty soon there’s an accident and she goes blind. So he dedicates himself to becoming a doctor just so he can cure her blindness.
It’s pure melodrama, and it’s fucking wonderful.
Wyman is great here. She’s lovely in all these movies. This, All That Heaven Allows. She’s lovely. But unfortunately, in this strong category, she rates fifth. In another year, she might be third. But here she doesn’t even contend. Which shows you how strong the rest of the category is and how strong the top two contenders are.
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The Reconsideration: Wyman, Hepburn, Dandridge — all great. But this is a category that’s always been between Grace Kelly and Judy Garland. And that’s what we’re gonna talk about.
Last time I discussed this, it was basically a dead heat. And I used as my tiebreaker Grace Kelly having not just The Country Girl come out in 1954, but also Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Green Fire (which is the only one there I haven’t seen). Now, none of those performances are particularly standout, and it’s not like when Kate Winslet had Revolutionary Road and The Reader in the same year. But, I will say… that is impressive, everything else aside. Now, as for the performances…
Kelly is pretty subdued for the first 3/4 of the film. All of her performance is subtext and revealed by the dialogue and the other characters. She’s also very much a supporting role for the first hour or so of the film. Then when she turns it on, it feels like a lot of the performance hinges on the men in the movie. What Crosby does to her and what Holden says about her. It’s solid, but at times it doesn’t feel like an Oscar winning caliber performance. I’m not sure if this wins if it’s not Grace Kelly.
These are the drawbacks, by the way. I feel its best to start here and finish with the positives.
Garland on the other hand, starts off slowly. The first half hour, she’s overcome by the unwieldy nature of the film and the focus being on James Mason’s character. The same happens in the last part of the picture too. They keep going back to Mason and almost overlooking Garland. Dramatically, there’s not a whole lot for her to do either, despite the three hour run time. The run time is actually a hinderance to the performance. Were it more concentrated, I don’t know if she would have lost this.
Now, for the positives —
Kelly manages to really make her character feel real. She’s grounded, responds in a natural way and never resorts to crazy histrionics or big “acting” monologues. Her performance is the best one in the film and so much of the performance has to be based on what the others are doing, since the crux of the character is one who takes all the abuse she suffers. So I get it. She’s great here, and on top of it all has a bunch of other high profile performances from this year.
Garland, on the other hand, despite the slow starts, once she starts belting out “The Man That Got Away,” that’s where the performance soars. That’s the thing with this performance. The key is the strength with which she’s belting out these numbers. She’s singing with a vengeance here. You don’t hear this kind of force in her other movies. There’s feeling behind those words. And the scene in the car, where she lays out all the backstory of the character that we didn’t see — that’s so well done that if they did shoot those scenes, they were rendered pointless. That monologue is so well delivered it could have cut out twenty minutes of film were they ever shot. There are moments of brilliance here.
The reason this category goes the way it usually does is because Garland is such a powerful, showy role that makes you go, “Holy shit.” And Kelly is quiet and subdued and requires you to pay attention to how good the performance is in order to fully appreciate it. People automatically assume Garland should have won. It’s a lot closer than people would think based on how it’s talked about.
After all that, I think I’m finally ready to come around on Judy Garland. This time, having watched the performances again — I was really impressed by not only Garland’s singing but also some of the dramatic work. It’s not perfect, and would be better served if it were more focused and less sprawling as a film, but this is a tour de force. Kelly is great too and might be the choice in five years, but this time, it’s Garland.
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- Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
- Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
- Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
- Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
- Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession
- The Country Girl
- Magnificent Obsession
- A Star Is Born
- Carmen Jones
My Vote: Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
Sabrina is an essential film. Billy Wilder, Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden. Any real movie buff would sprint to see this one.
The Country Girl is a really great film. Holden, Kelly, Crosby. Great stuff here. Highly recommended and essential if you want to talk this category (and most Oscar buffs definitely do want to talk this category).
A Star Is Born is essential. One of the versions. I think it’s the ’37 version, but this one is good too. At worst it’s a high recommend and essential for Oscar buffs, because this is one of those key categories that Oscar buffs talk about.
Magnificent Obsession is very highly recommended and near-essential. The Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 50s are all essential in their own way. Let’s just call it essential for film buffs because they’re great and people should see them.
Carmen Jones is a solid recommend. A really great retelling of Carmen and Dorothy Dandridge absolutely killing it. Otto Preminger too.
The Last Word: To start, it’s only Garland and Kelly here. No one would would have been a good decision, despite the great films and performances. That said, it’s a fine decision. Garland probably gives the best performance, but here’s the thing — is she a better winner than Grace Kelly? I think both hold up fine. Garland has the more well known performance, but that’s only because the film is well known and because everyone always says how she should have won for it. Ultimately, I think both were good decisions and neither is particularly better than the other, in all. Garland’s performance is probably slightly better (though it’s actually like comparing night and day, the two performances), but Kelly had a better overall body of work (I feel) and multiple performances this year and a win-worthy performance in Supporting the year before this. So I think both are fine and the choice was okay.
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