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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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

Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow

Katharine Hepburn, Summertime

Jennifer Jones, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo

Eleanor Parker, Interrupted Melody

Analysis:

I’ll Cry Tomorrow is a biopic of someone no one has heard of. One of two in this category. But those also tend to be good ones, because you can get immersed in the story.

Susan Hawyard plays an actress who is pushed into show business by her overbearing stage mother. Her mother controls everything about her life. She overworks her and basically tries to sabotage her relationship with a man (since she herself gave up show business to get married and have her daughter. So how all her hopes and dreams are being lived out through her daughter). After the man dies, Hayward becomes an alcoholic. And that derails her career, until eventually she gets sober and is finally able to stand up to her mother.

Hayward is phenomenal here. Watching this, I can’t help but wonder how she didn’t win. This is everything you’d want out of a role and a performance. (Maybe it’s the almost TV movie aspect of the plot?) She gets to sing, she gets to act dramatic, and she gets to play a pitiful drunk. And she gets redemption. Of all her performances, this is the one I can’t believe she didn’t win for.

Summertime is a great little romance by David Lean. It’s no Brief Encounter, but it’s still pretty good.

Katharine Hepburn, firmly in her spinster period, plays a schoolteacher on vacation in Venice. We watch her meeting other Americans there and enjoying herself, and she also meets and has a romance with an Italian man. It’s a good film and looks great.

Hepburn’s performance — fine. Perfectly fine. Not one of her best performances. She’s in that Meryl Streep territory, where you almost have to rate the performance against her others, because they’re all great. But not all of them are ones you take. This is one of the ones I don’t take.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a movie that I didn’t much care for five years ago, and in all honestly, haven’t gone back to watch because I already know there’s no way I’d ever vote for Jennifer Jones in it.

It’s a movie about an American journalist who falls in love with a Eurasian doctor during the Chinese Civil War. It’s big, it’s romantic, they have obstacles, and someone dies. Standard romantic war tragedy.

Jennifer Jones plays the Eurasian doctor. It’s slightly better that she plays mixed race, and is part non-Asian, but she’s still playing Asian. And she’s not Asian. Any time I think about giving her the benefit of the doubt here, I look at this image:

That’s not okay. I just can’t vote for whites playing Asians. can’t do it. I’m sure she’s great in this. Not gonna take her.

The Rose Tattoo is a Tennessee Williams play turned into a fair, but not great, film.

Anna Magnani plays a seamstress who discovers her husband is having an affair the same night he is killed in an accident. This drives her to become a recluse. The film picks up three years later as her daughter is about to graduate high school. And we see her continuing to hide from society, but gradually being coerced back out by Burt Lancaster, a charming truck driver. It’s an interesting film.

Magnani is very good here. She’d probably be a #3 most years. Here she’s easily top two. She’s one of those actresses who generally gives the same kind of performance. And I’d wager she’s better in her native Italian movies. This was her first English-speaking performance. Seems like they jumped at the chance to give her an Oscar.

She’s great here, and it’s definitely a memorable performance, but I don’t think I take her over Susan Hayward. I can see doing so though.

Interrupted Melody is another one of those pure Oscar bait biopic musicals. I constantly confuse it with the Susan Hayward one, With a Song in My Heart.

Eleanor Parker plays an opera singer who has to fight polio. So you get the standard progression — she gets famous, meets a guy, falls in love. Then, boom, illness. And the rest is her having to fight back from it and regain the will to fight. You know all the beats to this one before you even see it.

The film is okay, the performance is okay. That’s pretty much it. I remember watching and going, “Oh, she is doing a good job,” but that was all couched in, “This is so on the nose.” I’ll give her fourth here, but I wouldn’t even think about considering her over at least three of the other nominees.

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The Reconsideration: This category is pretty roundly between Susan Hayward and Anna Magnani. Jones won already and is never gonna get my vote because she’s playing Asian. Parker is too on-the-nose and too middle of the road to take. She was better the previous two years. Diminishing returns and more conventional films. Hepburn is really good, but the movie feels too light and too inconsequential among her performances to really take.

Magnani and Hayward are the two performances you watch and go, “Those are the ones.” Either is a good choice. I take Hayward. But I’ll admit, it’s closer than I wanted it to be. Magnani comes real close. I think her material, her performance and everything just feels too — I don’t know… off. But she’s really good. Hayward has everything I want in an Oscar winning performance, plus by this point she’s overdue (and this loss would probably be why she won 1958). She’s the vote for me.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow
  2. Anna Magnani, The Rose Tattoo
  3. Katharine Hepburn, Summertime
  4. Eleanor Parker, Interrupted Melody
  5. Jennifer Jones, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Rankings (films):

  1. I’ll Cry Tomorrow
  2. The Rose Tattoo
  3. Summertime
  4. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
  5. Interrupted Melody

My Vote: Susan Hayward, I’ll Cry Tomorrow

Recommendations:

Summertime is a fun little fairy tale of a movie. David Lean, Katharine Hepburn, shot on location. Good stuff. I recommend it highly. Don’t rush out, but throw it in the queue and get to it when you can.

I’ll Cry Tomorrow is a good film. I like it a lot. Solid recommend. Not essential, and worth it mostly for the Hayward performance and (for my money) the subject matter. I like films that deal frankly (as much as can be, given the era) with issues like alcoholism. I definitely recommend you check it out.

The Rose Tattoo is not essential unless: 1) you’re into the Oscars, 2) you’re into Tennessee Williams, 3) you really love Anna Magnani/Burt Lancaster, 4) you love Tennessee Williams. Otherwise, it’s just a pretty good film that’s a TCM watch. But Tennessee Williams movies are usually watchable. So that’s worth it alone.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is an essential song (which you’ve heard if you’ve seen the movie Grease. That’s the first song that plays in the picture), but not a particularly essential movie. It’s good, but not essential and not overly great. Catch it if it’s on TCM. It’s enjoyable.

Interrupted Melody is what obvious Oscar bait from 1955 looks like. It’s decent. Light recommend, but nothing more than that. Catch it if it’s on TCM after the film you’re there for. Don’t go out of your way, but if you happen into it, go for it.

The Last Word: This isn’t a category that’s so good or memorable that you can really have a problem with it. Plus it’s basically a half historical blank. Parker is forgettable as a nominee. Jones won and plays Asian, which would have been a horrible choice. Hepburn is who she is an in a good film, but the performance wouldn’t have held up. Plus she’d win three times later. Hayward would get her Oscar three years after this. Magnani is good but in a mostly forgotten movie. None of these movies are particularly remembered. So, as long as we agree it’s probably a Magnani/Hayward choice, either one is a fine winner. I would have preferred Hayward win here instead of 1958, but either way. They made one of the only two decent choices they could have made.

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1956

Carroll Baker, Baby Doll

Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia

Katharine Hepburn, The Rainmaker

Nancy Kelly, The Bad Seed

Deborah Kerr, The King and I

Analysis:

Baby Doll is basically a play on screen, but when Elia Kazan directs it and you get your method actors in there, it doesn’t matter. (See: Streetcar.)

Carroll Baker plays “Baby Doll,” a naive 19 year old girl who still acts like a child. Her daddy was rich and before he died, married her off to Karl Malden, an icky older man who has a nice business, but no wife. She doesn’t put up a fight, but does have him make a deal that he will not touch her or have sex with her until her 20th birthday. It’s been difficult for him to keep this up, and he’s constantly spying on her like a pervert. Now, her 20th birthday is coming and she’s running out of excuses to avoid him. Meanwhile, he’s locked in a rivalry with Eli Wallach, who is younger and has a better company than he does that’s stealing all his clients. And it’s a battle of wits between the men. Wallach steals Malden’s business, Malden burns Wallach’s mill down. So now, Wallach wants to get Malden back where it hurts — by deflowering his wife.

I really liked the movie. I think because of the actors. They were all fantastic. It’s basically a four hander. Baker, Malden, Wallach and Mildred Dunnock, who plays the senile housekeeper (kinda like Cloris Leachman in Bad Santa).

Baker is tremendous here. She’s not necessarily playing a kid, but she’s playing childish. And there’s something about this character that fascinates me. I loved her performance. And while it might not seem from the outset that she’s great, she really is. It’s one of those performances that you have to watch in order to appreciate. You can’t just see it on paper and get why she’s so good. She’s top two here for me for sure. The only question is whether or not I take her. She’s the benchmark for me in this one.

Anastasia — I’ve always called this one of the worst Best Actress wins of all time. Given the category, given the film, everything.That statement came from an imperfect understanding of all the materials. But I still stand by it.

Before we begin — yes, the Disney movie. (It’s not Disney, by the way. It’s Fox.)

Ingrid Bergman is a woman who washes ashore in Paris. She doesn’t remember who she is, but seems to have a weird knowledge of the murdered Russian royal family (you know, Czar Nicholas II. The dude who was murdered with his family as they had their portrait taken during the Russian Revolution). Plus she fits the (implausible) description of what Nicholas’s murdered daughter Anastasia would look like at this age. (It was long held that Anastasia managed to get away, Inglourious Basterds style, and was out there somewhere. Romantic shit. Kinda like how Lenny held onto those rabbits.)

Yul Brynner doesn’t really care if she is or isn’t Anastasia, he sees money. He’s gonna Pygmalion that shit and convince the rest of the family that this is her and get a shit load of money for finding her. And over the course of the film, Bergman really starts to seem like she really is the girl. Though a lot of it is probably just both sides looking for a sense of family and wanting to believe it.

The movie always felt a bit — ho hum. I felt that way about Brothers Karamazov too. Maybe I’m just not interested in Russia being portrayed on film during the studio era. (See: War and Peace, War and Peace. They can be tedious at times.)

But anyway — Bergman. I… she’s always a certain level of good, but I see nothing here to really warrant her winning. I am fascinated at this, because I have no idea how she managed to win in a category so stacked. This is honestly one of the few times where, just at the jump, I am considering the winning performance for fifth on my list. I just don’t see this one at all, and there’s really only a handful of times throughout Oscar history where I’m this baffled by what voters saw in the performance. (It could just be a love of Ingrid Bergman. That wouldn’t be a bizarre notion — see Best Supporting Actress 1974.)

The Rainmaker is a film that I fell hard in love with. There were really only a handful of them from the Quest. There are tiers of it. There are some movies I knew I’d like and then I loved them and it was like, sure. That was probable. Then there are the ones where you sort of know them, but not really (“Yeah, I’ve heard of this, but don’t know much about it.” No expectations for it or what I’d think about it), and then you love them and it’s like, “Wow, was not expecting that, great.” And then there are the ones where you have no idea what they are and basically came out of a hat. This was one of those. Lili was another. For me it’s just, “Okay, so here’s that Katharine Hepburn nomination from 1956.” And then you watch it and you’re like, “Okay, Burt Lancaster, cool cool.” And then by the end you’re like, “This is one of my all-time favorite movies.”

Burt Lancaster plays a charismatic man named Starbuck who goes around scamming people. The traveling salesman. “Buy this tonic, your hair will grow back.” And it’s just liquor and shoe polish or whatever. But he talks a great game. And he happens upon this small town that hasn’t gotten rain in a long time. And he promises them he can bring them rain. So they tell him if he can, he’ll get paid a handsome amount of money. This is by the town sheriff. So he goes about his business, and we follow him as he meets the sheriff and his family, specifically his daughter. That’s where Hepburn comes in.

This isn’t about Lancaster conning a town. This is about him and Katharine Hepburn, as two lonely souls. She’s a spinster who’s just went away and returned, and is smart and educated and not interested in any of the men this two-bit town has to offer. So the family is convinced she’s gonna end up alone. And Lancaster shows up, and finally — here’s a guy. She starts to fall for him pretty hard.

The beautiful thing about this movie is that the drought/rain thing isn’t just about the town. It’s about these two people. It’s this beautiful meditation on loneliness, and the scenes with Hepburn and Lancaster are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Katharine Hepburn had a bunch of nominations in the Best Actress category. She had her win in 1932, and then had eight losing nominations before she won 35 years later. Of those eight nominations, this is my favorite. This is the one I think is best, and this is one I would immediately vote for. Alice Adams was one of those. I’d consider The African Queen, but wouldn’t vote for it because of the competition. Philadelphia Story — ehh. Woman of the Year, no. Summertime, no. Suddenly Last Summer and Long Day’s Journey are still to come, and those will be interesting. But I wouldn’t immediately take those.

This category for me is between her and Carroll Baker, and it’s pretty much just which one I take over the other.

The Bad Seed is an awesome movie. Somewhat campy now, because it’s 1956, but man, did I love this.

You’ve seen this plot a lot in horror movies since then. But this movie does it so well because they just didn’t make movies like this in the 50s.

It’s about a little girl who is seemingly perfect. She’s sweet, smart, and makes a great impression. Almost too perfect. And of course behind the scenes, she’s pretty awful. But not like the spoiled rich girl way. Where she eats up the sweets before dessert and blames it on someone else and gets away with it. Like, she fucking murders a kid and pretends like, “Oh, I have no idea what happened.”

That’s the movie. This girl is this fucked up sociopath and convinces everyone that she’s this little angel. Some kid has a medal or something and she wants it. And he refuses to give it to her. And later on, on a field trip, the kid drowns. And she comes back, seemingly unfazed by the death, even though everyone in town is shaken up. And we start to see more and more over the course of the day all these fucked up tendencies and anger that she has. (She sets a dude on fire at one point!) And it’s played more for drama than horror, because it’s 1956, and that’s what makes it so great for me. It’s not beat for beat a shitty horror movie where they talk about her and she’s creepily standing there in the hallway, listening. I hate that.

Anyway, Nancy Kelly plays the girl’s mother. Mostly she’s the one who knows the truth about her daughter and is concerned about all these signs throughout. Until eventually it builds up and she has to admit what she knows that everyone else doesn’t.

It’s fine. She’s good here. Not the best performance, and probably something that didn’t need to be nominated/normally wouldn’t. But I like her in it. Probably fourth in the category. Maybe fifth. Not at all close to a vote. But amusing, nonetheless.

The King and I is pretty famous. Whether you know it as the musical or not.

English schoolteacher shows up in Siam (Thailand) to teach the King’s children. Of which there are many. She has much different viewpoints than he does, and they quarrel a bunch, even though they come to an understanding and respect of one another. Deborah Kerr plays the teacher.

I mean — the film is good. They literally stop it for this crazy twenty minute dance sequence that only exists to look great and not further the plot in any way. That’s amusing. But Kerr is just good here. It’s a musical, and she has a fair musical performance. Mostly she stands around in these beautiful tableau’s Walter Lang sets up and says her lines. I’ll accept the nomination. No way I take her. Bottom three in the category. Not sure how I rank ultimately, but she’s not even close to a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a year I’ve always considered one of the biggest travesties of all time. Now that I’ve had five years to reconsider it, I’m curious to see how things have changed.

To start — Nancy Kelly is not gonna get my vote. She might not be #5 in the category, but she’s not getting my vote. And ditto Deborah Kerr. I’d probably rank the Kerr performance fifth and the Kelly performance fourth but take her over Kelly, if that makes sense. And then there’s Ingrid Bergman, who without much effort manages to make third for me. Which is funny. I guess that means I can’t be as hard on the performance as I usually am/was. I’ll admit there are flashes of greatness in this performance. But it just feels too slight overall to take. I don’t know. I still think it’s not a great win, just because the competition from the remaining two is so strong, plus she had an Oscar and Deborah Kerr did not. If you’ll give an Oscar to Julie Andrews for a musical, why not Deborah Kerr? Just saying. But anyway, I wouldn’t take Bergman.

So here we are again, with Baker and Hepburn. I love The Rainmaker. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. Watching the performance again, it’s very much in the vein of Summertime. Somewhat theatrical and not of any particular dramatic heft. She’s great in it, and my love for it would still take her over the top, but if we’re being perfectly honest, the best performance in the category is Carroll Baker. So, all things considered, I’ll take her. I almost did (and would) take Hepburn, but let’s err on the side of the best performance.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Carroll Baker, Baby Doll
  2. Katharine Hepburn, The Rainmaker
  3. Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia
  4. Nancy Kelly, The Bad Seed
  5. Deborah Kerr, The King and I

Rankings (films):

  1. The Rainmaker
  2. The Bad Seed
  3. The King and I
  4. Baby Doll
  5. Anastasia

My Vote: Carroll Baker, Baby Doll

Recommendations:

The King and I is probably an essential film. So let’s consider it essential. Plus, it won an Oscar, is one of the famous musicals of all time — just see it. It’s really good.

The Rainmaker is a film that I love so, so much. I recommend it very highly, even though it’s not for everyone. I just love it so much I have to recommend it through the roof to get people to see it. It’s not essential, but Lancaster and Hepburn alone make it of interest for a lot of people. Give it a shot. You might fall in love with it like I did.

The Bad Seed is an awesome movie. Real high recommend here. Love this one. Not for everyone. Some people will hate it and think it’s campy as shit, but still, it’s definitely worth seeing. Great stuff.

Anastasia is only essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise, it’s just okay. I don’t love it, but it’s good. TCM watch. I say people see it just so we can talk about this category. But then you’d have to see the rest too. Which is fine. Since they’re all good films.

Baby Doll is great, but not essential. Elia Kazan, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker and Mildred Dunnock. That should appeal to most people. Also Tennessee Williams. So if you like Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you’ll enjoy this. Somewhere between a solid an a high recommend for me.

The Last Word: Interesting category. At a second glance, this isn’t as bad a decision as I used to think. In full context. Kelly doesn’t hold up at all, Kerr looks fine from an actress standpoint, but the performance would be a weak winner that looked somewhat stronger because of how famous the film is. Hepburn — not sure this performance would have held up, even though she generally would seem okay as a winner most years. And Baker — the performance is great, but did she need the win? I think Bergman, all things considered, is a decent winner. I think as far as performance goes, it’s a weak winner. But considering everything about the category, it’s fair. Don’t love it, but I can accept it. I still say Carroll Baker delivers the best performance in the category and should have won. But I can accept Bergman having won.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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