The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1957-1958)
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.
Deborah Kerr, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
Anna Magnani, Wild Is the Wind
Elizabeth Taylor, Raintree County
Lana Turner, Peyton Place
Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a really interesting film. John Huston directed it too.
Robert Mitchum is a soldier who washes ashore on a desert island with Deborah Kerr, a nun. So they have to survive together. There’s a lot of sexual tension. And then at a certain point, they realize they’re not alone on the island and the Japanese are there too. So now they really need to figure out how to work together and survive. And there are a lot of religious overtones and the sort.
Kerr is good here. Back in the habit, so to speak, after Black Narcissus. It’s a solid nomination, but I’m not a big fan of the performance. She rates fifth for me. There’s better work in the category.
Wild Is the Wind is a two-hander. Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn. Which means great acting and a lot of gesturing.
Anthony Quinn is a farmer whose wife died. So he decides to marry her sister now. only she falls in love with his ranch hand.
Both are great actors, and the film is okay. Magnani delivers a performance you’d come to expect from her. I think she was worth the nomination, but I wouldn’t take her. I’d rate her a solid third in the category. I just don’t love the film or performance enough to think about taking it.
Raintree County is a film that wants to be Gone With the Wind, and isn’t. Oh, and there’s the issue of, this is the film they were shooting when Montgomery Clift got into the car accident and fucked up his face. So he looks markedly different in the beginning of the film than he does at the end of it.
The film starts out exactly like A Place in the Sun. Clift has a sweetheart, and Taylor is the town belle who steals him away. She gets pregnant and they have to marry. And Taylor slowly starts to go insane, because that runs in her family. Eventually she runs away with their kid and Clift searches high and low for them, all throughout the Civil War.
Taylor is good here. This is her transition to adulthood. This and Giant. She really showed her acting chops in those films, and earned her first Oscar nomination for this.
It’s a strong performance, but it’s the kind of performance that shows her as a future winner more than a winner now. She might make it as high as #2 for me in this category, but that’s because it’s not particularly strong. This is a good start to an Oscar career, but not something I take for a win.
Peyton Place is a big melodrama that became a long running soap opera. It shows.
It’s about a bunch of different residents in a small town, and all their stories, and how they interweave and such.
Lana Turner plays the main character and narrator’s mother, who is very strict when it comes to sex. She’s practically a puritan, and does everything she can to keep her daughter sheltered. And gradually, during a romance with the school principal, it’s revealed that she is that way because she had her daughter out of wedlock, and has been lying about her daughter’s father having been killed in the war. In reality, her father was a married man.
It’s a solid performance. Turner holds her own. Good for a nomination, but not something I vote for. Kind of like the Ava Gardner nomination in 1953. Worthy of being there, though not much more than that. She might rate as high as third for me for a vote, but the performance is probably fourth.
The Three Faces of Eve is a great film. Weird that it got made, because it doesn’t feel like the kind of film that studios made in the 50s, but it’s awesome nonetheless.
Joanne Woodward plays a housewife who begins exhibiting very strange behavior. It’s soon discovered that she has multiple personalities. One is Eve White, her “regular” personality. Timid housewife. The other is Eve Black, the opposite of Eve White, freewheeling and loving to party and sleep with men. She transitions between the two all the time, causing a lot of trouble with her husband and daughter. And her doctor tries to figure out the cause of these personalities.
When you see the performance, you’ll see why Woodward is the only choice in this category. She wins this in a landslide. In another year, it might be more competitive. But here, not a chance she loses. This is a tour de force, and she earned this win. She is incredible in this movie.
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The Reconsideration: Joanne Woodward runs away with this one. Multiple personalities, and relative realism in the film. That’s the only performance in the category that out and out blows you away. The rest are just respectable. Woodward is the choice, and it saves what is otherwise a weak category.
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- Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
- Elizabeth Taylor, Raintree County
- Anna Magnani, Wild Is the Wind
- Lana Turner, Peyton Place
- Deborah Kerr, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
- The Three Faces of Eve
- Peyton Place
- Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
- Raintree County
- Wild Is the Wind
My Vote: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
The Three Faces of Eve is a good film with a great central performance. Joanne Woodward is astounding here, and the film is worth seeing for her. High recommend, but only essential for Oscar buffs.
Peyton Place is a great film. This was the second biggest film of 1957 to Bridge on the River Kwai. This was a huge film of its era and spawned a famous soap opera. I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but it’s definitely a high recommend. Solid film all around. I really like it.
Raintree County is a solid film, but not even close to essential. Worth it for Taylor and Clift. Otherwise it’s just okay. Recommend if you get around to it. Not something you need to rush out and get.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a decent film. John Huston, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum. There are reasons to see this. I’ll give it a solid recommend. Not much more than that. Not something you need to see, but worth it if you want to.
Wild Is the Wind is okay because of the performances. I only recommend it for those. Catch it if it’s on TV, but otherwise you don’t need to rush out and see this.
The Last Word: It’s Woodward. She’s the only choice and was the best choice to be had. They made a great one and the only one they could have made.
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Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
Deborah Kerr, Separate Tables
Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running
Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame
Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
I Want to Live! is a gritty noir that doesn’t feel like something that would win Best Actress if you just went into it cold without any context. Which is why Best Actress is so interesting as a category.
Susan Hayward plays a real woman who was executed (spoiler alert). She’s a prostitute who flirts with men to get them to join fixed card games. Eventually she marries a real piece of shit who brings her into the wrong situation and she’s convicted of accessory to murder and is put on death row. And the rest of the film is about her trying to fight the conviction.
It’s one of those roles that starts one-note and gets more complex as the film goes on. I can’t say I loved the performance, but I can see why she won for it. Her being so overdue and giving a really nuanced performance in a category like this. Arguably this is one of the stronger categories of all time.
This feels like a category of #2s with no real #1. They’re all worthwhile in some form, and I have no idea which way I’m gonna go.
Separate Tables is a pure ensemble film. It’s about a bunch of people staying at a seaside hotel, and the dramas that play out amongst them.
Deborah Kerr plays an aging spinster under the thumb of her domineering mother. She refuses to stand up for herself no matter how much everyone tells her she should. She has affection for David Niven because he’s nice to her. But everyone else pretty much wants him out because they found out some shit about his past. And she’s basically kept from saying anything by her mother until the end of the film when she stands up to her.
Here’s the thing about this performance — it’s great. Deborah Kerr delivers a really great and terrific performance and you’re with her every step of the way. Thing is, she feels more of an ensemble than a lead actress. The part doesn’t feel substantial enough to vote for in this one. So I’m not sure where to rate her. On pure performance, she’s probably second, but when you factor in the amount of screen time and everything, she’s more like fourth. Tough call, this one.
Some Came Running is billed as a Frank Sinatra film, but really, the whole thing is stolen from him by Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin. (MacLaine got nominated, but don’t sleep on Dean in this movie.)
Sinatra plays a guy who shows up back in his hometown after years away. He’s a known author who got drunk and was put on a bus while passed out. He arrives back in town with Shirley MacLaine, who does not fit in with the sleepy town. Think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny showing up in the south. She sticks out. And we watch as he acclimates back into town, deals with his (somewhat estranged) brother and romances a schoolteacher.
MacLaine is a woman Sinatra picked up that he doesn’t take seriously. He tells her to go back to Chicago and gives her money, but she stays because she’s in love with him. The key to the performance is that you think you know who this woman is — dumb, loud, vulgar — but in reality there’s a whole lot more to her and she’s actually quite a good person.
It’s a very strong performance, and a good introduction to the Academy. She’d eclipse this work later on (especially two years from now), but she’s quite good here. As a nomination — she rates as high as third in this category for me. Potentially even higher than that. Don’t think I take her, but she’s definitely a strong one.
Auntie Mame is such a great movie. It’s based on a play, and is theatrical as shit. This may as well almost be a play, because the whole thing is staged like one.
Rosalind Russell plays the title character, whose motto is “life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” She’s loud, impulsive and lives life to its fullest. She’s put in care of her nephew, who she’s determined to raise to be a young man who knows what it’s like to live. So we follow her and all her antics over the years. That’s pretty much the film.
Russell is a force of nature in this movie. She’s wonderful. It feels like a performance that wins a Tony, not an Oscar. She should have been nominated, because this is quite an iconic performance, but it doesn’t do much for me to make me want to vote for it.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the film version of the play. Tennessee Williams. American classic. The film and the play.
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor show up to her parents’ house (Burl Ives and Judith Anderson) to celebrate her father’s birthday. They have a bunch of marital issues going on, and her father has found out that he’s dying, and hasn’t broken the news to anyone yet. So we watch as all their shit plays out over the course of the day. Great shit.
Taylor plays Maggie “The Cat,” and really lives up to the title. She’s wonderful. She’s one of those actresses I’m predisposed to liking in everything, like Audrey Hepburn, so I might be slightly overrating the performance. But I think she’s up there in this category, even if, in the end, she isn’t the vote.
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The Reconsideration: I think this is one of the stronger categories of all time, and I also think that it’s a category of 2s with no 1. They’re all great, but no single performance jumps out at me as “the” one to take. They all have their ups and downs. So, let’s debate…
For me, Rosalind Russell is #5. She’s wonderful, and she’s always wonderful, and this is arguably her most iconic role (though clearly there are others). Though I feel like this is a pretty one note role and while she plays it well, it’s very theatrical and she’s never given much range to actually play. She’s always just “on.” Not something I’m totally into.
Then… Shirley MacLaine. Love her, love the performance, it’s a star-making performance. I like it but I don’t love it, and I think she’s ultimately given far too little to do for so much of the film to warrant a vote. I see this as overcoming the character as written, and that’s what’s deserving of a nomination. Not sure if that’s worthy of the vote. So she’s off second for me.
Then — Hayward, Kerr and Taylor. I think Kerr’s performance is better than Taylor’s, but I like Taylor’s performance more, and Kerr is more of a supporting role than a lead role. And then Hayward is just good. Some parts I really like, some parts I feel are slightly hammy.
I’m curious how I’d have voted in the moment with these performances. I might have taken Taylor. Now, I don’t think I do. I think she gets better with each one, but isn’t quite there yet. So I think I’m gonna go Hayward again here, because it just feels like the right choice. Maybe next time I can really go this category for real and watch all five back to back and really make a decision. But for now, Hayward gets the vote.
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- Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
- Deborah Kerr, Separate Tables
- Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running
- Rosalind Russell, Auntie Mame
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- Separate Tables
- Some Came Running
- Auntie Mame
- I Want to Live!
My Vote: Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an American classic. Classic play, classic film, with great actors in it. Great stuff and should be considered essential for nearly every film buff. (Because what kind of film buff skips a movie with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor that’s known by title by just about everybody?)
Separate Tables is close to essential, but probably not essential. It won two acting Oscars, is a great ensemble film with a crazy cast. Most people should want to see this on principle because of all that. It’s not something you have to consider top tier essential, but you should definitely see this at some point. Throw it in the Netflix queue and see it when it makes its way to #1 after you take care of the hardcore essentials.
Auntie Mame is a classic with an iconic lead performance. Not essential, but probably something you should see. It also cross lists with that list of most famous movie lines of all time. So, lot of reasons why you should see this. Oh, and it’s really entertaining too. Which is another.
Some Came Running is pretty great. Sinatra is solid, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine are tremendous. Really solid film that I recommend highly. Not essential, but something you should want to see if you’re into movies. This has a pedigree that most people would find appealing. And it’s really good to boot.
I Want to Live! is a great noir and a solid film. Only essential because of the win, otherwise just a solid film with great acting that is highly recommended. Most film fans should want to see this, but unless you’re super into the Oscars, it’s not something you must see.
The Last Word: Hayward is a good choice because she was so overdue. Taylor would win two. Maybe winning this saves the first one from happening, but otherwise, she’d have been fair but I’m not sure she’d have been particularly great as a winner. Kerr would have been good, but she’d have seemed like Niven seems — a supporting role winning for lead because they wanted to reward the actor. MacLaine would give better performances and wouldn’t have held up. This is a first timer nomination and a sign of things to come. Best served as a nomination and nothing more. And Russell would have been fair, but it would have been a career Oscar for an okay performance and might have looked bad next to the competition. as a winner, though, average. I think Hayward feels like the best choice here, though a case could be made that almost all of these actresses were deserving.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)