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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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

Doris Day, Pillow Talk

Audrey Hepburn, The Nun’s Story

Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer

Simone Signoret, Room at the Top

Elizabeth Taylor, Suddenly, Last Summer

Analysis:

Pillow Talk is a Doris Day romantic comedy. No idea why they nominated her, but sure.

She and Rock Hudson share a party line. What that means is, two apartments share the same telephone line. That’s how they did things back in the 50s when operators connected you to who you wanted to call. And he’s constantly on the phone, talking to all the women he’s sleeping with. And she can never use the phone when she wants to. So she hates him. But she’s never met him. Meanwhile he meets her and strikes up a romance with her, without her knowing that he’s the guy on the other end of the line.

It’s like You’ve Got Mail except if he fucked a lot.

It’s an amusing movie. Can’t say I really understand the nomination, but I won’t begrudge it. She’s an easy #5 though in this category. No chance I take her over anyone else in this category. It’s actually quite strong from here on out.

The Nun’s Story is Audrey Hepburn as a nun. Over two and a half hours. Oh yeah.

She becomes a nun and we watch her take her vows and end up in Africa dealing with fever patients. And eventually, World War II breaks out. It’s actually a solid film. I hate these religious movies and really liked it quite a bit.

Hepburn gives a really dedicated performance. She might have won in another year. She’s wonderful here. She’s definitely top two in the category. Easily. She was my slam dunk choice five years ago. Now… things have changed a bit. But still, she’s right up there at the top.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a weird fucking movie.

Based on Tennessee Williams. Elizabeth Taylor is in an institution for some sort of a breakdown after the death of her cousin. His mother, Katharine Hepburn, doesn’t want anyone to find out how her son died, so she keeps trying to bribe the hospital staff to lobotomize Taylor. What makes the movie weird is the eventual realization of what happened to the guy. It’s like — what?

But anyway, two nominations here.

Hepburn as the mother is great, as per usual. But rating Katharine Hepburn is like rating Meryl Streep. You assume she’s good. You have to rate the performance on just how much you’d take her over the other nominees. And here — nah. I do like her in this. She’s a mother in complete denial about who her son was and how he died. And it’s basically — she wants to keep the image of him she had in her head and not have that shattered by the truth. And then when it is revealed, she can’t handle it and goes crazy. She’s good, and might be third in the category. But this isn’t something I take. I’ve seen her be better.

Taylor, on the other hand — it’s funny, because I feel like there’s a definite line here. Those who clearly prefer the Katharine Hepburn style of performance, and those that prefer the Elizabeth Taylor style. I like both, but when it comes down to it, I like Taylor more here. Either way, they flip flop for #3 and #4, so I wouldn’t take either, but for what it’s worth, I liked Taylor’s performance better than Hepburn’s.

Room at the Top is a movie that I just did not appreciate five years ago. Sometimes you just need time to pass before you can revisit something properly.

Laurence Harvey plays a guy whose sole ambition is to get somewhere. He starts dating the daughter of a local businessman just so he can get in and get a job with the guy. He has no real feelings for her, but charms the shit out of her and makes her want to marry him. Things seem to be going all right for him… until one day he meets Simone Signoret. She’s a divorcee, and pretty soon she falls in love with him, and he with her. It wasn’t meant to be something serious, but he soon realizes that he’s now in love with someone who won’t help him succeed. So he has to choose between love and poverty (essentially) or success and unhappiness. It’s quite wonderful.

Simone Signoret is absolutely astounding here, and this was one of my most misjudged performances the first go around on this Quest. She absolutely deserved to win this award and absolutely stands up as one of the solid to really strong winners of all time too. I was really wrong about this one, and she’s actually good enough to make me not take Audrey Hepburn here, which is saying something.

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The Reconsideration: I had a handful of categories in my head when I set out to do this Quest again that I knew would be automatic mulligans. This was one of them.

Not even a question that Simone Signoret deserves this award. She blows the competition away. This is all her.

I love Audrey and she’s also great, but Signoret is better. The other two pretty much cancel each other out, and Doris Day is just an add-on. This is Signoret easily. I was way wrong about this film and her performance five years ago. Not sure what it was, but I did not fully appreciate it at all. But that’s why I’m doing this. To show how opinions change over the passing of time. What I said then was true at the time. Now, she deserved this Oscar.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Simone Signoret, Room at the Top
  2. Audrey Hepburn, The Nun’s Story
  3. Elizabeth Taylor, Suddenly, Last Summer
  4. Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer
  5. Doris Day, Pillow Talk

Rankings (films):

  1. Room at the Top
  2. The Nun’s Story
  3. Pillow Talk
  4. Suddenly, Last Summer

My Vote: Simone Signoret, Room at the Top

Recommendations:

Room at the Top is a film that should be seen. It’s not essential unless you’re an Oscar buff, and it’s actually borderline forgotten, but this is one of the best film romances ever made, and it’s, in my mind, a classic that all film buffs need to see. Let’s do it this way — it’s not essential, but this is one of the all-time hidden/forgotten gems that deserves a better audience. I think film buffs need to see this, so do with that what you will. (At this point, you should probably trust my opinion.)

The Nun’s Story is pretty great. I hate religious movies but I really liked this one. Now, a lot of that has to do with Audrey Hepburn, I’m sure. But still. It’s a solid movie. One of those 4 star movies that most people would enjoy. Solid recommend, but not something you need to see.

Suddenly, Last Summer is good. Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, based on Tennessee Williams. Either that interests you or it doesn’t. That’s one’s entirely on you. If you don’t feel the need to see it based on those people, then there’s nothing I can say to persuade you.

Pillow Talk is a Doris Day/Rock Hudson rom com. It’s fun. Nothing more. Not essential, but enjoyable. One of those TCM watches. Not something you need to consider essential. Just a fun afternoon watch one day when you have time.

The Last Word: It’s Signoret. She’s the choice. Hepburn is a good alternative, but I think Signoret is better, and, all things considered, I’m not sure the Hepburn performance would have held up as well as the Signoret one has. Either one were the right choices, and I think they made a good one that holds up real well.

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1960

Greer Garson, Sunrise at Campobello

Deborah Kerr, The Sundowners

Shirley MacLaine, The Apartment

Melina Mercouri, Never on Sunday

Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8

Analysis:

Sunrise at Campobello is Oscar bait to the max, and Greer Garson’s final nomination.

It’s about FDR and Eleanor at their summer home, with Franklin dealing with polio. So we watch as he battles his illness and Eleanor stands by him.

Greer Garson plays Eleanor Roosevelt. Right there, you understand the nomination. It’s like Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. You get it. It’s one of those where, it doesn’t even matter if the performance is any good, because —

Cui Gives a Shit

Fortunately, the performance is very good. But it’s just standard Oscar stuff. Might have won twenty years ago, might have contended ten years ago. But now? Fifth. Not a chance. Way too on the nose to even take.

The Sundowners is one of my favorite films of all time. I had no idea what this was before this Quest and I fell in love with it immediately.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr are married. He’s got the itch to keep moving constantly. She wants to settle down and raise their kids in one place. He travels all around Australia (they’re Australian) taking jobs as drovers and things like that. And we watch them as they go from place to place. It’s amazing. It might not sound amazing, but it is.

Kerr is wonderful here. If a top five film of mine weren’t in this category, she might well have been the vote.

The Apartment is a perfect film. And in my mind, it’s Billy Wilder’s best film.

Jack Lemmon plays an insurance guy. The only reason he’s known to his bosses is because he allows them to use his apartment for their affairs. They plan it out with him, he gives them the key, they go fuck their women, and he goes back home afterward. This allows him some form of advancement at work. He has a crush on Shirley MacLaine, the elevator operator, who is flirty and mysterious, never seeming to allow any of the men to make advances on her. Just as he seems to be getting somewhere with MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, the big boss, comes to Lemmon and makes him a deal — he’ll give him a big promotion on one condition… only he can use the apartment. No one else. Lemmon agrees. And then we also find out that his mistress, the one he’s using the apartment for, is Shirley MacLaine. If you haven’t seen it, stop right now and just watch it, it’s perfect.

Shirley MacLaine is wonderful here beyond words. She’s charming, she’s lovable, and she’s absolutely heartbreaking when the film hits a certain point. I won’t ruin it, but man, there’s a moment in this movie that kills me every time. She wins this for me every single time, and I think it’s generally regarded that this was a category she should have won, and the reason Elizabeth Taylor won was because they thought she was dying. But either way, I still take MacLaine here.

Never on Sunday is an interesting film. One of those that I bet that I’d come around on more now that time has passed. But I’ll admit that I haven’t seen it in five years.

An American tourist (hailing from the place I went to college, of all places. Which is the place the director was born) shows up to Greece because he loves the culture. There, he meets a charming prostitute (as you do) and sets out to Pygmalion her. Meanwhile she’s trying to get him to loosen the fuck up. It’s a charming romance.

Melina Mercouri plays the prostitute. It’s your typical “hooker with a heart of gold” character. She is principled. Hence the title. She’ll fuck you for money, but (insert title here). This is basically Green Pretty Woman. She’s Julia Roberts charming in this movie. Wouldn’t take her, but love the nomination. She’s probably a fourth choice in the category. The solid nominee that doesn’t make much headway in the voting just because I don’t love it.

BUtterfield 8 is a film that I always feel is pretty derided, historically. They dismiss it as just another melodrama. I saw it and really liked it. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I rewatched it, but I still thought it was solid.

Elizabeth Taylor plays, essentially, a call girl. She goes home constantly with various rich men and in return they give her gifts and pay her rent and things. She has some principle — she doesn’t want to be treated like a whore, but she still does sleep around. She has a childhood friend she can confide him, who is the only one to give her perspective and disapprove of her choices. And yeah… she has various suitors and things and struggles with being “the slut of all time.” I honestly don’t remember the plot so much. I remember liking it though.

Taylor’s performance carries what it otherwise not a great film. But she is fantastic here. I’d rate her a solid third most years. Here, she might be second on pure performance, but I ended up liking Deborah Kerr’s performance more. Still, I take Shirley MacLaine here, so the rankings don’t matter.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Shirley MacLaine, all day, every day. She’s my choice, and she’ll always be my choice. Not much to reconsider here. Taylor rates maybe second on performance for me, third on how I’d vote. I love Deborah Kerr and would take her over Taylor, I think. But admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the performances closely. I didn’t have a whole lot of incentive to study them when it wasn’t going to affect who I took a single iota. This is all MacLaine.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Shirley MacLaine, The Apartment
  2. Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8
  3. Deborah Kerr, The Sundowners
  4. Melina Mercouri, Never on Sunday
  5. Greer Garson, Sunrise at Campobello

Rankings (films):

  1. The Apartment
  2. The Sundowners
  3. BUtterfield 8
  4. Never on Sunday
  5. Sunrise at Campobello

My Vote: Shirley MacLaine, The Apartment

Recommendations:

The Apartment is a perfect film and legitimately one of the greatest American movies ever made. Essential all around, for every type of movie buff. And it’s in my top five of all time, so you’ll get no argument from me. There’s no excuse to not have seen this if you love movies.

The Sundowners is one of the best films ever made. It’s more of an underrated masterpiece, but it’s so casual and so watchable. You know how Rio Bravo doesn’t have a whole lot going on but is so entertaining because it’s just people hanging out? That’s what this feels like. And it’s great .I consider this essential, and if you trust my opinion at all, consider this an essential movie. It’s wonderful.

BUtterfield 8 is really only essential because she won for it. That’s why most people go back to it now. So they can talk about this category. (And if you want to talk about this category, you need to see this movie.) Otherwise, just a solid film with a good Elizabeth Taylor performance. If you don’t care about the Oscars, you can probably skip this.

Never on Sunday is one of the more famous foreign films of all time. Very enjoyable and it definitely has crossover appeal. Usually the foreign cinema crowd will consider this a must and the casual film buff who doesn’t like films with subtitles won’t ever need to see this. In the medium — it’s enjoyable to those who enjoy foreign films that feel like American movies. I’ll give it a recommend. But not essential and can easily be skipped for most film buffs.

Sunrise at Campobello is decent, but not essential and not great enough to warrant a high recommend. Just one of those movies — definitely worth seeing if it’s on TCM right after something you’re watching. Not something you need to set the DVR for, but otherwise a totally solid and enjoyable movie that’s worth a watch.

The Last Word: Shirley MacLaine should have been the choice, and I think history has told us this. Taylor isn’t a terrible winner, but she’s not a great one either. Kerr would be a good choice too, I think. Not sure she’d have held up, but she’d have been okay with me. MacLaine was the right choice, and Taylor holds up slightly because she probably deserved two wins in all. I don’t despise the win, but Shirley MacLaine really ought to have been the choice here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Love “Pillow Talk”! Fun movie

    September 13, 2016 at 1:43 pm

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