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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1963-1964)

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.

1963

Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room

Shirley MacLaine, Irma la Douce

Patricia Neal, Hud

Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life

Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger

Analysis:

The L-Shaped Room is a pretty simple story.

Leslie Caron is a woman who walks into a boarding house, responding to an ad for rent in the paper. It’s pretty run down, but she takes the room. She doesn’t seem to want to meet any of the other residents and keeps to herself. And we find out why — she’s pregnant. She got pregnant and wants nothing to do with the father. She goes to a doctor, who at first assumes she wants to be married now that she’s pregnant, which she doesn’t. Then he assumes she wants an abortion. Which makes her decide she’s going to have the baby. So she stays at the boarding house for the duration, befriending all the residents, who are all outcasts in their own way.

Caron is wonderful here. I love this performance, and I quite liked the film a lot. I knew nothing about this film going into this Quest, and I never thought, of all the actresses and films in this category, this would be the one I’d gravitate to most. She was my choice last time, and I’ll be hard pressed to find an alternative this time.

Irma la Douce is a screwball comedy for the ages. Billy Wilder again. That man is a treasure.

Here’s the premise — I dare you to not want to immediately see this if you haven’t — Jack Lemmon is a do-gooder cop who gets transferred to a beat full of prostitutes. The police in the area are pretty… lax about the whole thing, because you know, bribes. Lemmon rounds up a bunch of prostitutes, and his captain, one of their clients, immediately fires him and frames him for taking bribes. He then becomes pimp to Shirley MacLaine, one of the prostitutes.

Oh, but it gets better. In order to stop her from being a prostitute (it is a romantic comedy, after all), he dons a disguise, pretending to be a rich British man who wants MacLaine to be his only client. However, in order to do that, he has to earn the money to pay her. This movie is hysterical. I find this to be one of those movies that’s impossible to hate.

Shirley MacLaine is awesome here. She’s awesome in everything. This isn’t something I vote for, but I love the performance.

Hud is one of the great “acting” films of the Oscars. One of those where everyone in it is at the top of their game.

Paul Newman and Brandon de Wilde work on their father’s farm. He’s a traditional man who really believes in old-fashioned values. Newman doesn’t seem to follow that and doesn’t really care so much about the ranch. de Wilde looks up to Newman but also deeply loves his father. And we watch the relationships change among the three as all the cattle on the farm begin dying and the farm starts to go under.

Patricia Neal plays the family’s housekeeper, who’s been with them for years. She’s divorced, middle-aged, and puts up with a lot of flirting from Paul Newman. She’s — the character doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but she’s present throughout the film and develops a three-dimensional character from a role that arguably is more of a supporting one.

I used to hate that she won for this, and I’ll talk about that more later. But ultimately what this performance is, is a great one that might be supporting, but is good enough to rate top two in this particular category because there’s no clear winner in it. So I get how and why she won, but I’m not 100% sure I take it. But we’ll see, since there only seems to be one other alternative for me in this one.

This Sporting Life is Richard Harris doing Brando. That’s always how I saw it.

Harris plays a rugby player who is the equivalent of a hockey goon. He goes in and beats the shit out of the opponents. That’s pretty much his talent. Now, of course, if he really committed himself to getting better, he might actually be a pretty good player. But he’s not. He drinks too much and fights too much and it’s all about how self-destructive he is.

Rachel Roberts plays his landlady, recently widowed and a single mother. He starts a relationship with her and basically tries to make her fall for him, meanwhile she can’t show any affection toward him because of her husband’s death.

She plays the role really well. She’s fantastic here. Though, like Neal, she’s kind of a supporting role. Between the two, Neal is better. But Roberts is fantastic here and is well worth a nomination. My only question is whether or not she belonged in this particular category.

Love with the Proper Stranger is not your typical romantic comedy.

Natalie Wood works at Macy’s. She sleeps with Steve McQueen and ends up pregnant. (We’ve all been there.) She finds him again and tells him and says all she wants is money for an abortion. So we watch them go around trying to raise the money and fall in love. There’s actually a really well done scene where they go to actually get the abortion done, and it’s horrifying. It’s quite a good film in all.

Wood is fantastic here. Not my favorite of her nominations, but a very solid one. Though, something like this — maybe a third in some years, probably a fourth in this one. I like her, I like the performance and I like the film… but just not all there for me to want to vote for it.

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The Reconsideration: This is another one of those categories I earmarked as ones to really focus on when I wrote up the categories again. Because I was really harsh about the Patricia Neal win five years ago. I called it one of the worst wins of all time.

Having had time to watch the performances again, I can say, that’s not true. But I can also say — she should have been nominated in Supporting. That doesn’t change the strength of the performance, but it does make me less likely to want to vote for her. That said, let’s see where we are here before we make any decisions.

Shirley MacLaine is fifth. Love her, love the film, but not voting for her. Wood goes fourth. I might consider taking her third over Roberts, for various reasons, but I still don’t take her in this category.

Between Roberts and Neal, the two performances that could be considered more supporting than lead, I take Neal. So Roberts is out.

That leaves Patricia Neal vs. Leslie Caron. Funny thing about these two — they dueled all throughout the “season,” if you can call it that. Since Oscar precursors weren’t what they are now. At BAFTA, Caron won Best British Actress and Neal won Best Foreign Actress. And Caron won the Golden Globe, while Neal was nominated for Supporting Actress there. Neal won NBR Best Actress and NYFCC (Caron finished second there). They were the two all the way. Which I don’t normally look into, but in this particular case I was curious if Caron had any traction and if Neal went Supporting anywhere. And I got my answers.

As for a vote, Caron gave my favorite performance, and with the Neal performance really good but somewhat supporting and not being my favorite, I’m gonna stick with Caron. The important thing with this is being okay with the Neal win. Which I am.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room
  2. Patricia Neal, Hud
  3. Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life
  4. Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger
  5. Shirley MacLaine, Irma la Douce

Rankings (films):

  1. Irma la Douce
  2. The L-Shaped Room
  3. Hud
  4. Love with the Proper Stranger
  5. This Sporting Life

My Vote: Leslie Caron, The L-Shaped Room

Recommendations:

Irma la Douce is Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine. Why would any self-respecting film buff not see this movie? It’s hilarious, to boot. One of those films everyone enjoys.

Hud is essential. It’s just a classic piece of cinema with great acting. One of the benchmarks of film acting that’s not as remembered as some of the others like Streetcar, but is just as influential on actors, if not more. Film buffs should consider this one essential.

This Sporting Life is great, but not well remembered. It’s great for the performances, particularly Richard Harris and also Rachel Roberts. Not essential, but worth a watch for sure.

The L-Shaped Room is a film that I love that virtually nobody remembers. It’s terrific and I recommend it highly. Not essential, but something I think people will like.

Love with the Proper Stranger is a really interesting film. Great because it mixes traditional rom com with the 60s’ breaking down of social taboos. What other rom com deals with abortion? (Aside from The Philadelphia Story, of course.) Solid recommend. Definitely worth checking out. Plus, Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen.

The Last Word: They made a good choice. This is category fraud, but when you take out the category and just focus on the performance, she was deserving. This is a reverse Jennifer Connelly, who won Supporting for a leading role. This is her winning lead for being supporting. Okay. I think Leslie Caron gave a better performance, and I think she’d have also been a good choice. Her film doesn’t hold up/isn’t as well remembered as Hud, so that might not have looked as good, but I think she was a solid alternate choice. Wood wouldn’t have been a great winner. MacLaine definitely wouldn’t have for this role. And Roberts — ehh. Neal was a good choice, and Caron would have been good too. I’m cool with this.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1964

Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins

Anne Bancroft, The Pumpkin Eater

Sophia Loren, Marriage, Italian Style

Debbie Reynolds, The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Kim Stanley, Séance on a Wet Afternoon

Analysis:

Mary Poppins is one of the most famous movies ever made. Everybody knows this movie.

Julie Andrews plays Mary Poppins.

I mean, yeah. There it is.

This isn’t about the performance so much as it’s about the lovability and iconic nature of the character. And in a category like this, I get the win completely. What else do you take?

The Pumpkin Eater is a very unfortunate title. You have no idea what this movie is going to be, and I guarantee you, whatever you think this is, it’s not.

Anne Bancroft plays a woman who seemingly has a kid every time she has sex. It’s left open as to how many she has, but it’s a lot. And this is her third marriage. Meanwhile, she’s married to Peter Finch, and he’s cheating on her. And that’s really what the film is. Dealing with this crazy ability she has to get pregnant and the tensions between the two of them over his affairs.

The film is shot really interestingly. It’s almost experimental. I remember a lot of closeups on Anne Bancroft’s face and a loose narrative. It was pretty evocative. One of those films that doesn’t wholly work but one I liked a lot just because It swung for the fences and tried something different. You know what other film like that came to mind? John and Mary. That’s one of those movies I love because it’s so weird and different. But on the other hand, I’m sure some people fucking hate that movie. Because it tried something different, and the results are mixed.

Bancroft is really good here. This is one of those situations where the performance actually suffers from the material. She’s delivering the goods here, and we’re talking about how weird it is that she keeps having children. Usually I say a performance transcends the material and is much better than what it would have been as-written. This is a situation where the material lets the performance down. And it’s one of those things where that actually hurts its chances.Transcending the material usually gets you the nomination and maybe an extra spot or two in the rankings. The material failing you might cost you a vote. And that could be the case here, especially since she’s won already, so I’m not looking for that extra thing to put her over the top. She’s great, but it’s not all there for me.

Marriage, Italian Style is Sophia Loren again. A sequel of sorts in title only to Divorce, Italian Style. An amusing pair.

Loren plays a prostitute Marcello Mastroianni sleeps with one night. Eventually she becomes his mistress. But then when he finds a younger woman and is gonna kick her to the curb, Loren says she’s dying. So he’s like, “Okay, you’re dying? Great, I’ll marry you.” Since, hey, marriage means nothing if she’s gonna die in two weeks. But then, once they marry — all bets are off. It’s kind of like Nothing Sacred, except with Italians. And they fuck.

Sophia Loren is great. She’s everything you’d want in a movie like this. This is what Penelope Cruz is at her best. (And of course there’s more than a passing resemblance between the two.) She’s charming, volatile and wonderful to watch. But the movie feels kind of slight for this category. It’s a comedy, and she’s very good, but her being so good really only gets her to third for me. I’m not voting for this. Maybe if she hadn’t have won already, I might consider it. But even then, I don’t like it enough to take.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is about Molly Brown. Who is unsinkable.

She was on the Titanic. Kathy Bates played her in the Cameron movie.

Debbie Reynolds plays her here. The film is actually about her as a headstrong girl who wants to marry a rich dude. She falls in love with a poor guy who soon strikes it rich after they marry. She then tries to enter into high society, which doesn’t fit with her outspokenness.

It’s kind of a weird musical — oh, did I mention, it’s a musical — but Debbie Reynolds is great in it. She plays this role with such force that they almost had to nominate her. She gives this role much more than it probably deserved. Though, looking at it now, it feels a lot like that one Doris Day nomination. “Yeah, you’re wonderful, we love you, you’re a big star and you make particular kinds of movies, but we want you to know, we respect you.” Never was gonna win, but it’s a token of appreciation for what she does.

She is probably fifth in the category who might make fourth just because she’s such a force of nature in this one. But probably fifth. No chance I take her.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a film with an awesome premise.

Remember, this is 1965. This is not something they make in 1965, for the most part.

Kim Stanley plays a phony psychic. She does seance readings and all that, but she’s not really psychic. (Because, duh.) But she wants some press and more business. So what she does is have her husband kidnap a rich couple’s daughter. So that way she can miraculously show up and help the police “find” the girl with her psychic abilities. Bringing her more fame and clients.

That’s the film. It’s a great premise. And of course it all unravels in a very British/noir/Coen brothers fashion. Actually, shit — this sounds like something the Coen brothers would cook up.

As for Stanley, she’s good. Each person will have a different reaction to her. Some think she’s the easy winner in this category. Others think she overacts. She definitely ha a tendency to go big, which turns some people off.

She plays this role really well. She’s dismissive of her husband, manipulative, and just batshit crazy all at the same time. She plays this a lot like Louise Fletcher plays Nurse Ratched. The warped sense of values and the way she goes about things. Though here, there’s a touch of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. There’s definitely some camp to this. But she goes for it.

This is a tough one for me. Because I really like the performance. But when it comes time to actually think about it for a vote, something holds me back. She might be second on performance, but I don’t know if she makes it past third for an actual vote for me. Which happens. Sometimes you’re just not into a performance enough to vote for it.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This feels like a weak category, but the performances are all solid in their own way.

Reynolds is first off. She’s impressive here, but it’s not something I take. Not against Julie Andrews.

Loren is off next. I like her, but she’d won already and I don’t like the performance enough to try to push it through for a vote.

Stanley ends up third. I like the performance more than this, but like I said, I just don’t like it enough to want to vote for it. So she ends up third.

Then there’s Julie Andrews and Anne Bancroft. In terms of pure performance, Bancroft easily wins this. Andrews might end up as fourth on pure performance in this one. But Mary Poppins is about so much more than the performance. It’s like Edmund Gwenn playing Santa Claus. It’s just — it rates differently.

I think, knowing that Bancroft had won two years prior, and having 50 years of distance from it, I take Andrews. If I were picking in 1964, I don’t know how I vote. And I can’t seem to put myself in that situation, so I’m not gonna force it. Sometimes you take syrup knowing it’s not the best but because that’s just what you need at that moment. And that’s what this is.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Anne Bancroft, The Pumpkin Eater
  2. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins
  3. Kim Stanley, Séance on a Wet Afternoon
  4. Sophia Loren, Marriage, Italian Style
  5. Debbie Reynolds, The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Rankings (films):

  1. Mary Poppins
  2. Séance on a Wet Afternoon
  3. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  4. The Pumpkin Eater
  5. Marriage, Italian Style

My Vote: Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins

Recommendations:

Are you really gonna be the person that hasn’t seen Mary Poppins?

Seance on a Wet Afternoon is really good with a great premise. Good stuff and I recommend it highly. Throw it in the queue and enjoy it when it shows up. It’s one you’ll enjoy.

The Pumpkin Eater is a really interesting film with a great lead performance. Solid recommend if you ever come across it. Though you’re fine not seeing it too.

Marriage, Italian Style is very enjoyable. I don’t love it, but it’s fun. Catch it if it’s on TCM.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a fun musical and Debbie Reynolds is great in it. Otherwise not a whole lot to really recommend. Maybe catch if it’s on TCM and you’re into musicals. You’re more than okay without it.

The Last Word: It’s Mary Poppins. You really gonna argue that? There’s no one here strong enough to really say they should have won and would have been a better winner than Julie Andrews. Loren had one, Bancroft had one. Reynolds didn’t need one and definitely wasn’t winning for this performance. And Stanley is good, but would she really have held up better than Mary Poppins? Easy win for Andrews and she was the best decision.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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