Sunday, October 29, 2006


StinkyLulu hosts a near traffic jam of eager opinion givers in the latest supporting actress smackdown. The ladies prompting all the hubbub:

  • GLENN CLOSE “The World According to Garp”
  • TERI GARR “Tootsie”
  • JESSICA LANGE “Tootsie
  • KIM STANLEY “Frances”
  • LESLEY ANN WARREN “Victor/Victoria”
I’ve happily contributed my two cents, but I find there’s still some loose change –vintage 1982 – rattling around my pocket. So … a few additional observations.

• • • • •

TERI GARR in “Tootsie”
Dustin Hoffman is the center of the universe in “Tootsie” – and it’s a pretty hollow center. As Michael Dorsey, he operates with his usual flat-voiced fussiness. As Dorothy Michaels, he successfully lightens the voice, but then falls back on a half-assed Southern accent (the Joyce Compton syndrome I call it, based on the faulty assumption that any old rot is funny if it’s delivered in a Dixie dialect). Unable to approximate charm, he achieves only a humorless perkiness. Luckily, Hoffman has two fine actresses to support and bail him out in scene after scene. Teri Garr’s glorious work is probably the best of her career. And though the movie sometimes seems to undervalue her as much as Michael does Sandy, she never lets that get in her way. Granted, the script gives her some extra-fine dialogue:

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have people over for dinner. They never show up.”

But it’s Garr’s prodigious blend of physical and vocal timing that brings out all the possibilities – comic and otherwise – in a character that’s smart enough to be cynical, nice enough to be generous and vulnerable enough to make you care. She’s also hysterically funny. As the years go by, most of “Tootsie” melts away from the memory. But not Teri Garr’s Sandy. She soldiers on, shouting apologetic defiance, juggling indignation and resignation, neither of which ever quite extinguish the glimmer of hope . And all from behind her own private – and permanent - eight-ball.
• • • • •

JESSICA LANGE in “Tootsie”

1982 was the year Jessica Lange made the leap from garden variety starlet to much admired actress. And her work in “Tootsie” is key. Audiences were genuinely startled at just how good she was. It went beyond the warmth and naturalness, unexpected and welcome as they were. Lange definitely had the confidence to take her time. And a talent so strong she could instinctively adjust the tempo of a scene, usually to the advantage of all concerned. Her gifts tumbled across the screen. Has there ever been an actress who looked more natural –or acted more persuasively – with a baby on her arm? A simple line of dialogue, exquisitely delivered, (“He thinks I’m still twelve”) speaks tender volumes about her relationship with dad Charles Durning. There’s a lovely dinner table scene at Durning’s farmhouse, where Lange’s newly-minted star-power is on radiant display. She’s absolutely believable as the source of light and beauty reflected in Hoffman’s face, the reflection itself enough to dazzle Durning. Kudos, by the way, to Durning and Sydney Pollack for canny, resourceful playing. But, in the end, it’s the two ladies - Garr and Lange – who carry “Tootsie” across the finish line with something approaching triumph.

• • • • •

KIM STANLEY in “Frances”
When Jessica Lange followed “Tootsie” with her top-billed tour-de-force in “Frances”, there was just no denying that a new and major talent had arrived. It’s a slow-building performance. But, ultimately, heartbreaking. Some scenes – including the final one – are almost too sad to watch. The script lays much of the blame for Frances’ tragedy on her ambitious, unstable mother. It’s a showy role and, to play it, the producers lured an acting heavyweight back to the screen. Kim Stanley proves up to the challenge. Her Lillian is prisoner and victim of her own destructive behavior. But she’s also a corrosive influence on those around her. Bursts of happiness and bouts of anger are both laced with desperation and fear – unhinged and profoundly dangerous. It’s a creative and unpredictable performance, bubbling and frequently threatening to boil over. Lillian sees Frances as her last chance at fulfillment. And when the young woman checkmates her, she allots only a moment to defeat, then fast-forwards to revenge mode, implacably signing off on her daughter’s damnation.

• • • • •

LESLEY ANN WARREN in “Victor/Victoria”
The success of the moribund “Victor/Victoria” remains a mystery to me. It’s interminable, stuffy and self-congratulatory , with about as much genuine atmosphere as a “Get Smart” episode. And, oh yes, it’s also not funny. Most of Henry Mancini’s score is inappropriate, regurgitating the sound of his 60’s heyday, achieving nothing remotely evocative of the 20’s. The only exception is the song “Le Jazz Hot”, a tune that’s both catchy and period-friendly. In the context, I wouldn’t call it a show-stopper. The picture moves at such a deadening snail’s pace it’s as good as stopped already. But it does jolt the film to life for a couple of minutes. And Julie Andrews’ costume for the number is a knockout. Imagine how great Lesley Ann Warren would have looked in it. As it is, she’s saddled with playing Norma, crude, conniving Brooklynesque dumb blonde showgirl/tart. This is a stereotype that has to be refracted through a very distinctive prism to yield anything new or worthwhile. It’s Barbara Nichols territory – and perhaps only she can negotiate the terrain with honest, high-heeled, squawk-voiced perfection. Warren’s performance is utterly and hopelessly generic. Something that might have just about passed muster on a half-rehearsed TV skit. The fact that it emerged as an audience pleaser is a puzzlement, the Oscar nomination a major mind-boggler. At very least, it’s a misuse of Warren’s rich and varied talents. Had it worked, the part might have provided some small relief from the goings-on. As it is, it’s just another standard issue rack in “Victor/Victoria”‘s already fully-stocked torture chamber.
For a really charming adaptation of the same source material, see the British film “First a Girl” (1935) with marvelous Jessie Matthews. Light, airy and endearing, it bounces where “Victor/Victoria” merely thuds.

• • • • •

GLENN CLOSE in “The World According to Garp”
When Glenn Close arrived on the scene, ferociously determined, frighteningly focused, it seemed pretty clear there’d be no getting rid of her without multiple Oscar nominations. The first of these inevitable nods came for “Garp”. She’s certainly formidable . Professional as Hell, too. But , for me, not that appealing or charismatic. Definitely not amusing Or even what I’d call interesting. She’s just there. And you know you’re expected to pay attention – strict attention.. Still, the adulation, Jenny inspires in “Garp” is easier to buy into than, say, the Dorothy Michaels mania in “Tootsie”. After all, Jenny’s is supposed to be based largely on a book she wrote. In “Tootsie” we’re asked to believe the whole country goes gaga over Dorothy’s appearance, attitude and acting. Considering what we see onscreen, that’s not easy to swallow.

Maybe I' ll just never get past seeing Glenn Close as scary. For me, it's the one note in her performances that tends to drown out all the others. So, outside of “Fatal Attraction”
( where she’s supposed to be that way), I can’t say I’ve ever surrendered to her spell. Annette Bening plays the same character in “Valmont” that Close plays in “Dangerous Liaisons” – and she’s better equipped for the job. A Bening bitch can still seem quite capable of fooling people into thinking she’s nice. She’s an Eve Harrington Margo Channing would hire in a heartbeat. Close is just too damn intimidating. One look at her and Margo would hoist the “Vacancy Filled” sign and head for the hills.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Supporting Actress - First Flight

In 1936 the Academy Awards had already been around for a decade or so. But it wasn’t till then that they finally instituted a supporting category for acting. Where supporting actresses were concerned, the potential field was rich that year. When nominations were revealed, the ladies who made the inaugural list were:

  • Beulah Bondi “The Gorgeous Hussy”
  • Alice Brady “My Man Godfrey”
  • Bonita Granville “These Three”
  • Maria Ouspenskaya “Dodsworth”
  • Gale Sondergaard “Anthony Adverse”

For a cross-section of opinions (including my own) on these nominees, check out StinkyLulu’s 1936 smackdown. For some wide-ranging thoughts on the ladies I would have nominated that year, read on.

(Editor's Note: StinkyLulu here. Ken's got a pile of excellent notes on other important 1936 performances; they'll be up in the next coupla days as time permits.)

1936: The Overlooked -- MARCIA MAE JONES in “THESE THREE”


It’s almost inevitable that when modern audiences watch William Wyler’s “These Three”, they’re astonished by little Marcia Mae Jones. Her name is hardly remembered today. But there’s a timeless quality to her performance - she projects tremulous sensitivity that builds to a startling emotional wallop. It’s quite outside the usual polite conventions of thirties screen acting. And she was only eleven years old when she did it. But Hollywood didn’t nurture Jones’ very special gift. She shone in Shirley Temple’s “Heidi”(1937), turning a potentially cloying role (as Clara, the invalid) into a thing of quiet beauty – and left the showboating to Shirley. Scuttlebutt has it that Fox pruned Marcia Mae’s role because she was putting Shirley in the shade. Whatever the case, she got few such chances in the years to come. Between them, Temple and Jane Withers had the little girl movie star slot sewn up. Jones didn’t sing. So Deanna Durbin was safe on her perch. As it happened, Marcia Mae milled around in the background of a few Durbin pictures, but with little scope to get noticed. She soon wound up at Monogram in a series of moth-eaten teen films with Jackie Moran and Frankie Darro. Threadbare efforts at best. As she grew up, Jones remained a pleasure to look at. But not in a conventional pin-up way. Big studios weren’t interested. And Marcia Mae was reduced to plying her wares at PRC and other Poverty Row pitstops. There she had to contend with five-day shooting schedules and fungus-covered scripts. Even when she landed a potentially meaty part like Jean Parker’s wayward sister in “Lady in the Death House”, the odds were stacked against her. She’s always special, though. There’s a little something in every performance to remind you of the moment when Hollywood got it just right. And channeled her gift into a breathtaking and fully realized little masterpiece.


Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins are ladylike and appealing in “These Three”. And it’s always fun to marvel at how they transform a ramshackle old dump into a country showplace armed with just $38 and nice manicures. Joel McCrea must have been one heck of a part-time handyman! They proceed to convert their showplace into the Wright-Dobie School for Young Ladies. And that’s where we encounter Marcia Mae Jones as Rosalie. She’s a pie-faced little creature with pig-tails, gentle eyes , heart on her sleeve. There’s a quick charming curtsy, Then some halting Latin translation in the classroom. But after she and Evelyn (Carmencita Johnson, also excellent) get caught doing some innocent eavesdropping, we follow them upstairs with budding sociopath Mary (Bonita Granville). Rosalie’s a little put out because she’s going to have to share a room with Helen, who “blows her nose all night”. But Mary will soon provide her with bigger things to worry about. As a matter of fact, when the vicious Mary raises a threatening hand in Rosalie’s direction, the girl does a very quick and convincing dodge. It seems Rosalie already has a pretty good idea that Mary’s bite is just as bad as her bark.

The real fireworks start when Mary tries to bully Rosalie out of her pocket money. Rosalie actually defies her at first. Until Mary discovers the stolen bracelet. And immediately twigs to the power of her position. Mary’s threats of exposure bring on the first of Rosalie’s remarkable exhibitions of hysteria. Quivering with desperation and terror, she hardly seems to be acting. This is no Neely O’Hara conniption. It looks and feels like the real thing. One wonders what Wyler did to extract it from the child. But it’s clear the brilliance was there inside her all along.

Once Rosalie’s in Mary’s power, she’s increasingly more helpless, dragged from pillar to post like a sack of feathers. The girl still has the urge to defy Mary and tell the truth . But she’s instantly paralyzed with fear everytime Mary menacingly dangles the pilfered trinket.

Rosalie’s second and even more spectacular emotional outburst comes when Mary forces her to swear the oath of the knight. Whatever the word “vassal” means to Rosalie, it clearly encompasses the torments of Hell.

A third breakdown – and again just as impressive as its predecessors – takes place when she’s confronted by the assembled grown-ups at Mrs. Tilford’s house. She aches to come clean. But Mary’s crafty bullying by suggestion sends her into one more paroxysm of shrieking terror. The adults, who remained unimpressed during Mary’s tantrums, stand slack-jawed in front of this display. One can only speculate what the actors thought watching such a bravura exhibition from a tot.

There’s an intimate scene between Rosalie and Miss Dobie(Hopkins) at the door of Rosalie’s house. But this time Mary’s not there and Dobie is able to coax out Rosalie’s natural instincts. No hysterics here. Just genuine purity of feeling. The scene fades into Mrs. Tilford’s home as Rosalie continues her confession. Mary arrives on the scene. But the cat is well and truly out of t he bag. She’s busted. The little conniver rails and screams but Mrs. Tilford (the great Alma Kruger) silences her with a magnificently shouted “STILL!”.

Rosalie is freed from Mary’s tyranny. But Marcia Mae Jones still has time for a couple of eloquent close-ups, gazing up at Hopkins in gradually dawning relief and gratitude. Then she races out of the room. Gone but not forgotten. Not ever.