Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Ladies of 1950

This month StinkyLulu pitches the colorful smackdown tent right in the middle of 1950. The year the world took a deep breath and wondered how the new decade was going to top Betty Grable, the baby boom and the atomic bomb. (Eventual answers: Marilyn Monroe, TV dinners and rock’n’roll). As usual, StinkyLulu scrapes away all the extraneous matter from the year at hand and gets right to the good stuff – the Oscar nominees for supporting actress.

I had fun contributing again. But, let’s face it, 1950 offers just too rich a smorgasbord actress-wise for me to shut off my motor after a single smackdown. So – a few more observations about movie actressing in 1950. Even if they’d tossed out Oscars like confetti that year, you’d have thought most of them would’ve ended up in deserving hands. The field was that good – maybe the greatest ever. But, wouldn’t you know, the eventual winners (Actress and Supporting Actress) were two I wouldn’t even have nominated.

I’ve already talked about 1950 trophy winner Josephine Hull in the smackdown. For me, considering the profusion of potential nominees that year, she rates only bystander status. Competent. Professional. But, you know, years ago I had a bit part in my high school production of “Harvey”. Bettilyn Berglund, a local teenager, played Veta Louise. And I can still remember how terrific she was. Hull, for all her years of practice on the stage, doesn’t leave half the impression Bettilyn did.

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Whatever real talent Judy Holliday possessed was pretty much strangled in the grip of that “comic” Billie Dawn voice – a feeble easy way out shorthand that further trivialized an already flimsy vehicle. There’s no denying Holliday’s Billie pleased audiences then (she won an Oscar, for Pete’s sake) – and it still has adherents. But I’m not among ‘em. One moment does work for me – the savage, unexpected sequence where Harry slaps her. Holliday’s terrified reaction looks and sounds flat-out real. Partially, I guess, that’s because almost everything around it is kind of blah. Mr. Crawford – no Paul Douglas, I’m afraid - barks his way through the picture. While Holden’s more or less along for the ride – too smart to buy into his sketchily written character, but gifted and resourceful enough to fill in the holes with intelligence and movie star charisma.

Supporting actress footnote: With just one scene to do it in, Barbara Brown, the Fay Bainter clone who plays genteel Mrs.Hedges, is sensational. Bainter herself wouldn’t have done it differently –or better. Not the Beatles, as they say, but an incredible simulation.

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Quite a lot of what I had to say in the smackdown zeroed in on the supporting ladies of “Caged” – a crack unit if ever there was one. But I didn’t even get to mention the film’s star – the lady they were all, in effect, supporting. Eleanor Parker is, in a word, fantastic in the picture. A great looking redhead who hung around Warner Bros for most of the 40’s, she’d had several opportunities that looked promising. But none had quite provided that ticket to full-fledged stardom. Most frustrating of these near-misses was her blistering take on Mildred in the ’46 version of “Of Human Bondage". It was directed by Edmund Goulding – an expert in extracting great work from the ladies. (He coaxed Gene Tierney’s tremendous Isabel out of her in “The Razor’s Edge” that same year). Posterity’s chosen to enshrine Bette Davis’ ’34 interpretation as definitive. It was a hit in its day – and Davis bristles with electricity. But she’s over-emphatic – and it’s often hard to get past her clumsy game of “Pin the Tail on the Cockney Accent”. Kim Novak’s ’64 portrayal was actually more believable. Yes, she’s too beautiful looking. But excess beauty’s a hard thing to hold against a movie star. At the end of the day, though, it’s Parker who nails Mildred as no other actress has. Raw, scrub-brush complexion, wiry hair. Common. Coarse. Greedy. Angry too. She aches with dissatisfaction. Clawing her way – not ahead exactly, but around - and giving off indications of some heavy duty dark forces clawing right behind her. Her Mildred’s been burned into shape by a brutal past. Novak’s a little on the languid side. Davis offers fireworks – but no back story. At her best, Parker’s a more flexible actress than Bette Davis – not so locked into set mannerisms, riveting though they might be. It’s possible to tune into Goulding’s “Bondage” part way through and not even realize it’s Eleanor Parker. Creative makeup deserves some credit. But it’s Parker’s own versatility, skill and propulsive force that bring it home. This Mildred’s apocalyptic trashing of Philip’s apartment plays out with a fury no other Mildred has matched. She’s scary, mean and damaged – and Parker’s not afraid to show it all. Blunt and complex at the same time – a Hollywood harbinger of neo-realistic intensity. A tragic scrap-heap monster – and, in her way, just as worthy of sympathy as Philip. Entirely too complicated a creation for 1946 audiences to digest. They didn’t. And Parker went without the acclaim (and Oscar nomination) she clearly deserved.

The frustration of doing such phenomenal work and not being properly appreciated may have fuelled Parker’s ambition and determination even more. By the time she landed “Caged” she was obviously ready to go for broke. Hardly a prestige vehicle – a scrappy babes in the bighouse melodrama –the picture turned out to be one of 1950’s surprise hits – with audiences and critics alike. The performances – especially Parker’s central one – couldn’t be denied. Credit veteran director John Cromwell for helping Eleanor Parker be all she could be. Still in her 20’s, she was nevertheless a screen vet who’d played her share of chic sophisticates. But the scared, na├»ve Marie Allen who’s dumped into prison at the beginning of “Caged” bears no trace of them. Virtually makeup free, Parker’s like a super-sensitive tuning fork reacting to everything around her, pulling audiences right into the heart of a harrowing experience. She makes one brilliant choice after another, never overdoing it. Hope locking horns with hysteria. Bad breaks drag her down. Where’s that single stroke of luck that might save her? Exceptionally well-written and edited, the film’s jam-packed with memorable sequences – the interview with her scared-silly mother, the doomed kitten rescue, the brutal, traumatic buzz-cut. Parker polishes each one of them off to perfection. There’s never a sense of showing off – just raw, honest-to-goodness emotion channeled through some dazzlingly controlled movie star acting. This is the project that really put Parker on the map. She followed it up with another sensational Oscar-nominated turn in William Wyler’s “Detective Story”. MGM dangled a lucrative contract and Parker set up shop for awhile at that prestigious address. Metro couldn’t quite make up its mind whether to market her as the new Greer Garson (But wait, we’ve got Deborah Kerr for that) or a slightly upmarket Susan Hayward style spitfire. And they didn’t really exert themselves to find roles that would explore her potential. Still, Parker bagged a third nomination for the ultra-manicured opera biopic “Interrupted Melody” where, if nothing else, she proved a dab hand at lip-synching to complicated arias. But she was genuinely terrific in a number of other films around the same time – “Scaramouche”, “The Naked Jungle”, The King and 4 Queens”.

A younger friend of mine, when confronted with her name, said to me tentatively, “Eleanor Parker, wasn’t she in “The Sound of Music?” Odd that many know her primarily for her chic but perfunctory cameo in that panoramic sugarblitz. There was a time in the 50’s when Eleanor Parker was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood – an important movie star and a much admired actress. She’s given us a lovely legacy. Work that deserves to be revived and re-evaluated. A process that can’t help but put a new shine on her reputation as a compelling and creative screen presence. But, you know, when all’s said and done, “Caged” may just be Eleanor Parker’s single finest moment. And that’s saying something.