Sunday, July 27, 2008

Revisiting PINKY

Another month has rolled by – and once again – Stinkylulu’s Supporting Actress Smackdown panel is set to mull over the merits of five Oscar-nominated performances. This time the spotlight’s trained on 1949 – a year that offered a number of Oscar-worthy candidates, none of whom - to my way of thinking – made it to the actual ballot.

The chosen were:
Ethel Barrymore "Pinky"
Celeste Holm "Come to the Stable"
Elsa Lanchester "Come to the Stable"
Mercedes McCambridge "All the King’s Men"
Ethel Waters "Pinky"
And though a few of the above had their moments, I’d have gone for five different ladies altogether.

My nominees for ’49:
Florence Bates "A Letter to Three Wives"
Connie Gilchrist "A Letter to Three Wives"
Miriam Hopkins "The Heiress"
Thelma Ritter "A Letter to Three Wives"
Evelyn Varden "Pinky"

As you see, my list does include one performer from PINKY. But it’s neither of the Ethels. For me, the supporting actress standout in the picture is Evelyn Varden. She’s Melba Wooley, an especially nasty old jolt of southern discomfort. Progressing (if that’s the word) from corrosively funny to completely despicable in record time. A vicious boll weevil in full destructive mode. This performance and her equally effective display as a gossip-spewing harridan in Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER constitute a memorably spiteful one-two punch unlikely to be topped any time soon. If you haven’t seen Evelyn Varden – try to imagine a kind of evil sister to dear old Verna Felton. And if you haven’t seen Verna Felton, then, on behalf of Hilda Crocker, all I can say to you is "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo".
None of the Smackdown films were new to me. But my reaction this time to PINKY surprised me a little. I’d last seen it maybe 20 years ago. And knowing even then about the multiple acting nominations, I guess I’d expected to be blown away. That didn’t happen. This time, approaching it with somewhat lowered expectations, I found PINKY had aged rather well. For one thing, it’s a great looking film. All studio backlot – but the level of visual achievement is sky-high. Outdoor shots capture the appropriate hot and dusty feel – but there’s always a nice sense of space. The camera’s forever on the prowl. Indoor recreations accomplish a lot with the confident, masterful use of light. Night scenes achieve a nice blend of reality and artifice,vibrating with sound , shadow, ominous possibility. In the late 40’s the technicians at 20th Century Fox scaled some pretty impressive heights when it came to beautifully mounted and photographed black & white productions (THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, DRAGONWYCK, PRINCE OF FOXES). PINKY holds its own in this heady company.
The script is wide-ranging and well-written - the dialogue thoughtful, the drama frequently effective. But the most fascinating point of interest turns out to be Jeanne Crain. I’ve seldom seen a performance so difficult to assess fairly. She plays the title role, a young, light –skinned mulatto who returns to the South after several years of successfully "passing" for white up North. Her life’s in turmoil. For one thing, she’s emotionally involved with a white man who wants to marry her but doesn’t know her background. She comes home for some breathing space, to get her head around the situation, to weigh her options, maybe recapture –briefly – what she remembers as a simpler time. Needless to say, Pinky’s return only complicates the snarls in her life.
Physically, the casting is - to some degree - absurd. There’s nothing at all in Jeanne Crain’s appearance to suggest Pinky’s racial background. She was Fox’s All-American girl next door. Sweet. Virginal. And, as one observer noted "the whitest actress on the lot". But she also seemed to be overtaking Betty Grable as the studio’s most popular female attraction (Marilyn Monroe hadn't really happened yet). Mega-hits like STATE FAIR and MARGIE had made her a huge favorite with the public. Fan-mail was arriving in truckloads. And certainly studio head Darryl Zanuck saw her as a gilt-edged company asset. He believed PINKY was a project that could elevate her to a whole new level of acclaim. If it didn’t torpedo her popularity altogether. It was a gamble – but a feasible one, Zanuck felt, with the potential rewards, artistic and financial, outweighing the risks - slightly. And he probably saw Crain’s participation in the film as a kind of box-office insurance for a potentially perilous venture. The actress herself – known among her colleagues as a kind and gentle soul – must surely have been intimidated by the challenge. And director Elia Kazan was hardly enthusiastic about the casting. After all, up to now, she’d played a steady stream of sweet ingenues – undeniably charming, very very pretty. But no one had ever accused her of being an acting powerhouse. Commentators have been very vocal, mostly in the years since the movie’s release, about Crain’s physical unsuitability. Wasn’t Linda Darnell - duskier, earthier – right there on the Fox lot? Or couldn’t they have borrowed Yvonne DeCarlo? Even better Ava Gardner. She'd have had little trouble resurrecting her natural Southern accent for the part. Less sensible were the incessant claims that Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge should have gotten the role. Both were, of course, beautiful and accomplished. Horne was essentially a singer , though. Never much of an actress. Dandridge , on the other hand, did have the dramatic firepower. Her under-rated performance in ISLAND IN THE SUN(1957) remains one of that decade’s best. But we’re talking about a character who convincingly "passes" for white – even in the hyper-racist South of the 40’s. Not something either Horne or Dandridge could have realistically done. Over the years there’ve been endless similar laments about Horne’s being cheated out of her rightful role as Julie in 1951’s SHOW BOAT. Complaints , it would seem, from people none too familiar with SHOW BOAT’s actual story. Yes, Lena could’ve done lovely things with the Kern songs. But Julie’s another mulatto who has spent years "passing" for white in the even more racist South of the nineteenth century. Ava Gardner carried it off with conviction. Casting Horne would have stretched credibility way past the breaking point .
But it’s PINKY we’re talking about. And it seems to be widely accepted that Jeanne Crain’s physical appearance is completely unsuitable for the role. To further complicate matters, she performs without the slightest attempt at a southern accent. Playing a bi-racial girl raised dirt-poor in a Deep South shantytown. Yes, her grandmother saved enough money to send her away to nursing school. But it’s still unlikely she’d have come back sounding like - well, Jeanne Crain in APARTMENT FOR PEGGY. The look and the lack (of a southern accent). Those are the two giant elephants in the room. Factors that should, by all rights, disqualify Crain from being taken seriously here. So, why then, is she so genuinely compelling - so very effective in the role?
Certainly, a great deal of the credit must go to Elia Kazan. He already had a reputation as a superb director of actors. And here he seems to have helped Crain build on her strengths – a basic sincerity and decency. What’s new is a no-frills underpinning of tenacity. And beyond what’s strictly in the script, Crain ‘s Pinky reverberates with believable disillusionment, with a sense of wariness that always keeps her semi-steeled for the next catastrophe. There’s a tension here that’s maintained with real skill. Crain herself later said that – from her earliest childhood - her mother had instilled in her the idea that racism was wrong. So it’s not unreasonable to think that the actress believed she could say something important with this performance. What was at stake here went way beyond whether she’d share a final clinch with Cornel Wilde. In 1949 the subject matter – race relations in the U.S. – was all but unheard of on the screen. So – even if today the film might be dismissed by some as Racial Harmony 101 – at the time, it was strong stuff. The fact that some of that punch lingers is mainly down to the artists involved. And Crain is definitely involved – to a degree way beyond her previous screen assignments. She and Kazan must have reached some agreement about whether she should try an accent. Perhaps she simply couldn’t do it. Not every actor has that particular ability at his fingertips. Just listen to Barbara Stanwyck’s unintentionally hilarious attempt at an Irish brogue in UNION PACIFIC. Yet I defy anyone to say that Stanwyck isn’t an artist of the highest calibre. Maybe Crain needed a clear channel to successfully access and express her emotions. And the pressure of maintaining an accent would’ve set up some sort of artistic log-jam. The fact that Crain’s degree of "whiteness" is not appreciably different from what she’d exhibited in STATE FAIR or any of her other cheerful hits - well, perhaps it eased some white audiences in ’49 into identifying with the character, vicariously sharing the experience of a black woman, before they quite realized they were doing it. And did black viewers summarily reject Crain because of her appearance? It’s possible that for both audiences, Crain’s supposedly unsuitable appearance acted as a kind of shorthand for the idea that - morally – race was irrelevant. Surely, key to the film’s message are the ideas that people are people and injustice is injustice. PINKY was Fox’s biggest box-office hit of the year. So presumably that message reached a pretty sizable audience. What Jeanne Crain captures – quite successfully – is the humanity of the character. There’s a tangible dignity to this performance – though there’s never anything holier-than-thou about Crain’s approach. Pinky’s almost always on the verge of losing her temper. No wonder. Every day presents her with one nasty racially-motivated affront after another. And even if some of them are only anticipated/perceived by her (on the basis of past experience), most are real. Crain’s Pinky is smart and sensitive. And knows enough about survival to bite her tongue when she has to. Crain communicates the frustration eloquently. We rankle right along with her. She lowers her voice just a shade for the part – and displays a nice instinct for just when to turn down the volume on a word or a phrase. Sometimes biting back anger, sometimes resigned, other times icily determined. Crain’s face, often a sunny blank in earlier films, takes on a surprising expressivity throughout PINKY. I love the way she simultaneously conveys both nostalgia and revulsion as she surveys Granny’s shack near the beginning of the film. And she gets the appropriate blend of "I love you … but" in her relationship with Granny ( Ethel Waters). The Waters character so often seems to want the right things for the wrong reasons, making incredibly difficult demands of Pinky, without much apparent awareness of what she’s asking. And Crain creates a memorable picture as she walks down Fox’s gloriously dressed Southern street, handkerchief ineffectually dabbing away at the heat and dust, aware that – even here in her birthplace - she’s perceived as neither fish nor fowl. No matter, she’s going to get Granny’s swindled money back – for the old woman’s sake and to assuage her own guilt over the sacrifices Granny’s made for her. I love her taut impatience with shady Jake (Frederick O’Neal) – she’s too ticked off and too tired to make a scene. Gritting her teeth through a protracted existential migraine. The fracas with the police outside Jake’s place has a shocking spontanaiety, especially in the sudden swatting contest between Crain and Nina Mae McKinney. With Pinky’s humiliation at the police station, the film strikes a stark, ugly note that few moviegoers could’ve been prepared for in ’49. There’s a scene early on where Pinky wakes from a nightmare, the camera capturing a harrowing close-up of Crain’s distraught face. Easily among the year’s most memorable images. As a matter of fact, PINKY seldom offers audiences much time to catch their breath before the next emotional wallop. The girl’s near-rape by two boozed-up white boys on a deserted road is as startling as a thunderclap. Presented with raw, unexpected intimacy , the scene incorporates – among other things – the N word and some pretty graphic (for 1949) groping. Pinky’s panicked nick-of-time escape has us practically helping her slam her clothes into that battered suit-case to get the hell out of there.

That’s when the Ethel Barrymore character comes into play. As usual she’s the old lady who lives in the mansion. This time out the name's Miss Em. And Pinky’s already mentioned her with contempt and anger. For her, Miss Em’s a symbol of racial oppression. Case closed. Crain has a brief, indelible moment when she fails to comfort the little black girl who stands in transfixed exile outside Miss Em’s gate. Pinky relives a similar scene often enough in her own memory;she's not about to interject herself into someone else’s replay of it. And later, Crain scores points in a speech she hurls at Barrymore "What am I then? You tell me. You’re the ones that set the standards, you whites. You’re the ones that judge people by the color of their skins. Well, by your own standards – the only ones that matter to you – I’m as white as you are. That’s why you all hate me!".
Another scene that’s handled for maximum effect occurs in the general store when Pinky encounters vicious Mrs. Wooley, who’s determined to humiliate her. The atmosphere doesn’t just crackle because Evelyn Varden’s so good at being nasty. Crain deserves plenty of credit for absorbing all Varden’s venom and turning it back on her in a display of quietly steely resistance.
When fiance Tom (William Lundigan) tracks her down, she tells him the truth. And he still wants to marry her. The man she loves is offering her an escape route back to a world where she can live without the endless race-based barrages. What’s more, when the legacy Miss Em leaves her is contested in court, Tom stands by her through the whole emotional mess. Pinky’s dilemma is a tough one. And – to the film’s credit – we don’t get expository voice-overs. Or preaching. We can see she loves Tom. We know the South offers a future where the only sure thing is that there’ll be trouble. But we also know Tom wants her racial background to be their "secret". They’ll relocate. Start over. And Pinky realizes in spite of the comfort she’ll find with Tom, there’ll also be the daily strain of hiding something she has no reason to be ashamed of. What about children? Will Tom want to preserve their little secret by not having any? By adopting? Will the relationship be eroded by the constant threat of exposure ? Will Pinky be able to live with herself? And - conversely - would she be able to find any fulfillment or happiness in the South – without him? None of these questions are spoken aloud. Yet they’re all there in Crain’s face and in her performance. And I don’t find the ending a cop-out. Pinky’s choice seems like one she might genuinely make. There’ll be a certain amount of fulfillment. And undoubtedly a lot of trouble and she’ll have plenty of sleepless nights. But they won’t come from being forced to live a lie. Today Pinky would have options and opportunities that just weren’t there in the 40’s. The Pinky of 60 years ago had to make decisions based on the world she lived in. And whether she cared about making a difference in that world.
I’m still not sure whether I’d have nominated Crain for the Oscar that year (those elephants are still in the room). But I find myself glad that she was nominated. Yes, Kazan had initial trepidations about her casting. But in later years he pronounced himself extremely pleased with how effective Jeanne Crain turned out to be. I love the fact that she stretched herself. She looked like she cared; she made audiences care. And she did it in a movie that mattered.