It’s a good time to head over to StinkyLulu's ‘cause the Supporting Actress nominees of 1959 are currently strutting their stuff there. Though most of these performances have their moments, this is by no means one of my favorite rosters. Only one of the five would’ve made my own list of nominees that year. But Lulu’s decision to spotlight ’59 in this month’s Smackdown got me looking back at some of my favorite un-nominated turns from exactly fifty years ago.
Shelley Winters got a nod (and in fact won the trophy) for her accomplished work in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. But I remembered reacting more strongly to Gusti Huber and Diane Baker, who played Anne’s mother and sister. When I re-watched the picture a couple of weeks ago, those positive memories were reinforced. Huber’s a pro to her fingertips, doing such solid work building her character on the sidelines that when her spotlight moments arrive they’re fully infused with the detailed humanity she’s been quietly accumulating all along. Baker, a lovely actress who never quite achieved the heights she seemed headed for, downplays her beauty here, going instead for a restrained display of selflessness, achieved at a cost her character never quite puts into words. It’s distinctive work – achingly touching – and in a role that could’ve been lost in the shuffle. Of course the film’s over-riding impact comes not so much from the performances as from the crushing sadness of the real Anne’s fate.
I first saw SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER in a movie theatre in the 1960’s. One-half of a double bill that promised considerably more hold-onto-your-hats titillation than it delivered. Even so, like most (I suppose) I was buffaloed by sheer star power (Taylor,Clift,Hepburn,Tennessee Williams) into thinking I was watching pretty serious stuff. A screening in the 80’s severely diminished most of my memories, especially the ones involving Hepburn’s poison ivy matriarch. But that time out, Mercedes McCambridge caught my attention. Her Nervous Nellie act, fawning and scraping, afraid of her own shadow and even more afraid of Hepburn’s, seemed a nice bit of playing against type. Over the years, when I’ve thought of deserving nominees from ’59, McCambridge’s name has always popped up in my mind. After watching the movie again this month, I find my estimation of SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER continues to plummet. McCambridge now seems unnecessarily cartoonish in her first couple of scenes. I think she reins it in a bit later on – and I suppose I got more acclimatized to it as the movie wore on. In the end, her contribution seems okay. But –sorry, Mercedes – no soup for you – and no nomination. As for Hepburn, her antics now look preposterous. A geriatric Ophelia bobbing along on a stream of unbridled mannerisms. If it’s true that she and director Mankiewicz battled bitterly over her interpretation of the part, I’d love to know which one of them prevailed in the end. Because what’s onscreen reflects very little credit on either. Ultimately SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is a pint-sized tempest in a teapot. Shocked at itself, certainly, but very unlikely to startle anybody else. Like that highly touted white bathing suit they keep telling us is transparent, despite clear visual evidence to the contrary.
The elegantly horrific LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE) probably wasn’t eligible for Oscars in ’59. I don’t believe it saw the light of day in America till around ’62. And then it was tossed into drive-ins – truncated, masticated, badly dubbed and saddled with the distinctly inelegant title THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUSTUS. But certainly Alida Valli’s supporting work in the original version was a singular pleasure. Valli (fondly remembered from THE THIRD MAN and THE PARADINE CASE) was one of those essential continental actresses who (like Simone Signoret) seemed to convey fathomless depths of experience, feeling, passion etc. Literally throbbing with the potential for delight, destruction and self-destruction. This time out she’s the obsessively loyal assistant of a dour scientist. Said man of science is determined to repair the face of his daughter (disfigured in a car accident) no matter the cost. Seems his plan requires beautiful young girls for facial transplant purposes. And Valli’s the one that rounds up these unwitting subjects. She roams the city as a respectable lady d’un certain age, offering to help gullible young lookers find suitable accomodation. She’s smooth, soothing, authoritative and extremely persuasive. Once she’s got the potential tenants to the professor’s out-of-the-way chateau, they soon find out first and last month’s rent are likely to be one and the same – with the terms a good deal stiffer than they’d bargained for. Valli’s performance is by no means the film’s only pleasure. But she plays her enigmatic card to memorably hypnotic effect.
In the end, though, none of the above would quite make the cut for me in ’59. ‘Cause there were five other ladies who - for my money -created even greater impressions that year.
SUSAN KOHNER in "Imitation of Life"
Kohner’s the only one of the five actual nominees who’d also appear on my own list. And this in a Ross Hunter soap opera – wax fruit under glass with conspicuous attention paid to cocktail gowns, jewellery and stale women’s picture cliches. Lana Turner’s the centerpiece here. And Hunter’s swat team follows the boss’s usual list of idiotic priorities, vigilantly keeping the moths away from Lana’s furs, but apparently allowing them full access to the script. Turner plays Lora Meredith, Broadway’s greatest actress. Naturally they daren’t show much of Lana’s onstage emoting, wisely (and hilariously) restricting her triumphs to curtain calls and flower-bedecked dressing rooms. She also vascillates uninterestingly between a number of stuffed-shirt suitors (one of whom is John Gavin – who gave much the same performance eight years later in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, except that time he called it comedy). But the real interest in IMITATION OF LIFE comes from the picture’s sub-plot. Sarah Jane ( the daughter of Lora’s black housekeeper) is light-skinned enough to pass for white and determines to do just that. In other words, Sarah Jane - operating in racially repressive 50's America - is setting herself up for some very real dilemmas. What’s more Susan Kohner (who’s playing her) is faced with the challenge of making the performance work in a screenplay padded with piffle i.e. Lana’s penny ante problems. At some point, Kohner must have taken a deep breath and just decided to put it all on the line. Her Sarah Jane is selfish, angry, peevish and recklessly determined to find a way out. And – for all her bad behaviour – believable and sympathetic too, because she succeeds in communicating honest-to-goodness pain . Pride and shame locked in mortal combat. It’s quite an accomplishment for a young actress. She does benefit from a strong chemistry with Juanita Moore (cast as her mother,Annie). Moore’s a fine actress but - like most of the picture’s characters – Annie’s mission’s to make Sarah Jane stifle her feelings. And though that may make everyone else in the picture more comfortable it won’t solve Sarah Jane’s problems. She wants the same kind of life and privileges she sees white girls enjoying. Girls who aren’t as pretty, as smart or as flat-out hungry as she is. Sarah’s playing with fire. She knows it. She’s also willing to risk it. The girl has the additional bad luck to be raised alongside America’s Sweetheart Sandra Dee, a shiny blonde magnet for privileges and prom invitations. What’s more, Dee doesn’t even have the decency to be a bitch about it. Basically her character’s an eternally supportive Melanie to Kohner’s thwarted Scarlett. Aside from fighting the world around her, Sarah Jane also has to wrestle with her own feelings of guilt over what she’s doing to her mother. She goes on the run. But everywhere Sarah Jane sets up shop, Mom eventually shows up to blow the whistle. Annie may urge her to be true to herself but in the end Sarah Jane’s got so many forces pulling and pushing her, she can hardly be expected to know what being true to herself even means. She just wants to live a little. Susan Kohner hits all the right notes – angry, nasty, desperate, guilty – all the while deeply, deeply frustrated at being painted into a corner by implacable societal forces . As I said, Juanita Moore’s a marvelous actress but the aura of saintliness imposed on her character puts limits on just how effective (and credible) she can be. Sarah Jane’s whole thing is about crossing limits. And Kohner goes for broke.
THELMA RITTER in "A Hole in the Head"
Ritter actually was one of the five Supporting Actress nominees in ’59. But not for this picture. Academy members singled out her contribution to the box-office juggernaut PILLOW TALK (another
plastic bauble from the Ross Hunter assembly line). Now, who doesn’t love Thelma Ritter? Certainly the Academy nominated her frequently – but seldom for the right performances. PILLOW TALK is a case in point. The picture itself is painfully smirking nonsense. It may have elevated the already world-famous Doris Day to stratospheric heights of popularity. But it hardly did justice to her talents. Neither Rock Hudson nor Tony Randall ever get within a mile of a genuine laugh. And Ritter – the great Ritter – is reduced to the level of a running gag, merely juggling binges and hangovers. The material she’s given isn’t funny – and even Ritter’s formidable gifts can’t turn dog turds into diamonds. Still, it must be pointed out, the picture wowed them in ’59. So go figure. Far less successful was the Frank Sinatra comedy A HOLE IN THE HEAD. As a film it was no great shakes. But certainly a cut above PILLOW TALK. What it did have in its favour was one of Ritter’s best performances, playing Sinatra’s wise-cracking, cynical but warm-hearted sister-in-law. During her career she was often asked to perform duty as a sort of solo scene saver, a lone Saint Bernard dispatched to rescue floundering co-stars from their own shortcomings. A HOLE IN THE HEAD gives her the opportunity to indulge in team-work of the highest order, with Edward G.Robinson, no less, cast as her irascible ragtrade husband. I’ve seen Robinson play comedy before. Very well in John Ford’s THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING. Not so much in A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER and BROTHER ORCHID. But with Ritter beside him he raises his game substantially. The old school, put-that-in-your-pipe bickering between the two is 24 karat gold. Screenwriter Arnold Schulman seems to have responded to the Ritter-Robinson chemistry too. Because the dialogue he gives them (and there’s plenty of it) is all much better stuff than the rest of the cast has to settle for. By this time, of course, both Ritter and Robinson were veterans – what they didn’t know about performing probably wasn’t worth knowing. Here they get to toss the ball back and forth with world-class elan – two pros at the top of their respective games. Inspired by the presence of his scene partner, Robinson even scores silent movie sized bellylaughs out of repeated encounters with a recalcitrant armchair, all, of course, under Ritter’s "enough already" gaze. A HOLE IN THE HEAD may sag when these two are off-screen. But as soon as they’re back, there’s nowhere else you’d want to be.
CONSTANCE FORD in "A Summer Place"
A SUMMER PLACE was (like IMITATION OF LIFE) a soap opera mega-hit in ’59. Airy outdoor photography and Max Steiner’s time-capsule of a theme song helped elevate it above the level of similar Ross Hunter efforts. Another asset was the presence of serenely accomplished Dorothy McGuire (instead of Lana Turner) in the female lead. Two of IMITATION OF LIFE’s players also popped up in A SUMMER PLACE – Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. Now giving Donahue more screen time didn’t add a whit to his non-existent appeal. But the Sandra Dee of the 50’s was pretty darn endearing. A recent re-viewing of her debut UNTIL THEY SAIL reconfirmed glowing memories of that performance. She more than holds her own in a star-heavy cast (Jean Simmons,Paul Newman,Joan Fontaine,Piper Laurie). Even serving up a none too authentic but undeniably charming stab at a New Zealand accent. A couple of years later she’s a real delight in an Audie Murphy quasi-western, THE WILD AND THE INNOCENT. Dee has an excellent confrontation scene in IMITATION OF LIFE, briefly shaking Lana out of her torpor. And she’s a decided asset in A SUMMER PLACE, where she (mainly) rises above the dialogue’s unintentionally amusing pussyfooting. The one-two punch of IMITATION OF LIFE and A SUMMER PLACE catapulted her into the Box Office Top Ten. But the 60’s failed to deliver on her early promise, consigning her to awful Gidget and Tammy movies (where sad to say she sank to the level of the material) plus other claptrap comedies. Who knows? Maybe youth played too big a part in her appeal. And maybe she really did grow less interesting as she got older. But it was nice to see her beautifully and touchingly portrayed by Kate Bosworth in the otherwise snooze-worthy Bobby Darin biopic BEYOND THE SEA. Bosworth captured so much of what Dee – at her best - radiated that a Kate Bosworth nomination wouldn’t have been out of order in 2004. Certainly it would’ve been a nice tip of the hat to Dee herself. But I digress. The performance I mean to spotlight is the one given by Constance Ford, a formidable presence despite the relatively few film appearances she made. In A SUMMER PLACE, Ford plays a monster mother – sexually repressed, social-climbing, back-stabbing, money-grubbing – an all-round pain-in-the-ass. Having fooled Richard Egan into marrying her, she considers her sexual duty done once they’ve had a child (Dee) and immediately cancels hubby’s bedroom privileges. When Dee becomes a teenager Momma guards her daughter’s virginity like a rottweiler, intent on saving her for a "suitable" marriage. Of course, since Momma’s bigoted against every possible group (even the Swedes), "suitable" candidates are few and far between. Included in the army of the unsuitable is Troy Donahue, the puffy-faced himbo Dee develops "feelings" for. For every obstacle Ford faces, she marshals a new set of dirty tricks to combat it. Eventually, of course, she’s committed to a scorched earth policy unlikely to leave a tree or a co-star standing. You’ve got to see the sequence where she literally hurls Dee into a fully decorated Christmas tree, toppling them both. The camera loved Ford (not in the way it loved, say, Bo Derek) but rather in the sense that it just couldn’t help but pick up on the powerful and complicated aura she emanated. Sometimes a concentrated malignant force, sometimes an emotional bull in a china shop. But always recognizably – sometimes startlingly – real. Ford’s voice – a seemingly blunt instrument she wielded like a precision tool - added considerably to the over-all impact. I’ve always thought of her as the second member of an acting triumvirate. Three women who shared a bond - physically, temperamentally and artistically. First of the trio would be Shelley Winters. Like Winters, Ford could be reasonably attractive – but in a kind of down-to-earth way that stubbornly resisted any efforts to Max Factorize her into Grace Kelly. And like Winters, Ford had a brief sylph-like stage early on, imposed no doubt at great cost. Eventually she let her waistline expand – and as she did so came into the full range of her talents. Again like Winters, Ford also seemed basically proletarian. If her character was rich in a movie, she’d probably married into it. Ford and Winters were both awfully good at playing women determined to crash (whatever they perceived as) society. Expert whiners. Yet they could also intimidate without even raising their voices. And if they did raise them – you’d better batten down the hatches. They were sometimes given caricatures to play – but with the right motivation (and both were usually pretty motivated) – always knew how to inject a jolt of the Real McCoy into their work. Certainly in A SUMMER PLACE, Ford elicits unexpected sympathy when we see her cowed by her own mother – a far less interesting virago, but obviously the one who made her what she is. For whatever reason, Ford focused mainly on television and stage roles. For years she was a fixture on daytime soaps, wreaking matriarchal havoc five days a week to the delight of loyal afternoon audiences. But for film fans, A SUMMER PLACE remains Ford’s finest hour. The third member of the triumvirate, by the way, would be Shirley Knight. Physically, she was cut from the same cloth as the other two. And much of what could be said about their abilities applied to her as well. She probably was a more comfortable fit in society roles than the other two. But she could match them in power, talent and charisma. And as far as I know she’s still doing great work. Knight was terrific in STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY in the 90’s – and I’ve watched her acquit herself beautifully in a number of television roles over the last decade. Someone even told me she’s in PAUL BLART: MALL COP, a movie I suspect could benefit considerably from even the smallest part of Knight's expertise . Shelley Winters won her first Oscar for her ’59 work. At the same time Ford was wowing audiences in A SUMMER PLACE. And Knight was already at work on THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, the film that would bring her the first of her Academy nominations. For this triumvirate 1959 was a very good year.
Delbert Mann’s MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, written by Paddy Chayevsky, is a total departure from Ross Hunter land, deliberately deglamourized, photographed largely on real New York locations in stark black and white and alive with the influences of neo-realism and Method acting. The story follows a widower in his late 50’s who devotes most of his time and energy to running a small New York garment factory. Outside of work, life’s a dreary, circumscribed routine; his spinster sister looks after his home; he pays regular visits to his grown-up daughter and her family. Then suddenly – unexpectedly - he finds himself falling in love with Betty, a twenty-something girl in his office.When she actually seems to be responding, his life turns upside down. Ultimately family, friends and his own insecurities turn the whole thing into an emotional bonfire. The film stars Fredric March and Kim Novak, two actors who’d both been spectacularly good and spectacularly bad in the past. Here – in their sole teaming – they’re sensational. March hits all the right notes as a good man watching his life wind down, facing a sudden, life-altering upheaval that brings everything – good and bad – to the surface. It’s probably his best-ever screen work, which is saying something. Novak’s Betty is an insecure young woman, with a failed marriage behind her. She’s living with her manipulative mother and has little reason to trust the world – especially the men in it. Novak’s at her best in roles like this – shy, emotionally isolated young women to whom beauty’s more burden than blessing. For her, too, MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT represents a career highlight. Possibly topped a year later by her work in STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET (a marginally lesser film) but an even greater achievement for Novak performance-wise. She’s genuinely heart-breaking in it. MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT offers her at the crest of her personal golden age, giving the third of four consecutive knock-out performances ( the first two triumphs being VERTIGO and BELL BOOK AND CANDLE). The sadness of Kim Novak’s screen sirens shines across the decades with a glow that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time but now seems unmistakable. But good as they are, March and Novak don’t monopolize the acting honors. I don’t know if I’ve seen any pictures with as many nomination-worthy performances packed into them. ( A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and CAGED come to mind). But MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT has every single acting category covered. Martin Balsam, a performer I can usually take or leave, is rousingly effective as March’s son-in-law, a man who’s got his work cut out just trying to catch his wife’s attention.
And Albert Dekker’s a revelation playing March’s loud-mouthed business associate, regaling unwilling audiences with dirty jokes about his (supposed) sexploits with a string of bimbos, ultimately confessing and confronting the emptiness of his existence. Dekker’s movie career went back to the 30’s but this work tops anything he’d ever done before. So there you are - four (deserved) nominations already – Actor, Actress plus two Supporting Actor nods . And we haven’t even gotten to Supporting Actress yet. Here MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT supplies two more worthy candidates.
BETTY WALKER was apparently a busy comedienne. Night-clubs, radio and television seem to have been her regular venues. In the 60’s she contributed to the popular comedy LP ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish". Outside of this picture her filmography doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. But she takes her one scene in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT and runs with it. I’d remembered the performance (though not the name) for several decades just based on one long ago viewing of the picture. Catching up with it again this year I saw why she'd made such an indelible impression. The manner and voice are unique. Doro Merande on tranquilizers doesn’t begin to tell the story. And no director could’ve said, "Betty, do it this way". She simply has some eccentric beat-of-a-different-drummer energy all her own. Put her in front of a camera and let her go. Perhaps if she’d made a lot of movies we’d have gotten used to her style. As it is, she comes on, makes jaws drop, then leaves. She’s Mrs. Neiman, a robotic widow the family presents as a suitable match for March. She’s trotted into his bedroom, no less. As he’s changing clothes. At which point she starts spouting a series of tonelessly insinuating non-sequiturs, all the time eyeing the man, looking for all the world as if she’s holding an open gamesack and trying to hypnotize him into it. March is completely thrown for a loop by this close-talking personal space invader. Imagine a decrepit Devil Girl from Mars suddenly materializing in your room while you’re trying to dress. And no amount of polite hinting will get her the hell out again. It’s a mesmerizing bit – certainly shorter than any nominated performance I’ve ever seen. Measured in seconds but – believe me – Walker makes every one of those seconds count.
March’s daughter Lillian is played - to perfection - by JOAN COPELAND. And this is the performance I think should’ve taken the trophy home in ’59. Lillian's a lifetime daddy’s girl , carelessly confident of her position as apple of her father’s eye. But the liaison with Novak threatens the exclusivity of that relationship and Lillian ‘s eventually willing to do pretty much anything to derail it. She slowly crosses the line from supportive to controlling, so caught up in the conflict she hardly notices her own marriage slipping down the drain. It’s a treat to watch Copeland explore and expand the character, revealing facets that can barely have existed in the script. And it doesn't hurt that she's got the look - and the sense of passionate urgency - that characterized Judy Garland in the 60's. Moviemakers were crazy not to use Joan Copeland more. But few seem to have done much to lure her away from her first love, the stage. I’ve only seen her twice. And both times the earth moved. Here, serving up an impressive concoction of warmth, pleading and bullying. And in 1977’s ROSELAND where she’s unforgettable as the older woman keeping desperate tabs on dance partner/gigolo Christopher Walken. It’s a picture with as many lows as highs. But these two are magnificent. Walken should’ve picked up his first Oscar for ROSELAND (a year before DEER HUNTER). And as in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, Copeland is sublime - a wonderful Method-inspired actress, with a gift for bringing truth to her lines and inspiration to her co-stars. In real life she was the sister of playwright Arthur Miller. And( though not as famous) was - at her own craft – every bit as accomplished.