Tuesday, October 29, 2013


                In my last post, I sang the praises of Ruth Gordon.  This one I’ll devote to the ladies who competed with  her  for that ’68 Oscar. The four that never got to read those lovely acceptance speeches.

LYNN CARLIN in “Faces”
“Faces” was an artistic thunderbolt when it came out.  And  45 years later that startling blend of artifice and open-wound immediacy  Cassavetes  captured  remains unique.  Lynn Carlin wasn’t a professional actress before she made the film. But not long afterwards ,she was one Oscar nomination ahead of most pros. The recognition was fully warranted. Her Maria is a sharp, observant processor of everything around her -  generally the smartest person in the room.  Which doesn’t mean her life isn’t a mess. And she’s  pretty much  at sea as to how to fix it, embarking (though never quite deciding) on a see-saw program of reticence  and desperate measures.  I love watching her when she and her friends visit the go-go bar.  Especially  her wide-eyed fascination with the general atmosphere of pelvic thrusting. She’s half a generation behind the late 60’s zeitgeist – and doesn’t know quite how or even whether to join the party.  Anyone who thinks  the quality of her debut performance  was just a fluke  should watch her in 1971’s “ Taking Off” with Buck Henry. More terrific work

 SONDRA LOCKE in "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"
The novel’s set in the 30’s. I suppose the producers’ decision to update it to the present was an effort to save money – and to make the whole thing more relatable to 1968 audiences. Visually, the results tend toward TV blandness, compounding a general lack of delicacy that frequently  undermines  the project (the music’s often jarringly inappropriate) . Still, some of the performances are top-drawer. Certainly what success the picture achieves owes a lot to Alan Arkin. His complex (and wordless)  under-playing  conveys  empathy and frustration , both communicated with poignant eloquence. The picture also benefits from a couple of marvelous  supporting  performances:  Stacy Keach, sadly charismatic playing an alcoholic tumbleweed who can’t stop drifting and Biff McGuire, superb as Mick’s invalid father. Aching to be a tower of strength, but unable to earn the money his family needs. The film has less luck with its female roles. A gung-ho  Cicely Tyson hits us over the head with a bucket  of assorted  acting nuts and bolts. Greatness came later. Here she’s trying to jump-start it but without much success. Although  I must say she nails the delivery of the line “I got a feelin’ I’m a mighty good hater.” And then there’s Sondra Locke as Mick. It’s a choice, potentially memorable part. But Locke’s lack of magic or magnetism  is a problem.  Imagine Julie Harris in the early 50’s or Natalie Wood a little later in that same decade.  Two  very different actresses. Yet Harris or a Scout-ish  Wood could have really elevated this vehicle.  As it is, Locke’s not bad. Just not particularly  special. It’s crucial that we believe the bond that grows between her and Mr. Silver.  Arkin’s up to the task. But Locke never quite hits the note of urgency this character needs.  And when – at the end - she says she’ll never forget him, it’s hard to attach much weight to her words or to her performance.  In the end, though, it’s ‘Heart” ’s successes – not its shortcomings – that linger in the memory. The performances of Arkin, Keach and McGuire all embody the film’s title with passion and melancholy beauty, leaving behind  a permanent glow.

KAY MEDFORD  in “Funny Girl”
Kay Medford had plenty of time to perfect this role during its long  Broadway run. But, of course, it wouldn’t be what it is if she hadn’t  had  24 kt gold talent  to begin with. A seasoned vet, with much stage (and some screen) experience {check her out in the Glenn Ford noir “Undercover Man” from ’49, where she’s pretty darn terrific as a sympathetic stripper), she was a past mistress of sardonic asides. To do it with warmth, though, that’s where the real balancing act is – and Medford ranks with the best.  The picture’s expensive but – except for the tugboat sequence – has a dead soundstage feel to it, only compounded by the wide screen and micro-managed sound design.  If you’re looking for any sense of atmospheric looseness or spontaneity, look elsewhere . But the story has a compelling fairytale appeal, the score’s exceptional and Barbra Streisand’s a full-fledged hurricane of show-biz savvy. And even if I’m the billionth person to say it, that singing voice – and her absolute mastery of it - is astonishing.  I think the sheer magnitude of  Streisand’s impact here made people less appreciative of the skill and charm Omar Sharif and Kay Medford brought to the proceedings. But at least Medford copped a nomination.  A nice acknowledgment for lovely work.

ESTELLE PARSONS in “Rachel, Rachel”
I believe  it was Nathaniel  of thefilmexperience.net who coined the phrase “afterglow nomination.” Referring   to the Academy’s tendency to quickly re-nominate Oscar winners.  It seems to occur with special frequency in the supporting categories.  And it’s easy to come up with reasons. In the period following their Oscar victory, winners are suddenly offered all the choicest supporting roles. So naturally they tend to turn up in baity parts over the next season or two. Besides which, fresh minted post-Oscar confidence (and pressure) often inspires actors to new creative heights. But, more often than not, the afterglow nomination  comes for a performance that’s not all that extraordinary.  Nominating it basically comes off as a sort of good will gesture. The recent Oscar winner’s name is still firmly etched in the minds of Oscar  voters . And  so  members  are  paying special attention to what said winner does next.  For a season or two, whatever the actor comes up with is automatically deemed worthy of Oscar’s attention. Sometimes the second nomination’s just an additional pat on the back for the earlier performance – or even  the Academy congratulating itself on its good judgment. (See? we were right. They really are good). I loved Estelle Parsons in “Bonnie and Clyde”. But her performance in “Rachel, Rachel” is simply nothing special.  I realize she s a dedicated and successful stage actress with lots of technique, lots of awards, lots of experience,  lots  of respect.  But this is definitely an example of the afterglow phenomenon. That voice – continually  running  up and down the scale on a bicycle horn – worked marvelously in “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here, it’s kind of grating. She’s okay in “Rachel, Rachel”, though I wouldn’t go any further. Aside from the afterglow thing,  maybe  industry good will toward the Newmans  helped garner the nomination. And , let’s face it, the role itself came with a built-in attention grabbing element.  Lesbian kisses were still pretty startling in mainstream Hollywood films of the time. And the fact that the script portrayed  Calla sympathetically certainly would have played well in the late 60’s climate of exploding liberalism and openness.  Anyway, of all the reasons I can think of for this nomination, none are based on the performance itself.  Completely professional work.  But outstanding? No.  Still, as I said, that Oscar Estelle Parsons won as Blanche Barrow was fully, richly, resoundingly deserved.

LYNN CARLIN in “Faces”  ♥♥♥♥  ½
RUTH GORDON in “Rosemary’s Baby”  ♥♥♥♥♥
SONDRA LOCKE in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” ♥♥ ½

1968 presents one of the category’s better rosters – three exceptional performances,
 two perfectly acceptable one. Not a real clinker in the bunch.
Still, my list of nominees that year would’ve been a little different.

RUTH GORDON "Rosemary's Baby"
LEIGH TAYLOR-YOUNG “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”
JO VAN FLEET “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”
JOYCE VAN PATTEN “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

As you can see,  I consider the “Toklas” ladies a pretty formidable trio, even squeezing Medford out of the shortlist  But, in the end, I think I’d have agreed with Oscar and given the prize to Ruth Gordon.