Thursday, November 23, 2017

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The Shoo-In and the Shocker: Actress, 1947

Best Actress 1947 is one of the best Oscar stories to read about. It encompasses everything: campaigns creating narratives, one nominee steamrolling the circuit, a surprise twist, confidence becoming graciousness...jesus, no one could have guessed the outcome!

According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's essential Inside Oscar, the man we have to thank for this story is Henry Rogers, a publicist and Oscar strategist who was behind the campaigns for Olivia de Havilland in 1946 and Joan Crawford in 1945 - both resulting in wins. He offered his services to Rosalind Russell for Mourning Becomes Electra, a nearly three-hour drama based on the classic Eugene O'Neill play that Russell herself didn't enjoy. He orchestrated a campaign that led many to consider the other four also-rans - especially Susan Hayward, whose nomination was the most unexpected of the lineup, and Loretta Young, who even Variety mistakenly reported was up for The Bishop's Wife instead of The Farmer's Daughter. Russell received plaudits from USC, UCLA, even the PTA - and being named Best Actress at the Golden Globes didn't hurt, either.

This was the first year the Academy scrambled up the order of awards, instead of giving out "the technicals" first and "the majors" last. This meant changes like Best Actor coming in the middle of the show, and Best Film Editing being one of the final three awards. It also meant the last award of the night wasn't Best Picture, but Best Actress. And boy, did that decision pay off.

Legend has it Russell had already half-risen from her seat when Fredric March opened the envelope. Audience members were already quietly exiting. March even started to say, "Ros--" when he suddenly did a double-take. The award for Best Actress goes to....


Russell turned her anticipatory rise to leading the standing ovation that greeted the stunned Young, who was visibly shaking when she eventually left the stage...but not before planting a big kiss on Oscar. A shocking win closing out the Oscars - when was the last time that happened?

But was it deserved? My take on the nominees, after the jump...

Joan Crawford as Louise Howell

The star: Made her film debut as a body double in 1925's Lady of the Night. This is her second of three nominations, having previously won for 1945's Mildred Pierce. She also appeared this year in Daisy Kenyon.

The film: A woman found wandering the streets tells a hospital staff the story of her life, including the slow realization that she is schizophrenic.

The performance: Crawford is the kind of actress who fucking sweats, and her intensity is enough to get your blood pressure up even without the score and editing helping her. She plays the slide from together nurse to paranoid woman smartly, showing the hints of the latter in the looks and gestures of the former...just less so, you know what I mean? Crawford doesn't "play" crazy, so much as she seems, haha, possessed.

Susan Hayward as Angelica Evans Conway
Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman

The star: Made her uncredited film debut in 1937's Hollywood Hotel. This is the first of five nominations, eventually winning for 1958's I Want to Live!. Fellow nominee Loretta Young voted for her.

The film: A nightclub singer "retires" to support her singer-songwriter husband's ambitions; when his career takes off and she's left with little to do, she begins hitting the bottle.

The performance: Hayward rarely overplays the drunken episodes; when she is stumbling and slurring, it's with the confidence of the truly plotzed. In earlier scenes, she grounds the central love story with a believable intimacy, never blind to the frustrations and compromises of poor, young love - you see it on her face. Best of all: what could have been a powder room catfight becomes something more exciting when she throws a punch instead of a slap.

Dorothy McGuire as Kathy Lacy
Gentleman's Agreement

The star: Made her film debut in 1943's Claudia, a role she previously played on Broadway to much acclaim. This is her only nomination.

The film: A journalist passes as a Jewish man in order to write an expose on anti-Semitism, learning some very hard truths about prejudice in American society. McGuire is his liberal girlfriend who realizes she's been enabling those prejudices.

The performance: McGuire's got a tough job here. She's the romantic interest, so she must have chemistry with Gregory Peck (check), without compromising her character's natural intelligence (double check), remaining believably liberal in her outlook (confidently so - check), but with her own enabling tendencies. Perhaps she does too good a job because Kathy is fucking frustrating. While she never sold me on deserving a second chance, that's more a fault of the narrative than McGuire.

Rosalind Russell as Lavinia Mannon
Mourning Becomes Electra

The star: Made her film debut in 1934's Evelyn Prentice. This is her third of four nominations.

The film: A riff on Greek tragedy, taking place in a New England mansion after the Civil War, but with all the romantic jealousy, family tensions, rising body count, and incestuous undertones. Based on a play by Eugene O'Neill.

The performance: With one exception, the entire cast enters the film intoning their dialogue with all the seriousness accorded to a Prestige Adaptation of a Very Important Play. The seriousness gets to be too much: there's not much Russell does after her first scene, and while most would be commended for not pitching a performance like this to the rafters, it would have been a welcome relief. She plateaus early, after which she has very few surprises to offer. Disappointing.

Loretta Young as Katrin Holstrom
The Farmer's Daughter

The star: Made her film debut as a toddler in 1917's The Primrose four years old. This is her first of two nominations and only win. She also appeared this year in Best Picture nominee The Bishop's Wife.

The film: A farmer's daughter comes to Capitol City to become a nurse and, for reasons, ends up in domestic service and, eventually, politics.

The performance: Of course people think Katie's naive: Young almost vibrates with wide-eyed goodness, and there's nothing cynics chuckle at more than sincerity. But we see early on that Katie's no fool, and that's thanks to Young's knowing guardedness when faced with a lech, the quickness with which she solves domestic issues, her offhanded criticism of her "betters". Young's directness and honesty give credence to Katie's political future.


Two women share my highest rating - one of whom won the real thing. So who gets my final vote? In the end, I tick the box for...


This is one of those years where I may not have agreed with the full lineup, but I can't argue with most of the wins! Of the eleven categories covered so far, I have co-signed the Academy's pick five times!

I doubt that trend will continue tomorrow, as we wrap up the Oscar coverage with Best Picture: The Bishop's Wife, CrossfireGentleman's Agreement, Great Expectations, and Miracle on 34th Street.

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Fritz said...

Interesting, that's the first time I have ever seen somebody picky Loretta Young :)

Walter L. Hollmann said...

A tough choice, admittedly