Thursday, October 14, 2021

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Cinema '62: Best Supporting Actress

Today, we look at the nominees for Best Supporting Actress, with four movies we'll be seeing a lot more of - Bird Man of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker, Sweet Bird of Youth, To Kill a Mockingbird - and The Manchurian Candidate

The original AFI List of the 100 Greatest American Movies included The Manchurian Candidate at #67, TIME named Mrs. Iselin among the 25 Greatest Movie Villains, and Screen Drafts called it the second-best Cold War film. It's a well-done noose-tightener about brainwashed soldiers, political manipulation, and the conspiracy that binds these two into one master plan. It's interesting because there's not a lot of mystery behind it, the movie tipping its hand pretty early as to what's going on, though not necessarily why it's going on. That seems a little muddled, particularly the cross and double-cross. Great performances from Laurence Harvey and Khigh Dhiegh. Ballsy finale. Great (Oscar-nominated) editing by Ferris Webster. I wish I liked it!

The nominees:

Mary Badham as Scout Finch
To Kill a Mockingbird
first and only nomination

The daughter of Atticus Finch, who observes and lives through a year that changed her, her family, and the Radleys. I've seen people classify her as a lead, and it's borderline - the film is about the kids getting a new understanding of their father and town. I don't know. Badham's superb either way, there's no self-consciousness in her performance, no tricks or tics, just pure being. A credit to the director and editor for shaping such a performance, perhaps, but the talent, the ability, is still there. I love her fights on the schoolyard, her scenes with Atticus, her standing to watch him pass out of the courtroom. You never catch her acting.

Patty Duke as Helen Keller
The Miracle Worker
first and only nomination; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Helen Keller, left without sight or hearing after an illness in infancy, taught to communicate by Anne Sullivan - but first, a tumultuous coming-together. Duke's physicality is exhausting in a good way: she's a force, her frustration palpable. Exquisitely communicates mischief and intelligence without begging for audience sympathy. Subsequent Helens have taught us that, contrary to Duke's assertion that the role won the Oscar, the performer makes the difference. That said, while the movie takes Sullivan's POV, it is also Helen's story; were one of them male, both would be considered leads.

Shirley Knight as Heavenly Finley
Sweet Bird of Youth
second and final nomination; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress

Heavenly Finley is Boss Finley's resentful daughter, still in love with drifter ex-beau Chance. Didn't have to be this good - my God, that heavyhanded name! - but Knight gives Heavenly a surprising slyness. There's a grown-up anger beyond pettiness in her performance. She does the work, shows you how the smitten girl becomes the disillusioned daughter, the surprising capacity for redemption. No fantasy girl, but a real woman.

Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin
The Manchurian Candidate
third and final nomination; Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actress, National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actress of 1962

Mrs. Iselin, the steely politician's wife with a chilling agenda of her own. A legendary performance - only Duke's rivals that status - but I confess it's the one I keep having to look up when recalling the lineup. Maybe it's because I was underwhelmed by the movie surrounding her. Maybe I just don't buy some of her choices, many of them fun scene to scene, but not necessarily coalescing into a consistent character.

Thelma Ritter as Elizabeth McCartney Stroud
Bird Man of Alcatraz
sixth and final nomination

The mother of Robert Stroud, a jealous woman whose attachment to her son tips into Unhealthy. Ritter doesn't get much time to develop the relationship, though part of the shock of her decisions is this secret drama that only she is privy to. But it's barely a character, and the performance matches it.


The Oscar went to Patty Duke:

Hers probably is the best performance in this category. But I don't think it's supporting. I give my vote to:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Director: Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style), David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker) and Frank Perry (David and Lisa).

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