More so than the Best Picture race, the Best Actress race of 1950 has divided Oscar fans and cinephiles for over 70 years. Yes, of course, Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson should have won for their immortal performances in, respectively, All About Eve and Sunset Blvd., who had the audacity to win?
OH, iconic Judy Holliday for iconic Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday? Hm...well...who else was...OH, Eve Harrington herself and the lead of women-in-prison cult classic Caged. Ahem, well, uh, in that case...hm.
An embarrassment of riches, clearly, so much so that I wrote much more about these performances than I did their male counterparts. But there's just so much to chew on, such great choices made by each performer, in such rich roles, how could I resist? See for yourself:
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington
All About Eve
past winner, second and final nomination
People argue about whether she's lead or supporting (even Baxter herself later claimed she was split about it), but, uh, it is all about her, isn't it? And she's very good at showing how Eve's hunger for stardom and power is used to convey ultimate earnestness. She really means it when she speaks adoringly of the Theatre, she seems almost entranced, and what seems like naive sincerity certainly leaves an impression on all; a second viewing shows that, sincere as she is about wanting to do This, she knows exactly how to play the room for ultimate sympathy. There's a wetness in her lips, a fire in her eyes, and she doesn't quite smile all the way. Anne Baxter is that bitch.
Bette Davis as Margo Channing
All About Eve
past two-time winner, ninth of eleven nominations; Cannes Film Festival - Best Actress, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actress; Golden Globes nominee for Best Actress - Drama
Of the performances that I have seen (and keep in mind I still need to see a lot), I really believe this is her most accomplished. A realistic portrayal of a Broadway diva: that is to say, she's a lot, but it's not like she's a monster who always makes an entrance. Her human moments - the looks she exchanges with Birdie and Karen, the sleepy phone call with Bill, her vulnerability in the stalled car - are all the more effective because we've seen what she's like when she's on - playing the role of "down-to-earth, charitable STAR" when she first meets Eve, forcing the pianist to play the same sorrowful tune at her party, or my personal favorite moment, the way she screams, "Paranoiac?!" at Bill during a fight. Like, I know this woman. And I love her.
Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn
first and only nomination; Golden Globes winner for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy; Golden Globes nominee for Best Actress - Drama, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Actress
I think I was pretty clear before that I don't think this flick is any great shakes writing-wise. What works, works because of Broderick Crawford - and, of course, Judy Holliday. From that first screech of "WHAAAAAAT?!" she has one in stitches. And she's so sincere about the books and the glasses and the everything. Holliday shows you Billie's development, not with a miraculous 180-degree turn, but into potential, the fantasy woman of every guy for whom reading books is a whole personality ("she's a chorus girl who likes it when I teach her!"). Holliday's go-for-it performance saves the film.
Eleanor Parker as Marie Allen
first of three nominations; Venice Film Festival winner for Best Actress
She's magnificent as the 19-year-old innocent out of her element in prison, clinging to her innocence and goodness in spite of the situation. She's effective as the bitter criminal, made a cynic by the system, willing to enter a life of crime on purpose this time to give herself a better shot. How she gets from one to the other? Absent, save one scene where she practices a sales counter theft, but the way she plays it isn't quite right. Parker's compartmentalized the two versions of Marie Allen, but hasn't figured out how to bring them together into one person.
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
third and final nomination; Golden Globes winner for Best Actress - Drama, National Board of Review - Best Actress of 1950; NYFCC Awards second runner-up for Best Actress
One thing I love about Norma Desmond is that, for a silent film star who insists they didn't need words, she talks a lot - though I gotta say, Swanson's thin voice is perfect for such a person. And the rest of the person, well, Swanson obviously knows well. If Margo is able to switch it off, Norma is perpetually in performance and has been for years - one gets the sense that she's been performing more and more as the decades stretch on. Where the role turns from camp stereotype into human tragedy is New Year's Eve, her very real, open-faced hope that Joe is in love with her. That, coupled with the shock of the lights and humbled demeanor around Mr. De Mille, takes this from a fun performance to a truly great one.
The most difficult decision I've had to make in a long time. My vote goes to:
Tomorrow: wrapping up 1950's Oscar faves with Best Picture nominees All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon's Mines, and Sunset Blvd.