This grouping of performers comes from plays, adaptations of novels, or even screenplays created by some of the greatest authors or playwrights of their times. They are intrinsically tied to the page in a special way, whether because they are anti-heroines from enduring works of classic literature or they are simply as well-written as a novelistic character sprung to life thanks to a striking, contemporary author.
Playing a child-like, hyper-sexual nymphet in a Tennessee Williams adaptation might not have been a sure-fire way to launch a respectable career in the 1950s. But for Actor’s Studio alum Baker (who was Williams’ second choice behind Marilyn Monroe), it did just that -– she became a genuine cultural phenomenon. She would go on to enjoy virtually overnight success in the late 50s that would translate into steady work onstage and in film through the 1970s (including a leading lady turn in Andy Warhol’s Bad. The combination of sex-bomb and brainy actress was never an easy fit, and she would not play a substantial part like Baby Doll again in her acting career, but the image of her as a dim-witted, man-trap ingénue, draped over the railings of a child’s crib, sucking her thumb, in a lacy negligee, would become her signature. The film was so controversial, in fact, that the Catholic Legion of Decency organized a boycott of the racy melodrama that helped cancel showings in 77% of theaters. Baker’s sly, sumptuous performance must have been doing something right to provoke a national outcry that saw Time magazine deem the film “the dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited.” MM
Bates plays two women in Dolores Claiborne: the middle-aged haus Frau Dolores and the weathered old woman she becomes after her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. Told in a style that resembles mirrored glass shattering and reflecting old, bad memories, Bates is not only able to virtually glow when playing her character as a naïve, younger abused housewife, but she is also somehow able to pull off a startling transformation into the bitter crone that was born as the result of unspeakable family tragedy –- it is not often performers have the dexterity to span the ages like Bates does as Dolores. It’s hard to play aging onscreen, but the transitions are seamless, thanks to Bates. Opposite a nervy Jennifer Jason Leigh as her troubled daughter, the actresses’ salt-of-the-earth charisma has never been more seductive and she has not given a stronger performance in a career of strong performances; not even for her other Stephen King leading lady turn in Misery, which won her an Oscar. It’s a damn shame that she is lately relegated to the purgatory of sassy supporting ladies when she is so strong in her infrequent leading roles. MM
Bjork has a face that can one second can rendered into a mask that makes Miss Julie out to be as timid as a mouse, while the next second, the same face is perfectly capable of painting the actress to be the most cross dominatrix her foot man has ever encountered (literally – the scene where she “trains” her fiancée after brutally whipping her dog is akin to literary-pedigreed sadomasochistic soft core porn). It is this delicate duality embedded into her features that marks the performance of Bjork as being thoroughly ahead of it’s time, much like the subversive words of August Strindberg as he dissects class and gender long before they were studied terms. Unafraid of exploring sensuality in the wake of bacchanalian lust, and the inevitable fallout that comes from following the choices made by the titular character, Bjork hovers like a ghostly presence over the entire film. Miss Julie is a character who is so unnerved by her upbringing that she feels the need to act out sexually, a concept that she cannot grasp, and one that repulses her and will be a major factor in her undoing. Watching Bjork, a titan of Swedish acting, going on a journey of sexual self-discovery while immersed in Miss Julie’s tortured, bruised psyche is harrowing, especially as she so expertly hits every ugly note of her downward spiral in the wake of a drunken one night stand with a servant. MM
Clifford Odets’ forays into Hollywood screenwriting afforded him the chance to fund his far more subversive theater work, but also gave him the chance to work closely with a much bigger, interesting pool of talent. In many ways, these scripts enabled him to be able to bite the hand that fed him by writing scathing entertainment industry-set morality plays. He was one of the first writers who really got the concept of deconstructing the concept of a star—whether the actual actor or the character. Most times, both. Sometimes they didn’t really work (Grace Kelly’s performance in The Country Girl is much-scrutinized today), others, like Crawford’s reflective best, managed to change perceptions of the performer and properly showcase their range in new ways. While still ensconced in her trademark melodrama, Odets writes a literate, cultured lady for Crawford to play the year after winning her Oscar for her working class mother in Mildred Pierce. Helen Wright is a powerful grand society dame, but the interesting thing that Crawford does is play her insularly, coolly and fiercely intelligently. Her reactions are key in this film, her aloofness and detachment hinting at a deeply depressed woman. With all of the legend and mystique surrounding Crawford’s real life, it could be best surmised that this was a dark period in her life that she was able to achingly convey into this characterization. Crawford “the actress”, in general, is often overshadowed by Crawford’s legend. MM
In a just world Dandridge would have been the first African American woman to take home the Oscar gold for her portrayal of the title character in director Preminger’s film of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones -– an all-black cast adaptation of George Bizet’s opera, itself an adaptation of an 1846 novella by Prosper Merimee. But it was 1954, and she was up against Hollywood royalty (winner Grace Kelly and Judy Garland), so Dandridge’s clever, ahead-of-it’s time take on the archetypal Femme Fatale was likely left in the dust in favor of these (white) institutions. Looking back, Dandridge’s stylish Carmen was probably much too sexually dangerous for voters of the time to even consider—she is an opportunist, a survivor, a seductress. Not exactly a nice girl. But that was the beauty of her as a character -– and it was the chance for an actress of color, for perhaps the first real time in the history of Hollywood, to play such a dramatically significant role in an important film. She has rough edges, red lips, and a reckless physicality and abandon rarely seen in female performances of that time, let alone in the performances of women of color. Dandridge plays this classic heroine as a working, class thrill-seeking romantic and the resulting powerful performance that is (yes!) operatic in its delivery. Carmen Jones retains a sharp, real edge and a shocking, electric undercurrent that remains just as memorable, fresh and shocking as it must have been when it debuted. It borders on criminal that the Academy waited until 2003 to finally give its top female acting honor to an African American woman, and when Halle Berry took the stage to accept her award for Monster’s Ball, she thanked Dandridge for her true pioneering achievements that made it possible, some 50 years later, for a woman of color to finally get the prize. MM
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