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Best Supporting Actress Smackdown: 1952

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Friday, Sep 20, 2013
Jean Hagen in Singing in the Rain (1952)
I was recently invited to join a group of panelists over at The Film Experience for a revival of Stinky LuLu's Supporting Actress Smackdown.

Stinky (aka Brian Herrera), Nick Davis (Nick’s Flick Pics) and site owner Nathaniel Rogers are legendary experts on this category, so it was a thrill to participate in this newest edition.


Here’s my recollection on the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race of 1952.


Gloria Grahame – The Bad and the Beautiful


No disrespect to Grahame, who I think was one of this era’s finest actress, and who deserved more than just one Oscar, but she got the gold for the wrong movie; like many women before her and many, many more to follow. Excellent work, such as in the also-nominated film noir classic Crossfire (1947) and the shockingly not-nominated The Big Heat (1953), cemented Grahame’s place in cinema history as the archetypal, complex-yet-cool female presence in these genre films (it’s rumored she was a key inspiration for Annette Bening’s character work The Grifters
  
She wasn’t always necessarily the femme fatale, but you knew if Grahame showed up on screen, you had to kind of keep an eye on her.  This was a woman who, in real life, while married to Nicholas Ray, was served divorce papers in 1952 after the director found Grahame in bed with her 13-year-old stepson (whom she married eight years later, and stayed with for 14 years). This lady knew a thing or two about being shady and that was perfectly portrayed by her directors for the screen.


In 1952, it made all-too-terrible sense for Grahame to win given her solid work in three other films besides this Minnelli classic: The Greatest Show on Earth, Macao and Sudden Fear. She worked with literally everyone that year and a win for one performance only could lead to more notice for her other work (which, to be fair, she is fantastic in Fear and Macao, moreso than in Beautiful).


The actual performance in The Bad and the Beautiful seems like a weird fit for Grahame, who plays a Southern woman in Hollywood, who doesn’t want to be there, and then ends up a fallen woman killed in a plane crash. She has about ten minutes of screen time. Sure, more than Beatrice Straight in Network, but much less impactful. It’s not Rosemary the viewer remembers when the credits roll.


Grahame’s Oscar should have come the following year for The Big Heat, her greatest performance, or even for Human Desire (1954). Fritz Lang knew how to give her the space to explode, whereas Minnelli tried to contain her dangerously sexual force.


Jean Hagen – Singing in the Rain


There’s not much to say about Hagen other than Lina Lamont is one of the best, funniest, most iconic supporting actress roles and performances, period (in one of the most arguably beloved Hollywood classics, ever, natch). How she did not win this award is actually so beyond my comprehension I can’t even wrap my head around it. She does it all: vocal work, physical comedy, unlikability, stupidity, cunning, scheming, hilariously failing at everything. Flawlessly.


Also, bonus points go to any actress playing an actress, let alone the kind of woman who has the cojones to poke fun at not only herself, but really all of her colleagues and her entire profession. Hmm. Maybe that’s why she didn’t win? Maybe her work as Lina Lamont hit a little too close to home for certain voters/peers?


No matter, Hagen’s performance is not only the finest of the nominated women, it’s also the most memorable without question. This is one of those very rare performances that gets better not only with repeat viewings but also as the years go by.


Collette Marchand – Moulin Rouge


When most people think about “Moulin Rouge”, it’s the Nicole Kidman version that they clamor for (notice I don’t call it the “Baz Lurhman” Moulin Rouge…). For those completists who are maybe interested in this era of Paris’ history, I’d recommend John Huston’s vibrant, yet at times scathingly dark and seedy look at the infamous club’s heyday. For those interested in great acting, this is more of a mixed bag.


Marchand does a fine job of playing the crafty, coquettish streetwalker opposite fellow Oscar nominee Jose Ferrer as Toulouse Lautrec. On one hand, I’d say she deserved the nomination, given the size and impact of her performance and the scope of Huston’s intimate epic version of the story of Lautrec’s life. On the other, there are simply too many clichés riddling her part: hooker with a heart of gold, French slut, scheming hooker taking advantage of a weak john, tragic waif, etc. but overall, Marchand does a decent job (particularly since this is her film debut) of navigating complicated waters and still managing to be memorable in a film full of oddballs. She’s no Nicole Kidman, let me put it that way.


Terry Moore - Come Back Little Sheba


Let’s have a moment of real talk: there is no one on earth paying attention to anyone other than Queen Shirley Booth in Come Back Little Sheba, with her searing, mesmerizing work. Booth eliminates the possibility that anyone else– not co-star Burt Lancaster and certainly not Moore– in this film can be memorable by giving a perfect, moving, HUGE performance.


How Moore was nominated actually baffles me, given how absolutely nothing her role is. This is not the lovely Ms. Moore’s fault, but really the writer’s, as the actress does what she is asked to do: be pretty enough to look like she could drive Lancaster into a mad rage and not be totally blown off the screen by her legendary co-stars.


There’s not much character there on the page, so she’s left struggling to figure it out, seemingly on her own. Lancaster is busy trying to not disappear opposite a commanding Booth, and Booth is too busy giving a master class in acting to be bothered with throwing Moore a bone. Who can blame her? It’s her moment, not Moore’s.


Thelma Ritter – With a Song in My Heart


With a Song in My Heart is a movie little-to-no style or depth. What it does have going for it, and this is the kind of thing I live for in my actress’ sexuality, is one dynamic performance hidden within a limp noodle film that makes it a little more al dente: a snappy supporting turn buried underneath a ton of forgettable garbage. In this film, that particular honor goes to consummate character actress Thelma Ritter.


This was her third of six nominations for Best Supporting Actress, so this could have been a golden opportunity to hand Ritter over a make-up or “we-respect-you” kind of award, given her track record, likability within the industry and her commendable, dependable work ethic, and the weakness of the category in general.In With a Song in My Heart, she actually manages to be the only presence in the film that feels real and who isn’t completely annoying.


Her stalwart, sage nurse (“Clancy”—how perfect is that name?), who is not afraid to tell it like it t-i-is, has some fleeting moments recalling her past, her family, her dedication to service, her patriotism. As is Ritter’s custom, she packs an astounding amount of detail in her work, using the tiniest bits of dialog to reveal something key about this everywoman that another lesser actress would have no doubt missed. Many people dismiss what Ritter does as simply being really great at being “Thelma Ritter” to a degree, but she does so much more than crack wise and land a punch line with panache.


Her steely guts and her sheer vivacity make you wonder why the entire movie wasn’t about her character instead of the lead: dull singer who survives a plane crash and inexplicably becomes a sensation (Jane Froman, played by Susan Hayward, ruefully miscast as a woman of virtue).


I personally think Ritter deserved Oscars for almost everything she did (The Mating Season is particularly brilliant), and even though With a Song in My Heart remains a bonafide snore more than 60 years later, Ritter’s miracle work still holds up; the sign of great craftsmanship.

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