Saturday, February 11, 2017

          My vote - Best Actress 1940

I would say this is widely regarded as the most prestigious Best Actress race of the 1940s. 

I chose this year having seen 3 of the 5 films and knowing, and in some case hoping, they will be pleasant to sit-through. And so they were, with the monumental exception of Our Town, which was quite bad. 

Ginger Rogers surprisingly won the race against two previous winners and one remarkable breakthrough performance in a Best Picture winner. I expect fellow readers familiar with these performances will quite disagree with the following ranking. :)

Here is how I would have voted:

1. Bette Davis, in The Letter

The role: Bette plays Leslie Crosbie , the wife of a 1920s plantation owner in Indonesia, who shoots her lover in a moment of rage and tries to escape the consequences.

The film: I like it because it’s so well directed, never boring, and captivating through its performances. Let me say again what a subtle achievement this is for William Wyler, a director too often forgotten nowadays.

The performance: Bette delivers in a film that is mostly a vehicle for her amazing talent and consistent run of remarkable performances. Maybe I am a touch subjective, but there is no wrong note, nothing false, no hesitation: she manages to blend her experience of owning a scene with touches of sensibility and vulnerability. When the camera is on her, she is breathtaking and always captivating. Those expressive eyes bring extra layers of depth to the character, who could have simply been a delicious slightly crazy diva. This ranks easily as one of my favourite performances of hers.

2. Katharine Hepburn, in The Philadelphia Story

The role: Kate plays Tracy Lord, a socialite whose upcoming wedding is crushed by her ex-husband, two reporters and some romantic entanglements.

The film: While the film lacks a clear direction in the second half, it’s considered something of a classic today, also because of its rich group of actors. I like it when it’s funny, but don’t worship it.

The performance: First, it needs to be stated that it’s a strong performance throughout the film, covering both of its aspects. The comedic first half is handled in a relaxed way, but with that specific Hepburn touch of intelligence and independence even when the screenplay is being a bit silly. The few more profound (dramatic doesn’t feel right) scenes in the second half somehow work against the film as they throw it a bit off balance, but they take the performance to a different level, giving Kate a chance to show vulnerability and to stand out from her fellow cast mates. Jimmy Stewart might have (undeservedly) won the Oscar, but she is the star of the film. 

3. Ginger Rogers, in Kitty Foyle

The role: Ginger plays the title character, a woman from a modest background who, through a series of experiences, comes out as an example of the modern woman.

The film: Nothing remarkable, really, but not awful. Some choices in the story feel kind of fresh for that era, but the film ends up forgettable.

The performance: This has to rank as one of the most forgotten Best Actress wins in Oscar’s history and also one of the less seen. Given how it must’ve been voting nostalgia for the Ginger Rogers – Fred Astaire days of her career, I expected it to be bad. Actually, it wasn’t. What stops it from being a great one is the film itself; it offers a platform for a strong performance, and, while it’s not dull acting we are seeing, there is nothing too memorable either. There is honesty in the way Ginger creates the character, and also smartness, and also sentiment. But doesn’t feel like an exciting winner (or performance).

4. Joan Fontaine, in Rebecca

The role: Joan plays the Second Mrs. de Winter (unnamed), a young naïve woman, who marries a mysterious widower, with a complicated past.

The film: It’s arguably my favourite Hitchock film: a great combination of a haunting story, remarkable characters, an incredible sense of noir and at least a scene that ranks high among the best in world cinema.

The performance: …and still, with all this love I have for the film, I can’t embrace Joan’s much-acclaimed performance. Clearly, she was a favorite to win the Oscar and I know at least one blogger who would rank this as being remarkable, but Joan’s style of acting (that I also penalized in 1941’s ranking with Suspicion) is too visible for me, too obvious and predictable. So many uh’s and ah’s on her face in each damn scene. No subtlety and a dated style of acting. I feel generous with my ranking. The scenes where all this exacerbated ingenuity works are the ones in Rebecca’s room, with the help of the director. Her ability to show tears and fear as she succumbs to dark thoughts is appreciated even by me. Beyond that, I was mostly unimpressed. A 2.5.

5. Martha Scott, in Our Town

The role: Martha plays Emily Webb, a character we follow from her teenage years to adulthood, throughout her normal life in a small town.

The film: I can only imagine the play must be just as bad. It’s a boring, uneventful film that suddenly turns what the fuck and then boring again.

The performance: Only once has it happened for me to give a 1 start ranking to a performance and up to the last 20 minutes or so I was convinced I was about to do that again. But something happened plot-wise that showed potential, it was unexpected and gave Martha something to work with. Gone were the silly affectations of a woman playing a teenager and we were discovering something dramatic, tragic, a life and death situation. But that lasted only a few minutes and while aptly delivered, it didn’t change my overall take on the performance drastically. We could still do without such a nominee.

Conclusion: It was easy for me to pick a winner here. The performances by Hepburn & Fontaine and even Bette’s (though she’s the best) have taken somewhat of an iconic status over time.

How the voting went: It must have been insanely close. I am sure Rogers winning must’ve had something to do with all the love & popularity gained during her dancing on screen years. But Fontaine was a shoo-in for the win, hit all the right Oscar notes. So she was definitely 2nd. And Hepburn a close 3rd. My darling Bette had won 2 Oscars in the previous 6 years so they weren’t willing to consider her for another win. Martha 5th, I imagine (and hope).

What’s next: Best Actress 2016, of course. :)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

          My vote - Best Actress 1934

I had to go as far as the official Oscars website to confirm to myself that the Academy is indeed finally acknowledging Bette Davis’ nomination as a valid one. Because I remember a time when it didn’t. Officially there were only 3 nominees and then Bette got in as a write-in
nominee and... well imdb says it better:

Bette Davis wanted the role of Mildred Rodgers because she thought it would be her breakout role after years of starring in films that were getting her nowhere. She begged Warner Brothers studio chief Jack L. Warner to let her out of her contract so she could make the film. He relented because he was sure she would fail; but, when her performance sparked talk of an Oscar, Warner began a spite campaign by encouraging academy members not to vote for her. At the time, the voting campaigns and the tabulation of the results were handled by the heads of the academy (of which Warner had a membership) and it worked in his favor when Davis was left out of the Best Actress competition. Supporters of Davis, shocked by her omission, petitioned the academy for a write-in vote. She was added to the nominees as a write-in but she lost to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night (1934). As a result of this incident, write-in votes were henceforth disallowed. Also, as a result of Warner's coup, the academy decided to change its voting practices and hand over the counting of the results to the independent accounting firm of PriceWaterhouse, who still does the official counting to this day.

So therefor I gladly included Bette’s nomination in the rankings.
Here’s how I would’ve voted:

1. Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

The role: Claudette plays Ellie, a spoiled rich woman who discovers true love during a long journey to reunite with a man whom she married only to spite her father.
The film: I feel it’s a bit overrated because of its reputations and for winning all those Oscars, but at the end of the day it’s a good, simple comedy and I had a few laughs.
The performance: I must mention that although I’m giving the performance only 3 stars, it’s a strong 3. Because of the basic nature of the film, with a simple plot and a simple direction and rather natural acting style, the role doesn’t seem much; the difficulty level is quite low on paper, as if for the typical screwball comedy, so I can’t get carried away. But here’s to Claudette’s credit that she elevates the role herself and brings it something extra that makes me appreciate it more: her expressive face works not only for the average comedic scenes, but she also nails the sensibility of the character, the longing for real feelings. In scenes that require less, she gives us more, especially with stunning teary eyes. Is it an unmatched performance in some way? No, and we have Irene Dunne to prove it.

2. Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage

The role: Bette plays Mildred, a trashy waitress who takes advantage of the kindness and attention of a man who was foolish enough to fall in love with her.
The film: Nothing exciting here. Leslie Howard is the true lead and he is very forgettable. The film works only when Bette’s character storms in.
The performance: The fact that the performance stands out like it does is directly connected to the film’s low quality. Bette is all energy, sometimes too much energy, she’s like a hurricane that shakes things off every time she’s on screen. Her talent is still too raw and you can tell the lack of high-level experience, but she’s juicy and convincing and manages to create something despite the screenplay not being much. It’s quite a remarkable breakthrough performances, with some key elements that Bette would end up playing throughout her career: larger than life, loud, full of energy and willing to command the screen.

3. Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

The role: Norma plays soon-to-be renowned poet Elizabeth Barrett, portrayed here during her youth, as the vulnerable daughter of a tyrannical father.
The film: A completely boring and useless experience, filled with grandiose dialogue that would bore anyone. One or two scenes at the end stand out.
The performance: Such is the mystical power of Norma for me (although I’ve seen her only in 2-3 films) that she almost convinced me to give her a better rating based on one single scene that she impressed me with at the end of the film. Through some smart but not so subtle editing, she gets a couple of close-ups with her eyes all teary where she does strike a chord and her performance is effective. But for the rest of it she barely navigates through the muddy dialogue, with all those grandiose words and noble feelings. It’s the case of a good actress that overall doesn’t rise above the crappy material.

4. Grace Moore in One Night of Love

The role: Grace plays Mary Barrett, an aspiring Opera singer who finds success and love with the help of her mentor, a stubborn operatic maestro.
The film: It’s a typical simplistic film of the early 30s, with superficial dialogue, direction, improved only by some lovely opera pieces of music.
The performance: This is a 2 and not a 1 because I enjoyed her singing. I am not an expert on opera music, but I guess they all (the voters) liked her voice, they got all soft and gave her the nomination. There isn’t much on the acting front, with no big mistakes either, it’s true. But if you take the lovely music away, there’s very little to judge beyond a pretty face and some almost-youthful energy.

Conclusion: Initially, after seeing the performances again, I thought it’d be a bit more difficult for me to choose my winner, given how different these two performances are. But the more I thought of it, it became easier. Claudette creates a more complete character, nothing ground-breaking, but without mistakes or false notes. You can tell she was a pro.

How the Oscar voting went: We actually have official data on this; it’s the last Oscar year for which we have some kind of an idea on the ranking. It seems Norma was 2nd and Bette was 3rd, despite all the buzz and controversy that you’d think would’ve given her the win or at least the runner-up status.
Actresses that almost got nominated: The most obvious omission is Myrna Loy for The Thin Man. I don’t remember the performance much, but I bet she was better than Grace Moore :D and they liked their Myrna Loy and The Thin Man was such a success both with the audiences AND  the Academy.

Not sure if by 1934 they had stopped allowing multiple nominations in the same category for one person, but this was a big year for Claudette, she also had Cleopatra and Imitation of Life. There was Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee, Loretta Young had a couple of films herself, so did Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett was in The Affairs of Cellini.

For previous Best Actress years and rankings, just look over on the right, for a column with past years.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

   My vote - Best Actress 2001

It was my honest desire to see again all of these 5 films – with the exception of Bridget Jones, I hadn’t seen any of them in about 15 years. The results were mixed, as some
haven’t aged that well. But in the end it completed the purpose of this blog series: figuring out what performance I prefer. It was a really tight 3-way race, but I will follow my instinct.

Of course, Halle won the Oscar and it was historical (first black actress to win in this category) and maybe I would’ve voted for her as well, but let’s not kid ourselves. I would say that the performances are remarkable as a group, but Halle is not the best of them.

Here’s my ranking:

1. Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!

The role: Nicole plays Satine, a beautiful courtesan who falls in love with a young writer, in this musical / doomed love story.
The film: It’s basically a nice musical on steroids. Using familiar songs helps a lot and, when it’s not very tiring, the colourful nature makes it really special.
The performance: When you can’t make up your mind on what performance was the best, always go with the actress who had the most difficult task. Nicole did. Choosing her as my #1 is as surprising to me. I looked down on this performance for many years saying it’s a mix of silly comedy and some singing and some good looks – and while all of these still stand, there’s more. While the film lacks depth and subtlety, and so does this role on paper, Nicole elevates it by a) checking the boxes for all the superficial elements: looks, voice, dance, having fun with the “comedic” seduction scenes and b) nailing it and killing it towards the end when it came to tears, tragedy and death. The role isn’t much, but it takes a versatile and talented actress to go from absurd playing-around to heart-breaking with such ease and with such dedication. Though not visible at first, I was charmed and surprised by the lack of vanity (I mean that!) and the level of commitment Nicole displays here, where no scene is too small to be taken seriously and she’s really putting in the work.

2. Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary

The role: Renee plays Bridget, a single woman in her 30s, dealing with family and career and especially with finding the right guy.
The film: I LOVE it!! It’s such a funny romantic comedy, well-acted all around (great ensemble!), well written and just special.
The performance: Of course my entire being was telling me to choose Renee, because I adore the film and the role so much. :) But I stepped back (it’s all about hard choices here!) and figured she gets plenty of help from the wonderful screenplay (something Nicole doesn’t benefit from). This is a really fun and romantic and charming (!!) and lovable and sweet performance and I love the Academy for nominating her, since they rarely go for this genre in lead. The line readings are perfect, the emotional scenes are balanced just right – she understands the tone of the film and carries it with dedication and also having fun, which you can tell. It’s the sunny optimistic performance that brings a smile to my face.

3. Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom

The role: Sissy plays Ruth, a music teacher who must deal with grief and anger following the death of her only son.
The film: It’s a strong drama about loss, anger and revenge. I had no problem with the slow parts, since it’s so well directed.
The performance: Here is another performance that could’ve also been my winner. Such is the subtlety of Sissy Spacek that I actually wished she would’ve pushed harder and a bit flashier on the drama side and give us juuuuust a bit more especially in a key confrontation scene with her husband. That would’ve gained my win, but let’s be clear: it’s a solid performance about grief that is not whinny (clearly the director didn’t want that) and is not looking to make a statement. It’s just solid work from an experienced actress that deeply understands the character, respects its moral and personality boundaries and delivers her work to what is a very interesting, successful film.

4. Judi Dench in Iris

The role: Judi plays writer Iris Murdoch, a famous British novelist whose health deteriorates after getting diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The film: It’s kind of boring at times, but luckily it’s not too long and Winslet’s charisma pulls it through, though there isn’t much happening.
The performance: The dullness of the film contaminates the performance. While Judi is always remarkable, there is little diversity in the performance; and this comes mostly from the screenplay. The best parts are when the disease starts crippling in and we are served plenty of close-ups where Judi does her best to expose the internal struggle of her character. As expected, she makes the right choices in the technical aspects of the performance and there aren’t any false notes. But beyond the sadness (or blankness) in her eyes, what is there to get excited from an acting perspective? An intelligent performance, but not remarkable.

5. Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball

The role: Halle plays Leticia, a woman whose husband gets executed and must deal with additional tragedy but also with an unexpected romance.
The film: I liked less than I did 15 years ago. It has some unnecessary nudity, some unusual editing, but it works better towards the end.
The performance: The ups and downs in the performance are most visible when the director is stubborn enough to choose very long shots that require emotional depth plus contextual work (playing drunk) PLUS sexual choreography. Confronted with all these demands, Halle gets lost a couple of times. The highs are high (we know she’s a great crier) and the lows are not that low but mediocre enough (scenes where she makes it either too obvious, playing too much for the camera or not sure on the emotional context of the character). I applaud the risks she took in accepting the role itself, but the competition was high that year.

Conclusion: I explained in Nicole’s segment why she was my choice. Renee and Sissy were right behind and indeed they felt like the front-runners in terms of my love and devotion.

How the Oscar voting went:  I trust the voting was decisively in favour of Halle, despite the film being small and quite controversial. The story of her win had to happen. Normally I would say Nicole was 2nd, but no love from BAFTA and SAG confuses me deeply; she barely got nominated for the Oscars it seems. But she was Nicole Kidman (and also benefitted from some love for The Others) and had a lot of buzz also in her personal life (Nicole is single! Who is Nicole dating? Look how pretty Nicole is!) that maybe she was 2nd indeed in terms of chances of winning. From then on, I’d say Sissy was 3rd. And Renee and Judi distant 4th and 5th.

Actresses that almost got nominated: I immediately go to Naomi Watts for Mulholland Drive (who would’ve probably ended up being my winner) and Audrey Tautou for Amelie (yes, I believe she really was that close – the BAFTA nomination says a lot). Nicole was competing against herself for The Others (but the film didn’t land with the Oscars) and maybe Tilda Swinton also got a few votes for The Deep End.

For previous Best Actress years/rankings, just look over on the right, for a column with various years.