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.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

    My vote - Best Actress 1970

I chose to do 1970’s Best Actress race because I had no clear winner selected for it (as I had seen only 2 of the 5 films prior), and I wanted to see Love Story again :P  and because it just seemed like a strange race. And a strange race it was, with quite a weak line-up. I don’t recall ever NOT giving at least one “4 stars” to a performance.
Which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy seeing them. I do these rankings for the pleasure of the discovery, of knowledge and having an informed opinion. J So happy I cleared this up for me.
Glenda Jackson won for one of the most unusual performances to ever conquer this category. She had the critics behind her and some weak competition.

Here’s my ranking:

1. Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife

The role: Carrie plays Tina, a housewife married to an emotionally abusive man, who falls in the arms of an equally abusive lover; all on a funnier note.
The film: It doesn’t live up to its potential, to say the least. Not as funny as it should be, not as dramatic as it could be.
The performance: My tendency is to describe this performance as very low energy, which it is, but it’s also in the spirit of the film. So when she has a real shouting match with her husband prior to the party scene, I got really excited. I don’t feel like Carrie brings a lot of charisma to the role (I basically don’t care too much for this character), but I recognise her and she feels authentic. It’s just nothing that would move me too much emotionally. She carries the dramedy well, gets the dialogue right, is loyal to what the film tries to do, but she’s captivating only in a few selected scenes.

2. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love

The role: Glenda plays Gudrun, an independent and complicated woman who, along with her sister, gets involved in the life of the British elite in the 1920s.
The film: Great from the start, then gradually crashes. It’s beautiful to look at, very stylish and erotic, but ultimately unfulfilling.
The performance: I get it why this performance was very cool and quite fresh back in 1970. Glenda’s intelligence and strong personality are deeply felt in this performance which is special to say the least. The line readings are either witty or strong or punchy, she is a presence and hard not to like or to admire. But where is the character? Who is this woman? Such is the power of the style over the substance that I found it hard to even sum up who Gudrun is or what she does. By the end of the film I got little idea on what motivated her or what justified her actions, or where her heart was. This is not precisely Glenda’s fault (I did wish for a bit more humanity), but probably the director’s choice, and the character remains too much of a mystery.

3. Jane Alexander in The Great White Hope

The role: Jane plays Eleanor, the love interest of a professional, but troubled boxer, who stays by him during the hard times.
The film: Boring, dull, boring, dull. A strange male lead performance in a film that tries to send a lot of messages, but few that are approachable or interesting.
The performance: I will not be too influenced by the fact that she gets the juiciest acting scene of all these 5 nominees. Because that is one single scene that, while it pulls Jane’s performance from an abyss of dullness, is not enough to create and lift an entire character. This is a supporting performance that starts in a boring manner with a couple of unconvincing scenes. She plays the supporting wife kind of role and there is almost no personal touch to it. Her big nervous breakdown comes almost out of nowhere (the film is really bad!), she acts it well in terms of tears and dramatics but it’s so unexpected in the context of what her character offered so far, that I went like what was that?! even though I fairly enjoyed those couple of minutes.

4. Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter

The role: Sarah plays Rosy, a naïve young Irish lady who marries and older teacher, but ends up falling for an English officer dealing with trauma.
The film: It’s a David Lean film, so the direction is present and kind of saves the film from one boring screenplay. The cinematography is beyond gorgeous.
The performance: This is another performance that I thought I’d end up giving 1 star. The screenplay asks her to play a girly schoolgirl early in the film and I was afraid that’s all I’d be getting throughout this never ending epic. But there is an arc to the character (not a very well developed arc, mind you) and there is conflict and there is some drama and while these transitions don’t always make sense – the love story is not properly sold – I like the way she approaches the visible new-found maturity of the character. There are scenes that don’t blow my mind (even underplayed at times; too bad), but she gives Rosy such respectability and some humanity that I felt a bit for both the character and for what Sarah was trying to do. It’s a modest performance, but I liked the relatability and the lack of vanity.

5. Ali MacGraw in Love Story

The role: Ali plays Jenny, a college graduate who shares a beautiful love story with Oliver, but tragedy is waiting right around the corner.
The film: I really like it for its simplicity. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not, it’s very well edited and surprisingly well directed. Dated, but in a memorable way.
The performance: The fact that I like the film doesn’t stop me from admitting Ali brings very little to it; in fact, it’s Ryan who does all the heavy lifting here. One could argue she doesn’t need to do much, since it’s his perspective and she’s just the dying girl / projection of his love, but there were a couple of scenes where ACTING was required and not much was coming from her. The lack of experience is visible throughout and all is played just a bit too precious, despite what the dialogue would try to suggest (modern woman!). I have only warm feelings for the film and the performances, but I must call it like it is.

Conclusion: In the end, the choice was quite easy, given the issues I have with the other 4 performances. Beyond Carrie, it’s quite an even field. Ali gets the best film by far, but she is the least committed to her film and to the performance.

How the Oscar voting went: I blame the critics for Glenda’s win, since there is little else to it. They had very little to choose from and not just from the 5 nominees, but also from the overall performances of 1970 (hard to find a 6th performance that barely missed a nomination; it seems more like a hunt for a 4th of 5th nominee; so much so they nominated Jane Alexander who is supporting). The runner-up to Glenda must have been... Ali. Simply because of Love Story’s massive success. Carrie Snodgress was probably a close 3rd, but I don’t think they liked the film.
Interesting to note this is quite a young field of nominees. None past the age of 35, I think. Two of them (Alexander and Snodgress) were nominated for their first feature films and the others had appeared in only a handful of films up to that point.

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