Supporting Actress Smackdown 1944 – Originally completed 11/7/17

Hiya folks! Here we went just a few days ago, with a vintage I’m more or less cool with, given my support to four of the performances and three of the films. I’m happy that I got quoted as the reader comment for Jennifer Jones, and that my personal choice of Ethel Barrymore got runner-up from a panel whose points of view I agreed with completely, even if I liked her more than Mark Harris did. The Lansbury win doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, but I get that she’s operating on a wavelength I just am not on myself. Anyways, here’s my ballot and some other actresses I thought were doing work at a level worth discussing, in films I really enjoyed.

The Nominees

Ethel Barrymore, None But The Lonely Heart: A tough performance to judge, as Barrymore is complicit in her film’s unusually ability of hitting home emotional impact even while its seams are flying in the wind. Early scenes of her gliding through scenes like she could bust an iceberg tell us everything we need to know about this woman, as does her palpable warmth for her son mixed with anxiety about his wayward lifestyle. If her ultimate trajectory to ruin is known the moment she looks up at the smuggler in her shop, Barrymore imbues Ma Mott’s decision with poignant want. But if the majority of her characterization feels only marginally more challenging than that of her fellow nominees, her last, humiliating burst of regret in jail is enough to make her film’s stakes come to live in an utterly potent way. The best asset her film can boast, and easily the best in her lineup. (Four Hearts)

Jennifer Jones, Since You Went Away: I was initially resistant to the performance, given how she’s basically the co-lead, and that everyone on and off screen clearly doted on her angelic face. Hers is radiant Goodness, and though I never stopped wondering about Teresa Wright would’ve done in the role, Jones carries herself with an impressive amount of star charisma. She’s magnetic courting Bill, and though her sadness isn’t as gripping as Claudette Colbert’s, she functions beautifully in her scenes with the whole family, and her confrontation with Agnes Moorehead’s condescending snob lingers. Effortlessness by way of little challenge, sure, but she works wonderfully. (Three Hearts)

Angela Lansbury, Gaslight: In a film that traffics on delineating the breakdown of its leading lady and growing monstrosity of her husband, Lansbury’s underplaying reads as having not made enough decisions about Nancy. Her crush on Gregory and punk attitude lands, but it’s unclear if she’s allied to one spouse or the other, or if she’s avoiding sides altogether. Gaslight works best at its most operatic, and Lansbury hasn’t committed to a take on her character or the register of the film. You see what’s missing more than what’s there. (One Heart)

Aline McMahon, Dragon Seed: There’s a lot of posturing and measured reactions running around Dragon Seed, on all fronts. Even without all that stiffness around her, McMahon’s ease feels fresh and spontaneous. You feel her adherence to old ways, the full partnership she has with her husband, and the care she shows her family, with more sincerity and less hot air than her costars. And physically compelling too, doing little business like folding clothes while she acts or in the background of so many of her scenes. Maybe not special, but McMahon’s nameless wife is the only character I truly enjoyed spending time with. (Three Hearts)

Agnes Moorehead, Mrs. Parkington: The whole film fizzles like froth from an expired cherry coke, but Moorehead is in the right groove for giving a surprisingly game, fruity performance the moment she arrives. You can see her having fun with her French accent, her outfits, with lines about proper, nonsensical social customs she probably believes in less than we do, making Greer Garson come alive in a way no one else does. Surely she has the least to do out of all the nominees, but she registers as more of person than anyone in her dreck of a film. Best of all, the way she somehow telegraphs “No, you magnificent, clueless, heterosexual Greer, *you* were the one I was in love with this whole time”. (Three Hearts)

Other Possibilities

Dorothy Adams, Laura: As the only person whose reactions to Laura’s murder isn’t completely self-serving, Adams’s piss and vinegar are surprisingly affecting. I love how shifty she is in her interview with McPherson, even as she angrily insists on Laura’s dignity from beyond the grave in spite of any “libels” he may publish. Her reaction to finding her mistress alive and well is as potent as her happiness during the party, and her own wail of anguish as Laura is suddenly arrested. Quick, effective character work and a startling well of anger from an unlikely source.

Judith Anderson, Laura: Perhaps the least deluded of the film’s many suspects, or at least the one most candid about her unhealthy wants. Her sad, naked longing for Shelby in every scene, from physical contact to her devoted gaze, is only kept from being something pathetic by way of Anderson’s constant poise. Those last confessions about the nature of her relationship with Shelby, to McPherson and to Laura, are startling for how insouciant, shrewd, and disheartening her delivery is. She knows Shelby isn’t much, that she isn’t much more than he is, and in whatever way they add up, it’s enough.

Josephine Hull, Arsenic & Old Lace: Unlike everyone else in Arsenic & Old Lace, Hull doesn’t work too hard to sell her character as off her rocker. If anything, her calm demeanor makes her seem only more comedically unsettling once the corpse is out of the window seat, especially next to the ham of co-sister Jean Adair. Her touch is light, her affect is believable, and in a film that strains as hard as this one does for “eccentric”, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Diana Lynn, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek: The first of two stellar performances from young actresses, Diana Lynn contributes a hilarious, intelligent, completely un-precious characterization to this madcap feature. Burning through her lines like she’s trying to patent Rory Gilmore, Lynn’s Emmy emerges as the only person in the town of Morgan’s Creek with any chill whatsoever, and the only one with a solid head on her shoulders as she tries to cool down her wildly emotionally family members. Funny, whip smart, and just as captivating watching everyone explode as her castmates are at exploding. You can trace a line from her to Gaby Hoffmann’s worn and warm best friend in Obvious Child with ease, and with company like that, you’re aces in my book.

Dena Penn, Days of Glory: In the abstract, it’s fair to wonder what a child is doing in a guerilla camp. But as soon as we meet Olga, making soup for the team and waiting for her brother to stop standing at attention so she can hug the daylights out of him, Penn displays real maturity and mettle in a character that all but demands it. Emerging as the platonic standard for warrior charisma and Russian femininity that Tamara Toumanova’s new recruit is measured up against, she’s as arresting to watch turning her pot of soup into a weapon as she is reacting to bad news and condolences in close-up. In every way Days of Glory outstriped my expectations, and Penn’s performance emblematizes how fully and surprisingly accomplished her film is.

Dame May Whitty, Gaslight: As the nosy, murder-obsessed neighbor flitting about Gaslight’s edges, Whitty is a fairly welcome presence. Having not been captivated by her Oscar-nominated turn in Mrs. Miniver, it’s fun to see her deployed in such a kooky, gossipy role compared to the haughty Dame I’d previously seen. Not a revelation per se, but she acquits herself better than Lansbury does, and I’d love to see her in the Adair role in Arsenic & Old Lace.

And lastly, a sweeping tribute to….

The women of Meet Me in St. Louis:

The casting director should already be applauded for creating a family that looks so related to each other, as should the stylists for helping to close any gaps. Judy Garland is the unquestionable centerpiece of the film but also the standout of a marvelous ensemble, all of whom make the most of their scenes and stay utterly responsive in reaction shots. Juvenile Oscar winner Margaret O’Brien is precocious and childishly (obvs) performative with her character’s wild stories, and has one of the most believable crying scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Joan Carroll has a wonderful rapport with O’Brien as her slightly older sister. Lucille Bremer, who may have the least to do as the oldest Smith sister, is captivating in the film’s smallest arc, as is Mary Astor in a touching duet with her husband after learning about a massive upheaval for the family. In some ways I was most surprised by Marjorie Maine, hovering on the sidelines as the tart, game maid of the Smith family, whose absence is deeply felt in the film’s last half hour. Everyone crafts legible, feeling characters, for which director Vincent Minelli must deserve some credit. But if Garland seems the most obviously irreplaceable, I’d hate to think of what Meet Me in St. Louis would look like without any of its actresses on board.

So there you have it! I really wish I could’ve gotten to Ann Shirley in Murder, My Sweet or Jessica Tandy in The Seventh Cross, but school held me up. This is the last one until they get to 2017, but after that it’s retrospectives of 1994 and 1970. Guess who’s already looking at films to (re)watch from those years? Have a good one, guys! Hopefully this won’t be my only post for this month! (winky face w/ finger guns emoji) Bye!

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