1960 Supporting Actress Smackdown

Hi! Unlike last month, where I ended up being a little bit early in posting my thoughts on the 2001 Supporting Actress race, now I’m a little bit behind on the party! Blame my ongoing plans to move to Chicago, where the fiancé and I had to leave our current apartment and stay with friends (that’s where we are now) before heading off to our new home. As such, I haven’t had as much time to write, though I believe I’ve discovered a comparable amount of films. I’m happy (if not remotely surprised) to know that Janet Leigh basically swept the official 1960 panel, though almost every nominee got their slate of support. I’m much warmer towards this slate of nominees than last month’s, not just because I like this group of performances a lot better on average but because there’s a much wider generic variety between the films being recognized. Plus, nearly all of them are good, some are very great, one is absolutely perfect, and every one of them is completely interesting to watch.

The Nominees

Glynis Johns, The Sundowners – A delightfully fruity performance, bursting through her scenes like a gust of wind while staying as attuned to characterization as her co-stars. Sure, Johns probably could’ve been as detailed and entertaining operating at the same, quieter but no less colorful key as the rest of the cast rather than aiming a bit higher, but she still meshes with the ensemble as gorgeously and unfussily as everyone else. Johns is especially fun with Ustinov, coaxing some new ideas in him as we learn more about her spirited pub owner, pulling the rug out from under him while staying her same, unabashed old self. And her camaraderie with the other women is much appreciated in such a masculine outpost.

Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry – To be fair, none of Gantry’s main players do much by way of modulation, and Jones is manifestly having a good time clicking into the self-indulgent joy of her vengeful preacher’s daughter-turned-hooker. Her physical and verbal rhythms show what an interesting casting choice she is, playing her character beats like a musical performance. Still, she lacks the layered intensity that makes Lancaster and Simmons so compelling even if they don’t vary their pitches as much as they might. Jones never seems mad at Gantry for wrecking her life and getting off scot-free, and she evokes little history with Lancaster when the two finally meet. One wishes she had more time to articulate what about Gantry’s humiliation made her change her tune so completely after the character basically goes mute in her final sequences. Enjoyable, but neglectful of the character’s most crucial aspects.

Shirley Knight, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs – Starts off pretty wan, giving the same shade of mopey teen in each of her scenes,. Knight brightens up a bit in the film’s second half once she and Lee Kinsolving’s Sammy Gideon get to the country club, finally evoking some history with her costars and varying her reactions to Sammy as the next two days go from good to bad to utterly ruinous, holding onto a real hope for some measure of goodness to restore itself. Frankly, I wish we could’ve seen Knight again after her last scene. Her shift in temperament is vaguely more substantial than what Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire do as Dark at the Top’s leads, but Knight’s slim accomplishments ultimately feel like ones anyone in this role should be able to make, especially considering how much Eve Arden and Angela Lansbury enrich their parts.

Janet Leigh, Psycho – An unimaginably tricky role for an actor to parse. So much of Hitchcock’s filmmaking illustrates Marion’s headspace for us, yet Leigh never lets the other artists override her own contributions. Nor does she seek to act over the score and the camera and the editing, modulating herself perfectly as an art object and a flesh-and-blood character driving her own story, guided by an expert performer. Leigh possesses a decent, everywoman quality and a knack for communicating her thoughts to the audience, making Marion not just sympathetic but completely understandable. Palpably anxious and contemplative even behind a sturdy poker-face, underplaying her paranoia while varying how much expressiveness is enough for Russell’s stylized camera to catch it, there’s simply no better spectacle in Psycho than watching Marion think.

Mary Ure, Sons and Lovers – Smartly individualizes a role that easily lends itself to abstraction. Ure doesn’t overplay sensuality or mystery, stating her belief in free love as an ideological concern rather than a sexy come-on. She roots her compatibility to Paul in a philosophical likeness as much as sexual chemistry, suggesting a fully adult relationship rather than the greenness of Paul and Miriam’s courtship or vamping through the part as a lesser actress or film would have allowed. Perhaps Ure comes off vaguer when responding to her ex(?) husband – who no component of the film can respond to as anything besides a device to keep Clara and Paul apart – but otherwise she’s a layered, intelligent interpreter of a tricky part.

Leigh would for sure be my winner here, though I admit I have no idea how to qualify her as lead or supporting. But beyond her, Ure, and Johns – who were my favorites of the lineup – I’ve found twelve performances and two ensembles that merit discussion. Since there were so few precursors to go off and a lot of discovery on my end, almost all of the work I’m writing about is a legitimate recommendation on behalf of the actresses and their films, though to get a better idea of what I surveyed for 1960 I recommend checking out my month logs for June and July.

Other Possibilities

Individual Performances

Keiko Awaji, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs – Makes an indelible impression in two sequences as the much-discussed protégé-turned-competitor of Hideko Takamine’s Mama, forming her own bar and taking many of Mama’s clients to keep her business afloat. Awaji refuses to play her character as a conscious rival of Mama’s or some villainous usurper, instead coming across as an attentive hostess when Mama visits her shop, and later a worried friend when the two unexpectedly have lunch. She seems genuinely concerned to have hurt her mentor, a notion reinforced by how candid Awaji’s Yuri is throughout their conversation. Honest about her hardships as she reveals an incredibly risky plan to ward off her creditors, it’s a tribute to the actress that we aren’t sure if her feint has gone horribly wrong or exactly as she intended by explaining her idea with such a straight face, confident that one day they’ll talk about her scheme over drinks. 

Marie Laforêt, Purple Noon – The strongest performance in the film. Occasionally Laforêt’s tones come across as a bit repetitive, but she’s otherwise very savvy at modulating and articulating her ire. She’s not just able to communicate her rage at Tom and Phillipe’s antics but her own expectations of the two, and how new a certain level of betrayal or humiliation is (ie – she’s used to suspecting Phillipe of infidelity, but not prepared for the scale of his latest outburst of denial). Still, her camaraderie with the two is strong enough that we don’t question why they’d hang out in the first place, even as Marge and Phillipe’s relationship shows its wear and tear. You feel how much she resents being sidelined by Tom and Phillipe, without suggesting her insistence to find her man again is strictly romantic (though it still is on some level). And her last scenes with Tom open entirely new aspects of the character. Perhaps limited from reaching Gwenyth Paltrow’s heights in the same role by Purple Noon’s specific ambitions, but still a massive boon to her character and her film.

Angela Lansbury, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs – Another great two-scene performance of an obsessed-over character in a film with a titular and thematic interest in stairs. As costumed and made-up, Lansbury already defies the most stereotypical idea of a husband-stealing hairdresser, and her performance works to further complicate that idea. She’s an ace with her line readings, evoking more history with Robert Preston than any of the actors cast as his family. Saddled with some narratively direct and thematically blunt dialogue in her last scene, Lansbury is able to craft an honest-to-god POV in these lines. The character designed to be the biggest warning in the whole film winds up being the most dimensional and human, wholly thanks to Lansbury’s sharp, detailed playing. Further kudos to Eve Arden as Dorothy McGuire’s chatty sister, who’s engaging and interestingly cast but feels like she’s treading water in a nothing part, right up until she knocks her big monologue with McGuire out of the park.

Gunnel Lindblom, The Virgin Spring – In a film whose images, performances, narrative structure, and thematic resonances are all striking yet rigidly predetermined in effect, Gunnel Lindblom’s performance is by far the most physically spontaneously and emotionally charged element of The Virgin Spring. Dirty in appearance, loose in movement, and already in conflict with the family she serves, Lindblom doesn’t bother with the pretensions and refinement of her costars. The spectacle of her carving open a loaf of bread to hide a frog inside as a cruel prank is a pure an expression of feeling – in this case petty, unbridled spite – as Max von Sydow strangling a yew tree in sorrow. One wonders if Lindblom’s emotionally candid, practically feral characterization is grazing against stereotype, but the sacrifice of any mysterious quality in favor of moment-to-moment legibility and a great depth of feeling makes Ingeri an utterly sincere creation, which becomes a tremendous asset once the character undergoes a sudden, upsetting transformation at seeing her darkest wish realized. It’s a bold, risky handling of the film’s biggest arc.

Pat Hitchcock, Psycho – An inimitable cameo, making an impression that outlasts many of Psycho’s more narratively crucial one-scene roles. Hell, compare her to Rita Wilson in Gus Van Sant’s remix, whose overly-saucy impression is one of that film’s dullest elements. By contrast, Hitchcock’s take feels utterly her own and totally in service of her film. She’s chatty, engaging, and not entirely self-aware, in a way that makes her tranquilizer punchline a riot but keeps the ring joke from being too cruel at the character’s expense. An ideal example of an actor making the most of very little.

Agnes Moorehead, Pollyanna – The cast of Pollyanna is a generally likeable bunch, typically pitching their performances more for kids than their parents. For my money, Moorehead is the only one to seize on a tonal register that works equally for both audiences, going a little less broad but finding better laughs and more resonant ironies by making her bed-ridden hypochondriac so strong-willed and childishly presumptuous. You get the sense that this isn’t a woman used to being shaken out of her ways, especially upon something as undeniably eminent as her impending doom. In other words, Moorehead plays the person rather than the quirk Pollyanna will inevitably cure them of, turning her arc into the only one in the film where someone’s way of thinking about themselves is shifted because of this girl rather than their entire philosophical outlook succumbing to “gladness”.

Edith Scób, Eyes Without a Face – Yes, anyone wearing those costumes and that mask would make an instant graphic impact in her film and horror cinema at large. But Scob makes her character even more mysterious and unsettling with preternatural poise, carrying herself with such straight-backed delicacy and intention, even if we cannot immediately glean for sure whether her curiosity towards the new girl her father has captured is sympathetic or menacing. Scob doesn’t overwork her body, her voice, or her eyes in compensation for not being able to act with her face, yet she’s still able to communicate character details in her posture, her gaze, her line readings. We get the sense that an already reserved personality has lost more of herself than she ever thought she would, and is beginning to reconsider the consequences of what’s being done on her behalf, albeit selfishly. An sad, eerie, and plausible being.

Heather Sears, Sons and Lovers – Sensational fulfillment of a role that seems incredibly easy to turn against. It’s a tribute to the film’s overall direction of ensemble and tone that Sons and Lovers is so rich with psychologically complex characterizations, but Sears’s performance as Miriam Leavers may be the ensemble’s crowning achievement. Expressively direct and committed in her love for Paul, green but not ignorant about what a romantic relationship entails, she’s equally sincere about her religious devotion and unwilling to minimize that she’s as mother-smothered as Paul is. Sears doesn’t underplay Miriam’s bone-deep discomfort with sex, portraying it like something she has no conception of enjoying or participating in, even though she wants to like it and doesn’t believe she inherently shouldn’t. The chatter about her piousness isn’t wrong, per se, but Sears makes this aspect of the character wholly appealing rather than just demonstrative. You see what there is to love about this woman even if it’s not something Paul can love, yet suggesting the room for a film of her own to watch Miriam grow.

Barbara Steele, Black Sunday a.k.a The Mask of Satan – Dual cast as Black Sunday’s primary villain and her Gothic victim, Steele makes a strong graphic impression without always coming across as an assured screen performer. In the most baroque role of a very baroque film, Steele could certainly risk scaling her expressions a lot higher than she often does, save for instances like her final, anguished scream. That she doesn’t rely solely on big gestures is interesting, and her postures fit into Bava’s insane world pretty well, though I wonder if this is an active choice or a sign of her newness to acting. What Steele does have, however, is a powerful and mesmerizing voice, delineating her characters and commanding of attention. The awkward dubbing often makes her speeches seem discordantly stitched to her own mouth, but the impact of her presence in still impressive to behold and a sign of real craft on Steele’s part.

Myrtle Vail, The Little Shop of Horrors – If any movie has earned it’s cult weirdo status, Little Shop certainly fits the bill – in no doubt aided and abetted by its musical adaptation. That the musical has no corresponding role for Seymour’s mother might explain why Myrtle Vail’s deranged, hilarious performance isn’t better recognized. Recommending recipes with literal poisons in them to stave off heart disease and other illnesses, she’s the loudest, most nakedly gonzo element of this bloody satire, out-crazying the old women of Arsenic and Old Lace as an overprotective hypochondriac. It’s amazing Vail’s performance doesn’t lose its energy given how high-key she is, but she’s one of the most consistently invigorating elements of her film, going bigger than the plant and rewarding everyone for it.

Jo Van Fleet, Wild River – It’s one thing for Van Fleet to be so technically convincing in a role twice her real age, yet who would believe she was anything but an 86 year old woman given her physicality and vocal work, in sync with a great makeup job? Van Fleet’s Ella Garth evokes a deep history with her land, with her family, refusing to make her character a fire-breathing obstacle or earth-mother paragon or melodramatic cliché. She creates a specific point of view for this woman, evoking any number of reasons Ella would refuse to sell her land to the government even at cost of her life without directly rooting her motivation into any one of these causes, even when the script presents such an obvious and romantic one for her to latch onto. That Van Fleet’s performance looks so simple even while evoking such complexity feels appropriate to Ella Garth herself. She finds a real woman in a conceit of a character without sacrificing an ounce of nuance or feeling.


From the Terrace – There’s only so much that can make the treacly masculine crises of From the Terrace very interesting, especially considering the bland Paul Newman and Joanne Woodard performances at the center of it. The supporting players frequently enliven the film a little bit, and if the actresses are stuck with material as cliched as what the men have to deal with, they at least get to play something besides masculine nobility in distress. Myrna Loy gives the film’s best performance as the disappointed, alcoholic mother of Newman’s protagonist, messy but painfully sincere in responding to an abusive husband. Rambling her final speech long after her son has left his mother’s room, she’s gone too early from the film – Martha’s neuroses and Loy’s odd edges in her playing are far more interesting than those of her son and his interpreter. Ina Balin, the one Golden Globe nominee left off Oscar’s shortlist, doesn’t break any new ground as the younger woman who reminds Alfred something about living to your truest self, but she coaxes a warmer performance from Newman than anyone else, sparking more chemistry in their courtship than he does with Woodard’s Mary. Elsewhere, Barbara Eden makes a nice, ditzy appearance, and Kathryn Givney does sharp work in her one appearance as Woodard’s mother, so quietly and repeatedly scandalized by how Mary displays her infatuation with Alfred that we grasp how unusual this behavior is, and how deep Mary’s attraction must actually be. If none of these actresses – alone or as a whole – can do much to same From the Terrace from itself, there’s something to be said for the textures they bring that make the proceedings more bearable than they might’ve been without them.

Peeping Tom – The women of Peeping Tom, as aestheticized as they are by Powell’s direction and fetishized so perversely by the homicidal protagonist, walk a fine line between playing recognizable types and individualizing them within the film’s overwhelming style. Brenda Bruce makes a terrified cameo at the opening, jaded and businesslike, unknowingly staring into Mark’s camera when he approaches her and truly caught off guard once she realizes what he intends to do to her. Pamela Green is droll and teasing, curious about her odd cameraman but not really looking for red flags. Moira Shearer, vivacious and charming, dances through most of her one, big scene without mugging towards her inevitable doom even once, so fully living in the moment that her terror is all the more impactful. Flipping towards the women who Mark doesn’t intend on killing, Shirley Ann Green gamely handles the joke of her bad actress character (and who could blame her, given her material?) but is shaken to her core after discovering a coworker’s corpse, impeding her ability to act even further. Maxine Audley, so charismatic and underused as the detective’s wife in Hell is a City, proves an unexpectedly imposing figure as the blind, suspicious mother of Anna Massey, the both of them living downstairs from Mark. Chatting Mark up on her sofa and later confronting him directly in his studio, Audley achieves something similar to Jessica Lange in Cape Fear, having the mettle to match this dangerous man who’s taken an unusual interest in her daughter even if she’s less prepared for him than she imagines. Massey herself is pretty bewitching as a basically normal young woman who’s suddenly inserted herself into Mark’s life, navigating her senses of intrigue and repulsion and genuine affection the more she learns about him. Maybe her growing companionship with Mark confuses her friends and her mother, but it never clouds her sense of right and wrong. Horror films, especially ones so concerned with aesthetics, don’t always do right by their casts – especially their victims – but Peeping Tom is all the richer for what the actresses do for their characters.

My Lineup

Gunnel Lindblom, The Virgin Spring
Agnes Moorehead, Pollyanna
Édith Scob, Eyes Without A Face
Heather Sears, Sons and Lovers
Jo Van Fleet, Wild River

Janet Leigh would absolutely make this list for Psycho if I felt more confident placing her as a supporting actress – she so dominates the first half of the film in a way no other character does afterwords that I don’t feel completely comfortable placing her here, even if she is only in the first half. As is, my runners up would be Angela Lansbury in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Keiko Awaji in When A Women Ascends the Stairs, Marie Laforêt in Purple Noon, Mary Ure in Sons and Lover, and Glynis Johns in The Sundowners, with further mentions for Anna Massey and Maxine Audley in Peeping Tom, Myrtle Vail in The Little Shop of Horrors, Barbara Steele in Black Sunday, and Myrna Loy in From the Terrace.

Though I do love the five I’ve collected, I suspect one or two who might fall out a little easier if I come across another strong contender, or reconsider what Lansbury, Awaji, or Laforêt are doing in their films. Who would you all recommend for this category, or for great 1960 cinema in general? I didn’t get to everything I meant to see for this month’s Smackdown, but would love any suggestions on where to go next.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s