Audrey Hepburn: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Piper Laurie: The Hustler
Natalie Wood: Splendor in the Grass
Geraldine Page: Summer and Smoke
Sophia Loren: Two Women (winner)
With 1961, we have a situation where I’m relatively satisfied with the five nominees. There are a few that I’d mention, though. Natalie Wood was nominated for Splendor in the Grass, and I think she may just as well have been nominated for West Side Story. In truth, were she to be nominated for one film, they got the right one, but in terms of public opinion, she may have had a better chance with the other film. The biggest miss in my opinion is Harriet Andersson for Through a Glass Darkly, which certainly deserved some attention (although the screenplay was nominated the following year). I could mention Divorce Italian Style as well, although there isn’t a strong female lead and the film got its nominations in 1962 as well. No female role in Judgment at Nuremburg is large enough to merit a mention here. Someone will mention Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, but it’s not a film I like that much. How about Silvia Pinal for Viridiana?
Weeding through the Nominees
5: I feel terrible placing the lovely Audrey Hepburn in fifth place, but it’s where Breakfast at Tiffany’s belongs. Through no fault of the lovely Miss Hepburn, I simply hate the story and dislike the character too much to give her a lot of traction here. I understand her nomination and I fully understand America’s love affair with her, but this is a case where I simply don’t buy the hype. Hepburn is good, possibly great in the role, but the role itself isn’t worth much in the overall scheme. The film is overrated, and so are all of the parts of it.
4: I had the biggest difficulty separating places three and four for this post. Eventually, just shy of a coin flip, I’m putting Geraldine Page’s performance in Summer and Smoke in fourth. Page’s role seems to be essentially Blanche DuBois, a version of femininity that I simply don’t understand. She’s also hampered by the performance of Una Merkel (who was nominated in a Supporting role), who regularly upstages everyone else on the screen. It may well be that I’m punishing Page for a role I dislike (as I did with Hepburn above), but I admit to a certain amount of subjectivity in these posts.
3: Often the Academy seems to reward the role as much as it does the performance. This is not to take away from Sophia Loren’s work on Two Women in the least, since it is a powerful and strong performance. However, it very much feels like to me that the statue went to here because she played a strong woman fighting against terrible adversity an surviving against all odds. I like Loren, and I like her here. There are two other performances that I think are better, though. After all, good writing helps and strong characters are worth seeing, but it really should be the performance that wins the award, not the character.
2: There are some truths about what kinds of roles get nominated by the Academy, and Piper Laurie benefited from that with her nomination for The Hustler. Of course, even without those truths, she deserved this nomination. But it’s also likely that she didn’t gain a lot of traction not because she was simply a fallen woman, but because she was a fallen woman who was essentially content to be fallen. It’s a great performance in a film with a series of great performances. As an ensemble, it might well be the best overall cast of the year. A great role, and beautifully done.
1: Natalie Wood had a great year in 1961, both with West Side Story and with Splendor in the Grass. I said at the top that if she was to be nominated for one of those roles, the Academy picked the right one. Wood played against type in a lot of respects here and went to some very dark places. More importantly, she went to those places believably and beautifully. Wood’s performance is what drives an excellent film; without here, Splendor in the Grass falls completely flat. Tack on her work in West Side Story and she gave not just the best female performance of 1961, but had the best all-around year. This should have been hers.