Friday, November 27, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1961

The Contenders:

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)

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. I couldn't agree more that this is the place where Natalie should have picked up the award that never came her way. I'm a big fan of her but truthfully she could be a spotty actress at times however if she connected with the character she revealed great wells of raw emotion. That was never more true than in this, she obviously understood the troubled Deanie and it can be painful at times to watch her torment. It's not just the big showy moments that she nails either but the subtle quiet ones too.

    As for the rest of the line-up I think your placement is pretty accurate though I'd switch Audrey and Geraldine. I love Gerry Page very much but I find Summer and Smoke rather hard to take and she's given many other performances I like much more, so true about the marvelous Una Merkel too. I like Breakfast at Tiffany's a great deal and think Audrey's Holly is a delicate charming piece of work but the other three actresses had character's with richer stories.

    As to who is missing I haven't seen Through a Glass Darkly. I've been working on my Ingmar Bergman knowledge but his films as a rule are so heavy that I can only watch a couple at a time and then have to take a long break and I haven't gotten to this one yet but it is on my list to see. Even without her though this year had several excellent performances that didn't make the cut. Ingrid Bergman was wonderful in the otherwise negligible Goodbye Again. Deborah Kerr was amazing in The Innocents but I think it was considered too close to horror to stand a chance. Marilyn Monroe's swan song in The Misfits is full of naked longing and vulnerability but I'd guess the bad publicity of the shoot and the film's less than dynamite box office hurt it, but hell if she couldn't get nominated for her brilliant Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot she didn't stand a chance here and Hayley Mills in the gentle allegory Whistle Down the Wind is quite memorable.

    1. The Innocents is a great call here, and that's a miss on my part. Sometimes I scroll through the list of released films for a given year too quickly, and evidently that's one I zoomed right past. In fact, she's probably the biggest miss aside from Harriet Andersson. Speaking of her, if you're in the mood for Bergman but don't want to go heavy, check out Smiles of a Summer Night. It's basically Bergman doing a Shakespeare comedy, and Harriet Andersson is a very saucy maid. It's Bergman-level quality, but it's the anti-Bergman Bergman film.

      I don't have a huge issue with flipping Hepburn and Page. It might be that I don't think Breakfast at Tiffany's lives up to the hype.

      But to the point, for as good as Natalie Wood could be, this was (I think) her best performance. Couple that with West Side Story in the same year, and this should have been hers by rights.

    2. I can only guess that it must have been incredibly close between Sophia and Natalie. Both their lineage leading up to this would offer compelling advantages to favor one over the other and back again. Child of Hollywood, truly one of their own, grows up and tears the audience's collective hearts out in astonishing fashion vs. renown sex symbol/comedienne sheds all vestiges of glamour to horrify her legions of fans with a veiled approximation of her childhood in war torn Italy...and in her native tongue!! I'm sure the press of the time ate it up.

      My guess is that with Sophia's fame and the concurrent rise of international cinema the academy saw a way to acknowledge the widening marketplace while retaining a link to Hollywood stardom. Not to diminish her performance for she is really extraordinary but that probably was what tipped the tide in her favor.

    3. I can see that. Loren was compelling in Two Women, but I still think the award went at least in part to the role.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion of Smiles on a Summer Night, that is one that I've seen and I liked it though I think I went in with too high expectations. It had its charms but from the rapturous reviews I'd read and recommendations I'd been given I expected to be blown away and I wasn't, still a good film.

    My favorite Bergman of what I've seen so far remains Wild Strawberries and I think because I went into it more or less blind I was able to appreciate it more since I had no preconceived notions.

    1. Wild Strawberries is a great one, but my preference is still The Seventh Seal. The reason is simple--I expected it to be such a difficult film that I avoided it for years. I was so surprised that it was completely accessible and entertaining that it made it all the more impressive to me.

  3. I haven't seen Summer And Smoke. Of the other four I would go with Sophia Loren or Natalie Wood. Audrey Hepburn was fine, but I feel she did better work in better films (Roman Holiday).

    Piper Laurie was really good, I just feel like Wood and Loren had a bit more to do, as they really had to carry their films. If I had to choose I would probably go with Loren, but it would be close.

    I can fully understand you choosing Natalie Wood. Good analysis.

    1. I won't call Summer and Smoke essential viewing. I feel no need to see it a second time.

  4. I haven't seen Page or Loren in their roles. I completely agree on Breakfast at Tiffany's. I HATED her character. She's a horrible person. It's been quite a few years since I saw Splendor in the Grass, so that may be diluting Wood's performance some, but I'd probably go with Laurie among the three I've seen.

    1. Splendor in the Grass is worth a revisit if you get the chance. Wood is pretty magnificent.