Friday, December 23, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1959

The Contenders:

Audrey Hepburn: The Nun’s Story
Doris Day: Pillow Talk
Simone Signoret: Room at the Top (winner)
Katherine Hepburn: Suddenly, Last Summer
Elizabeth Taylor: Suddenly, Last Summer

What’s Missing

Since we’re talking about 1959 here, you know that I’m going to mention North by Northwest, right? Is Eva Marie Saint’s role big enough to qualify for Best Actress? I think so, and I’d love to see her in this line up if only because, well, North by Northwest. An exclusion that surprises me is Millie Perkins for The Diary of Anne Frank, although I don’t think she should be here. It’s the sort of role that attracts nominations, though. Lee Remick’s turn in Anatomy of a Murder may have simply been too much too soon for the Academy. The fact that Hiroshima Mon Amour is only partly in English probably kept Emmanuelle Riva out of the running, more to the Academy’s shame. For personal reasons, I’d toss in Jean Seberg for Breathless (and she also did The Mouse that Roared in the same year). Based only on reputation, I’ll suggest Lana Turner for Imitation of Life, although I haven’t seen this version.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Pillow Talk is cute, and Doris Day is a delight in it, but compared with the other four nominations, this is a cream puff of a role in a cream puff of a film. A lot of what Day had to do was look good in fashion, and she can certainly pull that off. Oh, she needs to do more than that, I admit. She has to be flirty and simultaneously a bit overwhelmed by what is going on around her. This is a fun movie and rightly nominated for Original Screenplay (even if it didn’t deserve to win), but Doris Day doesn’t belong as a nominee. Not with Emmanuelle Riva looking in from the outside she doesn’t.

4. And here’s where things get difficult. The nominees for 1959, with the exception of first and last place, all feel like they belong in second or third for me. Suddenly, Last Summer is a film that surprised me, so I feel a touch guilty dropping the great Katherine Hepburn in fourth place, but someone has to be here. Hepburn handles her role her with her typical skill, but it’s not a very nuanced role. Violet Venable is a bitch with a secret. I can’t help but think that this was tailor made for Bette Davis and in many respects, it’s Davis who I really want to see tackling the role.

3. We’ll stick with the same movie here and put Elizabeth Taylor in third, although a small part of me wants to move her to second. When Liz had good material, there were few people that could match her, and she’s got great material with Suddenly, Last Summer. There are a few places where I think her performance is affected in some way. Admittedly, this happens mostly when she is coming out of some sort of drug-influenced stupor, but those moments do pull me out of the film a bit, and they count against her.

2. This puts the divine Audrey Hepburn in second for The Nun’s Story, a performance I almost put in fourth place. Why? Because I don’t like the film that much. I liked it better than I thought I would, but it’s still like rubbing sandpaper on my skin. Hepburn does everything she can with it, though, and makes Sister Luke as engaging as she can. I won’t say she’s fighting a losing battle, but it’s definitely an uphill struggle when so much of the film and the ideology presented in the film is really hateful. Audrey does what she can, and that gets her to runner-up.

My Choice

1. Simone Signoret was one of those actresses always worth watching, and she was rarely more worth watching than in Room at the Top. She has never been more heartbreaking or tragic than she is in this as a woman so beaten down by life that she can’t even trust the idea that something might make her happy. There is a dark beauty to her performance, and it is simultaneously riveting and painful to watch. Not everyone can be tragic so well. Even with a wider field to choose from, she’d get my vote.

Final Analysis


  1. Of the nominees I agree that Signoret was the rightful winner even if her role skirts being supporting. Her work is just beautifully detailed so yay that she's you're choice as well.

    I likewise struggled somewhat with Nun's Story but none of that was because of Audrey. She's luminous in the role and I could see her winning for it in another year.

    I'd flip Kate Hepburn & Liz Taylor's places. The smothering ice cold bitch was not a typical role for Hepburn but she stretches herself wonderfully to make Violet work for her. This came during what I think of as her most creative period that contains her most insightful work (this, Long Day's Journey & Lion in Winter) so what does she win for...her most conventional work in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Sigh.

    Elizabeth Taylor is good but there are parts were she seems to be struggling with Catherine and comes across as strident. It's decent work but I don't really think she should have been nominated for it.

    Love Doris Day. Love Pillow Talk. Hate that she was nominated for this and not her far more textured work in Love Me or Leave Me. It's not that I don't think comedy is difficult to do well, it definitely is but Pillow Talk as you pointed out didn't really demand much from her other than she be bubbly and look sensational. Playing Jan was nowhere near the challenge that Judy Holliday for instance had in making Billie Dawn a flesh and blood person.

    As to who is missing...Lee Remick absolutely should have been in before either of the Summer women or Doris.

    I'm not so sure about Eva Marie Saint, she's marvelous in N by NW but she'd finish somewhere near the bottom of a top 10 for me.

    Millie Perkins on the other hand would never come close to inclusion though, I find her rather blank as Anne Frank. I don't think she's terrible but I wasn't profoundly moved by her either and considering the material most of that power was built in to the role so that she didn't says to me the fault was in her performance.

    You mentioned that you haven't seen the Lana Turner version of Imitation of Life yet so you weren't sure about a nom for her. I LOVE that movie and I love her in it and still would never nominate her. She fits her role perfectly and has several affecting moments but it's a movie star performance (which truthfully is what the role requires) it never approaches her best work in The Bad and the Beautiful or The Postman Always Rings Twice and both Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore act rings around her.

    I haven't seen Riva's film, probably my biggest blind spot from this year.

    But the one you missed and the actress who would be my winner hands down if I had my way is Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. I know that the filming was torturous and Wilder struggled to get a performance from her at times but what they achieved is glorious. Actually all the major prizes this year would go to Some Like it Hot with the exception of Supporting Actress. Best Film, Director, Actor (Lemmon), Supporting Actor (Joe E. Brown) as well as Marilyn.

    1. I toyed with Marilyn on this list and ultimately didn't add her. I think she's clearly someone who could have been nominated, though, so she's probably a miss on my part.

      It may say something that I'm almost always far more focused on Lemmon. That said, I completely agree on Joe E. Brown, who is magnificent.

      I freely admit that, as a fan of Simone Signoret, I was loathe to remove her one Oscar from her trophy cabinet. I think she's heartbreaking in Room at the Top, and that goes a long way with me.

      Regarding the rest, I'm pretty much in agreement with you. My putting Doris Day on the bottom is much more a knock on the movie and the role than it is on her. I rather like Doris Day and she's charming in Pillow Talk, but she didn't really have to do a lot. I'm also with you on Millie Perkins. My shock at her lack of nomination is more that the role seems like one that should get one, although she was in no way deserving.

      As for Eva Marie Saint, I admit to a massive bias concerning North by Northwest. There's a film that should have gotten more than its paltry three nominations--Grant for Actor, Mason for Supporting Actor and Hitchcock for Director at the very least deserved space on the docket if not the actual statue, and I'd put it up for Score as well.

    2. Jack Lemmon is so brilliant in Some Like it Hot and his performance gets such praise, well deserved but it's almost a disservice to Tony Curtis. Jerry/Daphne is such an expansive character, and has Osgood to play off of, that Curtis's subtler Joe/Josephine gets eclipsed. One example that comes right to mind is the when Lemmon as Daphne tells Joe of the engagement. Curtis's reactions add so much to the scene but he can't compete with Lemmon and those maracas.

      Marilyn, and everyone really except Osgood and Sweet Sue (I loves me some Sweet Sue!), suffers the same fate but all do some of their best work.

      I couldn't agree more on those missed nominations for North by Northwest. I'd add a Best Picture nod as well.

    3. I think that's true. Everyone is firing on all cylinders in Some Like it Hot, but Lemmon in many ways has more to do than anyone else, so he stands out all the more. Honestly, I don't know that I've ever really watched Curtis's reaction to the engagement, such is the power of those maracas.

      I agree on North by Nortwest, of course, but from my perspective, I often wonder how much of that is deserved and how much of that is my own fawning over a movie I love more than any other.

  2. It is curious that, again, none of the nominees are from movies on the list, and 59 is not exactly lacking movies. Of course part of it is a masculine inclination in the general movie production, but still it is sad.
    Riva's is the knockout perfomance among the movies I have watched. I would give the award to her without blinking.
    Monroe is definitely one I will remember for a long time and so is Lee Remick, but neither performance is exactly Oscar stuff. As you write, Remick's character is probably too ahead of its time and Monroe is more like a supporting actress than a lead actress, what with Lemmon and Curtis around. Hmmm... Maybe they ought to be nominated in both gender categories...
    Eva Marie Saint is mostly a candidate because of the movie, but the real hero there is Hitchcock and to a lesser extent his actors.

    1. While none of the movies listed here are enshrined on the List, there are a couple that should be. You can safely avoid The Nun's Story and Pillow Talk is cute, but it's fluff.

      That said, Suddenly, Last Summer and Room at the Top could easily be argued as belonging on the List. Both of them are absolutely worth your time.

  3. I've seen four of the nominees, and pieces of The Nun's Story. I'd agree with your placings, though I might drop Audrey Hepburn's down, and bump the two from Suddenly up. I'd also have nominated Monroe, but that is because I feel about Some Like It Hot the way you do about North By Northwest.

    Signoret is great in Room at the Top, and she deserved to win.

    1. I have no real problem with a nomination for Marilyn. I won't stand in the way of someone's film bias!

  4. What a great year for actresses it was! I haven't seen Room at the Top yet but based on Signoret's many great performances I can't argue with your choice. I would drop Day in favor of Monroe but that's about it. Remick deserved to win but I would put her in supporting.

    1. It is a solid year all the way around, actually. When people talk about great movie years, 1959 is one that should be remembered for a hell of a lot of reasons.