Friday, April 25, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1950

The Contenders:
Anne Baxter: All About Eve
Bette Davis: All About Eve

Judy Holliday: Born Yesterday (winner)
Eleanor Parker: Caged
Gloria Swanson: Sunset Boulevard

What’s Missing

The Best Actress race for 1950 is a damn embarrassment of riches. In four months of doing this feature, I haven’t said this, but it’s my considered opinion that the Academy named the five best performances in this category this year. They got the right five, which is a minor miracle in and of itself. Sure, there are a couple others that can be mentioned, even if I don’t think they are as worthy of the nomination as the five we have. I like Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle, for instance, and I think the same about Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy. If I had to add one, I’d pick Gloria Grahame from In a Lonely Place, which is a hell of a fine performance in a hell of a good movie.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: It’s painful for me to get rid of a single one of these performances, but I’m pitching Eleanor Parker and Caged off the top. I liked this film far more than I thought I would, and a great deal of that is specifically because of Eleanor Parker’s performance in it. It’s even got everything in what gets knocked around as “Oscar bait.” It’s a movie with a purpose and that tries to address a social evil. I love the way Parker’s character changes from a timid innocent to a hardened criminal in the course of the film. It’s just my least favorite of a damn good batch of films and performances. Coming in fifth in this group is no shame.

My Choices

4: I think I can make a solid case for the other four nominees, and really, if you twist my arm, I could probably make a pretty good case for Eleanor Parker. I’m putting Anne Baxter fourth, and this is for no other reason than personal preference. It’s not a knock on her, the performance, or the film, all of which I love. Why am I putting her fourth? Because I like the other three performances better. Seriously, that’s it. I have no complaints here, except that I wish I could rate her higher. This is a role and a performance that would win in many other years.

3: I’m going to knock out the other half of the All About Eve double nomination third even though it bothers the hell out of me to ever have Bette Davis below the top two. My reasons for putting her third are the same as my reasons for putting Anne Baxter fourth: I like the other two performances better than this. That Bette Davis is one of the great actresses of film history goes without saying. That this is one of her best and most memorable films only stresses how much I like the two remaining options.

2: Before I watched Born Yesterday, the mere thought that a comedic goof of a performance could win this Oscar was almost offensive to me. And then I saw Born Yesterday and realized that Judy Holliday’s performance is an absolute gem. Her character might be a ditz, low class and undereducated, but it takes an enormous amount of brains and talent to get that character across believably. She inhabits this character so well that it’s almost difficult to believe that she’s playing a role and not just being herself. And that’s what makes it so damn good, and it’s why she ultimately won the gold statue.

1: But for me, it’s Gloria Swanson who takes the prize home. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is not merely the best female performance of 1950, it may well be the single best performance of any actor in the entire decade. It would be difficult for me to think of a greater transformation within the context of a film than that of Norma Desmond, who goes from slightly batty egotist to full-blown crazy by the time the film ends. That Swanson almost certainly could relate to Norma Desmond on a personal level only makes the performance that much more exceptional. I can’t fault the Academy for awarding Judy Holliday, but my vote would have been Swanson all the way.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd go with Swanson, too. I haven't seen Caged, so I obviously can't say I'd replace Parker with Grahame, but I feel she deserved a nomination for In a Lonely Place.

    1. It's kind of a push. They're both great performances and I could see a nomination for both of them.

  2. It's hard to argue with Gloria Swanson's performance. Her portrayal of an aging silent film star is not only as good as it gets, but is also pretty courageous. It's also one of many great performances in what I think is one of the best films of all time.

    1. This one was hard. It's difficult for me to argue with any of them. When Oscar gets the nominations right, it makes this tough.

  3. This year and this category is just a WOW! Every performance is worthy of inclusion and while I don’t know if I agree that the absolutely best five made the list I can’t say that any of them is a bad placement. I love Judy Holliday and her work in Born Yesterday but the decision for me was between Davis and Swanson and for me Bette comes out on top by a whisper thin margin, really a tie is what I’d most like to see. After them I really have no idea who I’d put in third, all those performances have so much to them.

    As to who could alternatively have made the cut or at least been considered for the list this year is huge. Gloria Grahame would definitely be near the top of the list for her complex work in the bleak In a Lonely Place. Peggy Cummins and Jean Hagen are other great suggestions but I’d add Ella Raines in The Second Face and Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own to that top tier. Stanwyck is someone who had a great year and deserved consideration for not only that film but The Furies as well but because of Eve and Sunset Blvd her performances were ignored. There’s also Claudette Colbert in the brutal Three Came Home.

    Then there was a slew of performances, Spring Byington-Louisa, Joan Crawford-The Damned Don't Cry, Betty Hutton-Annie Get Your Gun, Ann Sheridan-Woman on the Run, Ann Sothern-Shadow on the Wall, Gene Tierney-Whirlpool, Jane Wyman-The Glass Menagerie and Jean Simmons gave two excellent performance in Cage of Gold & So Long at the Fair that in many another year would merit consideration but aren’t quite at the level of those ladies at the top.

    If only every year had this sort of variety and depth of choice!

    1. I said at the top that it's an embarrassment of riches, and I stand by it. While I did put Parker in fifth here, I think her performance could win in a lot of other years. That I put her in last place for a performance that good, and that there are so many other potential nominees shows just how deep this year went.

      Is there a better year for women's roles? Probably not, because this one could, according to your suggestions, double in size and still not get them all.