Friday, April 22, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1958

The Contenders:

Rosalind Russell: Auntie Mame
Elizabeth Taylor: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Susan Hayward: I Want to Live! (winner)
Deborah Kerr: Separate Tables
Shirley MacLaine: Some Came Running

What’s Missing

Let’s start with Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil, who may have been penalized because the Academy by this point had gotten tired of Orson Welles. She was also in The Vikings, which makes her omission even more surprising. It’s a shame, though, because I think she’s great in the role. Let’s toss in Kim Novak in Vertigo as well, especially since she was in Bell, Book and Candle in 1958. Kim Stanley’s turn in The Goddess is worthy of mention, too. As for other possibilities, I haven’t yet seen Houseboat (with Sophia Loren), Inn of the Sixth Happiness (with Ingrid Bergman), or Teacher’s Pet (with Doris Day), so I can’t comment on them. As for Leslie Caron in Gigi, I can only say I’m happy she wasn’t nominated.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I like Deborah Kerr, and I think I liked Separate Tables well enough, but if I had to bump anyone from a nomination, she’s the one I’d lose. The reason for this is simple and it doesn’t really reflect on Kerr herself. Her role in the film is mousey and subdued, and so I find her very difficult to remember. She may well be better than I’m recalling (or, more to the point, not recalling), but the truth is that both she and a great deal of this movie seemed to pass over me without making a deep impression. That’s not a good thing when it comes to an Oscar battle.

4. I like Rosalind Russell as well, and with the possible exception of His Girl Friday, nothing screams a role for her more than playing Mame. This is one of those rare instances where it feels like an actor’s entire persona ends up wrapped up in a single character. It’s a good, even a great performance, but it’s ultimately one that I don’t like very much. It’s probably not fair that I’m slotting this so low because I hate the character, especially in a situation where I honestly can’t think of another person to fill the role. I’d rather have Janet Leigh and Kim Novak in the running, though, even for a performance as complete as this one is.

3: With Shirley MacLaine’s performance in Some Came Running, we’re getting into territory where I like the performance pretty well even if I don’t love the movie. MacLaine’s job in this is to be sweet, a little dumb, and willing to go home with any man willing to buy her a couple of drinks. She’s heartbreaking. Some Came Running is a small story writ large and there’s a lot I like about it, Shirley MacLaine being at or near the top. I just like the other two performances more.

My Choices

2. When I first started watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I didn’t understand Elizabeth Taylor’s nomination. I figured it was just a case of Liz being Liz and being nominated because of who she was more than the role she played. She comes into her own in the second half of the film, though, and produces a performance that matches everyone else on the screen. This is a blistering role, and depending on my mood, I might well come down on the side of her taking the trophy. It’s a tough call, since I think this is not only one of her best performances in general, but one of the better performances of its decade.

1: I spent some time waffling between the first and second positions here. Ultimately, I came down on the side of the Academy selecting correctly and giving the Oscar to the right person. Susan Hayward’s Barbara Graham is easy to root for in the sense that we know she is innocent of the crime of which she is ultimately convicted, but she’s not in any way a good person. Hayward makes her compelling through the whole film, forcing us to overlook all of her negative qualities and root for her. She’s an antihero in many respects, but Hayward makes her human in a world where this part of humanity didn’t catch a lot of breaks in the movies. I might vote for Liz now and then, I think Susan Hayward gets my vote more often than not.

Final Analysis


  1. Taylor gives one of my favorite female performances of all time in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and for my money should have won in a walk; mostly because MacLaine, I feel, was truly Supporting and should have won there. Both ladies are astonishing here.

    I like Hayward enough as well as Russell, but they didn't deliver as strongly as I would have liked.

    Kerr is one of my favorite actresses, but her performance in Separate Tables is kind of awful.

    Personally, my lineup would have looked like so:

    1) Taylor/Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
    2) Moreau/The Lovers
    3) Bergman/Indiscreet
    4) Novak/Vertigo
    5) Woodward/The Long, Hot Summer

    With MacLaine my winner in Supporting.

    1. I don't pretend to know the politics that label one performance as supporting and another not. Sadly, I'm limited in a lot of ways by what I'm given with the nominations.

      I certainly won't disagree with Elizabeth Taylor for the win--she made it below the fold here, which more or less means that if she won, I wouldn't quibble. I'll defend Hayward, though. She has to both make herself sympathetic and put on the devil-may-care mask to the film's public, and she does both very well.

  2. This is a year rich in award worthy work both among the nominees and many who missed out.

    To deal first with the actual nominees. Like Fisti I feel that MacLaine's is truly a supporting performance, she's scattered throughout but only really comes into focus towards the end and the film is Sinatra's character's story with everyone around him at the fringes. Were she properly placed in supporting she'd be my winner in a walk.

    I love Deborah Kerr but her role is so blah and fussy, her work is competent but she's been much better elsewhere...ironically most of the time in films for which she didn't net nominations.

    The other three woman are all tremendous in different ways and are among my favorite actresses so it's a tough choice. That Liz was able to give such a consistent and strong performance despite being widowed in the middle of filming adds an extra layer to her work and Susan's signature toughness with an underlying warmth is ideally suited to Barbara Graham, though I feel her best performance was her previous nomination in I'll Cry Tomorrow, but I've always been dazzled by Roz Russell in Auntie Mame, as you said it's almost impossible to think of anyone else in the role who could match what she does. I can see how your feelings about the performance does depend on how much you like her character , I find her a delight, and of these five she'd be my winner.

    As to who is missing, of the actresses you mentioned Leigh is good but has never really made that much of an impression on me in the film, Doris Day is sprightly and fresh in Teacher's Pet but the part is nothing special and Sophia is captivating in Houseboat but it's all just fluffy romance. Kim Stanley does good work in The Goddess but the script doesn't give her much to work with and she's miscast. The two strongest are Ingrid Bergman in Sixth Happiness (who gave another delightful, quite different, performance in Indiscreet) and Kim Novak is the absolute best she ever was in Vertigo making Judy and Madeleine two uniquely different women.

    There's also Shirley Booth in The Matchmaker, Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows, Virginia McKenna in Carve Her Name with Pride and Joanne Woodward in Long, Hot Summer to consider. However the woman who would get my vote for the prize is the brilliant Kay Kendall in The Reluctant Debutante. Her role could have easily slipped into caricature but with her graceful skill she balances it expertly.

    There's so much quality work that my personal lineup would only contain one of the actual nominees despite the excellent of most of them. Mine would be as follows:

    Kay Kendall-The Reluctant Debutante-Winner
    Virginia McKenna-Carve Her Name With Pride
    Jeanne Moreau-Elevator to the Gallows
    Kim Novak-Vertigo
    Rosalind Russell-Auntie Mame

    1. The problem I have with Mame isn't that I don't like her. There are plenty of performances where I dislike the character but love the performance. A lot of this comes down to how I'm supposed to feel about the character. I'm not supposed to like Jasmine in Blue Jasmine and I don't, but Cate Blachett is great in the role. I'm supposed to like Mame and I really, really don't like her at all. It has nothing to do with Rosalind Russell's performance and everything to do with the writing, but on some level, the blame has to be put on the person in the role.

      Jeanne Moreau is a great mention. I'm not sure how I missed her when going through the year, because I do like Elevator to the Gallows a lot, and her in it a lot as well.

  3. I've seen all the nominees and can't argue with you overall. I remember Kerr's performance and I think it is one of her worst - much too mannered which is a fault Kerr generally lacks. I like Mame and Russell but would definitely not put her in first place.

    I haven't seen everything of course but this strikes me as rather weak year for the ladies. The only performance you didn't mention from films I have seen is Jean Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows. I'm surprised that film missed The List actually.

    1. I'm surprised it's not their, too. There are plenty of lesser movies that have made the list for much lesser reasons than a solid plot, good storytelling and a fantastic soundtrack.

  4. Given the praise, nominations and reputation I think it is odd that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not on the List. I am considering to give it a shot off-list.
    As usual with Best Actress nominations I have watched so few of them, in this case Shirley MacLaine, and although I liked her in the role it seems a weak basis for a preference.

    1. Go watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Seriously. You'll wonder why it's not on the list.