Friday, May 26, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1954

The Contenders:

Dorothy Dandridge: Carmen Jones
Grace Kelly: The Country Girl (winner)
Jane Wyman: Magnificent Obsession
Audrey Hepburn: Sabrina
Judy Garland: A Star is Born

What’s Missing

There are some really solid nominations for this award in this year and a few that I’d love to replace. I wouldn’t really want to replace anyone for one of the three principle actresses from Three Coins in the Fountain (Maggie McNamara, Jean Peters, and Dorothy Maguire), but I’m a little surprised that none of them showed up here. I could make a stronger case for Joan Crawford in the oddball Johnny Guitar. I’m also a little surprised at the lack of nomination for Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. For my money, there are two significant misses for this year. The first is Alida Valli in Senso. The second, and much bigger miss in my opinion is Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. I’ve never been an apologist for Ms. Gardner, but I’ll be damned if she didn’t win me over with this performance.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. We’re going to get to some tough decisions soon enough, but dropping Jane Wyman and Magnificent Obsession right off the bat was an incredibly easy decision. This is a drippy, sappy film that is almost painfully melodramatic. Wyman’s character eventually goes blind, and when she does, her great acting appears to be sitting as still and as stiffly as possible. “Stiff” is actually a good description for just about everything on the screen. I like Jane Wyman, but I didn’t much like her here, and she didn’t deserve to be here.

4. It’s entirely possible that I might be dropping Dorothy Dandridge to fourth because I don’t much like Carmen Jones. The truth is that Dandridge is good in the film. She goes for the role and doesn’t hold back, and I respect that. The truth, though, is that I don’t like the story at all. A bigger problem is that Dandridge, despite being who she was, had her voice dubbed for the songs. If she’d been able to sing her own part, I have a feeling I’d move her up in the rankings. This isn’t her fault, of course, but it’s certainly something that affects how I feel about her performance.

3. I love Audrey Hepburn and I rather like Sabrina. So why is she third? Because Sabrina doesn’t ask a great deal of her. Her job here is to be lightly comic, slightly tragic, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Those are crumbs for Audrey Hepburn, who could do all of those three things (especially the third) standing on her head. I don’t have problems with her performance at all, but since her performance is something she could have done in her sleep. It’s hard to award her for something that doesn’t seem at all like a stretch for her.

2. It’s a good year when the hardest choice is between the two top spots, even if there were some significant snubs. I’m ultimately putting Judy Garland and A Star is Born in second, not because of anything that she did or didn’t do in the role, but because it’s not my favorite performance of the five nominees. It’s damn close, though. Garland was capable of just about anything put in front of her, and much of that opinion of mine comes from this film. Garland made her career in light, happy musicals. Playing tragic was clearly something she could do. And, of course, she had that angelic voice.

My Choice

1. The truth is that Grace Kelly had a monster year in 1954. In addition to her nominated role in The Country Girl, she also made Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. The beautiful thing about The Country Girl is that it plays so strongly against expectations. Kelly, who was achingly beautiful played this film as a real and believable woman, much like the best roles of Olivia de Havilland. So much of what she does here she does without speaking. It’s a class in nonverbal communication to see so much tragedy and pain and restraint played across her face. It seems like a longshot at first glance, but I support the Academy’s choice.

Final Analysis


  1. I've seen all five performances without any conscious effort to fill this category, and this is probably the first time it has happened to me for the Best Actress category.

    I seem to have liked Magnificent Obsession and Carmen Jones a lot more than you did, but I like all these movies. And it's been such a long time since I saw The Barefoot Contessa that I remember the MAD parody (which I read from time to time because it's hilarious) much better than Ava Gardner's performance.

    It hasn't been that long since I saw Country Girl, so I mostly agree with her win, though I kind of wish she had been nominated for Rear Window (which I was obsessed with about 30 years ago) or Dial M for Murder (which I've been obsessed with for the last few years).

    And I would add Giuletta Masina for La strada as a likely contender. I watch La strada a lot, every two or three years, and a lot of the appeal is Masina's performance.

    1. I don't love La Strada, although Masina is probably the best part of the film. Fellini tends to leave me cold.

      My problem with Carmen Jones is the story, not the production or the performances. It's the same reason I don't like West Side Story. I don't like that movie much because I don't like its source material, and that makes it a hard sell.

      It wouldn't be hard to like Magnificent Obsession more than I did.

  2. I’m going to start this off by saying I’m a big to huge fan of all five of these women but I’d kick all but one of them from the running, for the nominated performance chosen anyway, and the one remaining would be my winner by a mile.

    You’re so right about both Jane Wyman-who was so great the next year in All That Heaven Allows-and Magnificent Obsession-a gloppy pile of psychobabble. They just don’t belong here in the slightest.

    Since Dorothy Dandridge could actually sing it’s a pity they didn’t find a way to accommodate that skill into her performance since the obvious change in timber takes you out of the film somewhat. She’s still the strongest element of that static mess of a film but I wouldn’t nominate her.

    Audrey is a chic delight in Sabrina but you’re spot on that it doesn’t ask anything meaningful of her. Put this one down to her being white hot after Roman Holiday.

    I will be forever mystified by Grace Kelly's win for The Country Girl. To me it’s a decent but thoroughly ordinary performance, she gave a far superior one the same year in Rear Window. If she’s scored for that she still wouldn't have been my winner but she would have belonged among the nominees.

    It's Judy Garland and only Judy that absolutely deserved to win this year. In a performance of amazing scope, I think it's a candidate for the greatest performance in film, she used every facet of her talents, The Man That Got Away is a mini masterpiece of an emotional journey but her work throughout is dazzling studded with flashes of brilliance.

    Ava Gardner didn’t sway me much in Barefoot Contessa, now if we were talking Night of the Iguana I’d be all in, but I agree with the mentions of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar and Alida Valli in Senso and I’d also mention Yvonne Mitchell in The Divided Heart but my lineup would run this way:

    Shirley Booth-About Mrs. Leslie
    Grace Kelly-Rear Window
    Linda Darnell-This is My Love
    Judy Garland-A Star is Born-Winner
    Judy Holliday-It Should Happen to You

    Linda Darnell had her last role of any consequence in the obscure but fascinating This is My Love, she's extraordinary as the emotionally stunted Vida Dove. Shirley Booth gave her most varied performance in the subdued Mrs. Leslie and Judy Holliday found every layer possible in the comic/sad Gladys Glover making someone enormously appealing out of a character that could have been merely an attention hungry clown if played by someone less skillful. But Garland will always come out on top.

    1. See, I'll disagree on Grace Kelly here, because I think it's actually a substantial performance. It's easy to spend a lot of time in that film watching Bing Crosby, since him playing such a dark role is completely out of character for him. It's my contention, though, that for as good as Crosby is playing against type, it's absolutely Kelly's movie. There are so man moments in it where you can almost see her thoughts, wanting desperately to say something but almost physically holding herself back because what she needs to say will destroy Crosby's character. There's a huge amount of personal emotional sacrifice in that character and it all plays out on her face.

      It's easy to miss that if you focus on Crosby. If you don't, she gives a masterful performance in every frame.

      That said, had Garland won, I can't say that I'd have been terribly put out.

  3. Can't disagree with you on the nominees. It would have been Massina in a heartbeat if she had been among them.

    1. She's a hard sell for me in general, as is Fellini.