Friday, September 8, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1964

The Contenders:

Sophia Loren: Marriage, Italian-Style
Julie Andrews: Mary Poppins (winner)
Anne Bancroft: The Pumpkin Eater
Kim Stanley: Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Debbie Reynolds: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

What’s Missing

1964 is a surprisingly strong year for Best Actress films, and a much stronger year than the nominations would suggest. There are a few where I’m genuinely surprised at the lack of nomination. I wouldn’t personally nominate Audrey Hepburn for My Fair Lady, but I’m a little surprised the Academy didn’t. With Barbara Barrie in One Potato, Two Potato, I’m in the opposite situation; I think she’s more worthy of a nomination, but the Academy may have been put off by the notion of an interracial romance in 1964 (and admittedly, Barrie is stiff in a few spots). Kind of unnominatable (is that a word?) are Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket--she’s clearly better than the material—and Bette Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I’d love to have seen a nomination for Constance Towers for The Naked Kiss but it’s far too lurid for Oscar material. Since she was nominated (and won) for Mary Poppins, nominating Julie Andrews for The Americanization of Emily would be redundant (and I haven’t seen it, so I’m basing this on reputation). On the foreign front, we had Monica Vitta in The Red Desert, Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Kyoko Kishida in Woman in the Dunes. Of these, Woman in the Dunes got its nominations in 1965, so I can give that a pass here for that reason.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I like Debbie Reynolds, and I have heard that Molly Brown was her favorite role, but I hated this movie a lot. More to the point, I hated her self-aggrandizing, screechy performance for the entire running time of the film. When Debbie Reynolds was good, there were few people who could match her in terms of being a consummate entertainer. Sadly, in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she is almost a caricature of that, playing to the back rows of the theater with every belted line and every corny comment. There are so many better options to put here, and she didn’t deserve to be here at all.

4. Fourth place is a little harder for me to figure. I like Anne Bancroft, but The Pumpkin Eater was not a fun film to watch. I respect it, and Bancroft is good in the role, but I found the film unpleasant in a lot of respects. Honestly, it’s a film that makes me feel dumb in a lot of ways because I think it can be simultaneously read as pro- and anti-feminist, and while Bancroft is very good, her performance doesn’t help me figure it out. I’m probably punishing her for the film more than for the performance, but that does happen sometimes.

3. Were I voting in 1964 (quite a feat since I hadn’t been born yet), I might well vote Sophia Loren higher than third place. The problem is that, while I liked Marriage, Italian-Style pretty well, I also know that Divorce, Italian-Style was yet to come, and it’s a better movie in just about every respect. Loren’s performance is a good one, but it’s also riding a very close edge to being an almost complete stereotype of an Italian woman. That’s not Loren’s fault, or at least not entirely her fault, but it’s certainly at least partly her fault, and so she’s not moving above third place.

2. It seems that almost everyone likes Mary Poppins more than I do. I probably would have liked it a lot more in 1964 than I do now. I don’t think the film has aged very well for starters. I have a hard time believing that it would charm or entertain modern kids in general. That said, Julie Andrews plays the role beautifully. It’s one of those films where it’s pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a little angering to put a role I don’t really like in a movie I don’t really like this high, but I fully understand why Andrews won.

My Choice

1. My vote goes to Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, though, and it’s for a very specific reason. This is an unforgiving role, one that is highly unpleasant in almost every aspect. Stanley is playing a character who is terribly evil in so many ways and must do so while simultaneously playing a character who sees herself as a paragon of virtue and who becomes over the course of the film entirely delusional. Kim Stanley didn’t do enough film work, and this film serves as exhibit A in that opinion. It’s just about perfect and just about perfect to make the film it is in work the way it should. She’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. A very, very strong year for lead actresses and I’m a fan of all five women who made the lineup but three don’t belong here, Debbie, Julie and Sophia.

    I think when you reviewed Molly Brown I mentioned that like you I’m not a fan of the film and it’s unfortunate Debbie with several other worthier performances received a nod for this one.

    It’s not quite the same situation with Sophia. She’s good and the film fine but I never saw anything when I watched that made me think “This is Oscar or even nomination worthy”.

    I love Mary Poppins for what it is, a bright shiny entertainment with a very talented woman at its core surrounded by other gifted performers. But there isn’t a great deal of emotional depth to Mary Poppins and though Julie plays her better than anyone else could she gave a more varied, deeper performance in The Americanization of Emily this same year. The problem there is that the role skirts being supporting to James Garner’s character. A great deal of her winning can be tied to her loss of Eliza Doolittle when My Fair Lady was transferred to the screen.

    That leaves Kim and Anne. I’m in complete agreement that Kim Stanley should have made more films, apparently a preference for the stage, emotional problems and a messy personal life limited her output. She is marvelous in Séance and of the nominees my runner up but whether I like her film or not (I didn’t love it) Anne Bancroft is to me the only choice for The Pumpkin Eater. Always a fierce presence her complex work in this is my favorite of any she ever did.

    Now we come to who should have been here and there is much room for improvement. This year really was packed with worthy work and the most glaring omission to me is Catherine Deneuve for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She’s as brilliant as the rest of the film. After her Nina Pens Rode absolutely should have been included for Gertrud (if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend doing so). Then there was Geraldine Page in Dear Heart (a personal favorite), Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden and maybe Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go!

    I haven’t seen two that are often mentioned as misses, Monica Vitti in Red Desert and Nobuko Otowa in Onibaba. There’s also the strange case of Maria Casares in Les dames du Bois de Boulogne which came out in France in 1945 but didn’t premiere in the States until 1964, which I guess would make it viable for consideration.

    1. Honestly, I figured I was setting myself up for some hell by not putting Julie Andrews at the top. I know I like the film a lot less than most people do.

      Ultimately, I'm in a position here where I like one of these movies (Marriage, Italian-Style), love one (Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and genuinely dislike the other three. It makes them much harder to judge in general and in terms of performances overall.

      I have seen Gertrude. Again, it's one of those films that I didn't like so much, which makes it more difficult to judge. Nobuko Otowa in Onibaba is one I actually missed, and it is a miss on my part.

    2. I love Julie Andrews and I'm glad she has an Oscar I just don't think she won for a particularly challenging role especially in a year when there were those kind of roles among the nominees.

      Gertrud is stagy and a bit stiff at times but I thought Nina Pens Rode's performance compensated for its shortcomings, at least for one view.

  2. Could anyone else have played Mary Poppins with the same impact in the film? Well, I guess we will find out if Julie Andrews deserved her win on 12/25/18 when "Mary Poppins Returns." And judging by the official Disney teaser, Julie Andrews needn't worry about Emily Blunt usurping her portrayal of the iconic character.

    1. This is exactly the reason that I put her as high as I did despite not liking the movie or the role that much. It's so completely tied up with her that I don't know that anyone can ever really play the role again.

  3. In my book, if Barbara Stanwyck could have played any part better than a nominated actress, they don't deserve to win as she never did. I don't believe Barbara could have been a better Mary Poppins, so Julie deserved the award.

    1. I have to say, I kind of love that as a metric. However, based on that same idea, I don't know that anyone could have done Seance on a Wet Afternoon better than Kim Stanley.