Thursday, January 11, 2007

Best of the Best Actresses

It's that time of year again, and the wonderful film blogger Edward Copeland has unleashed another of his Oscar surveys. This time, we rate the Best Actresses, naming the five best, in descending order, and the five worst, also in order. Polish your rear-view mirrors and sharpen your hindsight, and send Mr. Copeland a ballot. Here is the Siren's.

Best of the Best:

1. Janet Gaynor Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel
The Siren is cheating a bit here, since she has seen only Sunrise. But Sunrise, she assures you, is sufficient unto itself. One viewing of Gaynor's performance is worth hours of wrist-crippling typing about the lost art of silent acting. She will break your heart.

2. Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Apologies to Diane Keaton, but this is the greatest comic performance to win a Best Actress Oscar. Holliday's reactions are a joy forever. The first time the Siren rented this, she kept rewinding the shot of Holliday inching her head toward the dictionary when the corrupt Congressman uses a word she doesn't know. So many wonderful touches, like her imitation of the drum rolls on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" - a sure sign Billie Dawn is playing the whole record in her head, the better to tune out Broderick Crawford. Holliday didn't even have to deliver her matchless "Drop dead," because the Siren was already on the floor laughing from just watching her turn around on the staircase.


3. Jane Fonda, Klute
Screen acting at its most truthful. An amazing demonstration of disappearing into a character, all the more so when you consider that the movie is good but not great. It's a standard prostitute-in-peril yarn, with a problematic plot that reveals the killer in mid-film and leaves the wheels spinning afterward. But the Siren was astonished at the layers of personality Fonda brought to the character of Bree. This should have been the screen hooker to give all the others the hook. (Aside: does IMDB really have to link to external "reviews" that are just rants about "Commie Fonda"?)

4. Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
We're frequently admonished to appreciate our hardworking, underpaid teachers. What is left unmentioned, though, is that bad teachers can affect your future as much as the inspirational ones. For many women, Maggie Smith's performance lingers as an emblem of some past teacher whose mark on their lives was more like a stain. Smith makes Jean Brodie, a Fascist sympathizer who damages lovers and students, both monstrous and moving. Miss Brodie's artistic affectations, her carefully cultivated posture and self-dramatizing gestures, are rendered in minute detail, and such is Smith's talent that at no time does the portrayal shade off into caricature.

5. Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
Practically the Siren's first thought upon learning of this survey was, "Damnit, I'm including Joan." Bear with me here. In no way is this a naturalistic performance. Who cares? It is an endlessly re-watchable piece of High Hollywood Acting, with Joan Crawford hurling her star power around like a flamethrower. Is she subtle? Hell, no. It isn't a subtle movie. But Crawford grabs your attention, sympathy and yes, belief as she rips apart her marriage, home and the scenery to Sacrifice All for her worthless daughter Veda. Look the Siren deep in the eye. Would you really, truly rather watch Sophie's Choice again, or see Joan haul off and slap Ann Blyth?

Worst of the Best:

1. Loretta Young, The Farmer's Daughter
Understand, please, that the Siren loves corny. She lives for corny. Well, actually, she lives for romantic, followed closely by sophisticated, then witty, then spectacular and THEN she lives for corny. But there is corny, and there is saccharine. And this could induce diabetic coma. If Young's yumpin' yiminy accent doesn't appall you, her Princess Leia cinnamon-bun hairdo will. The Siren couldn't find a picture of that, but the braid crown at left is almost as bad. Young was quite bearable in a few movies, but she hasn't the ability to make this purehearted rustic believable or even interesting. The Siren has no idea why Young won.

2. Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
The Siren feels churlish naming this, because we all know Spencer Tracy was dying when this movie was made, and it must have affected Hepburn a great deal. But what does Kate really do here, besides gaze mistily at Spence?

3. Bette Davis, Dangerous
She wasn't even nominated for Of Human Bondage, so this is one of those consolation Oscars they give out to this day, and shouldn't. You would never know Davis was a peerless screen artist by viewing this shrill, silly, damn near unwatchable performance in an extremely tiresome movie.

4. Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
"It's the biggest robbery since Brink's," cabled Groucho Marx to Judy Garland, whose career-topping performance in A Star Is Born lost to Grace Kelly's willingness to wear eyeglasses and a frumpy dress. The Siren swears she isn't naming Kelly out of pique. She loves Grace Kelly, who doesn't? But this performance is pedestrian, with the actress unable to suggest her character's longing or her sense of entrapment. Instead, what she projects is primarily petulance.

5. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8
"Even I voted for her," remarked wronged wife Debbie Reynolds, when a dire illness landed Liz in the hospital and gave her this sympathy Oscar. To her immense credit, Taylor has always said she knew she didn't deserve the award. Unfortunately, she was right. Granted, Gloria Wandrous is a ludicrous projection of misogyny, possibly unplayable as written. Plus there's the problem of Taylor's leading man, of whom Jane Fonda said, "Acting with Lawrence Harvey is like acting by yourself. Only worse." Still, it is evident that Taylor made this movie while on an actress setting we could call Slut Auto-Pilot.

So that's the Siren's list. Tell her what you think in the comments, but do send your list to Mr. Copeland by Jan. 20.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was abit relieved to read your comment, as I felt guilty for having voted a Hepburn performance among my five worst... I do really love her acting, but, in my case, I don't like "Morning Glory" (and one of the reasons is her "will-you-give-me-an-Oscar" performance). I suspect Kelly is going to get more ballots... (in my case, I admit I am biased by my anger at Garland's splendid performance being neglected).

Among the best, I coincide with you about Gaynor and Holliday ;p, and only regret Lillian Gish didn't win for "The Wind" (otherwise she would be in my "best" list!)

Campaspe said...

Mr. Campaspe was quite put out at my naming Katharine Hepburn at all. These things can definitely sow discord. I thought she really deserved her Oscar for Lion in Winter, however.

Anonymous said...

It's always great to see Maggie Smith's Miss Jean Brodie on a short list!

Campaspe said...

Maud, how lovely to see you here. Just the other day I was at your place, watching you insert the stiletto into Malcolm Gladwell. Neat job, splendid piece.

The screen Miss Brodie doesn't have the same depth as Spark's, but like I always say, why choose when you can have both?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I hope Street Angel and Seventh Heaven come your way. I've seen both, and my SO liked Heaven when she saw it for the first time at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

I did vote with you on Liz and Joan.

girish said...

Eastman House (which is about an hour away) has been running a great Janet Gaynor series. Alas, I've been a bit busy to catch it. Snow permitting, I'll try to take in Street Angel this week.

Anonymous said...

Mildred Pierce --what a great film.
I enjoyed this post very much

Campaspe said...

Girish, you are finally getting snow? wish we would! as a Southern girl I like snow, it is still sort of special and magical to me. I would love to see Street Angel, if you see it I hope you post about it (perhaps with some other thoughts on silents?)

D.Chedwick, thanks very much. Mildred Pierce is such joy. The supporting cast is aces too, Jack Carson and Eve Arden at the very height of their game.

Anonymous said...

I saw Seventh Heaven in 2006 and Street Angel in 2005. In no way do Gaynor's performances in them dilute the one in Sunrise, im my opinion. If anything, the Borzage films are even more dependant on her acting for their success than the Murnau. And they succeed.

On the other hand I'm probably not the best authority to discuss Best Actress winners and losers (though I did submit a ballot with Gaynor and Crawford in the "best" column) as I've got a lot of gaps from the field. Other than Gaynor's trio of films and Mildred Pierce the only one I've seen on either of your lists is Klute.

Campaspe said...

I think that the ultimate list will be like last year's Best/Worst Picture surveys, weighted to the more recent pictures.

Despite the tilt to the recent, I now officially predict that Liz Taylor is going to win the Worst Actress tin Oscar for Butterfield 8, in a walk.

goatdog said...

I really need to watch Born Yesterday again. I saw it with an attitude of "ok, justify winning the Oscar against Bette and Gloria," which probably made me a little biased.

My lists:
Best:
1. Holly Hunter (The Piano)
2. Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
3. Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter)
4. Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress)
5. Emma Thompson (Howards End)
(I didn't include Gaynor because I haven't seen Seventh Heaven or Street Angel, but since we're cheating I'll put her in at #3 for Sunrise.)

Worst:
1. Mary Pickford (Coquette)
2. Julie Christie (Darling)
3. Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love)
4. Sally Field (Places in the Heart)
5. Katherine Hepburn (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner)

Campaspe said...

Goatdog, I have heard Coquette is awful but I haven't seen it; it's one of the few winners I haven't seen, along with Morning Glory and the two Gaynors as well as Places in the Heart, which I kind of don't care if I see or not.

NATHANIEL R said...

I have Klute on my list too -yay! It's really amazing.

And after reading your Gaynor comments I'm feeling guilty about leaving her off. She's also great in the other film I've seen from that year: seventh heaven

Campaspe said...

N., oh good! Winning an Oscar for playing a prostitute is such a cliche, but Fonda makes Bree such a fully rounded individual. You know her inside-out.

Nick Davis said...

I loved these write-ups, Campaspe! We didn't overlap in the Top 5 at all (my picks: Leigh '51, Hunter, Colbert, Dressler, Leigh '39), but your descriptions captured everything wonderful in your choices. I loved how you stuck it to Loretta Young's bizarre win. She was my second-worst, in a field that also included Pickford, Field '84, Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn, though Kate in Dinner was hovering right there at #6.

Parjanya said...

My Best Five:

1) Vivien Leigh for Gone With the Wind
2) Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
3) Nicole Kidman for The Hours
4) Emma Thompson for Howards End
5) Peggy Ashcroft for A Passage to India

My Worst Five:

1) Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets
2) Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8
3) Ingrid Bergman for Murder On the Orient Express
4) Halle Berry for Monsters Ball
5) Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny

JUAN. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JUAN. said...

I disagree about Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield 8". Maybe she played the part in "slut-automatic mood", but she is the very first classic Hollywood star that I remember playing such a part in a really sexual way. Those first scenes when she gets out of the bed... I mean, you really know she has just had sex. Who did it before her? I think those first minutes of acting were really good and she is much better in those scenes than Cher or Julia Roberts in the films that got them their awards.

JUAN. said...

I'm checking the academy awards best actress nominees and I can't believe that Louise Fletcher won it over Isabelle Adjani's "L'histoire d'Adele H.", that Faye Dunaway won it over Liv Ullman's "Ansikte mot ansikte" or that Jane Fonda won over Ingrid Bergman's "Höstsönaten". It seems there wasn't much love for performances in a foreign language. But, thinking it twice, at least those performances were nominated in the 70's...