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.