Saturday, March 6, 2010

Oscar and Horror - The Supporting Actresses

(Second in a Series of Four)

The women in Horror fare a little better with the Academy for one reason; it's almost always much harder to find five nominate-able performances among female actors in both Lead and Supporting, and so voters are willing to look a little further afield in other genres - comedy, foreign films, and occasionally Horror, and the first such nominee, at the age of 20, was only a good three years older than the Academy itself...

Before she had exited her teens, Angela Lansbury was a two-time Oscar nominee, and in back-to-back performances - 1944's Gothic thriller Gaslight, and the polished screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of the man who left no sin uncommitted, but whose portrait detailed the corrosive effects his misdeeds had upon his soul. Lansbury played Sybil Vane, a vaudeville singer who entered an ill-fated romance with Gray; she would lose the award to National Velvet's Anne Revere. In 1962 Lansbury would receive a third nomination for her icy performance as Mrs. Iselin, the calculating mother willing to turn her own son into an automaton of an assassin in the landmark thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Oscar eluded her again, but don't feel too badly for Lansbury; she went on to win five competitive Tony Awards, and is currently knocking them dead on Broadway at the ripe old age of 85 in Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Speaking of Broadway, the 1954 play The Bad Seed transported its stage cast intact when it was translated to the big screen, and three of its
actresses wound up as Oscar nominees, two in Supporting. Even though she had the title role of the pre-pubescent murderess, Patty McCormack was not considered a lead by Academy voters and was in direct competition with her co-star, Eileen Heckart, memorable as the boozy, suspicious Hortense Daigle. The Bad Seed was the landmark play that asked the question; is Evil a matter of Nature or Nurture? Audiences were warned not to give away the ending (if anyone had seen the stage play, that ending was conspicuously changed, and the fates of two characters altered for audience sensitivities). It still packed a punch for its day, and McCormack had problems with being typecast as unholy terrors, but she continued to work, and was seen last year as Pat Nixon in the Best Picture nominee Frost / Nixon. Both actresses would lose to Dorothy Malone for the weepy Written on the Wind, but Heckart would pick up her Oscar years later for her role as the mother of a blind, free-spirited son in Butterflies Are Free (again reprising her part in the Broadway play).

If you had not seen Psycho in 1960 (and if you were alive and you hadn't, what the hell was wrong with you?), you might have been very surprised when the nominations were announced the next year. What was Janet Leigh doing in the Supporting Actress category? After all, wasn't she the lead? Now, this was assuming that your friends and neighbors who HAD seen it could keep a secret, just like Hitchcock asked them to ("Please don't give away our ending - It's the only one we've got!"). Leigh's performance as poor Marion Crane was one of four Oscar nods that Psycho received, which must have come as a shock to those who thought the Summer '60 smash was only a lurid, pulpy melodrama, far beneath the talents of The Master of Suspense. Everyone else knew a masterpiece when they saw one. Leigh would lose out to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry, but her contribution to film? Timeless.

1964 was a heartbreaker, as all signs leading up to the ceremony indicated a win for Agnes Moorehead for Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. HHSC was begotten through the success of both Psycho and 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,
as audiences were demonstrating a taste for Grand Guignol at its black and white best (had these movies been shot in Technicolor, they might have repelled the very Academy voters they wound up entrancing - B&W is just ever so much classier, dontcha know). But HHSC didn't quite find the commercial success of Baby Jane; it was longer, and the screenplay was turgid in spots. It could not reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from the earlier film, and viewers who were hoping for another donnybrook between two grande dames got the ever-professional Olivia DeHavilland in lieu of the "too sick to continue, my dears" Crawford. As Velma Cruther, the sassy and slovenly housekeeper, Moorehead was a hoot, and stole the picture from her talented castmates. She picked up the Golden Globe just weeks before, and the world was expecting a repeat on Oscar night. Surprise - the award went to Lila Kedrova for Zorba the Greek. Moorehead was one of the great actresses of the century, a veteran of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, and a figure of great respect in the acting community...but not an Oscar winner.

It took four more years for Oscar to make its peace with Horror, and the first actress to receive an Academy Award for a film of dark fantasy was Ruth Gordon for 1968's Rosemary's Baby. From its Ira Levin hardcover novel beginnings to its paperback success to the long lines at cinemas nationwide, this was a tale that struck a nerve. If the womb wasn't safe from Satan, what was? Helping Gordon win the award was a portrayal that also served as comic relief. Minnie Castevet was a Satanist, but she was also a fun old broad with wild, jangly jewelry who made a mean cup of tea. Gordon relished her moment in the sun, and returned to Horror within the very next year, taking a role opposite Geraldine Page in the geriatric thriller What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, proving that this new sub-genre created in the wake of Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte was just as potent seven years later.

Linda Blair looked for all the world to be on her way to an Oscar at the tender age of 12 for her demanding portrayal of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, and might have claimed the statue if only Warner Brothers had been upfront about elements of her performance. Initially, the studio tried to claim that everything seen and heard onscreen was courtesy of Blair, but when actress Mercedes McCambridge admitted to the press that it was her vocal work as the demon (and another actress said she served as a body double), voters were skittish. Indeed, the momentum that was building toward the picture began to shift, in large part through these revelations. Take away those two elements, and Blair was still more than deserving of her accolades, but the Academy played it safe and went in another direction. Adding insult to injury, they honored the even-younger Tatum O'Neill for her part in Paper Moon. Ouch. That couldn't have been easy on a pre-teen psyche.

The Supporting Actress winner in 1976 was Beatrice Straight for Network, one of three acting trophies that the film received that night (including the Best Actress for Faye Dunaway and the posthumous award for Best Actor Peter Finch), but Straight's award was not without controversy. She won the statue for a role that consisted of only one scene - an Oscar first. Compare that to Piper Laurie, whose role as Carrie White's puritanical monster of a mother in Carrie was virtually a co-lead. Oscar, you can be so fickle, so cruel. Despite an astonishing portrayal and critical hosannas (Margaret White would love that term), voters were inclined to support a performance connected to a Best Picture nominee, but once again, time has made Laurie's work iconic, and she created a villain in Carrie that all put-upon teenage girls have loved to hate. Six years later, Straight would claim her own little corner of Horror history with her role as the psychic investigator in Poltergeist.

I should probably mention Whoopi Goldberg's 1990 Oscar for Ghost here, even though that film was a romance, a comedy, a thriller, just about everything BUT a Horror movie. Still, her role as Oda Mae Brown, the medium who found out she actually could hear a certain spirit in the material world - and didn't want to - helped Ghost become a surprise smash at the end of Summer 1990, and an equally-surprising Best Picture nominee, if the gasps in the press room on nomination morning were to be believed. Goldberg would have had to have been psychic to predict this win two years prior, as she had come off a string of flops that had included the unwatchable Jumpin' Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty and The Telephone. (Excuse me for a moment - just typing those names makes me need a drink.) Face it - Sam Wheat wasn't the only one brought back from the dead in Ghost. Within six years, that losing streak returned with movies like Theodore Rex, The Associate, Eddie and Bogus. Damnit, where is that drink?...

To date, the final nominee for in this category for work in a Horror film was over a decade ago with Toni Collette's stellar work as the mother of a boy who could see dead people in The Sixth Sense, but was destined to lose against the juggernaut that was newfound star Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted. However, a compelling case could be made that Horror really won out in the end, as Morticia-lookalike Jolie's profession of love for her brother from the podium, and the pair's closeness during the ceremony, skeeved out an entire nation - which wasn't helped when we later learned what was in the vial that she wore around her neck. (Go ahead and Google it - it's fun and freaky!) That shouldn't be allowed to overshadow what Collette accomplished in The Sixth Sense, especially the scene in the car at the movie's end, in which Cole brings his mother peace of mind about her mother's sentiments from the other side of the grave; it's one of the most heart-rending scenes in the history of cinematic Horror.

That's all for the Supporting Actresses - Actors in Leading Roles are next!


aunt john said...

EILEEN HECKART was robbed! No offense to lil' Ms. McCormack but the tipsy Hortense Daigle owns that movie.

Likewise, I was perturbed the year ELLEN BURSTYN lost out for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM to the horse-faced one whose name I refuse to type.

Anonymous said...

Senski, did you hear about the special horror segment at the Oscars tonight? Its true! No details on who or what just yet. My geeked out heart skipped a beat when I heard about it.

senski said...

Yep, PoT, and I'm pulling for an introduction from Sir Christopher Lee, and if that happens, I'll be screaming at everyone in the Kodak to give him a prolonged standing O!

senski said...

But Aunt John, Julia speaks so highly of you...

To follow the Oscars is to love with heartbreak - at least one award does that to me every year, especially the year that...but that's the next post...:-)