StinkyLulu sorta hated Agnes Moorehead's performance in The Magnificent Ambersons.
G'head. Boo. Throw fruit. Click away. Do what you need to do. Lu wont' take it personal.
Ambersons itself is legendary, even notorious for its fractured brilliance. Ostensibly the tale of a neo-aristocratic family's decline amidst the social/economic upheavals of the industrial revolution, Welles' film becomes nearly Greek in its tragic scale, with the hubris of the story's putative protagonist instigating not only his own but his entire family's decline. A chorus of townspeople narrate the exposition & an omniscient narrator (Welles' own lugubrious baritone) intones: "Everyone waited for the day that George Amberson Minafer would get his comeuppance."
Agnes Moorehead plays Fanny Minafer, the unmarried aunt/sister/daughter/friend in the constellation of characters that inhabits the narrative of Georgie's comeuppance. Moorehead's Fanny (!) embodies the monstrosity of Victorian spinsterhood, the delicacy of girlishness ossified into a horror of unrealized womanhood. It's a shocking, brave & bold performance -- yet, also, nearly incoherent as it appears in the versions of the film that survive today. This incoherence in Moorehead's performance tracks two clumsy paths, one abundantly clear & one hidden between the scenes.
First, the palpably formidable Moorehead seems curiously cast as the flibbertigibbet here. Just listen to the voice. The power of Moorehead's sonorous gong of voice annoyingly channeled into affected chirps & breathless, lilting cascades. (Yes, that's the character, but.) And while Welles clearly loved filming Moorehead's improbably angled face (its beauty & severity stunning in abrupt turns), Welles' camera & lights swoop & circle & buzz even Moorehead's simplest scenes. So much technical tapdancing -- vocally & cinematically -- happens around & during Fanny. (Think of that stupidly overdone scene with her & George, the one where Fanny chatters manically in George's face, while they both rush through 3 or so rooms, all in close-up & in profile & in a single take.) Through it all, the clarity and coherence of Moorehead's performance gets lost amidst the apparatus of so many bells and whistles.
"It's nobody but old Fanny so I'll kick her."
Only in the famous "boiler scene" (above) is Moorehead/Fanny truly allowed to hold the screen. (And this scene alone warrants the Oscar nod, even the prize perhaps.) But it also suggests how the film's Studio-mandated edits (nearly one-third of the movie was cut at the behest of Studio execs) mangled Moorehead's performance. Between the frames of this film, it seems that Welles might well have staged Fanny as Lady to Georgie's Macbeth. Together, their misguided aspirations stunt and deform them both with strange synergy. Many of the known missing scenes (as below) feature Fanny centrally. But where Robert Wise's edits retained as protagonist contract-player Tim Holt's constipated Georgie, the changes to Moorehead's performance effectively relegate her to 3rd female when there's plenty to suggest Fanny might/well/should have been the dramatic female lead.
Production still capturing a crucial lost Fanny scene -- via Ambersons.com.
The biggest loss, it seems, among the storied tragedies of Welles' production is perhaps Agnes Moorehead's performance. Hers is clearly a great performance edited to shreds. Sadly, though, the tatters that remain of Moorehead's work -- garish incoherence, overwrought technique, filmic miscasting -- overwhelm the glimpses of genuine genius buried beneath. Certainly, and for decades, film freaks especially have correctly caught the whiff of greatness here. But. (And, golly, it hurts Lulu's heart to say this -- it's wierd how much.) But such greatness is glimpsed and not contained within the performance actually conveyed by the surviving prints of this film. Lulu can sense the amazingness, feel it, almost taste it -- but it's just not there to StinkyLulu's simple eyes. Sorry. (But Lulu'll keep coming back to see if the beloved greatness of Moorehead's Fanny appears in future viewings -- that's a promise.)