Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Supporting Actress Sundays

StinkyLulu doesn't pretend to understand the vicissitudes of Oscar. While the Oscars themselves tend to structure Lulu's movie obsession (both as a history project and as an ongoing experience), StinkyLulu really has no clue why Oscar does what it does. Oftentimes Lulu doesn't even care who or what gets awarded with nominations or prizes. (But o'course, even when "not caring," Lulu always possesses an opinion about Oscar's hits and misses and pretty much everything else.) But it's each category's winners and losers (both those "honored just to be nominated" as well as those completely ignored) that focus Lulu's contemplation of the movies. And Supporting Actress? Actressing at the edges provides a near perfect point of focus for StinkyLulu's variegated cinemaniac interests... Indeed, sometimes it feels, with the advent of Supporting Actress Sundays, StinkyLulu's true movie calling has finally been found.

But there are times when even the category of Best Supporting Actress leaves Lulu all confused. As Ellen Burstyn's 14 Second Kerfluffle has recently demonstrated, the question of "what counts as a Supporting Actress performance" instigates many different answers, each routing its own bumpy detours. (Be sure to see the comments over on Lulu's FilmExperience post for an excellent & smart discussion of these very issues.)

Where some movie freaks express themselves via lists (no names, lovely reader, you know the type...hee), Lulu tends to organize things by criteria: a standard of measurement, grouping or evaluating commonalities. And "for your Supporting Actresses consideration," StinkyLulu tends toward three main criteria.

StinkyLulu sez:
The BEST "Best Supporting Actress" nomination should be...
  • ...a character that is essential for and instrumental to the narrative. She should be central to at least one -- but not every -- crucial plot point.
  • ...a performance perfect in -- but also larger than -- the role. Hers should be an indelible and precise characterization that makes her character's presence palpable even in scenes where she does not appear.
  • ...a supporting player in the production. She should never threaten to be the star, but there should be little doubt that her character/performance could completely carry another -- possibly better -- movie
Perhaps the perfect illustration of these main criteria can be seen in the performance offered by...

The Manchurian Candidate represents a rare accomplishment in popular film: a topical political thriller that becomes more interesting, relevant and suspenseful with each passing year. (No wonder they tried an aught-era remake, which Lulu has not seen.) Some film types rightly point to John Frankenheimer's 1962 film as the stylistic hinge between noir and the "paranoid thrillers" of the 1970s. While this film is certainly a crazy good stylistic treat, the thematics of the piece also delve into deep pots: the gurgling, dystopic view of American politics; the misogynist -- sometimes latent, sometimes blatant -- view of female power; the surreal discordance of U.S. popular media...s'all good. But amidst Frankenheimer's singular cinematic flair, amidst the redolent themes, even amidst decent leading performances by two (A & B) of StinkyLulu's least favorite actors... amidst all that, it's Angela Lansbury's performance as the "Queen of Diamonds" herself that takes Lulu captive each and every time.

Angela Lansbury plays "Mrs. Iselin," political wife/mother cum Cold War Lady Macbeth. A blazing force of "feminine" power in the masculinized realm of midcentury politics, Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin stages photo ops and political coups instead of hostessing teas. It's clear the second she barrels her way onto the tarmac, camera crew in tow and banner at the ready, to pose a picture from which she's absent that her Mrs. Iselin is the party politics equivalent of a "stage mother." But is Mrs. Iselin a blustering buffoon like her husband or a consummately shrewd manipulator? The character seems to embody the most shrewish and silly aspects of the loathsome midcentury misogynist aspersion Momism, yet Lansbury's performance adeptly calibrates the comedy and crassness of the character to sustain a kind of mystery. It's to Lansbury's credit that, in a movie chock full of red herrings, the potency of Mrs. Iselin's menace maintains that mystery until the exhilarating sequence of escalating twists that bring the film to its ostensibly final conclusion. Lansbury layers every motive of this complex character in every scene, potentially discernible to the attuned eye but never entirely revealed to anyone. Lansbury's performance could have easily devolved into a gruesomely sexist version of the monster-mother of whom Oscar is so fond, but Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin is about as distinctive a performance as has ever been captured on film. What's more, Lansbury -- who was but a handful of years older than the actor playing her son -- played the film with no special make-up, the sense of age emanating from her affect as much as her appearance. Angela Lansbury's performance as Mrs. Iselin exemplifies Lulu's favorite kind of actressing at the edges, the kind of supporting actress performance that nibbles at the story's perimeter until it's somehow clear that she's truly at the heart of the movie.

Angela Lansbury's performance is also one of the best examples of the kind of "supporting actress" performance that meets StinkyLulu's criteria point-for-point. If Lulu was inclined to lists, this performance would likely head StinkyLu's of best nominations in Oscar's history of Supporting Actresses... At least, that's what StinkyLulu sez. Wonder what the Smackdown'll say...


John T. said...

I agree-this may be the best performance ever nominated in this category. Lansbury radiates-with all due respect to Miss Patty Duke, who was fine in her The Miracle Worker, Lansbury is one of the most robbed Oscar nominees in the Academy's history.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Agree Lansbury deserved to win for this; futhermore, possibly she also should have won for her polar-opposite characterization in Dorian Gray, probably her most sensitive, nuanced screen work.