9.24.2006

Beulah Bondi in The Gorgeous Hussy - Supporting Actress Sundays

A brief programming note: The especially attentive among you, lovely readers, will surely note that today is the last Sunday in September, the day on which the Supporting Actress Smackdown is regularly scheduled. But -- due to a confluence of circumstances (international travel, recurrent bouts of academentia, the vicissitudes of the New York Public Library, U.S. postal delays) -- the Smackdowners have elected to push off the 1936 Smackdown until next Sunday, October 1. So: mark your calendars: same time, same place, next week -- join Nathaniel, Nick, Tim, StinkyLulu and our newest Smackdowner, Canadian Ken for the 1936 Supporting Actress Smackdown!!!

Each nominee for 1936's Best Supporting Actress boasts an expansive career, with each woman taking to the stage very young and trouping along until (it seems) mere moments before their deaths. But even amidst this impressive cohort, there is one who might well take the trophy for utter endurance...
17 minutes and 25 seconds on-screen
7 scenes
17% of film's total screen time

Bondi -- who would become one of the most recognizable character actresses in Hollywood's golden age -- started in 1890s theatre and finished out in 1970s television. Though twice nominated for Oscar, Bondi finally snagged the only acting trophy of her extensive career (an Emmy for her guest performance on The Waltons in the 1976-77 season) when she was nearly ninety years old, a full forty years after her Golden Hussy nomination. Never a leading lady, Bondi is said to have offered this nugget of wisdom about actressing at the edges:
"Give me a good supporting role, and that's all I ask. The life of a star with few exceptions is brief. It's like a merry-go-round- only suddenly the music stops playing. Supporting players...go on forever."

In The Gorgeous Hussy -- a sweeping historical romance adorned with large dollops of comedy -- Bondi plays Rachel Jackson, the corn-cob smoking, hillbilly divorcee married to Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Bondi's Rachel is the beloved "aunt" to Joan Crawford's Peg Eaton, the "gorgeous hussy" at the center of one of the several sex scandals attending the Jackson administration. Mostly set in the last years of the early Republic -- a period in United States history almost inappropriately well-suited for romantic comedy -- novelist Samuel Hopkins Adams and MGM exploit the era's regency fashions, duels, emerging virtue of republican wifery and crazy power of gossip to craft a curiously comic historical romance. (Even the character of Andrew Jackson, by most counts a deservedly notorious and brutal blunderer, is played for laughs by that master of subtlety, Lionel Barrymore, in a style that StinkyLulu can only describe as a cross between Yosemite Sam and Dana Carvey's Grouchy Old Man.)

In the midst of this curious commentary on gossip, politics and the pursuit of true love, Bondi's Rachel stands as a pure heart. Part wise woman, part fairy godmother, part crusty crone -- Bondi's Rachel emerges as precisely the sort of "backwoods belle" the actress would periodically portray throughout her career. Whether she's yelping homespun aphorisms ("Marriage ain't a party dress; you gotta wear it morning, noon and night!") or longing for her pipe while on her death, um, chair, Bondi's Rachel emerges as the narrative's moral litmus test: those who do right by her = good; those who don't = badbadbad. Indeed, it's little surprise that Bondi's role occasioned Oscar's nomination. Rachel's story provides the loose framework of the story, both emotionally and morally, and both principal characters (Crawford's Peg and Barrymore's Jackson) reference Bondi's Rachel as their inspiration for nearly every important action. Yet, Bondi's work -- while perfectly fine -- does little to convey anything in particular about either the person of Rachel Jackson, one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidential wives in the history of the United States, or the emotional ravages of gossip. And while it is impressive that Bondi held her own against the scenery-chewing hogs Crawford and Barrymore, it remains the role that resonates here, not Bondi's perfunctorily efficient performance.

1 comment:

newland said...

I had the chance to see this one and loved Bondi's performance. Maybe it's difficult to distinguish if greatness comes from the character or the performance, but a well written role always helps when it comes to deliver a good performance.

Loved her lines, but also the way she delivered them.