9.13.2006

Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth - Supporting Actress Sundays (Wednesday Edition)

When the 1936 roster for September's Supporting Actress Sundays came up for review, Lulu had no frickin' idea who the hell Maria Ouspenskaya was. Moreover, because things have been a littlecrazybusy in LuluLand of late, StinkyLulu didn't do any prep research before tossing in the dvd late last night. So. Imagine Lu's surprise when, about ten minutes from the end of the flick, Maria Ouspenskaya popped up for a single, slapdown of a scene. And StinkyLulu was all: "Oh. My. God. Is Maria Ouspenskaya Madame Ouspenskaya?! The legendary proponent of Stanislavski's System among American actors in the '20s and '30s?! The little old crone/bitch-on-wheels acting teacher -- 8th-generation impressions of whom acting geeks trade like the ├╝ber-queers trade Tallulahs?! That Madame Ouspenskaya?! Who knew?!" (Truth be told, StinkyLulu really should have known.) But 'twas exciting nonethe to have an unexpected late-night encounter with THE...


...Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth (1936).
5 minutes and 27 seconds on-screen
1 scene
5% of film's total screen time

The Russian-born Ouspenskaya was a member of the legendary Moscow Art Theatre, where she studied with and was directed by Stanislavski. Ouspenskaya came to U.S. with the Moscow Art Theatre in 1922, and became one of the few who remained in New York after the theatre's storied U.S. tour. After achieving sustained success on the New York stage during the 1920s, Ouspenskaya founded the School of Dramatic Art in New York in 1929. When the school's finance's foundered during the Depression, Ouspenskaya headed to Hollywood on a dollar-gathering venture for the school. Her first Hollywood film (she had done a few Russian films) just happens to have been Dodsworth, for which she received her first of two Supporting Actress nominations, and which began a thirteen-year run as one of Hollywood's most memorable character actresses. (Ouspenskaya died in 1949 of a stroke resulting from injuries sustained in a house fire.)

In Dodsworth, Ouspenskaya plays Baroness Von Obersdorf, the imperious mother of Baron Kurt von Obersdorf -- the third European cad to "make love" to the story's female protagonist, Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), a wealthy not-quite-divorced American simp. Baron Kurt & Fran are planning to marry and Ouspenskaya's Baroness arrives -- a wee tiny gorgon swathed in widow's black and possessing the kind of bark that makes you real scared of her bite-- to survey her son's betrothed. Simply put, Ouspenskaya's Baroness does not approve and conveys her withering disdain with near scientific precision. In perhaps the movie's most exultant moment, Ouspenskaya's Baroness slaps some sense into the sillysilly Fran: "Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband!" Of course, the impact on Fran -- whose dithering selfishness contributes the narrative through-line of the film -- doesn't last long. But the Baroness' verbal smackdown of insufferable Fran contributes one of those moments to inspire a movie-house's cheering... and Ouspenskaya manages it with clarity, precision and integrity.

Can't say that StinkyLulu loved the performance, but -- for what it was -- Maria Ouspenskaya's Baroness contributed some exhilarating zest to this fascinating, if tortured, contemplation on the perils of middle age. And while Mary Astor might have made for a much more satisfying Supporting Actress candidate, Ouspenskaya's just fine. Her extraordinary presence creates an indelible impression & one can't help but think that this encounter with the Baroness might well be the turning point in Fran Dodsworth's idiocy. All told, an interesting romp that reminds Lulu that -- where Supporting Actresses are concerned -- surprises lurk around every corner...

PS: And, once again, who knew of John Payne's hotness? The scene were he kisses the palm of his wife's hand as she cradles their newborn baby? Swoon/woof/swoon.

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