10.01.2006

Supporting Actress Smackdown - 1936


The Year is 1936...

And the Supporting Actress Smackdowners for August are NICK of Nick's Pick Flicks; TIM of mainly movies, and welcoming KEN of Canadian Ken On.... But first, a word about what the Smackdown's missing this time 'round: Alas, alack, aloo -- there'll be no NatReel for 1936. (As happens, life intervenes for even the most devoted cinephile; family obligations have absconded with dear Nathaniel this month.) (In the meantime, to help you hook into the vibe of 1936, StinkyLulu recommends that you do yourself the favor of perusing Ken's generous recaps of Dodsworth, My Man Godfrey and These Three (parts 1 & 2) in his "Overlooked: 1936" series and/or take a gander at goatdog's genius survey of Anthony Adverse.)

So, lovely readers, turn those imaginations on full-power & let cinema's wayback machine take you back to the first year Oscar nodded toward its new category: Best Supporting Actress.

And 1936's Supporting Actresses are...
(Each Smackdowner's comments are listed in ascending levels of love. A summary comment from each Smackdowner arrives at the end. Click on the nominee's name/film to see StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Sunday review.)
Beulah Bondi in The Gorgeous Hussy
Ken Sez...
I've never warmed to Beulah Bondi - a dry twig of a woman, with rusty bed-springs in her voice. The key element in a Bondi performance is generally smugness. Here, brandishing a corn-cob pipe, she also serves up another unappetizing Bondi staple - coy folksiness.
Nick Sez...
An obvious ancestress of this category's long line of spunky, steadfast, and ailing wives, Bondi's Rachel Jackson is a minor but eloquent creation, whittled from strong, aromatic wood. Terrific chemistry with Barrymore.
Stinkylulu Sez...
Bondi plays most of her scenes opposite Joan Crawford and John Barrymore, and that she more than holds her own against these notorious scene-chewing hogs is a formidable accomplishment in itself. A precise, unglamorous performance.
Tim Sez...
The movie milks her deathbed scene so heavily it threatens to turn to cheese, but she underplays it back down to earth, touchingly devoted and quietly memorable in an otherwise over-declamatory ensemble. Shrewd work, worth its nod.

Alice Brady in My Man Godfrey
Ken Sez...
A shrill, irritating performance - oppressively daffy - and absolutely relentless in its hunt for laughs. None of which materialize. Totally committed to it? You bet she is! But that just means no rest for her - and no relief for us.
Stinkylulu Sez...
Most major scenes happen around or adjacent to Brady's dotty society matron and Brady does little more than punctuate things by warbling breezily absurd non-sequiturs. It's an ambient, ensemble performance -- a perhaps worthy, but certainly unremarkable, nomination.
Nick Sez...
The priceless Lombard aside, Brady's is the most creative performance in this film's gallery of eccentrics. Sometimes she pushes too hard, but her comic timing really works, and she projects more than just foolishness.
Tim Sez...
Flutters sublimely between two registers – airhead anxiety and giggling obliviousness. There’s little time for depth, but the breathless skill of her line readings is all this part needs, and her heroically attentive background playing is a constant joy, too.

Bonita Granville in These Three
Stinkylulu Sez...
The character of Mary Tilford is part indulged beast, part self-centered bully, part dispassionate sociopath, and Granville's simple and direct approach acquits the task masterfully. Granville avoids easy hysteric theatrics to craft an exceptionally measured -- indeed, mature -- performance.
Nick Sez...
Not the full-on coup I remembered, but Granville's wickedness emerges in disciplined, interesting steps, and she's capable of real calculation. Her best moments limn subtle, disquieting gradations of whining, loneliness, and hysteria.
Ken Sez...
Mostly it's the sort of performance one might expect from a precocious little show-off. But in some non-dialogue moments, usually when she's fixing that threatening stare at Rosalie, Granville achieves a quivering intensity.
Tim Sez...
Plays the school bully – inspiredly – like a headmistress, so self-possessed and cruelly demanding it’s a wonder she isn’t teaching all the classes. A prize bitch and perfect little devil at 13: if I decided Oscars she’d be my youngest ever winner.

Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth
Nick Sez...
Adds tension to her single scene with her long pauses and scary impassivity. Her stolidity cracks nicely, though faintly, amid her last few lines. Still, it's only an adequate performance, surely the least interesting in the film.
Tim Sez...
Tricky to grade, this, as it’s too brief a perf to be strictly nod-worthy. But she handles her single scene formidably, with insinuating pauses in all the right places, and casts a large and lingering pall over the picture’s final act.
Stinkylulu Sez...
A wee tiny gorgon swathed in widow's black and possessing the kind of bark that makes you real scared of her bite, Ouspenskaya manages her single slapdown of a scene with clarity, precision and zest. A brief but memorable turn.
Ken Sez...
Whether gussied up as a dowager or travelling around in a gypsy wagon with the Wolf Man, Ouspenskaya was always the same tough, muttering old Pekinese. But she had presence - and for her one scene in "Dodsworth", she summons up every bit of it.

Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse
Stinkylulu Sez...
As the hustling, mercenary maid-cum-Marquise, Sondergaard gives good face, punches the dialogue well and generally looks great in the clothes...but beyond that? Nothing much.
Nick Sez...
Occasionally, when the camera isn't squared right on her, Sondergaard projects interesting thoughts and unsettling energies from the edges of a frame. Mostly, though, especially in dialogue scenes, her villainy is pretty rote.
Ken Sez...
Prowling around the outskirts of this ponderous epic, Sondergaard looks devious and gives her nasty Cheshire cat grin a thorough workout. That's about it. The script doesn't even provide her with a proper come-uppance.
Tim Sez...
Bares her teeth to embody a ravenous gold-digger, which she does with striking efficiency in a single key. But the movie’s otherwise so gormlessly lacking in conflict – hell, adversity – that it’s easy to overrate her. Strong playing, just inadequate surroundings.

Oscar awarded Gale Sondergaard...

But the SMACKDOWN gives it to:


Bonita Granville!

By nearly full consensus.

And now some "Final Thoughts" from our intrepid SMACKDOWNERS:

Ken Sez: A writer once characterized Ethel Barrymore's screen persona as "dispensing wisdom with a trowel." On that score, Hussy's Beulah Bondi could take her right to the mat. Plus there's that gleam of superiority in her eye that's meant to pass for a twinkle. Sondergaard's onscreen trademark was the everpresent suggestion of bats in her belfry, Those bats had barely set up housekeeping in 1936. With Anthony Adverse she merely left her visiting card. Granville, playing at an exaggerated pitch in These Three is often phony, but not entirely unsuccessful. Of course, she's utterly eclipsed by the amazing Marcia Mae Jones. Dodsworth's Ouspenskaya is grim, impalacable and heavily accented. In other words, it's business as usual. But that business was new to viewers in '36. Hence, possibly, the nomination. And then there's Brady - downright alarming in Godfrey. Considering the level of frenzy in her performance, she might as well have been waving a tomahawk and attacking a covered wagon. In short, not a red letter year for nominees, with Granville's hit and miss turn emerging (more or less by default) as the best of an undistinguished lot.
Nick Sez: In general, I'm more excited about these actresses than about these specific performances. Bondi's always a treat. Brady's zaniness and Granville's pint-sized maleficence are even more interesting in the context of their ample ranges. (Bonita, for example, was a famous Nancy Drew.) Ouspenskaya is such a weird and exotic legend, and speaking of weird and exotic, who doesn't feel kindly toward Sondergaard for supplying Wyler's The Letter with such an indelibly campy avenger? My other favorite thing about this vintage is how well it reflects the original intent of the category. Most of these women have little screentime, compressed into discrete compartments of their films, but they all add important and flavorful accents—of greater and lesser quality, sure, and with no outright triumph among them, but they are crucial to their movies, and nobody showboats. Had Oscar held to these principles, we'd be seeing a lot fewer Zellweger-in-Cold Mountain nods these days and a lot more Rosemary Harris-in-Tom & Viv types. We'd be learning a lot more new names and enjoying many more pleasant surprises.
Tim Sez: This first year for the gong saw a perfectly decent set of nominations, but what’s slightly disappointing is that 1936 was an even better year for the supporting actress art-form than you’d know from this list. As I’ve already hinted on my blog, I’d swap Ouspenskaya for the luminous Mary Astor in the same film, and I’d have Jean Dixon alongside Brady for her tired and wise scene-stealing as Godfrey’s seen-it-all maid, Molly. Others might make a case for Marcia Mae Jones, who crumples splendidly under scrutiny as These Three’s terrorised little Rosalie, or for Alma Kruger in the part Fay Bainter was nominated for in ’61. Still, voters didn’t go far wrong in singling out Granville, Bondi and Sondergaard as the best things in their various movies. The category may not have got off to the running start it might have, but it found its feet alright – and Granville’s a stunner and a keeper.
Stinkylulu Sez: In the aggregate, 1936's field of nominations is perhaps more fascinating than the performances themselves. What stands out most, though, is that most of the category's "stock" nominations are here. Indeed, it's almost as though the Class of 1936 paved the way for generations of Supporting Actress nominations (and wins) to follow. Ouspenskaya's the one-scene wonder with the gourmet theatrical pedigree (say thankyou, Dame Judi and Ms. Beatrice). Sondergaard's the standout performance in a bloated costume epic (all hail Dame Peggy and La Maureen). Brady's the beloved trouper turning in a just surprising enough performance to get the academy's ballot all excited (talkin' 'bout you Helen, Lee and Ingrid). Bondi's the ├╝ber-quirk of a character -- at first comic, in time serious -- who somehow turns out to chart the heart the film (take a bow Whoopi, Geena, Mira and Dianne). And then there's Granville: the kid actor whose age makes the clarity, maturity and competence of performance seem all the more accomplished (Lu's looking at you Tatum, Patty & Anna!). All we're really missing is the "dark ingenue" and we'd have a full menu of Oscar's favorite dishes of Supporting Actressness.

So, lovely reader, tell the Smackdowners what YOU think! Even if you haven't seen a single performance, what do these first nominees suggest about the category of Best Supporting Actress? Join the dialogue in comments.

10 comments:

goatdog said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I'm glad I stuffed the ballot box. Stinkylulu, thanks for the shoutouts; Tim, thanks for singling out Mary Astor for praise--she'd have the award if I had been consulted. I'm wondering what you four think about the usual argument that Luise Rainer should have been up for supporting actress instead of lead in The Great Ziegfeld. How would she have fared against the rest of the pack?

newland said...

The fact that Sondergaard won and that Granville has won in the smackdown suggests that the bunch of nominees wasn't really brilliant.
Being the first year, they chose very well according to the spirit of actressing at the edges: most of them are brief but pivotal performances. More Joan Cusack than Sigourney Weaver. More Madeline Kahn and less Tatum O'Neal.

I agree that the supporting categories have become somewhat rotten in the last few years. They submit whoever isn't strictly a lead, leaving truly supporting performances aside. Catherine Zeta Jones was brilliant in "Chicago", but the true supporting player was Latifah. And so on...

Nick Davis said...

I think Rainer is a lead, especially under 1936 rules. (Today, her agent would make sure she got slotted as Supporting, and she'd probably win.) Her part only seems smallish for a lead because the movie is so long, but for, say, the second quarter of the film and those crucial end sequences, she's a major point of focus. I'd still take Granville ahead of Rainer, Brady too, maybe even Bondi: there's a fussiness to Rainer's work in Ziegfeld, a desire to be seen to be Acting, that just doesn't sit well with me, despite a few strong moments.

Meanwhile, Goatdog, you gotta jump into the fray with all of us some month!

Nick Davis said...

You too, Newland! I would have said so a moment ago, but you and I were Commenting at the same time. (Also, I wrote my own blog post earlier today making very similar use of the Zeta-Jones example.)

newland said...

I'll be glad to join any time! These smackdowns are making me obsessed with supporting performances.

I can't wait for 1982, which I believe comes next.

StinkyLulu said...

Indeed, 1982 is next.

Which makes October a really full month, what with all the couldashouldawouldas in the mix.

Aaron said...

Hm. I love me some Gale Sondergaard. (I like her in that Anna and the King of Siam mess too.) As I recall she has a line in Anthony Adverse at the very end of the film where she says something like "That girl used to wash my clothes" and it's one of the bitchiest, smug line readings I can remember. I must confess I haven't seen These Three, though, so what do I know?

Nathaniel said...

i loved reading this and pretending I was there. I was a little surprised to see how divisive the Alice Brady performance was though since I found her delightful.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Although I fully agree with the choice of Granville as the best of the nominees, upon reading the smackdown I was upset the team neglected to issue the superior Marcia Mae Jones an Honorary SA Award,; that is, until I read Dan's blog. Thanks Dan- your fine, perceptive tribute to Jones' incredible Three accomplishment serves as a prize in itself for this once-in-a-lifetime performance. I've never seen another tyke match her for emotional truth- IMO Margaret O'Brien comes closest in sections of Meet Me in St. Louis (the Halloween scenes and her "Snowpeople Annihilation" freak-out), but at least O'Brien actually received an Academy Award (the "kiddie" kind, but an Oscar nevertheless) for her impressive work. I think the excellence of the also-mentioned Alma Kruger, along with Catherine Doucet's lively contribution as Hopkin's flighty, nosey aunt (who finally, although inadvertedly, comes through for her niece) were nomination worthy, earning These Three a place near or at the top of a list of the Greatest Supporting Actress Films.

Regarding Zeta Jones in Chicago: Reviewing the original play's script, it's clear someone thought it necessary to build up Roxie's part for the film, and pare down Velma's scenes- a couple of Velma's numbers and, oddly, the brief, ribald punchline of 'I Can't Do it Alone' ("Like a deserted bride on her wedding night/With her new found hubby no where in sight . . .") were cut for the film and, although Catherine has star presence to spare throughout the musical (making it even more frustrating her part was cut down) and she has more screen time than Queen Latifah, she's no longer shares co-leading status with Roxie, as Velma unquestionably does in the play.

P.S.- I ventured over to Nick's blog before reading the comments here, so I duplicated the Rainer scenario there under the 'comments' section. Guess I'll have to check both blogs out next time, before blabbing (or typing) away at either one.

Raybee said...

I've seen 4 of the 5 nominees and I couldn't disagree more with the outcome. One of them I cannot find anywhere, unfortunately.

My Rankings:

1. Alice Brady - My Man Godfrey
2. Maria Ouspenskaya - Dodsworth
3. Gail Sondergaard - Anthony Adverse
4. Bonita Granville - These Three

Need to See: Beulah Bondi - The Gorgeous Hussy

I think overall it was a bad lineup. To me, the only logical choice is the hilarious Alice Brady. The rest I don't even think are "ok".