4.13.2008

Marjorie Rambeau in Torch Song (1953) - Supporting Actress Sundays

After carefully attending to scores of Supporting Actress performances, I've tallied only a handful of nominated Supporting Actressness that I truly did not admire. And, even then, I can honestly almost always see some kind of merit in the nomination. Perhaps it's a a worthy actress stuck in an unworthy role (or vice versa) or a good idea gone terribly wrong (or vice versa). Whatever the vice or the versa, I can usually hook into something somewhere in the performance that helps me to explain -- if only to myself, if only for a moment -- the reasoning behind any nomination. All that being said, I must also honestly say that I cannot recall being as flummoxed by a nominated performance for Best Supporting Actrress as I was by...
approximately 7 minutes and 29 seconds
3 scenes
roughly 8% of film's total running time
Marjorie Rambeau plays Mrs. Stewart, the brash "mother of the star" in this backstage musical melodrama. The "star" here, of course, is Joan Crawford as Jenny Stewart, a mildly megalomanical Broadway diva.
Rambeau's Mrs. Stewart is featured in only three scenes, each revealing her to be the kind of woman who speaks in unpunctuated paragraphs. In the first -- a spontaneous visit by Crawford's Jenny, desperately attempting to flee her loneliness -- Rambeau's mannered chatter underscores mother Stewart's mercenary streak. Rambeau's character drops a pile of conspicuous hints, each an insinuated monetary request, to which Crawford's Jenny wearily consents before fleeing to her lonely home again.
In her first two scenes, Rambeau mostly establishes Mrs. Stewart as a blithe parasite upon her daughter's success. (The second, briefest and subtlest scene has Rambeau wrapping herself in a fur stole as she proclaims "we're just poor people.")
But Mrs. Stewart does have a third scene -- another of Jenny's apparently routine "surprise" nighttime visits to her mother's humble home -- in which Rambeau comes close to making Mrs. Stewart something more than a foil for Crawford's feints at self-sacrificing nobility. Alas, in yet another chattery monologue, Rambeau offers a melange of carefully rehearsed line readings, studied "idiosyncratic" tics, and conspicuous eye rolls, drawing from a bag of tricks that might seem startlingly familiar to attentive readers of Supporting Actress Sundays. (Indeed, it's in this extended scene -- during which Rambeau's Mrs. Stewart provides the tidbit of backstory that resolves the narrative's central romantic intrigue -- that it becomes clear: Marjorie Rambeau is reprising the same trashy mama schtick that brought Rambeau a Supporting Actress nomination thirteen years earlier in The Primrose Path, albeit this time in service of a substantially less compelling character.)
With little gooey sentiment in Mrs. Stewart, the ill-considered edges of Marjorie Rambeau's performance seem less like humanizing detail and more like shoddy craftsmanship. (On at least one occasion, Rambeau seems nearly to lose track of her lines altogether.) Of course, Crawford does little to actually act "with" Rambeau, so it may also be that Rambeau's mostly staggering to stay upright in the stultifying air at the center of Hurricane Joan.
In less schticky hands, though, the role of Mrs. Stewart might have been a memorably craven gorgon (creating necessary sympathy for the central character) or an endearingly dotty simp (unleashing some desperately needed comic relief). Rambeau's charmlessly contrived performance, however, works mostly to contribute to the illusory conceit that -- whether considered as an actress or as a character -- Crawford isn't as awful as Rambeau.
In a film that comprises a whole collection of "what were they thinking" bits and bobs, Marjorie Rambeau's nomination for her performance as Mrs. Stewart stands out as being perhaps the most inscrutable. But that might be just because I'm writing this with a stubborn case of the spring sniffles, and as we all know "there's nothing more inconvenient than an old queen with a head cold."

4 comments:

whip-smart said...

Personally? I liked it.

Nick Davis said...

I remember being similarly flummoxed, but maybe not as put-off. I'm suspicious, though, that you've brought me around on Donna Reed, so maybe you will here, too.

John T said...

I will be seeing it very soon (it's going to be on TCM in a couple of weeks), so I'll pipe in then.

J.J. said...

What a strange confluence with my most recent post. (Never heard of the movie, but now I want to see it.)