Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men (1949) - Supporting Actress Sunday

One thing I've not really considered in all my months of doing Supporting Actress Sundays is which performances have the most astonishing outfits. For this morning at least, I know that an assured contender on my shortlist for such a distinction would have to be...

...Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men (1949)
approximately 20 minutes and 57 seconds
28 scenes
roughly 19% of film's total running time
Mercedes McCambridge plays Sadie Burke, a no-nonsense dame who makes a mercenary living manipulating the political process.
McCambridge's Sadie finds an easy friendship with journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland) over their mutual fascination with the ascendant political career of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, in a performance of astonishing visual and vocal power).
But where Ireland's Burden prefers the role of somewhat detached observer, McCambridge's Sadie is the sort to stealthily but forcefully make things happen, goading the still idealistic Stark to see just what he's made of.
Before long, both Burden and Sadie find themselves in the thrall of Stark's formidable charisma, itself a heady mix of righteous principle and burgeoning ego, and they each offer themselves in devoted service to their new political savior.
Sadie is a curious creature. Above it all even as she's right in the thick of things, McCambridge's Sadie emerges as a savvy, cynical political operative who understands that you can't take anything in politics personally. Yet her entire personal life is dependent on politics.
The film and McCambridge choose to convey Sadie's intrinsic contradictions by making her a mannish woman. Costumed in excellent (though outlandish) outfits that would likely best suit the Master of Ceremonies at the Lesbian Librarian Circus on Planet Fabulon, the film conceives Sadie as a hypercompetent woman in a man's world who is nonetheless emotionally defined by her inadequacies as a female. Sadie may be able to give it (and take it) like a man but, deep down, McCambridge shows us the character's abiding terror that she'll never be woman enough to hold a man.
The choice to play Sadie as a super-competent woman who's nonetheless defined by her inability to keep a man not only provides a midcentury update to hoary spinster tropes but also proves debilitating to McCambridge's work within the character. I love that Sadie's sexually adventurous, that she can turn a vicious phrase with wit and dexterity, that she's capable of falling in swoon with a wildly inappropriate person. But by portraying Sadie's distinctive character traits as aspects of a kind of gender confusion, Rossen (and McCambridge) transform most everything that's thrilling about the character into pathetic features of Sadie's tragedy as an overcompensating homely girl.
McCambridge herself actually contributes to this by offering a strangely disembodied performance in the role. While McCambridge's line readings are consistently superb -- the way she says "whom," the way her contemptous laugh burbles through a yelp of pain -- and a great many of her moments resonate with integrity, the radio actress's physicality remains unfortunately stiff and over-posed. Each turn of her head is a snap; every movement of her arms a jab. And while such a combination of resonant vocality and awkward physicality might have served the character of Sadie, this discrepant style unfortunately marks most of the performances in the film and does particular damage to McCambridge's work in the role of Sadie.
McCambridge's performance as Sadie delivers many vivid, and skillfully rendered, moments of clarity to this fascinating and prescient film. Yet, somehow, McCambridge's recurrent stiffness create a strangely discordant performance, as her Sadie lapses between electric clarity and indistinct cardboardness in scene after scene. I wanted to love this performance as much as I sometimes did in a specific moment, but ultimately I'm just confounded by the character of Sadie, largely because of Mercedes McCambridge's fascinating but erratic work in the role.


Buck said...

Costumed in excellent (though outlandish) outfits that would likely best suit the Master of Ceremonies at the Lesbian Librarian Circus on Planet Fabulon...

Best line of the year!

whip-smart said...

"I wanted to love this performance as much as I sometimes did in a specific moment"

That's exactly how I feel about this performance. On the whole, I would give it four hearts (if I was taking part in the Smackdown), but there were some problems.

One - I couldn't figure out whether she was wet for Burden (who she seemed to be staring at for the entire first half of the movie) or Stark until late in the movie.

Two - She started every single scene in the exact same pose.

Although I did love her line readings (when she's slapped... "Owww-oooo!").

And did anyone get a kick out of Joanne Dru's absolute terribleness here? The way she thrashes her head like a shark whenever John Ireland grabs her is classic. I love how 40s/50s men thought they had the license to bodily shake women whom they thought were getting out of hand.

Gustavo H.R. said...

Well mentioned, whip-smart.

Dru's overly dramatic "head movements" were much more distracting than any faults in McCambridge's performance.