10.05.2008

Beatrice Straight in Network (1976) - Supporting Actress Sundays

He's baaaaaack. This week's Supporting Actress Sunday profile marks a few noteworthy milestones. First, I'm back on track with Supporting Actress Sundays through the end of the calendar year, following a brief interrupt. Second, I think my Vivien Merchant profile might have been the 150th "official" Supporting Actress Sunday profile, so we're edging ever closer to that elusive halfway mark. Third, this week brings our attention to one of the most referenced Supporting Actress winners in the history of the category. Not because Oscar-philes think she's all that but because her performance is largely considered to be the briefest among the 71 trophy-snagging Supporting Actresses. Of course, I'm talking about...

...Beatrice Straight in Network (1976)
approximately 5 minutes and 13 seconds
3 scenes
roughly 4% of film's total running time
Beatrice Straight plays Louise Schumacher, the wife of fired television executive Max Schumacher (William Holden in the film's single weak-link performance) whose foundation is jostled as she learns of her husband's extended adulterous affair with Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway in a deliciously large, scene-devouring performance).
(A SIDE NOTE: Oscar geeks who track such things might notice that my time count for Straight's performance is slightly lower than standard estimates which range between 5:40 or so and right at or above 6 minutes. It's worth remembering, then, that my criteria for clocking supporting actress time does not measure the entire scene but only those moments in which the actress is visible, audible or otherwise "present" in the framing of the sequence. For me, then, Bill Holden's whole speech about Diana Christensen's "scripts" for their relationship, in which Straight is neither seen, heard nor inhabiting the camera's point of view -- that whole speech doesn't count toward Straight's screentime, even though she's still ostensibly "in" the scene.)
Beatrice Straight's performance as Louise is widely remembered as a single scene bravura turn, in which in the space of a mere handful of minutes Straight's Louise journeys through all (or nearly all) the stages of grief. Such an appreciation of Straight's work is not in and of itself incorrect, but I find that I really like the fact that we get to know Straight's Louise just briefly in an early morning scene. In this brief early sequence, Louise awakens to discover that her husband's friend and colleague Howard Beale (the deservedly legendary Peter Finch) has gone missing.
In this easily overlooked set of moments, Straight lays a savvy foundation for all that is to come later, establishing Louise as an elegant, smart and empathetic woman, possessed of a wry sense of humor, a woman who knows her husband very very well.
This foundation serves Straight well in the main confrontation scene, in which she first absorbs the information of her husband's sustained infidelity before launching into a brilliantly articulate tirade about his actions and their consequences.
Straight's Louise then begins to dissolve a little, her resolute anger crumbling in an onslaught of genuine pain and sadness.
What's great in this moment, in both how it's scripted and how it's performed, is that Louise's abiding love and affection for her husband includes concern for him even as he's making a choice that devastates her. In this moment, when Louise asks if her rival loves her husband, Straight assures us that Louise is no patsy, no doormat, but a smart, worldly woman who understands that her husband's happiness (or lack of it) will continue to inform her own.
I especially admire Straight's clarity throughout this scene. Her Louise is a fully crafted characterization, clearly possessed of a rich history and complicated inner life, separate from the spare scenes in which we get to see her. This depth of characterization not only amplifies the vast array of emotions on display in the concentrated jolt of her single main scene but also establishes Straight's Louise as an example of what emotional integrity actually looks like.
Yet what remains most impressive to me is how vividly Straight animates this portrait of a dissolving marriage, even as she's got a wooden post (oops, I mean, William Holden) for a scene partner.
Beatrice Straight's work in the role of Louise Schumacher is deft, intelligent and humane, a blast of emotional clarity within a narrative mostly characterized by manipulation, hype and deception. I suspect Straight's win, and even possibly her nomination, marks hers as one of the most noteworthy "coasters" in the category's history. ("Coaster," attentive readers will recall, is my term for a not unworthy supporting actress performance that nonetheless "coasts" onto the Awards roster largely because of the general surge of nominations for the picture of which it's a component part.)
Straight's work is solid, demonstrating genuine empathy, clarity and dexterity, and it will be interesting to see, as this month of Supporting Actress Sundays unfolds, whether Oscar's briefest awarded performance turns out to be among the year's worthiest.

14 comments:

Aaron said...

Okay, I just have to take issue with the idea that William Holden is bad in this movie. As you probably know, this is my favorite movie, and I have seen it countless times. I absolutely LOVE Holden in this film. He's craggy and middle-aged and perhaps not very expressive, but it all seems so real to me. I think he's wonderful.

I really like Straight in her scenes as well, but I will agree with you that it's probably a coaster.

StinkyLulu said...

I don't know that I think Holden's bad in the film as a whole. It's just that he's really inconsistent, and that inconsistency is most evident in the big Louise scene.

I was surprised, too, by my reaction to Holden on this pass through this brilliant film. And I do feel he is the weak link for one main reason: he's brilliant in his scenes with men, but absolutely obtuse in his scenes with women.

One could argue that it's the character who's so obtuse but I found, this time, that not to be the case... Holden's just a little too erratic in his scenes with Diana and Louise. I may change my mind on him next time through, but that's what happened for me this time.

Andres said...

I think this performance is brilliant. A masterclass in acting.

I just want to tell you that this performance and YOUR blog, inspired me to create this youtube channel...

http://www.youtube.com/user/SuppActress

It's my channel dedicated to the performances of the Supporting Actresses winners. You are invited to visit it...

I can't wait for the smackdown...

StinkyLulu said...

Wow, Andres. Amazing.
Please keep me posted as you add content...

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Andres, I spent the entirety of last week just downloading all of the clips you uploaded on your youtube channel. :)

J.J. said...

It's my favorite movie too, and my favorite William Holden performance. I think he's better than Peter Finch. Look at his eyes in the breakup scene. They are black. They see death. And it's not just Max Schumacher seeing it.

But glad to read your analysis of Straight. Perhaps her greatest achievement is making Chayefsky's florid language seem of-the-moment rather than carefully rehearsed. We get impromptu rage and grief rather than studied, verbose anger. In other words, it doesn't feel wordy even though it is. There's emotion behind the verbiage.

I also like how her mascara clumps. How she allows herself to laugh at Max's sorry attempt at a joke. Her posture as the scene begins. Her delivery of "You're in for some dreadful grief, Max," which means she understands the movie-of-the-week conceit. She's a whip-smart woman played by a whip-smart actress.

Pity that there are some audio blips that mar the integrity of her delivery. I'm thinking specifically of the aural inconsistency when she hits the phrase "emeritus years." Damn '70s audio.

I have watched this movie entirely too much.

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks, JJ.

Perhaps you can help me on the "Anna Karenya" thing? Is that a mispronunciation? Or a deliberat character detail suggesting Max's esoteric literacy?

Also, who's the bald guy in the photo under the television in Max's house as well as on the wall of his office?

Slayton said...

William Holden stunk up the screen in this. It's a wonder that Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight were able to ACT, much less act WELL, opposite such a plank. His beginning-of-film banter with Finch had me cringing.

I thought Marlene Warfield and Ned Beatty were great too. Peter Finch was okay in his "madman" scenes, but I just didn't buy it completely. Witness how closely Lou Dobbs is trying to mimic his routine this year.

I didn't like the film much overall. I felt that it was oscillating too wildly between different moods and themes without fully committing to any of them.

jakey said...

I've only seen this movie once and many moons ago, but your comments about this being a "coaster" nom are interesting. Perhaps it's hard for me to think of Beatrice Straight as a coaster only because her win is such a notable one (her name was especially brought up during the year of Judi Dench's win). Ned Beatty's nomination was certainly a coaster, and I remember a quote from him in an Oscar book encouraging young actors that there's nothing wrong with a small part, considering he got an Oscar nomination for ten minutes of screen time.

StinkyLulu said...

Beatrice Straight's win is one of the most commented upon largely because it's the shortest winning performance in Oscar history. So, it always comes up whenever there's a reason to talk about how short it too short for a nomination.

And please remember that calling a performance a "coaster" is not meant to impugn the quality of the performance at all but only to note that this performance might not have been able to "break" into the nomination/win field without the voters' attention being directed to the film for other reasons. (Indeed, I would call Judi Dench's Shakespeare in Love performance a coaster as well.)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Put me on the Holden "Thumbs Up" bandwagon- I think he had an instinctive gift for screen acting, and Network capped a rich career. He imbues his role as Max with a "lived-in" quality, just as Straight does with her character. In his big scenes with Dunaway and Straight, Holden keeps it real by not "matching" his costars' theatrics- the ladies he's playing opposite are obviously having some big moments, and Holden's tired and worn Max reacts in an appropriately subdued, world-weary manner to the fireworks surrounding him.

I recently caught Network again for the first time on a big screen, and I was a lot more impressed with Straight's work- it has some of the "fire and music" Margo Channing and Addison DeWitt (via Lloyd Richards) refer to in All About Eve, and it jumps out at you, especially on a big screen. I'm still going with Piper Laurie in Carrie, though- her work jumps out at you on any screen, and in your nightmares thereafter (truly a "killer" performance in the most literal sense of the word).

Andres, thanks for the link and all the hard work you've put into your YouTube channel. I've already checked out Gloria Grahame (who hasn't?), and I'll be back soon for Goldie Hawn and Eileen Heckhart, both together and separately.

Alfred Soto said...

I'm in the Holden camp, too. In a sententious, shrill, and often misbegotten film (I love it anyway), he gives one of the most compelling straight performances of the last 30 years. Ordinarily this part would be a wheeze, in part because, as the film's conscience, he has to impart Chayevsky's brand of wheezy wisdom at key moments; but he carries three decades' worth of performances as Max Schumacher. These memories of other sardonic performances infuse his exchanges with the men (Stinky Lulu's right: Holden's much better interacting with the men; Chayevsky doesn't know how to write women who aren't bitch goddesses). He's certainly worthier of an Oscar than Finch, who is really a supporting actor.

Oh yeah, Beatrice Straight. She's perfectly fine. The makeup and costume people dressed her very well: she looks exactly like a late middle-aged female survivor of the sexual revolution.

RICHIE-RICH said...

i remember seeing this when i was 10 yrs old when it first came out in 1976...beatrice straight made an impression indeed...i remember thinking at the time that she would be nominated 4 and/or win the oscar 4 this...it was a brief eruption of brilliance...a flashing comet of a performance...GOD... i sound like peter finch as howard beale or george sanders in all about eve now, don't i? LOL...;>)))...

Alan said...

Count me as pro-Holden as well.

This is my second-favorite film of all time, and I consider the marital confrontation scene a masterpiece of dramatic writing and acting. However, I still think it should have been cut from the movie. It just doesn't fit tonally with the satirical edge of the rest of the picture.