Like many of my generation, my first introduction to a whole set of legendary actresses of stage and screen came in their more baroque appearances in 1970s television shows and/or Disney movies for kids, whether in guest spots on such programs as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, or The Muppet Show, or featured roles in movies with titles like Pete's Dragon or Candleshoe. In such a context, some performers fared better than others. (The Muppet Show was perhaps Carol Channing's perfect venue, while Return to Witch Mountain was possibly not the best way to "meet" Bette Davis.) Yet, even as a wee little stinky, I realize now that I was taking careful note of those most interesting actresses at the edges of my favorite movies and shows. So perhaps it's little surprise that, among all the things I loved about 1978's Grease, I especially treasure that film for providing my introduction to one of the most distinctive comedic presences in 20th century American popular performance, a performer noticed by Oscar in 1945 when the Academy opted to nominate as Best Supporting Actress...
...Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce (1945)
approximately 8 minutes and 22 seconds
roughly 7% of film's total running time
The two take an immediate liking to one another, each respecting the other's willingness to work really hard.
When Mildred opens her own restaurant, she brings Arden's Ida along to be the manager and, although the particulars are never precisely specified, Arden's Ida quickly becomes Mildred's right hand (wo)man, especially as her "empire" begins to expand.
The film doesn't use Arden much, except to accomplish two main tasks:
to deliver an ostensibly funny wisecrack, thus periodically leavening the atmosphere of this very "atmospheric" picture, and...
to dish the God's honest dirt on Mildred's spoiled brat of a daughter to Mildred, thus offering expository confirmation of the audience's (and Mildred's) worst suspicions.
Because Ida is the single character the audience is encouraged to trust unequivocally, Arden's left without much in the way of character detail or backstory.
As such, Arden's performance is not so much a characterization as a generous application of the actress's distinctive persona to a basically sketchy role.
Yet, even as the camera rarely pauses when she's on screen -- its own movements seemingly keeping pace with Arden's rapid-fire delivery -- Arden holds an important space of clarity in the film. In stark contrast to the film's other comic relief character/motif (I'm thinking of Butterfly McQueen's ditzball maid Lottie), Arden's welcome presence in the film doesn't provide simple diversion but instead delivers essential, sustaining clarity.
And it's to Arden's credit that, even with the limitations of the role, that she doesn't glibly coast on her hugely popular persona. Sure, she blithely takes the piss out of all the men. But there's an incredible generosity -- an appropriately melancholy kindness -- that comes through as Arden's Ida is a friend to Crawford's Mildred.
Ida's empathy for Mildred amplifies the humanity of Arden's signature wisecracking persona. In short, Arden's Ida is the best friend most in the audience want -- want to have, want to be, or both. The role isn't much; the nomination might be an overreach. But Arden's great -- enduringly great even -- and Eve Arden's performance is an essential part of this nearly perfect film.