I’ll be honest with you, out of the four acting categories at the Oscars, Best Supporting Actress is probably my least favourite. By that I mean, throughout the years, it’s the one that has impressed me the least, performances-wise. But because I always try and give things a second chance, I thought I’d focus on this category for this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. So, I started by looking at the nominees and winners over the years, and I thought 1953 was quite interesting. Not least because one of them is a proper comedic performance and another one is the debut performance of a ballet dancer. On top of that, the winner is one of the my all-time favorite actresses. They were: Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba, Thelma Ritter in With a Song in my Heart, Colette Marchand in Moulin Rouge, Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain and the winner Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful. Let’s look at the nominees:
In Come Back, Little Sheba (dir. Daniel Mann), married couple Lola (Shirley Booth in an Oscar-winning performance) and ‘Doc’ Delaney (Burt Lancaster) are forced to confront their demons when a young student, Marie (Terry Moore) rents a room in their home. Mann’s adaptation of the hit 1950 Broadway play by William Inge is one of the very finest domestic dramas of all time, and while Booth and Lancaster deliver powerhouse performances, Moore’s supporting performance is exactly that. An ambitious young student whose mere presence in the house and carefree attitude towards the love triangle she finds herself in triggers parental feelings in both of them, forcing them to relive past tragedies and come to terms with the trials and tribulations of their marriage. Moore is efficient and more than capable in a role that could be the very definition of ‘supporting’. Which leads us to Thelma Ritter, who is probably one of the most iconic character actresses of all time, and whose performance in With a Song in my Heart (dir. Walter Lang) proves why she was the go-to choice for supporting parts. A biographical film, With a Song in my Heart stars Susan Hayward in an Oscar-nominated performance as the popular singer Jane Froman. About forty minutes into it, Froman’s life-changing plane crash in 1943 gives the film its most dramatic moments, documenting her slow recovery and the impact it had on her for the rest of her life. Thelma Ritter plays Clancy, Jane’s nurse, and while her typical wise-cracking ways are still there, they’re surpassed by her warmth and compassion, particularly in the scene where she gives Jane a much-needed pep talk, after which she herself breaks down in tears. This was the third of six nominations (with no wins) in this category for Ritter – a record – and, looking at it, it’s easy to see why she went on to become such a veteran. Contrastingly, Colette Marchand in Moulin Rouge (dir. John Huston) might just have been the underdog in this race: it was her debut performance and what a performance! Set in Paris in the late 19th century, Moulin Rouge tells the story of French painter Henri Toulouse-Latrec (Oscar-nominated Jose Ferrer) from his childhood, and the tragic event that shaped his life, to his early death at the age of 36. In the present day, we’re back in Paris, where prostitute Marie (Marchand) walks into Henri’s life when she asks him to pretend to be her companion as she’s being pursued by the police. He allows her to stay with him that night, and when she claims not to care about his small stature, he appears to fall in love with her. Marchand delivers a fervent performance as the reckless, impulsive and self-assured Marie, which is appropriately the epitome of the bohemian nature of 1890s Paris (and the Moulin Rouge); a rich, meaty character that seems to be the type of role most actresses would love to sink their teeth into. Similarly, so is Jean Hagen’s character in Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Not only that, but her performance is both an unusual and common occurence at the Oscars: a comedy performance. It’s unusual because, as we know, comedy doesn’t get rewarded, and indeed awarded, as often as drama does, but probably more than any other acting category, Best Supporting Actress has featured quite a substantial amount of comedy performances, and Hagen’s might just be very near the top of the list. As the rather talentless actress Lina Lamont, she is the perfect diva. Cruel, mean, shallow and utterly dim, her antics are some of the film’s funniest moments (‘and I caaan’t staaand ‘im’), not to mention that she delivers one-liners like nobody’s business. An exaggerated (?) parody of the ‘Hollywood diva’ character, Lina Lamont serves as the comic relief in this musical parody of Hollywood, which is in stark contrast in itself to the other ‘showbiz’ film of 1952. The greatest film about Hollywood that isn’t Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1952) is told in flashback and follows the story of three Hollywood people, actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) as they each vow never to work with movie-mogul Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas in an Oscar-nominated performance) again. As we go back in time, we realize this is the typical Hollywood story, complete with successes, downfalls and everything in between. Caught in middle of it is Rosemary Bartlow (Gloria Grahame), James’ star-struck wife. Naive, supportive and ultimately harmless, Grahame’s performance as Rosemary is a breath of fresh air in this Hollywood world and her story – and fate – is perhaps one of the biggest lessons in the film. Making her entrance 1 hour and 23 minutes into the film (!), Grahame ended up winning the Oscar for her (9 minute) performance.
I think part of my love-hate relationship with this category might have to do with Hollywood’s historic problem with female roles which only becomes more obvious when the roles have to be significantly smaller, so to speak, to fit the ‘supporting’ category. I’ve also found that over the years, the category has been a bit ‘samey’, but that’s not to say at all that it hasn’t been a strong one. It has. And 1952/53 might just be one of the most interesting, not only for the performances themselves, but the versatility of the roles. We have a confident student, a nurse-turned-friend, an abrasive prostitute, an egotistical actress and a supportive wife. Some of these roles may have become archetypes, almost cliches, in the Supporting Actress category over the years (prostitutes and supportive wives, anyone?), but what’s interesting about them is that none of them seem to become a caricature. I mean, at no point is Jean Hagen’s Lina is anything but believable. Colette Marchard’s Marie, though stereotypical and, yes, predictable, is nonetheless effective. Even Terry Moore’s Marie could have been a lot less interesting than it was, but Moore certainly knew what to do with it. Thelma Ritter’s Clancy is both an unremarkable type of character on principle and a character that is made totally unique by having Thelma Ritter play it, and Gloria Grahame’s Rosemary, though often thought of as an upset win and not Grahame’s greatest performance, is a great turn nevertheless. It would be untrue, however, to claim these were all on the same level. They weren’t. Jean Hagen and Thelma Ritter, in my opinion, are miles above the others, and while I love Gloria Grahame, I’ll say that Jean Hagen should have probably been the winner that year. But that’s just my opinion, and that’s the great thing about the Oscars. While they offer no real credibility (legacy is a lot more important), it’s fun to watch them, to talk about them, and yes, to lose our minds over some of the choices the Academy has made. I know I have. It’s all good in the end, though, as long as we keep watching movies. That, ultimately, is what matters.