Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Actress

Among the Best Actress nominees of 1969 is one performance that I admire a lot, in one of those historical costume epics that were the staple of the Oscars through the 1960's. Genevieve Bujold burst on the scene in this film to loud critical praise.  Her critical recetption then recalls the enthusiasm today for another fine French actress, Marion Cotillard, whose talent is similar to Bujold's.  Also among the nominated performances in '69 are two true classics by enormously talented and popular actresses who are no longer so familiar to contemprorary filmgoers.  Both of them received their first nominations in 1969..  The films from which they were nominated were part of an important group of movies that examined the counterculture in radically different ways.  I miss Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli on the big screen. In their heyday, each captured the love and imaginaiton of worldwide audiences. Fonda went on to a terrific career in a variety of roles in important films, and shocked audiences with her talent here.  Minnelli would never surpass her most famous role three years later "Cabaret"), but her part in this all-but-forgotten 1969 film is perhaps her most stunning piece of acting.  Another 1969 Best Actress nominee was in a role in a movie that was released so early in the year that in today's Oscar derby she would have been forgotten.  But Maggie Smith's performance was so strong, so unforgettable, that her award was  almost assured.  And finally, I admit that there is one 1969 nominee from a film I have not yet seen; the recent death of Jean Simmons may make her nominated performance more accessible now.

                                                                           Genevieve Bujold, "Anne of the Thousand Days"   Born of French Canadian parents, Genevieve Bujold began her film acting career for Alain Resnais in his classic "La Guerre est Finie" opposite Yves Montand, who appeared in "Z", one of 1969's Best Picture nominees.  Her big break came as the passionate and wily Anne Boleyn in Charles Jarrott's film of the play by Maxwell Anderson.  Critics adored Bujold, and her strong line readings and command of the screen opposite Richard Burton guaranteed that she would receive much attention for this performance, as well as award recognition.  In fact, Bujold was somewhat of a favorite on Oscar night, having won the Golden Globe for this role. Her Boleyn was both a fresh-faced innocent and crafty, fierce adversary to her rivals in love and, ultimately, to her husband King Henry VIII.  I chuckled in dismay when Pauline Kael described Bujold as "having the wrong nose for tragedy." Bujold's innocent demeanor makes the tragedy of her days as queen--the thousand days--before her execution all the more riveting and poignant.  Bujold's rendering of the famous speech in which she swears that her daughter Elizabeth will someday be Queen rivals the skill and intensity of several other nominees in this category.  Her Oscar, and her career, may have been stymied by her reputation for being difficult, and although she appeared in many other films to settle a breach of contract with Universal studios, she never again had a role to display her unique strength on screen.

Liza Minnelli, "The Sterile CuckooFirst, a word about the title.  One of the things that still endears me to the films of 1969 is their willingness to take chances.  How many studios today would bankroll a film titled "The Sterile Cuckoo", and then not explain the title in the film?  Actually, it appears a poem, written by Pookie Adams, the quirky, desperate protagonist played by Liza Minnelli; the scene in which she reads this poem was edited out of the film before its release.  So, a number of interpretations of the title's meaning were discussed, including the subplot involving Pookie's faked pregnancy in order to cling helplessly to the only boy who has ever been nice to her, a fellow college student she meets on the bus (played with awkward innocence by Wendell Burton).  The film is a small, wistful and atmospheric gem about two people who find each other and whose relationship changes each of them forever.  Pookie has created her own world to shield her from the hurts she has already suffered but barely alludes to.  It is a lonely life in a world filled with "weirdos and kooks", in her eyes.  So she grasps at any kindness that comes her way. Minnelli, still laboring under her reputation as the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, finally broke out in a big way here, and proved that she had the talent to stand on her own as a film lead.  Her unconventional looks helped her gain a following among young people bored by matinee idol charm and who wanted more honesty and a reflection of their own experience on screen (qualities that helped propel Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, for example, to stardom).  Pookie Adams is one of those people who tries so hard to charm with her humor and "personality" that she alienates those she desperately wants as friends.  As the film progresses, Minnelli handles scenes of melancholy and desperation to stunning effect.  Particularly fine are several scenes in the final 20 minutes, as her fantasy world begins to unravel and she must accept that she has finally pushed away the boy she loves.  We hold our breath for her, want her to wake up, to look at reality, to survive.  Like a cool mist on a summer day, the Oscar-nominated theme song "Come Saturday Morning" captures the longing, nostalgia and sadness of that semester in Pookie's life.  Minnelli truly deserved this, her first Oscar nomination.

Jane Fonda, "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  Like Liza Minnelli,  Jane Fonda was also struggling to distinguish herself from the reputation of her famous actor-father, Henry Fonda.  Both she and her brother Peter, who starred in "Easy Rider", had breakaway, career-defining successes in 1969. Jane Fonda had been in movies for about a decade before "Horses", then most recently as co-star to Robert Redford in "Barefoot in the Park", and notoriously in the sci-fi-sex-comedy "Barbarella", a cult favorite she still, nevertheless, would rather forget.  On the basis of her light comedic roles and less-than-noticeable dramatic turns, it was a breathtaking surprise to witness Fonda's Gloria, a cynical, angry contestant in a California Dance marathon during the Depression, a character without hope, dancing in the marathon as a last resort, scathing in her contacts with everyone around her, so deeply wounded that all she can do is lash out at anyone who tries to get too close.  Fonda's performance seemed to draw from deep wells of pain and anger , and whenever she spoke in this film it affected viewers deeply as well.  This is one of the most fascinating movie characters I have ever seen, and Fonda amazingly matched and surpassed her intensity here two years later in "Klute", for which she scored the first of her two Oscars (the second was in 1977's "Coming Home").  The savagery of her presence in her scenes with supporting players Michael Sarrazin, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons, and Susannah York, drew some of the best work these actors have ever done.  Only Gig Young (Best Supprting Actor) matched her venom and cynicism, most evident in a marvelous scene in which Fonda indirectly appeals to Young for favors.  Young asks her two questions to which she replies "No".  He finally gives her a long, lingering, questioning look, an obvious solicitation (marvelous work) and Fonda's third reply of "NO!" draws more meaning from that one word than most actors can lend to an entire speech.  Her defeated sobs when she loses her only valuable possession, a silk stocking,  complete a portrait of abject resignation.  Weary and broken at the end, Gloria can only smile in relief as a gun is placed against her temple....   Much of Fonda's anger was publicly visible in her real-life anti-war protests. Made during the worst years of the Vietnam war, as the generations fought bitterly and young people questioned the ethics of a capitalistic life, Fonda was the face of discontent and protest, channeled intensely in this, her first Oscar nomination.

Jean Simmons, "The Happy Ending"  With the death of Jean Simmons earlier this week, I wonder if this film, so long unavailable, will find a renewed demand, a new audience. It was a film I was barely aware of at the time; not part of the exciting counterculture experimentation of the best of the films of '69, it always appeared to me like a soap opera, and so I had little interest in seeing it...and never have, unfortunately.  It had a pretty well-known group of cast members: John Forsythe, Lloyd Bridges (father of of this year's Oscar front-runner Jeff Bridges), Teresa Wright (star of of my all-time favorite "The Best Years of Our Lives"), Nanette Fabray, and Dick Shawn.  The theme song by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman is a classic ballad (and nominee...Legrand won the year before for "The Windmills of your Mind").  Simmons' then-husband, Richard Brooks, directed.  Recently I caught part of "Elmer Gantry", also starring Simmons, also directed by Brooks.  I always found him a bit heavy-handed, and. at least in "Gantry", Simmons was a little wooden.  All of this has no bearing on her achievement in "The Happy Ending", the story of a bored housewife who leaves a happy home and loving family to re-capture the excitement of her youth.  In a nod to the idea of re-invention, this sounds all the more intriguing today, and I will devote a post to a review as soon as I do.

Maggie Smith, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"  In what I would consider to be an excellent field of Best Actress nominees, Maggie Smith deservedly triumphed in the role of a schoolteacher in 1930's Scotland,  her unconventional relationships with her special circle of students, her romantic conflicts, and her lasting effect on the lives of her "girls" before one of them destroys her out of romantic rivalry. Jay Presson Allen (Screenwriter, "Cabaret," 1972) turned Muriel Sparks' short novel into a play in 1968, for which actress Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award.  It is a marvelous part for any actress with the romantic spirit, tempestuousness, and absent-minded eccentricity that Smith provides in spades.  This movie was released very early in the year, which is usually the kiss of death for any nominated performance, since voters are usually still moved by what they most recently see.  However, with films in distribution in theaters for longer periods of time, and by virtue of Smith's brilliance, not to mention her familiarity in the industry (she was nominated in 1965 in Laurence Olivier's film version of "Othello") Smith was swept to victory.  This is a movie that one sees differently at different stages of life.  First viewings endeared me to Smith's quirky humor, her authenticity in the classroom, and her skillful plays of emotion as she remembers lost loves.  Later, I noticed Smith's anger, as she fights a system that sought to deny her the freedom to be true to herself.  She could have won the award alone on the basis of her plea to the headmistress, "I am a teacher, first, last, always...". or her shrill, deathlike  final cry to her vindictive student, "Assassin!" Finally I warmed to her complications, romantic entanglements, and deep love for her students, even though she well-meaningly but ignorantly disregards their safety in her effort to engineer romantic lives for them.  Maggie Smith has reinvented herself many times in her career, playing eccentrics, greek goddesses, an actress who just lost an Oscar (a role in "Californis Suite" for which she won her second trophy), and sorceresses.  But her legacy should, and always will be, this powerhouse performance from 1969.


  1. I managed to record The Happy Ending on DVD from the Turner Classic Movies airing last night. In 2.35:1 widescreen no less. It's a shame that it took Jean Simmons' death for them to finally run it. They never had before. Tsk tsk tsk. I think it had a brief release on VHS in the early 90s. Surprisingly mature and daring-even for 1969 and Simmons was fantastic. It really should have been up for Best Picture. Some could call it soap opera, but no soap was ever this emotionally draining. Let me know if you want a DVD copy.

    I was never able to get through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I always felt a kind of distance towards it whenever I tried to watch it. I just couldn't get into it at all. Maybe it's just me.

    Jane Fonda would have gotten my vote. This was the first time you could actually see any talent in her. Her previous movies were such fluff or off-the wall garbage that it often concealed her considerable acting ability. Her performance in They Shoot Horses was mesmerizing and it still gives me goosebumps watching today.

    Liza Minnelli had such potential as an actress. What the hell happened?

    Genevieve Bujold- when is she NOT great? I still think her most overlooked performance was in DePalma's Obsession, which I actually prefer to Hitch's Vertigo. Vertigo is a good film, but Kim Novak is just terrible.

  2. I've only seen Anne of the Thousand Days and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I was struck by Bujold in the former, impressed with the way she held her own against Burton. Smith, of course, is my favorite actress of all time, so I obviously loved her Oscar-winning performance. Wish she'd still get roles that juicy.

  3. Bill: I would love to obtain "The Happy Ending". Let me know what I need to do. Thanks for your have good insights.
    Walter: I share your love for Maggie Smith. Hope you manage to see a few of the others, especially "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"