Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Supporting Actress

Our return to the Oscar films of 1969 begins with a look at the five performers nominated in the category Best Supporting Actress, and the remarkable films that were the vehicles for their recognition.  The movies in this category perfectly represent the cinematic excitement, the envelope-pushing intensity, the foray into previously unfilmable subject matter, the inherent style and philosophy and "groovy" romanticism of the late '60's that make my return to this year such a completely satisfying journey.

Catherine Burns, "Last Summer" 
This is one of the most interesting nominations of the year, and also the most obscure.  "Last Summer" is almost impossible to find today; a full version can be seen in segments on YouTube; our local public library still owns a copy on VHS tape.  It has never been released on DVD.
This was Burns' film debut, and while she appeared in various television episodes for the next few years, and wrote a few plays, she never had a high-profile film career.  But what a legacy she leaves here.  "Last Summer" is one of a number of Counter-Culture films that examine the changing mores and new attitudes of young people during a volatile time of sexual experimentation and reaction against status-quo oppresiveness.  It tells the story of a trio of aimless teens on a summer holiday on Fire Island (Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Brauce Davison).  Burns plays Rhoda, a lonely, painfully un-hip loner, who finds herself in the company of these insensitive yet attractive companions.  After forming an unlikely bond, the three conspire to exclude the idealistic and serious-minded Rhoda.  Symbolized by an injured seagull (whom the trio nurse to health, then kill when it asserts its natural protective instincts), Rhoda threatens the three with her intellect and opens her soul to her new friends, only to have her innocence, her very life, destroyed in a final act of  mindless cruelty and horror. Burns' Rhoda captivates viewers and breaks our hearts in a scene in which she delivers a now-famous monolog about the death of her mother. By the time the shocking final scene unfolds, we feel the pure tragedy of innocence demolished.  Burns' chances at an Oscar may have been hurt by the film's edginess, and its explicit climax.  Also, she was the least well-known performer of the five, and least connected to Hollywood insiders.  It is an unforgettable performance that has been well-commemorated with this nomination.   

Sylvia Miles, "Midnight Cowboy"
Now a classic, "Midnight Cowboy" figured prominently in the Oscar competition for 1969. Sylvia Miles rode the wave to a nomination for her funny, brash and clever portrayal of Cass, the high-class streetwalker who trumps the naive, aspiring hustler Joe Buck at his own game.  Hers is a  brief screen appearance. In just one very potent scene, Miles runs the gamut from controlled and controlling lady-for- hire, faking ecstasy with Joe while on the phone with her next trick, then dissolving in tears to manipulate her "customer"to her advantage.  All at once, we see Cass as a fading beauty, lying about her age, going from seductress (note her double-edged reading of the line "beautiful, baby!"  when she discovers Joe's endowments) to outraged woman scorned, then becoming vulnerable and helpless...all the while viewers are deliciously unclear if Cass is sincere, or merely acting her part as a professional in the busines of the flesh.  Miles triumphs in every second on screen.

Susannah York, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
One of Oscar's dubious distinctions still belongs to "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"  This incredible adaptation of Horace McCoy's allegory, about the struggle for the American Dream symbolized by the gruelling Depression-era Dance Marathons, holds the record for receiving the most nominations of any film (9) that did not go on to earn one for Best Picture.  Fortunately, one of the 9 was in recognition the amazing work of Susannah York.  York is Alice, an aspiring actress desperate to be noticed by film producers like Mervyn LeRoy.  Alice enters the Dance Marathon with ideas of glamour and recognition of her star presence, which the promoters of the Marathon exploit to tragic effect. Soon the exhaustion, degradation and even death around her cause her to slowly lose her grip on reality.  York's portrayal of a fragile, privileged individual, with a pathetic attachment to her beautiful possessions, and a regression to voracious sexual appetites when under extreme duress, is beautifully calibrated.  In her showpiece scene, she descends into madness, needing to be coaxed from the shower where, fully dressed, she has retreated like a wounded animal.  Her stillness hides a tension that is released in a piercing scream that never fails to chill this awed viewer.  York apparently alienated members of the Academy with less-than- gracious comments after her nomination, which is too bad because this is a performance that could have earned her the award.  Fortunately, her nomination is part of movie history. She never earned another Oscar nod.  

Dyan Cannon, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Somewhat dated, firmly rooted in the era in which it was made, this nevertheless remains one of my favorite films of 1969, mostly because the human interactions are so universally funny and moving.  That year, its questionable moral tone made it a hugely controversial choice to open the New York Film Festival.  Soon, however, misgivings were relaxed as audiences were transfixed by this comedy of (bad) manners.  The title quartet is a pair of couples, best friends all. Bob and Carol spend a weekend at an Esalen-style sensitivity retreat, and are hip to living their lives in total honesty.  Their more conservative, uptight friends, Ted and Alice, are uncomfortable with this change in the dynamic of their relationship.  When Carol reveals Bob's infidelity, the film takes off, becoming a banquet of clever dialog and ever-changing attitudes, and there is real suspense in the prospect of whether a 4-way orgy will strengthen their bond or destroy it forever.  It's sentimental, idealistic, and hugely entertaining.  Dyan Cannon plays Alice (another Alice!  see above) as a loving wife and friend who would rather maintain her life of comfort without pushing the boundaries of her marriage or her friendships.  Her scene with a rather creepy psyciatrist made me laugh out loud.  It might have been improvised but exhibits marvelous comic timing and control.  And when she confronts her friends during a weekend in Vegas, and challenges them to live the honesty they have been playing at, we completely believe in her dilemma. Alice is perhaps the most likeable character, and the one with whom most audiences will readily identify even now.  Her command of the role is what pulls the whole film together.  "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" unreels like a visit to an old friend, and Cannon's portrayal is most responsible for that.

Goldie Hawn, "Cactus Flower"--Oscar Winner
Winning for her film debut, Goldie Hawn was the favorite that year, owing to her huge success and high profile in the zany TV Comedy pastiche "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In", which was still on the air in 1970.  Hawn's win was partly due to her huge popularity.  I think she competed in the wrong category. Her role as Toni Simmons in this Neil Simon romantic comedy is definitely a lead.  Yet with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Begman headlining, newcomer Hawn was relegated to the Supporting category.  As is the case with these larger "supporting" roles (like Timothy Hutton in "Ordinary People") it is likely that with longer screen time, she established a bigger impression on audiences and voters, and inevitably won.  "Cactus Flower" is possibly the weakest film of the five in terms of innovation and durability. It is nevertheless entertaining, and breezy in a '60's counterculture way, with its explosion of mod color, clothing and music. Matthau is somewhat miscast as Julian, the dentist Hawn loves; and Ingrid Bergman is a great sport as Miss Dickinson, who in turn is secretly in love with Matthau.   Hawn deserves credit for creating a real character out of her then well-known ditzy persona.  It's hard not to love her as she naively tries to help her "lover" and his "ex wife", falling for the convoluted stories they create to comic effect. Watch her catch a slowly rolling tear in her mouth as she stares, wide-eyed and sentimental, at the children she believes belong to her lover, caught in her own romantic fantasy. "Cactus Flower" belongs to Hawn, and due to her successful portrayal, so does Oscar.


  1. I always forget how "real" Sussannah York's breakdown feels when I haven't seen it in a while, but just mentioning it makes me remember how she truly captures the fragility of her mental state.

    Beautiful work.

  2. I've seen Last Summer offered in DVD-R form online, likely a copy of the Fox VHS from the early 80s. Supposedly, the 35mm negative no longer exists, at least of the original X-rated cut (It was withdrawn and recut to get an R around Oscar time), so the DVD-R may be the only DVD release we'll be able to get our hands on.

    If I had voted, I would have voted for Susannah York. Her performance stands out as the best and most powerful of the five nominees.

    They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a masterpiece, but it lost out on Best Picture thanks to major studio politicking- how else to explain how Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello Dolly managed to get nominated for Best Picture, although both were mega-bombs at the box office. (Both fine films, by the way)

  3. I love this time period in movie making. I agree that the filmmakers then really went outside the box in those days and produced some really creative, sexy and progressive-minded movies representative of the times. I appreciate this more freely independent approach than the current formulaic way in which many films are generally done these days. Great review Tom!