Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Actress

Love was the dominating theme of the 1970 Best Actress race.  Each of the characters in this category had, as a central conflict, a love relationship: two were newly married and one would meet an untimely end; two sought love outside of marriage; one was subject to emotional and physical abuse by the men in her life; one destroyed her lover with cerebral games and icy passion; and one saw her love doomed by the unfortunate effects of racism. The irony evident in the films of 1970 is that in a time of burgeoning feminism, there were  few strong leading roles for women.  These five nominated roles were perhaps the only substantial characters for leading women in 1970, and it is to the credit of all of these actress that they were up to the demands their parts required of them.  All were first-time nominees.
Few sports have captured the attention of Oscar more than boxing.  Beginning with Kirk Douglas in "Champion" in 1949, films about boxers in and out of the ring have flirted with Oscar, including: "On the Waterfront", "From Here to Eternity", "Rocky", "Raging Bull", "Pulp Fiction", "Million Dollar Baby", "Cinderella Man", this year's "The Fighter", and 1970's "The Great White Hope".  Based on a Pulitzer-Prize- and Tony-Award-Winning play by Howard Sackler, the film reunited Tony-Award-winning leads James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who made her film debut here. Alexander played Eleanor Bachman, a white woman whose love affair with Jack Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight champion, unleashed racial hatred that lead to Johnson's downfall.  The film's title refers to the boxer who whites hoped would take Johnson's title from him.  As civil rights legislation divided Americans and racism remained prevalent and dangerous, "The Great White Hope" deserved support for bringing these issues to the big screen.  Alexander's was almost a character part, and she was excellent in the role of Johnson's lover. One cannot helped but be moved by the tragic consequences of Eleanor's just wanting to love her man. But this was James Earl Jones' film and Johnson's story, so Alexander would  be overshadowed in this year's Oscar competition. Even the posters of the film (above) seem to place her in a secondary role. By the time I saw this film, years after its initial release, I had already loved Alexander in her appearances in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "All the President's Men".  She never won an Oscar despite her four nominations, but is admired in the industry for her political and charitable work.
 The most controversial of this year's Best Actress Nominees was probably Ali McGraw in "Love Story".  It was thought that McGraw was carried on a huge wave of popularity for a film which many others considered maudlin and manipulative.  McGraw's later career would prove her limited range as an actress; however, the role of Jennifer Cavalleri was perfectly suited to her talents, and it is impossible to think of the film without her.  I liked "Love Story" better than most critics, and happen to think it has aged rather well.  More than just a weeper about a Radcliffe co-ed whose Cinderella romance with a handsome and rich Harvard jock was cut short by fatal illness, this is an edgy story about late '60's silent-majority youth torn between the conventions of their families and the changing mores and lifestyles of their peers.  Jennifer was a cocky, profane young woman who spoke her mind and charmed Oliver, her straight-laced boyfriend, with her brashness and occasional glimpses of sincere vulnerability. McGraw's sarcastic delivery of wisecrack dialogue, which some found annoying and difficult, actually served the character well.  I think McGraw does a good job hiding Jennifer's fear of dying behind a hard exterior.  In the sticky final half-hour, it is McGraw's skill in maintaining Jennifer's hard edge that prevents this sentimental story from falling into sappiness.  Most Academy voters were not yet convinced of McGraw's Oscar-worthiness, and she would in fact never receive another Oscar nomination.  But she should be well-remembered for her legacy that is Jennifer.

Sarah Miles' Rosie Ryan is almost overwhelmed by the natural spectacle of "Ryan's Daughter", so exquisitely captured by Frddie Young's lens: the impossibly beautiful vistas, the craggy and interesting faces of the townspeople, the oddity that is Michael the town mute, the coastal beaches, and the incredible seaside storm. Yet this is a small, intimate story about a young Irishwoman who marries the schoolteacher (attractively played by Robert Mitchum) as duty dictates; and then is shaken to her foundation by tidal waves of love for a mysterious British soldier (Christopher Jones) during World War I.  As Sarah Miles inhabits Rosie, she must convey her character's torn allegiance and infidelity, and suggest her new-found passion without giving voice to it; hers is a role that depends less on dialogue than on subtle shifts in posture, body movement and facial expression.  "Ryan's Daughter" is an epic treatment about the mysteries of the heart, and uses nature to suggest what words cannot.  David Lean was widely criticized for overblowing this simple love story. Actually, I think passion does take one by storm, can make the world look like a sweeping vista; I thought Lean's method was appropriate, even if the story dragged in spots.  The GP-rated film became infamous for a bare-breasted love scene in a forest teeming with symbolism. Miles role requires her to express various intensities of physical love, "act" like a perfectly happy wife, spurn with sympathy the attentions of an innocent man-child, and suffer at the hands of an angry mob.  She gets to play angry, she gets to experience ecstasy, and she gets to weep with regret. While her character is not always easy to recall in retrospect, while watching Miles is on-screen, she leads us through this soap opera effectively. 
Carrie Snodgress, a Chicago native, made a huge splash in her first major motion picture role as Tina in "Diary of a Mad Housewife". This is a fascinating film about a woman who was
"mad"- as- in- "angry",  and possibly on her way to losing her mind to boredom, frustration, and abuse, first from her snide and demanding husband (Richard Benjamin), and then from her adulterous relationship with a violent narcissist (Frank Langella). I recall that Snodgress' performance was widely discussed and highly touted.  In addition to it being the only nominated performance to confront the changing roles of modern American women, it was one of the few movies in 1970 to make women's liberation its central premise, and the seething frustration of being taken for granted.  The men were caricatures, which lent the film an air of comic resignation.  Snodgress was uninhibited in her service to this part, and although she appeared in various stages of undress, one was captured by her penetrating gaze, and incredible gravel-deep voice. She had one of the most interesting faces and voices in movies. The movie was a showcase for her, a big, big role, and she was heavily favored to win, especially after capturing the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy.  (Ali McGraw, above, captured the drama Golden Globe).  Surprisingly, this movie has fallen off the radar, and is almost impossible to find today.  Snodgress would never again be nominated, as she retreated from acting to deal with her own relationships, first with musician Neil Young, and later with film composer Jack Nitzsche.  A note of trivia: Sylvester Stallone tried hard to recruit Snodgress to play Adrian in "Rocky", which she turned down to accept a role in a Robert Altman film that never materialized.   I still think that her performance in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" had all the ingredients for an Oscar win, but the Academy was atypically cerebral that year.

Maybe because it is one of the most unlikely and unusual performances ever to triumph at the Academy Awards, it is truly a wonder that England native Glenda Jackson took home the gold for her portrayal of the wounding, sensual artist in Ken Russel's film of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love". Perhaps because of her win in this category, I always watch Jackson's performance carefully, to pick up the subtleties that brought her performance to the attention of an often shallow Academy.  What Jackson achieves foremost is the fleshing out of a character that was written as a sexual idea, an archetype.  Her Gudrun Brangwen is above all a physical being, and Jackson acts with her entire body.   Mysterious, playful, strong, even cruel, Gudrun can be as icy as the Matterhorn; and yet her fearless, artistic sexuality is hypnotic enough to transfix and then frighten even a formidable herd of cattle, in what is one of the film's many unforgettable set-pieces. Jackson herself is fearless, and she moves with balletic precision.  Above all are the voice, and the singular intelligence in her gaze.  Jackson plays Gudrun like she has the answer to a question you don't quite know how to ask.  This is the key to the book's successful translation to the screen.  (The film itself might have just missed landing a Best Picture nomination, as it scored in Directing, Screenplay and Cinematography categories.)

The story involves the love affairs of two sisters, Gudrun and Ursula (Jennie Linden) with men of a higher social stratum: Gerald, the owner of the local mine (Oliver Reed) and Rupert, a schoolteacher who is ending an oppressive relationship of his own (Alan Bates).  Jackson's Gudrun finds formidable expression in her romance with Reed's Gerald.  Whether it is a cunning exchange of dialogue or  a startling sequence of violent sexuality, we cannot take our eyes off her, and must discover what it is that motivates Gudrun's unusual romantic behavior.  Jackson has since retired from acting and has been a member of the British Parliament for many years. I miss her intelligence and unusual screen presence, and despite winning another Oscar in 1973 for the screwball comedy "A Touch of Class" (a real departure!) I happily keep returning to Glenda Jackson's utterly fascinating interpretation of Gudrun.  

1 comment:

  1. 1970 is a bad year for me. I've not seen one of these, but always meant to see "Women in Love."